Faculty Spotlight: Self-Publishing Q & A with Book Printer Nate Zaur

Our upcoming workshop, Self or Indie Publishing: Answering the Big Questions, recently added a very special guest: Nate Zaur from Spencer Printing. Nate has been in the commercial and book printing business for over a decade, working with authors and illustrators to package books for publication. In addition to sharing his expertise with workshop participants at the Highlights Foundation, he is on the blog today to talk about publishing tips for book creators.

Alison: Welcome to the blog, Nate! Can you give us a sense of the steps that occur after an author or illustrator contacts you to discuss printing?

Nate: Hey, Alison! Thanks for having me. So, once I hear from a person who is interested in publishing a book, my job as the printer is to find out all of the specifications of the book and expectations the author has for his/her project. The technical details are important, of course, such as trim size, paper weight and color, cover lamination types, and special finishing options like French flaps, die-cutting, spot coatings, etc. We also establish whether we’re going to print and ship directly or whether our customer wants us to store the books for later fulfillment to their customers or distributors. 

Sometimes that is as far as we get because an author needs more information to proceed.

Alison: At the workshop, workshop leader Darcy Pattison will answer questions about product expectations. It is good to know that authors will have their printer available to discuss further. What happens next?

Nate: The next step is the proofing process. Our customers typically have a pretty good handle on preparing print-ready files, but we can always help with this if necessary. In general, we receive PDF files, impose them and check for any printing/layout issues, and send back a digital proof. For new orders, we always print and ship a printed proof with a laminated cover. 

Once the proof is approved, we go to print. The interior pages are printed on our digital press and cut into book blocks ready for bindery. The covers are printed either digitally or offset, and laminated (usually). In the perfect binding process, the spine of the book block is milled, notched, and then glued to the covers. The books are then trimmed and packed. 

We carefully inspect the books at each stage of the process to ensure quality control. The last step is collecting payment and shipping the books! 

Alison: For many of us, this is new territory. It seems like there are so many options available today to those authors who decide to self-publish. In your opinion, what do self-publishing authors need to know about printing?

Nate: Book printing has undergone a major transformation in the last decade or so, due to the increase in demand for very small runs from independent authors and small presses. Digital printing is now able to offer the quality, speed, and price point to match this demand. Although the cost per unit for a large run of books printed on a web offset press is still the cheapest option, the price gap is not nearly as dramatic as it once was, and the quality from either method is pretty comparable. So, for many authors and publishers, the advantage of being able to print high-quality, small runs quickly and affordably has become pretty clear. Unless someone has the certainly of being able to sell a large volume of books and has the space to inventory them and a distribution model to handle orders, printing digitally almost always makes the most sense. 

Alison: Are there any disadvantages to printing digitally?

Nate: There are, in my opinion, some serious disadvantages to this model. It’s pretty much a “cookie-cutter” method by which authors are limited by the preferred specifications of the businesses that offer these services. By its very nature, “on-demand” book printing requires the minimizing of variables such as book size, paper types, special finishing options, etc. 

Also, while the technology involved is impressive to behold, the quality (by most accounts) is, well…not so much. Again, by nature, this is not a process that allows for much human intervention, so quality control is harder to ensure. Perhaps most importantly, there is no room for an independent author or publisher to have much of a relationship with the printer in this model. The business model for this type of service depends on producing very high volumes of very short runs, which makes it impossible to focus very much on any one customer.

These factors may push an author toward offset printing. Offset printing is best for larger runs (because of the cost-per-book factor), but can provide authors with a high-quality product. From my perspective, whether digital or offset, the point is really that printers need to be able to provide high-quality but cost-effective ways to produce much smaller runs for indie authors.

Alison: What about out-of-print books? I’ve heard of a number of authors who get rights back from an out-of-print book and turn to printers to bring the books back. Is this a form of self-publishing?

Nate: It is self-publishing in that you now own the rights to the book and we can print anything you have the rights to. Authors can also gain rights to the illustrations (including cover art) and can bring these titles back in the same way that new titles are being added through self-publishing.

Alison: Thank you for your time today, Nate! You’ve given us a lot to think about in terms of print quality and publishing options when it comes to self-publishing.

Posted on: June 10, 2017

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