Book Production with Spencer Printing
I recently had a chance to talk with Jessica Bornstein from Spencer Printing about how books are made—how they’re actually physically printed and cut and bound together. Spencer has become a go-to printer for indie publishers because they do good work and guarantee it, their pricing is competitive (don’t tell them I said that), and they’re easy to work with.
A few years ago I took a tour of Spencer’s northeastern Pennsylvania shop, not long after they started doing perfect bound books. Nate, the owner, a young guy in hiking shoes, opened worlds as he walked me around to all the different machines, explaining the process, showing me how each piece fit into the larger puzzle. I was impressed by how simple it was and all the things they could do that I’d never thought of. I saw their pristine Heidelberg and asked them to letterpress the first run of Meat Heart, which they did beautifully.
I’d imagined, I dunno, those furious machines that print a blizzard of newspapers. I pictured smoke stacks and hundreds of inky people running around like bees in hard hats.
Since then, Spencer Printing has taken on dozens of independent publishers as clients. Throw a rock and hit a small press and ask who prints their books. They’ll tell you Spencer. They’ll tell you Jess is super nice. Definitely nice enough to answer some questions for me about what all small publishers should know about the printing process, and to send along some photos.
Can you walk us through the overall process, from start to finish, of a book being made?
Certainly! Once we have all the files and the order squared away we review the artwork to ensure everything is production ready. We print out the files and assemble a loose (unbound) physical proof. A sample goes into the job bag for the rest of production to reference.
Once production actually begins the first step is to get paper. Our bindery department will locate the correct stock in our warehouse, pull and trim it to the run size (the size of the paper we print on—interior pages are usually 12.5×18.5, cover page on 19×13). The interior pages and the cover print on separate digital production presses.
The digital pressman will print out one copy of the book, compare it to the proof and review the quality of the printing. Upon his/her approval they will print the rest of the order. The printed goods then enter into our bindery department. We allow the covers to sit at least overnight before laminating them.
After lamination we trim them down to be slightly larger than the final trim size, about .25” additional margin. The interior pages are printed 2 to 4 up on the sheets [ed note: the number of book pages printed on each sheet]. We take the multi-up book blocks, place slip sheets between each collated set, jog the sets together, then trim them into 1 singular book block (again slightly larger than the final trim size of the book).
Now the actually binding begins! The covers are stacked at the far end of the perfect binder. The operator has to hand feed each book block into the binder.
Once they drop the book block in, the binder trims off the spine edge and adheres the glue. While this is the happening the covers are taken in from the other side of the machine and get hinge-scored in-line. The book block then meets the cover, is pressed, and glued.
The once flat cover is now completely wrapped around the book block. The perfect binder spits the block out.
From here the stacks of untrimmed book blocks get hand fed into the 3 knife trimmer. This cuts off all 3 sides (aside from the spine edge) simultaneously.
If the book is an odd size we will have to trim them down on the regular cutter and just trim each side separately. Lastly, the books are packaged up for shipping or pick up.
How many people work there, doing all this?
There are 11 employees total—3 office/prepress, 3 pressman, 3 bindery and 2 owners.
What’s a typical day like for you in the office?
This is a much harder question than it seems. Normally when I get in I make my rounds around the shop. This is to say my morning greetings but to also have a glance around to get a general idea of where jobs are located. The production manager and myself then have our daily meeting to discuss any thoughts, concerns, problem solve, brainstorm and schedule production. Really the rest of the day isn’t so structured. I’m constantly checking/responding to emails and phones calls, processing orders, writing up estimates, reviewing estimates, problem solving ways of executing production in the best manner possible. Believe it or not we have walk in customers as well.
How many projects are you managing at one time?
As far as book projects I usually have about 15-20 orders on average. Books are my main priority but I also manage deadlines/production time frame for all the projects we have in house at any given time. This would roughly consist of about 100-150 active orders.
Aside from books, what kind of things does Spencer print?
Just about anything people need, we print or can somehow manifest. We are a full service commercial printer, meaning we print things like brochures, booklets, newsletters, postcards, business cards, letterhead, envelopes, flyers, posters, carbonless forms, rack cards, invitation sets. We offer mailing services, screen printing and embroidery as well. We have a large format printer and are capable of printing banners, large posters, canvas, signs (mounted on foam core, pvc, coroplast, metal).
What are some things that you can do with books that people might not know about? Do you do die cutting and spot varnishes and embossing and stuff?
We can produce casebound or hardcover books. Some of our customers prefer the look of offset printing to digital and we’ll often run covers on our offset presses. We can certainly die cut, spot varnish, emboss, foil stamp or, my personal favorite, letterpress covers. All of these options are wonderful and produce absolutely gorgeous books. They do require a bit more time, patience, and are a bit more costly.
Regarding price, are there breakpoints? I mean, is printing 100 copies much more expensive, per copy, than 500?
Yes, there are! The more copies you order the less it is per unit cost. For example: 50 books at $132 would be $2.64 each, 100 books at $225 would be $2.25 each and 500 books at $518. would be $2.07 each (Please keep in mind that all book specs will vary the price. This was just a made up price.)
What is the average spend for projects? I often feel like I shouldn’t value myself as a client because I’m such a small fish, while you’re otherwise probably doing million dollar jobs.
Oh don’t be silly! All of our customers are extremely valued. We pride ourselves on having a relationship with every one of our customers, small fish or million dollar orders. I try my hardest to make everyone feel that they are special to us and produce quality work while also accommodating the craziest of deadlines. We love this stuff! Heck, I love this stuff! To answer your question when it comes to book orders I would say average is about $500. We produce such a vast amount of work that spending can range from $200-$5000. There are orders that come in much less than that, and also higher as well. It really depends on whether you’re getting 50 business cards or 50,000 placemats.
Are there any other services you offer that might benefit independent publishers?
We do offer fulfillment services. We’ll store your books in our warehouse until you’re ready for us to send them out. Just provide us with an Excel file of addresses and we’ll send them out media mail or UPS (if you have a lot going to one location). Other than that we’re always happy to help with any other printing services you may need in order to market yourself.
And let’s end on some constructive advice for small publishers. Is there anything you can offer from your perspective at Spencer? Common mistakes to avoid?