Book illustration art picture by Duncan Long

For self publishers or those starting a small press, the process of creating a print cover PDF can seem pretty daunting the first go around. Fortunately after a time or two it becomes pretty much “old hat” and can be taken in stride (though this isn’t to say that new and varied hiccups don’t occur even for seasoned pros).

The last few corrections and changes to a print project often seem to become increasingly troublesome. Part of the reason is when correcting mistakes discovered during proofing, new mistakes can be created. For example a “z” may appear when the graphic designer fails to do a complete control-z undo command, leaving only a “z” in its place. That can not only leave the error that failed to be undone but also add a new one, too!

The key to keeping such mistakes from going into print is to proof the ENTIRE cover after each correction. Yes, this is time consuming, but it can save some real headaches when the book is in print. Nothing is quite as discouraging as seeing a “z” in the middle of a book title, right?

For those being introduced to the printing process, the concept of “bleed” can be a little confusing. “Bleed” is the extra amount of picture or inked area around the outside of a cover (or page) that goes beyond the trim points on the sheet. The purpose of the bleed is to allow extra area so that any minor calibration errors of the trim blades won’t leave white at the edge of a cover or page. As equipment becomes more precise, the necessary bleed has shrunk over the last few years from a quarter inch to 0.125 inch.

With the PDF that will go to a press, the bleed trim marks are shown with black embashes at the corners of the cover. If you imagine extending lines from one emdash to that opposite it, you’ll have the location of where the trim should occur.

One of the odd things with cover layouts is that while there are calibration marks for trim (and colors as well as black ink in some cases), there’s only a “pie chart” looking mark to show the center of the spine. The areas where the spine folds aren’t shown. The reason for this is that the folding process that creates the spine is more or less “automatic.” So while your graphic designer may center the spine down to a thousandth of an inch, the viewer of the PDF is left more or less clueless as to where the spine should be (outside of perhaps printing the PDF and measuring the width of the cover from each bleed trim point).

That said, if you’re really concerned about the spine fold points, you can ask your cover designer to place some white lines at the fold points for you to see — just don’t get that file mixed up with your print PDF or you’ll have those lines on your cover!

Some presses like to have color calibration marks on the PDF. Others don’t require these as they work from the sRGB color space (which is nearly identical to what is seen on a properly calibrated monitor, making it very convenient to work with). So some designers creating a cover for CreateSpace or other presses calibrating to sRGB will leave the color specs out of these PDFs (with the theory that this makes it a bit less apt to cause confusion with the company’s automated process).

As the “finish line” of submitting a cover PDF to a press approaches, it seems like the last few inches are made in baby steps. But it’s always better to be thorough and cautious in order to prevent errors from going to print. When your “baby” go to press, it’s comforting to know you’ve done your best to make a perfect offering for your readers to enjoy.

Duncan Long is an illustrator who often also does the layout for book covers for small presses and self-publishing “indie” authors. You can find examples of his work in Duncan Long’s Portfolio.