Guest Posts
Your Position: Home - Packaging & Printing - How is a book printed?

How is a book printed?

Our editors have worked on the manuscript with an author, it's been proofread and fact-checked, the cover has been designed by the art department and the journalists are all lined up to review the book. But how does the book actually get printed and bound to become the beautiful object that sits on your bookshelf? We went to Mackays printers in Chatham to find out.

Our editors have worked on the manuscript with an author, it’s been proofread and fact-checked, the cover has been designed by the art department and the journalists are all lined up to review the book. But how does the book actually get printed and bound to become the beautiful object that sits on your bookshelf? We went to Mackays printers in Chatham to find out.

Before we start our journey, we must give you a brief history of web offset lithography printing. First developed in the late eighteenth century, it is based on the principle that oil and water repel one another. An image of the text is transferred photographically onto thin metal, paper, or plastic printing plates. Rollers then apply oil-based ink and water to plates. Since oil and water don’t mix, the oil-based ink won’t stick to the non-image areas of the plate which are water receptive. Only the inked image portion of the plate is then transferred to a rubber blanket cylinder, which transfers the image onto the substrate that is being used.

Stage 1: Preparing the plates

Before printing can take place, metal printing plates of the book must be prepared. Rubber is burnt onto each plate, leaving behind a text image of the book.

Originally, the text was made up of individual pieces of metal type assembled page-by-page, rather than being lasered onto a plate digitally – an immensely skilled and painstaking process. Advances in printing technology to what we have today have enabled the production of affordable and mass market books and revolutionised the dissemination of knowledge and art.

Every printing press has its own specifications that determine how many pages can be produced on a single plate: it's usually sixteen, but it can be eight, thirty-two, etc. The number of pages must be a multiple of this figure, which is why you'll sometimes see blank pages at the beginning or end of books. A 1000 page book, for example, can be broken down into sixty-three sixteen page sections with eight blank pages. 

16 pages of a book on a printing plate

Stage 2: Printing the book

A reel of paper is loaded onto the reel stand of the printing press. The type, weight, colour and width of the paper differ from book to book, and are specified and supplied by the publisher. The reel stand is designed to unwind paper rolls onto the printing lines.

The paper then goes through a chain of rollers, which is called the “in-feed” station. The in-feed station’s main function is to act as a drive to the reel stand, pulling paper off the running reel at the same speed as the running press. It also helps stop creasing and keeps the paper straight as it goes through.

The printing reel (the reel used now is much bigger than this – so big it's impossible to take a good photograph of it. This smaller one works in the same way.)

After the in-feed, the running paper reel enters the print units, passing through the inking system, the damping system and the print cylinders. First, the rollers in the inking system transfer ink onto the metal plate. Then the rollers in the damping system spray water onto the plate removing all excess ink from areas that do not need ink. Finally, the print cylinders transfer the inked image area onto a cylinder which then pastes the image onto the paper reel.


After the paper reel has passed through the print unit, it will be cut:


Folded, stacked and bundled, ready to be bound and cased.

Folded pages

Did you know that a book is printed in sections? Each section has a unique barcode printed on it that will be used when the book is bound and cased with the cover, and is cut off in the final stages.

Stage 3: Preparing the book cover

The book covers are printed at a separate printer as they require specialized printing – that might be coloured foil or embossing, for example.

Two book covers are usually printed on one sheet of paper. They are cut down to size and trimmed.

For hardback jackets, cardboard and endpapers are pasted to the covers before the jacket is added to the book.

Stage 4: Adding the cover to the book

As the book is printed in sections, the sections must be correctly stacked (using those barcodes we mentioned) before the cover is glued to them.

Stage 5: The book!

After the book cover is glued onto the printed sections of the book it is trimmed for the last time. And there you have it: the book is printed and ready to go.

All photographs © Maya Robert.

Before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, every book in existence needed to be scribed. It wasn’t until the 20th century that books have become widely accessible to the public. This is because, during this time, offset lithography, or offset printing, enabled faster and more cost-effective mass production of books.

So, how exactly does book printing work? To the everyday person, this question may be puzzling. UnitedGMG created this step by step guide to book printing to give you an inside look on how book printing works.

1. Design

This is the first stage of book printing and is very important – after all, the design stage is where you create the blueprint of how every element of your book will be brought to life. During this stage, the author will work with the editor and printer to determine the overall design concept, as well as:

  • page size and style
  • typeface size and style
  • the type and weight of paper for the text and cover
  • use of color
  • representation of visuals/illustrations in the text, if needed
  • cover art/illustrations

2. Typesetting

The next step in the book printing process is typesetting. The typesetting process will go as follows:

  • First, if the copy has not been digitalized onto a computer, the text must be typed into the computer by a typesetter
  • Then, the manuscript must be converted into the proper font and size.
  • Once it’s thoroughly proofread for accuracy, the book is ready for the next step.

3. Pages and Mechanical

After thorough proofreading and editing, pages, also known as lasers, are created in the following order:

  • The precise layout of the typeset pages is printed on standard typing paper.
  • The pages are proofread by the publisher
  • Once edited, the typesetter creates a mechanical of the typeset pages, printing the text onto high-quality paper that is acceptable for filming, the next stage of the process.

4. Filming

During the filming process of book printing, printers will adhere to the following steps:

  • The mechanical is photographed in order to create page negatives, showing the opposite of what the final result will print.
  • The vendor will check the negatives to ensure no errors appear on the negatives

Printed words are created in one shade of black. Photographs, however, can consist of many different shades. Printers convert the shades into black and white dots, resulting in a converted photo also known as a halftone. An additional negative is created for each color of ink used in the book. If a book consists of colored photos, four negatives are typically produced for cyan, magenta, yellow and black. As a result, books printed with more than one color tend to have a costlier production cost.

5. Stripping

For the stripping process, printers will do the following:

  • The negatives will be stripped, or taped, into the intended place on a flat, which is a large sheet.
  • Each flat, which holds 32 or 64 pages, are examined to make sure that all of the text and pictures are in alignment with each other. However, book pages are not lined up in the order that they will be in the final product. In fact, some pages may even be upside down. This is because the finished product will require the pages to be folded several times. Once folded, the alignment during the stripping process will end up being configured into the intended order.

6. Blueprints

The blueprinting process helps ensure that the book printing is going well at this point into the process. To do this, printers:

  • Create a proof of each flat by flashing an ultraviolet light through the negatives. This exposes the images and text from the flat onto a light-sensitive paper called blueprints.
  • The publisher will then proofread the blueprints.
  • If a mistake is found, the page with the error will be rephotographed and re-stripped

7. Platemaking

The next step of the book printing process is platemaking, which consists of these few steps:

  • Once each blueprint is approved, the printer will take a photo of each flat and the negatives will be melded onto a plate, which is a thin sheet of aluminum.
  • Plate sections that are filled with text or pictures are coated with a chemical that attracts ink. This will allow the text and illustrations to print on the press later on.

8. Printing

During this stage, the plates are brought to the press. Books that are being printed in only one color will only need to pass through the press once. However, if the book is being printing in more than one color, the plates will need to pass through an extra time per color.

9. Binding

Binding is the last step of the book printing process and starts once the sheets are dry after printing. The binding process is usually automated and includes:

  • Folding and collating the flats into 32 or 64 page sections.
  • Folding pages are bounded in the correct order
  • Sewing together the signatures, gluing the spine, and trimming the edges (This depends on whether the book is paperback or hard back and the size of the book).
  • Placing the book in a cover

Custom Book Printing with United GMG

As it shows, book printing is an extensive process with many steps – each needing to be done accurately and with care. To learn more about book printing or for more information before starting your next project, contact our printing experts at United GMG. We have over 80 years of printing and use state-of-the-art equipment to bring your book to reality and exceed your expectations.

How is a book printed?

A Step-by-Step Guide to Book Printing


* 0 of 2000 characters used

All Comments (0)
Get in Touch