The Paper Decision

Paper is such an important part of any book, it’s incredible that many independent authors don’t really consider it as part of the design process, when preparing their book for press.

Most POD publishers use the sheet-fed offset printing process, as the run quantities are usually short.  This is actually a very good process for quality control, although the actual printing is slower than high speed web printing.  It uses a different kind of paper, that is finished in a different way than high-speed paper. 

Text papers, for inside pages, have a surface that is optimized for the printing of text, of course, but there may be different levels of finish available from your book’s printer.  Be sure to request printed samples on the stocks they offer. They may be able to make these available before the contract is signed, or not — it varies from press to press.

At the lower end, you’ll find basic newsprint, which you’ll remember as being the lightweight, easily smuded stock that the pulp novels you read in college were printed on.  It’s similar stock to what most newspapers are printed on, and is designed to be first, inexpensive – -as any product printed on it is not expected to be around very long.  It is not very resistant to tears, or abrasion, and would not be my first choice for a novel, non-fiction or reference book which would expect a lot of handling.

The next step up is basic text stock, often available in two or three shades besides white.  An off-white color is a good choice, especially for smaller than 12 point typography, as it minimizes eyestrain from the high contrast a pure-white sheet would create.  You can also consider the context of the book — for a novel, it’s setting, etc. and the age of the typical reader.  A whiter sheet, or a more creme colored sheet may add page appeal, depending upon the "style" of the prose, the subject matter, the setting — all the things that make your book special.  Look at other books you’ve enjoyed and see what kind of stock they’re printed on.

The finish of the paper itself will also affect the appearance of your book, and a good rule is that as the fine-ness of the type increases — with fine serifs, for example — the smoothness of the paper surface should also increase.  If there will be spot illustrations, unless they will be rendered in a rough manner, such as with block prints, or some scratchboard art, a smoother stock surface will also provide better detail, and what is called "ink hold out". 

Ink Hold Out, refers to the ability of the paper to keep printers ink on it’s surface with less and less bleeding as the hold out increases. Better hold out keeps illustrations and text proofing out, after printing, as close as possible to what you intended, including color fidelity, if you are utilizing spot or process color elements along with the text.  Poor hold out can result in print through, which is what happens when you can see the text on the backside showing through a page, and irregular color fidelity.  You don’t want that, if you can help it! 

As you make paper choices, you’ll also begin seeing your book differently than you did when you were writing it.  Now, you’re creating a product, where before, you had a manuscript.  The product will need a lot of polishing to get it just right, just as the manuscript did. At this point, you’ll be changing"hats".  I believe that seeing your book as a product will help you keep your priorities straight, when setting your retail price.  It will also help connect you with your readers — I mean, consumers.

As we move up the ladder of paper quality, the price also goes up exponentially.  Paper cost is one of the fastest rising components of publishing cost, and it is one that is showing no sign of retreating.  Better paper, useful in hard-bound books, will begin to show what is called "rag" content — actual cloth fibers in the mix with the pulp fibers that give a page more strength and make it less likely to yellow with age because of the acids left in the regular pulp paper from the manufacturing process.

At the top end of text stock, are "laid" finish stocks, with textural patterns in the paper itself, from the way the paper is made, that resemble the weave in cloth, for example, a "linen" finish.  They can be much heavier weight, and usually completely out of the range of price that could be considered for a retail book, although sometimes, specialty bound keepsake volumes use these papers in extremely short print runs of under 30 books.

Another level at the very top, are 100% rag contect papers, or archival stocks, used for mounting fine art  prints and fine photographic prints.  These stocks usually are certified for a life-span in excess of 100 years without yellowing or any acid damage to anything attached to them. They can be found in laid finishes, plate finishes, with varying degrees of roughness to the touch, and finally in high plate finishes, which are especially smooth and hard surfaced papers designed for fine-art level full color printing. 

There are also plate finished and coated text stocks, in lighter weights, that are designed for color reproduction.  Cast-coated sheets, like Chromecote (R) are designed for the absolute highest color fidelity and resolution.  They have a high, glossy finish, but coated text stocks are also available with matte and low-gloss coating. If you are producing a coffe-table, art folio, or a cookbook full of beautiful images, you will want to investigate these stocks.  Your POD printer may or may not have these available to you, and if you will be producing this kind of book, you will need to choose your printer wisely, in part according to the paper options they offer.

Color reproduction on lesser text sheets can be dicey.  You’ll need to request printed samples of pages with approximatelky the same coverage as the pages you will be providing  them, to see if the quality level is what you want.  Of course, the cost of such production is much higher than black ink on a medium grade text sheet, and you will see how much your choice of paper will affect your retail price.

MOst POD printers will offer only one cover stock choice, which is, more and more, a heavier text stock, plate finish, with a lamination — an actual plastic film heat set over your image.  They resist moisture, spills, and tearing pretty well, but one drawback is that unless shelved, they tend to curl. This is casued by the inside of the cover absorbing mopisture from the air and expanding slightly.  If you are going to purchase inventory in these type of books, keep them lying flat, in sealed boxes with a weighted cover over them to keep the covers flat.  If you are going to shelve them, they will need to be covered with a moisture barrier — a plastic sheet, for example, along the tops so that the covers won’t spring curled when removed from the shelf.  Most of the paperstocks used for trade paperback ccovers from POD printers are selected for good ink hold out and white color. They can reproduce well to 300dpi resolution and beyond.  You may want to take a few extra days with your final proof, to see how it reacts to humidity, etc., before giving the final approval. My novel, The Red Gate was proofed 3 times to check cover consistency.

All-in-all, your paper choice will play a very large role in the quality and presentation of your book — er, product.  Take some time, research the possibilities thoroughly. Get printed samples from potential POD printers if you can.  Get a feel for what one of their books feels like in the hand, adjust your design as necessary…then make it happen!


The author is a graphic designer, American Indian arts dealer… and an Indie Novelist.

His first book The Red Gate is available on Amazon