Prepare Your PDF for Print

This entry is part 16 of 18 in the series Tutorials


Last week, someone asked me a question about preparing their PDF for print. Specifically, they had a question about one part of the process of setting up their files to be ready for DriveThruRPG’s Print On Demand (POD) service. I decided it’d be a good idea to do a tutorial about preparing your PDFs to send to your printer, but then I actually began thinking about it and realized this is a big topic. On the D&D 3rd Edition / Pathfinder size scale, prepping a PDF for print would be Colossal.

Here’s a 336 page book on Amazon that is said to be an introduction to the topic. (This is not an affiliate link; I don’t get paid if you buy this book. It’s just a random book I found and selected to illustrate my point.)

Instead of a step-by-step guide on setting up your print documents, I’m going to cover a few topics in broader strokes. Hopefully you’ll be able to use this information as a jumping off point to continue your research, assuming you’re even going to create a book for print.

Print Files

PDFs that people download for use on their computers, tablets, and smartphones aren’t going to be the same ones you send to your printer. After creating your fancy (and hopefully accessible) PDF for digital distribution, you’ll need to generate a second file. Unlike your first file—which contains layers, bookmarks, hyperlinks, and tags—the print file will be flattened (that is, the layers will be compressed into a single layer) and the interactive elements removed. Essentially, the printer needs a file that contains only the text and graphical information present in the book.

In addition, most printers want a separate cover file which contains the front cover, back cover, and spine. This wrap-around cover file is used to print the cover of the book which will then be attached to the book block (the body of the text) during the binding process. This also means you need to remove the front and back cover pages from your digital file, unless you want them to be printed pages inside your book.

Overall, you’re going to have, at a minimum, three files: one PDF which contains the book block and the cover images which you will distribute digitally, one file containing just the book block, and one wrap-around cover file.

Your Book Block

A book block, also known as a text block, is the collection of all of the pages of your book after they have been bound together but before the cover has been attached (reference: ). You wouldn’t necessarily reference the body copy of your book as a book block, but DriveThruRPG refers to your book’s interior file in this way so that’s what I’ve used here to avoid confusion.

In this case, the book block would be the flattened file without the cover pages, the one you’ll send to your printer along with the separate cover file.

This file needs to be saved in a special PDF format known as PDF-X. Most of the POD publishers use an even more specific version of PDF-X called PDF-X/1a (2001), but many commercial printers use variations of this specification.

All you really need to know, however, is that a PDF-X file does not contain all of the digital publishing extras that a typical PDF file may contain. It doesn’t include hyperlinks, bookmarks, or layer information. It also converts your color palette to CMYK (short for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, black) if it isn’t already in that format. During this conversion process, your colors may shift a little—especially if you were using RGB (Red, Green, Blue) to begin with. The best way to ensure minimal loss of colors is to use art that is originally designed with CMYK.

When exporting this file from your layout program, you’ll need to select PDF-X/1a (2001) (or whichever format your printer specifies) from the list of file export options. Your layout software will automatically strip out the unused extras, compress the layers, and convert the color palette to CMYK. It’s a good idea to check the resulting PDF file with Acrobat Reader before you send it to your printer, though.


Preflight is the process of checking your document for printer compatibility before sending it to your printer. Preflighting your files can significantly reduce the risk of having your files rejected or having serious issues arise when you review your proof copies (the first print of a book, which you should proofread and check for errors before releasing the book for sale).

This article from ( does a good job of describing some of the things you’ll want to check for when preflighting your document. Adobe InDesign and Acrobat Pro both have built-in preflight tools which allow you to check several print-specific aspects of your document, such as color density, overprint, transparencies, low resolution images, bleed, and more.

Preflighting is another huge topic in and of itself, but if you’re cognizant of some of the issues that can arise during the printing process then you can avoid having to tweak your layout too much before going to print. I highly recommend using InDesign’s live preflight window if you happen to be using InDesign. It will check your document as you create it, so you can spot issues as they arise.


One common term you’ll encounter when setting up a book for print is bleed. This has nothing to do with being hit by an orc, so don’t get confused by the terminology.

In short, bleed is the amount of space you need to allow for inconsistencies in the trimming process of a book. Basically, your book’s pages are first printed on large sheets of paper (sometimes large enough to fit 36 pages onto one sheet) and then folded and cut to make the pages you see in your final product. This is an automated process, but paper does occasionally slide and shift during this process so there is a small margin of error.

Most printers in America ask for a 1/8th (0.125) inch bleed. Any content you wish to extend to the outside edge of a book (including the background colors or images of a cover, parchment backgrounds in the interior, border elements, etc.) needs to extend into the bleed area. That way, if the bleed area doesn’t get cut (or is only partially cut) you won’t have a white border at the very edge of your paper where your background images should be.

If you’re creating a book that is 8.5″x11″, the actual dimensions of the document will be 8.625″x11.25″ for a single page; we added 0.125″ to the top, bottom, and outer margin but not to the inner margin. To cover an 8.5″x11″ page with a background image, then, you’ll want to make your background image 8.625″x11.25″ and set the image to beat the top and outside edges of the bleed area, not the printed page area.

Note: LightningSource, the printer used by DriveThruRPG, doesn’t allow “full bleed” for black and white books. That means you’ll need to keep your B&W images inside the live area of the book, which is usually 0.125″ inside of the page margin.

If you plan to print any of your books, it’s important to start thinking about bleed as you set up your document. Make sure your document fits the specs of your printer before you begin adding all of your elements to the page, because it can be difficult to go back and change things later without those changes causing some issues along the way. It’s okay if your digital files include that extra space for bleed; as digital files, most layout programs will simply cut off the areas outside your margins when exporting to PDF.

Final Thoughts

We’ve only scratched the surface of book printing set-up, but hopefully this gives you an idea of some of the things you’ll need to consider and research if you’re going to print your books. I welcome any questions you might have in regards to this topic, so if you think of any please let me know – there may be a whole tutorial for you!


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