Minimal Book-on-Demand Publishing for fun and, occassionally, profit.

by Roger MacBride Allen

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Conventional book printers think in terms of thousands or tens of thousands of copies. But there are lots of times in life when you might want as few as a hundred copies of a book -- or maybe just ten -- or maybe even just one copy. You might have a book of family remembrances, or a church recipe book, or a manual for the computer program you've created, or a volume of poetry you like to distribute as a gift. Or you might think you need, say, fifty copies of that book, and then later make the happy discovery that sales are good and you need more.

Wouldn't it be handy if you could print just what you needed, and then later on print more, whenever you needed them, without having to print hundreds or thousands more copies, just to meet the printer's minimum requirement, or just in case you need more copies later?

Well, you can do that, and more, with what's called Book On Demand Printing. You can write your book, store the files for it on your computer, and print out as many -- or as few -- copies of those book pages and book covers as you like, whenever you like. And, with just a few simple tools, you can take those pages and bind them into the covers, to produce real, professional-looking paperback books. If you want bigger, faster better book-production, you can do that too. There is almost no limit to the number of ways you can create your own books.

My book, A QUICK GUIDE TO BOOK-ON-DEMAND PRINTING , available from FoxAcre Press, discusses a large number of options for printing and binding your own books. There are any number of ways to do layout, binding, and covers, and you could spend anything from $20 to $200,000 -- or more -- on the hardware for the job.

But you might want to get your feet wet first, before making a big investment in equipment for Book-On-Demand (BOD) printing. Or perhaps you have one particular BOD job you want to do, and don't want to spend a lot getting set up to do a single project.

This article will give you the basics of how to print and bind your own paperback books using a minimum of equipment. There are lots of other ways to do nearly every job we'll discuss here, but we're going to focus down on one simple, specific procedure. This procedure will be slower and a bit more fiddly than what you could do with with more advanced equipment, but it has the advantage of eliminating the need for a heavy-duty paper cutter, a duplexing printer, and other rather expensive hardware.

There are alternates to almost every technique and procedure discussed here, and nearly everything can be done using cheaper materials than what we'll use here. Furthermore, nearly every step in the process can be done faster than we'll do it here. However, in order to do it faster and cheaper, you'll first have to spend a lot more money on hardware. For example, a heavy-duty paper cutter than can slice through all the pages of a book at once would allow you to avoid using the more expensive and harder-to-find perforated paper stock we'll be using. However, when purchased new, those cutters start at about $700. In similar vein, there are laser printers than can print on both sides of the page in one pass (this is called duplexing). Because these printers let you do your printing in one pass, and are designed to deal with the paper curl (discussed below) and not jam, they make double-side printing much easier and much faster. But the cheapest duplexing printer I have seen is the NEC 1800, price $800. Most duplexing printers are well over $1,000, or even $2,000.

In short, the procedures describe below are slow, and use a few specialized and pricey materials, but they will work, and will let you print books without spending big bucks on new hardware.

This set of instruction will work for books of about 40 to 400 pages, though I wouldn't take those as hard and fast limits. Basically, If the book has too few pages, it will be difficult to get the spine folds right. (And I wouldn't bother trying to do spine printing on any book under about 80, or maybe even 100 pages -- the spine will just be too thin and won't have space enough for legible printing.) If the book has too many pages, you run the risk of the spine breaking open if the book is opened in the middle. And do bear in mind that practice makes perfect. It would be smart to practice binding a stack or two of scrap paper into scrap card stock before you try it on covers and pages that you've spent time, ink, toner, and money to print up.

Tools You'll Need

  • A Computer running Windows or Mac OS
  • An Ink-jet or Laser Printer
  • A Word-Processing Program with Booklet Printing Feature (such as WordPerfect or Word Pro) or Clickbook Bookleting software from Blue Squirrel. (MicroSoft Word does not do bookleting, but third-party macros that do bookleting in conjunction with Word are available.)
  • Two plywood wooden boards, about eight inches long, and five inches wide, and no more than a half-inch thick.
  • Two spring-loaded wood-working clamps of the right size to hold the two board plus the thickness of your book.
  • A bowl or cup for holding glue.
  • A small paintbrush -- say a half-inch or inch wide. (It's going to get glue on it, so don't make one it anyone cares about!)
  • A sharp X-Acto or similar hobbyist or utility knife.
  • A dull X-Acto or similar knife for scoring the cover.
  • A good quality paper cutter that can cut at least ten sheets at once. (Some cutters, including some from Fiskars, offer interchangeable blades, including one for scoring. If you have the chance, choose one with this feature.)
  • A dial caliper for measuring the thickness of the book pages precisely. Scissors, ruler, cutting board, cotton swabs and cloth for glue spills, notepad and pen for marking measurements, etc.

    The tools least likely to be found in the average computer-literate home -- the clamps, the boards, the paper cutter, and the caliper -- will probably cost a grand total of somewhere in the neighborhood of $60-100. You probably have neighbors who'll let you borrow the clamps and caliper and papercutter. Clickbook is an excellent program, and a bargain at about $50.


  • Letter-size (8.5 by 11 inch) paper that is pre-perfed so it will come apart into two 8.5 by 5.5 inch half-letter sized pages. This paper is available from Quill Office Supplies, Quill Item number 740-05020. Imation makes a similar pre-perfed paper, though it is hard to track down and is generally available only in large quantities. You might be able to find similar paper in other office-supply stores or catalogs. If you can't find pre-perfed paper, you'll going to have to cut a lot of pages apart by hand, and with great precision.
  • Legal-size (8.5 by 14 inch) photo-quality ink-jet paper. This type of paper is hard to find in legal size, and you might have to buy tabloid-size (11 by 17 inch) size paper and cut it down. If this is too pricey (and it will cost you) look for a regular card-stock with a smooth finish. This can also be hard to find in legal-size, so you still might have to cut it down from tabloid size. If you are using a laser printer, you'll need a legal-size card-stock. This is sometimes available, but once again, you may need to cut down tabloid-sized stock. For a one-inch thick book, the actual size of cover stock we'll actually need will be 8.5 inch by 12 inch. (See below for how to calculate cover size for other book thicknesses.) You can only get one cover that size out of 11 by 17 paper, but you could get two of them from a sheet of 12 by 18 or 13 by 19, the next two largest standard sizes. You could save money by buying the next largest sheet size.
  • Aleene's Tacky Glue or similar adhesive, available in craft, hobby, and fabric stores. Plain old Elmer's Glue might work in a pinch, but I definitely would not recommend it.
  • Laminating Sheets, available in a variety of types, weights and sizes from Brodart or LBS Binding. Be sure to get "repositionable" laminate. This type sticks only slightly at first, and forms a stronger bond a few minutes or hours later. This gives you the chance to recover any errors you might make on the first attempt to set the laminate down.

    Interior Pages

    First, write your book. Alternately, acquire your book. If you are using material created by another person, be sure to have written, signed agreements that give you permission to use the material in whatever way to plan to use it. Don't reproduce material without permission. You don't want to get caught in a $100,000 lawsuit over a church cookbook with a print run of fifty copies.

    Most word processors have features that make it relatively easy to generate a table of contents and index, if such are appropriate to your project. See your software manual for how your WP program does this job.

    Proofread your finished work carefully. The earlier you catch your errors, the less of a headache your errors will be. Catching your mistakes after you've printed your entire print run can be tremendously frustrating.

    Next, lay out your interior pages. The final books you're making will have half-letter-size pages, 8.5 inches tall and 5.5 inches wide. Allow about a half-inch to three-quarter inch margin all around. You'll probably want running heads and/or running footers.

    See The Chicago Manual of Style, available at most librarys, for details concerning the conventions of book lay-out and design. It's also a good idea just to look at the design choices of book similar to your own. If you're printing a novel, look at novels. If you're doing a volume of poetry, look at poetry books.

    You'll be printing the pages "two-up," which means two page images on each sheet of paper. You'll also be printed on both sides of each sheet of paper. You'll print the first side of all the sheets of paper on one pass through the printer, then turn the paper over, and print the second sides of all the sheets on another pass.

    One important concept you need to be aware of is "page imposition." This is simply the process of re-ordering and re-scaling your pages so they will print in the right order. Let's say you're going to print a eight-page document on half-letter size pages, printing two-up and double-sided as above. What order should the pages go in?

    Try this experiment. Take two sheets of letter-size paper, and fold them in half to 8.5 by 5.5 inches. Nest one inside the other to form a booklet. Now, number the pages. Start on the first page and write the number 1 on it. Number each remaining page: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Now unfold the sheets so the outside sheet is on top, and see where the numbers are on the two sheets. You should have:

    Left Right First sheet First side 8 1 First sheet Second side 2 7 Second sheet First side 6 3 Second sheet Second side 4 5

    You've just "imposed" eight pages on both sides of two sheets of paper. But suppose your books is 16 pages? Or 160? Or 237? Or suppose the page count shifts as you edit and revise?

    The software you'll use to print your book -- either the bookleting feature or third party macro used by your word processor, or Clickbook, will do these calculations for you.

    This is where the perforated paper comes in. You'll print on perfed stock, and then tear the pages apart down the middle. If you can't find the right sort of perfed paper, you'll have to cut your pages apart with the paper cutter, and do it precisely enough so all the edges and corners of all the pages square up to your satisfaction. (And, obviously, you'll have to make sure that all the pages stay in the right order!) Slicing all those pages up will be a fiddly and tedious job.

    But back to our layout. You can let the software worry about ordering the pages. But you still have to decide out to lay them out. You have two basic choices for your page layout, and it's a good idea to choose your technique before doing your lay-out, so as to avoid inventing extra work for yourself. The first way is to set your page size to 8.5 by 5.5 inch (half-letter size), and then use the built-in bookleting function of your word processor. It might be called booklet printing, or page imposer, or some other similar name. WordPro and WordPerfect have this feature. Microsoft Word does not, though there are various third-party macros out there that permit it. Search on "booklet" through any of the online software repositories.

    The booklet printing function will automatically rearrange the half-letter size pages into the proper order for printing and put the left-hand pages on the left-hand side of the sheet, and the right-hand pages on the right.

    The alternative is to use Clickbook. What this program does is intercept the program's output to the printer and store it in a temporary file. It will then allow you to choose, and preview on the screen, from a variety of pre-set page templates that will order the page appropriately. You can design pages on full-size pages, but with wide right-hand and lower margins, in effect designing a half-letter page in the upper left-hand corner of a full-size page. Or else, you can design a full-size letter-sized page with somewhat oversized type, and make Clickbook rescale the output to fit your half-letter size pages. Clickbook will do this re-scaling and page-reordering automatically.

    However you do it, once you have your pages ready to go, turn on your printer, load in your perforated paper, if you have it, and get started printing. Print the first side of all the sheets, turn over the paper, and print the second side.

    What sort of printer is better for this job -- ink-jet or laser? There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Laser printing tends to be significantly cheaper on a per-page basis, and laser toner is more resistant to wear. (Most ink-jet inks will smear if someone with sweaty fingers touch them.)

    The great disadvantage to laser-printing for book-on-demand is that the printer uses heat to bond the toner to the page, and heat makes paper curl. When you print the second sides of your pages, you'll be running curled paper through the printer, which will greatly increase your chance of getting paper jams with your second set of pages. You can get rid of a fair amount of curl by leaving your pages under a stack of phone books or the like for a while, but that is obviously going to slow your printing down.

    Ink-jets use little or no heat to lay down their ink, and therefore leave the paper flat. This means it is a lot easier to do the second pass. But ink-jet pages are more susceptible to smearing, and generally take longer to print and cost more on a per-page basis.

    Print your pages out, and then (if you've got perfed stock) carefully tear the pages apart, or else carefully slice them apart on your paper cutter. Resist the temptation to cut too thick a stack of paper in one go. If the manufacturer says "cuts up to ten sheets at once," don't shove twenty sheets in. You wind up with badly cut pages and, possibly, a damaged cutter.

    Getting the double-sided printing and the page-cutting done can be a huge nuisance. One sneaky way around a lot of these problems is to print one master set of all the pages, single-sided, on one pass through the printer, and then bring those single-side master pages to your local copy shop, and have them copy the pages, doing double-sided printing. Most print shops will also be able to cut your pages in half to 8.5 by 5.5 inches -- but often this is an expensive service.

    However you do it or have it done, the ultimate goal is to get your book printed double-sided on half-letter sized sheets.

    Binding the Pages Together

    What seems like the trickiest part of the job -- making the pages stick together -- turns out to be one of the simplest. Basically, what you are going to do is clamp the book pages together between your two boards, with the spine edge of all the sheets squared up together. Then you'll paint the spine edge with two or three coats of glue, allowing the glue to dry between coats. The spine is glued on afterwards. That's pretty much it.

    Stack the pages together, squaring up the spine edges and corners. Get your two plywood board and the wood clamps, set the boards on either side of the pages, and clamp the whole stack together. Make sure the spine side of the pages is exposed, and sticking out far enough (about a quarter inch to half inch) so that you'll be able to paint the book edges with glue and not slop it onto the plywood boards. Prop the assembled clamp, boards and pages so that the spine-edges of the book pages are facing up.

    Squirt some glue into your glue bowl, and dilute it slightly with water. By making the glue a bit thinner, you're making it soak into the paper a bit, creating a stronger bind. Take your paint brush and paint the spine of your book with the slightly diluted glue. Give it a good, thorough coating, but don't leave it sopping wet. Allow to dry. Paint a coat of non-diluted glue over the spine, and allow it to dry. Paint a third and final coat onto the spine, and allow to dry.

    Note that, if you had extra sets of clamps and boards, you could bind several copies of your book at once. Alternately you could use spacer boards to put some space between two or more copies of your book, and clamp several copies between your clamps.

    An assembled and attached set of pages without a cover is called a book block, and you've just created one. Once the last layer of glue had dried, take your book block, and use the caliper to measure its thickness across the spine edge. The addition of the glue will make the spine edge slightly thicker than the spine-opposite side, and it is important that this measure of book-spine thickness be as accurate as possible. Note down this measurement, and set the book block to one side. It's time to move onto the next step.

    Making the Cover

    Calculating Cover Size

    Your books are going to be 8.5 inches high, and 5.5 inches wide, and as thick as your spine. Your covers will likewise be 8.5 inches high, and will be as long as the twice the width (that is, the front plus back cover) plus the spin thickness. For a half inch thick book, that that's 5.5 plus 5.5 plus .5 inches, for a cover 11.5 inches long. An inch-thick book would take a cover 12 inches long. In most cases, the easiest thing to do is print the cover on legal-size (8.5 by 14 inch) paper and trim away the excess.

    Neither laser toner or ink-jet ink bonds strongly enough to stand up to the sort of abuse a book cover takes. You'll protect your covers with a clear, flexible laminate as the last step in the process.

    Use your word processor or whatever other program works best to lay out your cover. Let's use that half-inch thick book as an example. Measuring from the left side of the sheet, the first 2.5 inches are scrap. The back cover takes up the next 5.5 inches of the cover stock. The spine should take up the next .5 inch, and the front cover should take up the remaining 5.5 inches, like this:

    left                     right
    scrap -- back-- spine -- front 
    2.5       5.5    .5       5.5 

    You could also work with the spine exactly on the center of your paper stock, and measure outward from there. There are sometimes advantages to that, but it makes the measurements a bit more complicated, and means doing more paper cutting, so we're taking the easy way out.

    Lay out your cover into these three "zones" -- front, spine, back. Most home printers will not print to the edge of the paper (known as "a bleed"). Design your cover such that there's no printing on the outer quarter inch of the edges, and you should be fine. Often, you'll want your text or illustration centered in each of the three zones.

    If you are doing spine-edge printing of the cover, for example to show the book title and author, don't use a type that takes up the whole width of the spine: Don't use half-inch high type on a half-inch spine. Your work when you attach the cover isn't likely to be precise enough to allow for zero margin of error. For similar reason, use the same background color on the front, back, and spine. Don't use a contrasting color that breaks precisely on the spine. If you don't get the spine scores and folds (discussed below) exactly right, the error will be glaringly obvious.

    Incidentally, most modern word processors will allow for vertical type, as seen on most book covers.

    Print your cover onto your cover stock. Turn the cover over, and get ready to score the cover. "Scoring" the cover just mean putting a sharp crease into it, so it will fold easily. If you have a rotary paper cutter that can take a scoring blade, by all means use that. Otherwise, use an X-acto knife with a dull blade. You could even use a plain old Bic pen. With moderate pressure, the pen will put just enough of a crease in card stock to make for a nice sharp fold.

    Measure carefully for your scores. You want the scores to be precisely as far apart as your book is thick, and you want the scores to land exactly at the lines where the spine and the front and back covers meet. In our example of a book one half inch wide, you'll want the first score 5.5 inches from the edge of the front cover, and the second exactly six inches from the edge of the front cover. Measure carefully, and double-check yourself. If you're scoring by hand, use a good, solid, ruler with a steel edge to guide your scoring tool. If you're using a paper cutter with a scoring blade, be sure to square everything up against the paper guides.

    Joining the Covers to the Book-Block

    Fold your cover along the scores, and do a trial fit on the spine of your book-block. If it doesn't fit, don't try and rescore it. Discard the cover and try again. Nothing looks worse than a cover that's been bent and folded and fiddled with three or four times. Remeasure the book block's spine thickness and try again until you have a good, snug fit.

    Lay a sheet of wax paper (to catch any excess glue) on a clean work surface. Open up the cover and lay it flat, face-down, on the wax paper.

    Run one last line of glue along the spine edge of the book-block, spread it so that it covers the entire surface of the spine edge, except for the last quarter inch or so of the top and bottom. (This will prevent glue from squirting out the ends of the cover-spine joint.). Working slowly and carefully, set the book-block, glued edge down, on the cover, placing the book-block exactly between the scores. A very small amount of glue seeping out from the sides of the spine is all right, but blot up any larger blobs of glue. Make sure no glue seeps out the two ends of the glued cover-spine joint.

    Fold the front and back covers up around the book block, and prop the book up in that position. Allow to dry.

    We're nearly done!

    Once the glue is dry, if you have not trimmed away the excess cover material, do so now. Mark the cover carefully, line up the cut with a straight edge, and trim away the excess with your sharp hobby knife.

    Apply the laminating sheets to the cover, following the manufacturer's instructions. These vary somewhat from one material to the next, but it usually boils down to the following steps: Lie the laminate down, adhesive side up, on your work surface. Set the book down, spine first, on the center of the laminate. Turn the book down to one side and apply the laminate to one cover, then the other. Burnish the laminate down to eliminate air bubbles. Trim away any excess, or fold excess over onto the inside cover. If you're using a repositionable laminate, give it as much time as recommended by the manufacturer to bind completely.

    And that's it. You've just made yourself a book!

    As noted above, there are other ways, lots of other ways to do the job. Most will involve the use of more expensive equipment, but will go faster, involve less hand-labor, and will be cheaper in terms of materials and may well produce superior results. Visit the Book-on-Demand Info Page at FoxAcre Press for more information.

    And drop me a line at if you have any questions or comments.

    All the best,

    Roger MacBride Allen

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