In so far as they think about it, I imagine that most book-readers believe that when a publisher decides to print 5,000 books, 5,000 books is what they’ll receive. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Indeed one might almost say that of all the possible quantities which will be checked in at the warehouse, 5,000 is probably the least likely!

This is not because publishers and book manufacturers are really bad at counting: it’s inherent to the manufacturing process. If a car manufacturer sets out to make 5,000 cars, that’s what they’ll make. They set up 5,000 bits of metal on the conveyor belt, and stop adding more bits once they’ve reached 5,000. (All right; I dare say it’s a little more complicated than that.) A book is made differently. It’s made as a collection of different parts which end up being brought together and united at the very end of the process. And it’s made of rather flimsy materials any of which can easily get damaged at any point in the process. I’ll use as my example the now rather old-fashioned procedure of a book printed on a sheet-fed offset perfecting press, bound as a sewn hardback with a jacket. (Books printed in other ways have to go through the same steps but they are often made with a different sequence and significance.) For my example I’m assuming a 5% over/5% under allowance on final delivery.

Lets assume our book has 320 pages, and is imposed to deliver 32-page signatures. Each of these ten signatures/sections will be printed separately, or possibly as two-up for five separate passes through the press. If there are two sigs on each sheet, the sheets will then have to be cut in half after they have been printed. Once you have your ten stacks of flat sheets each containing one signature, you send them off to the folding department where they will be folded down to ten little booklet-like sections. Let’s say there’s also an 8-page 4-color insert, which has been printed at a different plant and delivered already folded to the bindery. Now each of these eleven sections (10 for the text, and one insert) will be placed in sequence in a series of pockets on a gathering machine, which takes one from each pocket to make a book’s-worth of eleven sections, arranged we all hope in the right sequence without any duplications or omissions. Prior to gathering the first and last sigs will have had the endpapers tipped on. Now that you have lots of little piles of sigs, each making up an 11-sig book, they will go into the sewing department where they’ll be joined up into untrimmed book blocks. Case are made from board and cloth, then stamped with foil. Thereafter the book blocks and cases go to the binding line where the book blocks are squeezed, gripped and trimmed, get their spine glued, and a liner applied, then get glue spread down the sides and have the case cover dropped and pressed onto the pages before they roll off the end of the machine. Here they receive a rapid examination as the jacket is applied, and the books travel on on a conveyor belt to where they are packed into cartons meeting the weight requirements of the warehouse to which they will be traveling.

At every one of these steps there is a risk of damage and loss, so you have to figure out what the loss risk might be at every stage and aim for a quantity at step one which will get you to the finish line with at least 5,000 copies of the book. Printing presses are big pieces of equipment and don’t stop and start on a dime. Makeready is required for every impression: you have to get the paper path perfect and adjust the ink/water balance to ensure an even black impression across the whole sheet. You’ll know from past experience how much paper you’ll be likely to need for makeready on this press: so you start off aiming for, let’s say 5,550 copies. (This is just a notional number used for this example. I don’t have access to any book manufacturer’s spoilage allowance data — and in any case it will vary from plant to plant, and press to press, maybe even from crew to crew.) You don’t want to make the spoilage allowance too big, because you have to pay for the paper you use, but you don’t want to make it too small, or you may be forced into a little (and killingly expensive) reprint of one sig to make up the count. Additionally there are accidents which can occur on press and have to be allowed for: a lump of dust flies onto the plate, or even a fly, and gets squashed onto the blanket where it starts printing. This we call a hickey — and as soon as they notice it the press minders will start pulling pages out of the press and throwing them away, while one of them cleans up the blanket and on we run guessing at how many impressions we need to add at the end of the run to keep our count up. You don’t stop the press if you can avoid it: if you do, there’s that makeready to do all over again.

So here you are, off press with between 5,250 and 5,650 copies of each of ten sigs. Sod’s law will determine that you actually have about 5,500 of eight sigs and 5,250 of two of them. You may loose a few sheets to makeready on the folder: it’s got to get the fold in at perfect right angles to the edge of the sheet: start with the sig with the highest count! On their way to the gathering department one of the skids of folded sheets may get bashed by a passing forklift truck, or waiting overnight, they may be dripped on when the roof leaks in a thunder storm — hey, accidents do happen. At each step you’ll lose a few more overall: fingers crossed the major loss will not be on the sigs you started out with 5,250 on.

The manufacturer will be aiming to deliver the maximum number of books permissible under the purchase order. After all the more they ship the more they’ll be able to bill: but there are limits. Most orders allow for a 20% slop, which tends to resolve into 10% over and 10% under, but more powerful customers will negotiate that down to 5% each way. In this example, worked on 5% over/under, the book manufacturer will be striving to be able to ship and bill 5,250 copies — and will be tearing hair out if the count drops below 4,750. The same consideration has been motivating the jacket printer, and the insert printer. They will aim to over-deliver against the ordered quantity, but not by so much that their materials costs will cause them a loss on the job. Publishers often like to receive extra jackets for refurbishment in the warehouse, so running out of jackets at the bindery line shouldn’t be an issue, though like everything else it has been known to happen. If you go into the gathering line with one or two sigs totaling only 5,075, you know you’re not going to be able to overdeliver too many, or any at all, and you also know that all those extra sigs from the other parts of the book are just wasted time and paper. They’ll be sent for recycling after the job’s completed. Storing partials is no longer an economically viable aim.

Book manufacturers will negotiate adjustment to the overage allowance. What I mean is they may accept an order for not-more-than, in which case the overage allowance of all goes to unders none to overs. In other words, in our example, the 5,000 will be priced at rates which would apply on a 4,500 run multiplied up. If the publisher ordered 5,000 exactly, the job would be priced as if it were a 5,500 run. In any case, if the manufacturer comes off with too many copies, they will be on the phone asking the publisher if they’ll accept overs over and above the overage allowance. If the book has subscribed well (i.e. if bookstores have ordered better than expected) the publisher may well decide to accept extra copies, so that the time when they’ll need to order a reprint is moved out a little. Tough negotiators will offer to accept these overs at no charge: I’d have agreed to paid for them at run-on cost; but I’m just a softie when it comes to supplier relations. Unlike many I regard the relationship as a partnership: if this sounds a bit old-fashioned, I fear it is.