A Case for Digital Hardcover Binding

by Richard Romano, Industry Analyst, originally published by PrintPlanet

Judging a book by its cover

You’re picking out a gift for the book lover in your life. You’re browsing in your favorite bookstore, and you’ve narrowed your choice down to one of two titles: a lavish, beautifully printed and bound hardcover book and a standard, perfect-bound paperback. Which says “gift” more than the other? Even if the contents were exactly the same – think of a deluxe hardcover edition of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield vs. the corresponding Penguin Classics mass-market paperback – which would be the more highly valued edition?

Hardcover books always have been seen as more “deluxe” than paperbacks, and it’s not merely because they cost more. A hardcover always has imparted a greater quality to a title, and there is a reason why the phrase “direct-to-paperback” or “paperback original” always has (correctly or not) been used to describe a title of lesser or less literary quality than a hardback. An analogy is in the movie industry: a movie that has had a major theatrical release is deemed of greater quality than a so-called “direct-to-video” title (again, correctly or not!). A hardcover book obviously costs more to produce, thus has a larger production budget and implies to the prospective book buyer or reader that the producer or publisher of the book feels strongly enough about the title to warrant a lavish binding.

As digital book production has evolved over the past several decades, the quality of the printing has improved, but publishers and producers of digital books have tended to neglect the binding. In fact, many aren’t even aware that digital books can be casebound – or, if they can, believe that it’s a prohibitively expensive or highly complex process. Neither of these things necessarily is true; digital books can and often are casebound, and it’s easy and affordable to do so. Sure, there are best practices and techniques, but there are best practices and techniques for every other aspect of printing, too.

Casebound digital books are high-value print products and, even if they cost a bit more to produce, they also can command a higher selling price. More and more markets – and more and more opportunities – are opening up for digital hardcovers.

Moving into the digital age

Casebinding has been the general process for producing hardcover books for decades, if not centuries. It has been very much like a craft, often like printing itself, but over the years has required increasing levels of automation to boost productivity. Although “boutique” book printers and binders still do a lot of these things by hand, it’s impractical to make hand-tooled leather book covers for a 10-million copy printing of a bestselling author’s latest hit. At what the publisher would have to charge, it probably wouldn’t end up being much of a bestseller.

Oddly enough, the same dynamics apply to today’s digital book printing. As we will discuss below, digital book printing has enabled shorter runs and on demand printing, and you would think that this environment would be ideal to bring back the hands-on craft aspect of bookbinding. And yet, the reason that short-run and on demand book printing is economical is precisely because the printing and binding operations are highly automated, productive and efficient.

The markets for digital hardcover books

The advent of digital printing in general, and digital book printing in particular, has opened up entirely new opportunities and markets for publishers, printers and end users. While mainstream publishers still are dependent upon the traditional model of mass printing, warehousing, distribution, shipping and returns, some have begun exploring the potential of digital printing. At the same time, it has opened up book publishing to small and even self-publishers who had been blocked from traditional publishing markets. E-commerce, meanwhile, solved one of the last remaining barriers to entry: distribution.

Not all of digital book printing necessarily requires casebinding, just as all book publishing in general doesn’t require casebinding. But, just as digital printing is enabling high-volume print applications, digital casebinding can add even more value to that process.

Areas of growth

Again, not all book genres and niches benefit from a digital approach, and certain niches are better candidates for digital printing – and digital casebinding – than others. Let’s run through a few of them.

Textbooks always have been economically problematic, from both the publisher’s, as well as the buyer’s, perspective. The cost of production, a flourishing used textbook market and the need for regular revisions traditionally have made it necessary for publishers to charge very high prices for textbooks. This made things even more problematic for the student, and I can recall even in the mid-1980s that one could easily drop $200 or $300 a semester on college textbooks. Switching to digital printing won’t necessarily help with the overall economics of the textbook market; that said, however, shorter run lengths and a customization approach can make them more easily and economically updated. Digital printing has helped create new types of textbooks, such as textbooks that are specific to individual classes, instructors or even students. For instance, textbooks can be customized with personalized URLs and passcodes that give each student access to his or her own course website. The digital approach also allows instructors to compile their own “anthologies” and customized content.

School yearbooks lend themselves quite well to digital book printing, as they tend to be short-run (unless you’re talking about a very large graduating class) specialty printed products. Adding a hardcover makes it even more of a keepsake.

Photo Books
If there has been one digital printing application that has been a runaway bestseller in the past decade, it has been digital photo books. Users upload their own photos of an event – a wedding, a birthday party, a holiday, you name it – and print limited editions as gifts for friends and family. Using casebinding rather than perfect binding only makes these books even more valuable and special.

Children’s Books
A growing market is digital children’s books, and many are even personalized. Take, for example, Put Me in the Story (www.putmeinthestory.com), where you can create children’s books and have your own children’s names and other details inserted into the book.

Digital Coffee Table Books
Fans of the TV series Seinfeld remember when Kramer published a coffee table book about coffee tables. As the term indicates, these are oversized, decorative, color gift books often designed more as decoration than reading matter. Indeed, they are left out on the coffee table with the aim of impressing guests. Not usually produced in large runs, digital is starting to catch on for these kinds of titles, especially as printing and binding equipment increasingly can support the oversized nature of these kinds of titles.

Recipe Books
Twenty years ago or so, a friend of mine’s sister-in-law compiled several dozen of her grandmother’s own homemade recipes, had them photocopied and spiral bound them into books that were then given as gifts to family members. It was a way to preserve the past for posterity (as well as some really good Italian recipes). Today, these types of recipe books can be produced in the same way as photo books. And, in this age of people Instagramming everything they eat, it even is easy to incorporate images for an even more high-value print application.

Digital casebound bookbinding equipment

On-demand books were one of the earliest applications for digital printing, and options for perfect-bound paperback books have been long available and affordable. Although casebound digital books have yet to achieve the volume of paper-bound books – if they ever will, which is unlikely – there are many affordable equipment options for companies looking to expand into hardcover books.

Hardcover books always have been viewed by consumers as more of a “premium” item, a high-value print application that also serves as a keepsake, which is what new digital printing applications – like photo books, yearbooks and so forth – are producing. For years, casebinding was thought to be out of reach economically and even technologically. But, today’s digital casebinding systems bring high-quality bookbinding within the reach of virtually any shop, opening up new opportunities to produce those high-value print applications.

Richard Romano is a well-respected industry analyst and originally produced this paper for PrintPlanet and On Demand Machinery (ODM). ODM, Elizabeth, New Jersey, recognized the huge growth in the on demand book market and the emerging photo book segment of the industry. ODM machines have significantly become more technologically advanced, without straying from the company’s original premise of keeping ODM machines simple and backing them with the best customer service and tech support in the industry. Experts at On Demand Machinery often find themselves doing more consultation with customers than selling and can help choose the right casebinding system, identify casebinding best practices and troubleshoot any problems. For more information, visit www.odmachinery.com.


Isn’t all casebinding basically the same?
Well, is all perfect binding the same? We’ve all had books – hard- and soft-cover – that after one read started shedding pages like a long-haired cat and other well-thumbed books that even after 20 years still are tightly bound together. Best practices for casebinding exist because you’re trying to produce a book that will stay together. If it is meant to be a keepsake or even handed down from generation to generation like a photo album, good binding techniques will ensure that it lasts.

Are certain substrates better for casebinding than others?
Yes. Traditional papers and substrates tend to work best and will be more compatible with the adhesives used in casebinding equipment. Coated papers can present difficulties in getting glues to adhere properly. A more important substrate issue, perhaps, is attention to grain direction. Pages in the book block should be printed so that the grain direction is parallel to the spine. Why? As any printer, binder or finisher intimately knows, paper readily absorbs moisture. Paper fibers in printed and bound books inevitably will pick up moisture (moisture also comes from the bookbinding adhesive), which means that the pages will expand. If the pages are bound with the grain perpendicular to the spine, this natural expansion is restricted and books will warp and become damaged. The grain direction in the binder’s board also should be the same as that in the book block, so that the board and the pages expand in sync with each other.

Do adhesives matter?
Of course! Not all adhesives are the same, behave the same way or have the same effectiveness on all substrates. At the moment, polyurethane reactive (PUR) glues, introduced in the 1990s, are touted as the latest and greatest in adhesives, but they’re not perfect for every application. Other types of adhesives used in bookbinding are ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) hot-melt and polyvinyl acetate (PVA) cold-emulsion adhesives. PURs work via a chemical reaction with moisture in the substrate and, as such, can form a much stronger bond. However, PUR glues are more expensive and require longer curing times than other adhesives. Inadequate curing can lead to books falling apart or pages falling out after repeated use.

Can casebinding be automated?
There is no logical reason that it can’t be, other than the fact that it traditionally hasn’t been. Unlike perfect binding, casebinding usually has required a lot of user intervention to move book parts and pieces around the plant and physically assemble them. However, increasing demand for automated systems means that those systems are working their way to market. Automation is the next great frontier for casebinding.

Is casebinding equipment JDF-compatible?
Again, as with automation in general, there is no reason that it can’t be other than that it just generally wasn’t. Even all these years after JDF’s supposed world domination, it still has been haphazardly implemented, especially in finishing systems. Although JDF can offer end-to-end workflow automation, simple barcoding, like On Demand Machinery’s Book-Trac, can offer most of the benefits of JDF automation and is specific to bookbinding challenges, such as marrying the right cover with the right book block.

Digital book printing has almost exclusively produced perfect-bound paperback books, but new markets are opening up for high-value, hardcover digital books – books that function as gifts, keepsakes and mementos. Casebinding often has been thought to be out of reach of most digital book printers, but today’s digital casebinding systems can offer high-quality and high-value print books at an affordable cost.