Page Counts Demystified (or, Why Publishing People Need to Know Their Multiplication Tables)

By Trade Art Director Danielle Carnito

I’ve hinted in a past post on press checks that this picture book page count post may come, and finally, at long last, here is is:

I’ve heard people wonder why picture book page counts are 32 pages. Or 40. Or why the number of pages in a book mostly always seems to be multiples of 8. 

I suppose this is where job roles come in. Art directors/designers/anyone who deals in print layouts of any sort, in any industry, or who works with printers, has had this info drilled into their heads. So much that we can barely recognize a time when we didn’t count in 8s.

Printing Industry brainwashing perhaps?

Page-counting by 8s

Conspiracy theories aside, here is the reason most books have page counts that are a multiple of 8:

That’s the way printing in signatures works.

Signatures, you say? What now?

Yes, signatures! A signature is a grouping of pages that is printed together. The amount of pages you can fit on a signature can vary based on the size of the paper for the printing press (the press sheet) AND the size of the pages being printed. The smaller the page, the more pages you can fit on a press sheet.

For illustrated picture books, which usually have a larger page size, the amount of pages you can fit in a signature will be less than for a novel, which has a much smaller page size.

To add to the mess: book pages aren’t printed in order of how you read them in a book (called reader spreads). Rather, they’re printed in order of how they come together after the large paper from the printer—the press sheet—is folded together after printing (called printer spreads).

Press sheet examples

Here is an example of a printed press sheet from our book Dazzle Ships, which gives you an idea of how book pages are organized to be printed.

how press sheets determine picture book page counts
6 pages of Dazzle Ships, including 2 pages of the endsheets. Sometimes endsheets are printed along with the rest of the text, and sometimes not. (That’s the difference between printed ends and self ends. And that is fodder for yet another blog post.)

It looks completely out of order and makes no sense, right? This is because it is, for you the reader. But for the printer, this is what makes all the sense.

We send books to the printer as printer spreads, reorganizing (or, imposing) the pages in the signature to fit on the size of paper the printer will use on the presses, taking into account both sides of the paper. The press sheet has two sides, after all. Each side is called a form, and both front and back together is the full signature.

After printing, the large paper sheets are folded down to the size of the individual pages. With every fold of the press sheet, the amount of pages doubles. One of the most common amount of pages in a signature is 16—as Dazzle Ships was printed—so there are 8 pages on the front of a press sheet and 8 on the back. 8 is also used often, so there are 4 pages on the front and 4 on the back.

Once folded, all of the signatures of a book are put together (two 16 page sigs OR four 8 page sigs for a 32 page book, five 8 page sigs for a 40 page book, etc… practice your multiples of 8 here). The endsheets are added if not already included.* The pages are trimmed to the correct size. Finally the whole thing is bound together with the cover, which is printed separately of the interior.

how press sheets determine picture book page counts
The press sheet for Can I Touch Your Hair? cover and jacket. When the cover and jacket of the book are the same image, they’re printed on the same press sheet so the color will match each other.

And that is why multiples of 8 are prevalent in picture book page counts (and all books in general).


So, you say, I’m sure I’ve seen 36-page books, and 36 is not a multiple of 8 or 16…

You’ve caught me. This is true.

Dazzle Ships is 36 pages, as is our book The Nutcracker Comes to America. This could be three 8 page signatures plus a 4-pager, or two 16-pages plus a four pager… but the smaller signature is not always recommended.

Generally speaking, the more pages you can fit into a signature, the more cost effective the printing is. As soon as I know in the lifeline of putting together a book that we’ll need a few more pages for the story and the backmatter pieces to do justice to the book (looking at YOU, Chris Barton), I’ll talk with our production staff to get estimates from the printer.

Sure, with an unlimited budget and price point on the final book you can do pretty much whatever you want** as long as you pay for it–with time and money both. Printers are happy to work with their customers.

But to keep books affordable for our customers, it’s really best to not go too far astray from the 8 or 16 page signatures.***

* Endsheets are NOT included in the final page count of a book.

**The exception is adding ONE page. Paper has two sides, people. You can’t add one side of paper.

***I’m talking offset printing. For digital printing, all bets are off. That’s a different process entirely from what I’m talking about here.

And also: many thanks to Brad Black, master of forms and signatures here at Lerner, for reading this to make sure my creative brain isn’t taking too many liberties with the production process in this post.

To learn why we love backmatter so much, read this post by editor Carol Hinz. 

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