Estimating the Cost of Magazine Printing

As you work on a budget for your new magazine, one of the most significant costs will be the cost of magazine printing. Printers will gladly provide you with a quote, but first you need to determine the printing specifications for the printer.

In addition, it’s important to provide the same exact set of specifications to each printer you get bids from, so that you get an apples-to-apples comparison. Read on to learn how to estimate the cost of magazine printing.

In this article, you’ll learn about what specifications a printer will require in order to give you a quote,  what the specifications mean, and you’ll also learn a bit about the process of printing a magazine.

Before you get started, make an educated guess as to how many copies you may need. You can change this number later, so don’t sweat it too much.

Pick a number on the smaller side of what you think you’ll need. When you get your quote, the printer should include a cost for additional 1,000’s of copies. This information will be helpful, later, if you need to revise the final quantity.

Separate cover versus self-cover

Most high-quality magazines are printed with a separate cover. For separate cover jobs, the cover is printed on different stock (paper), separately from the inside pages.

Separate covers are typically printed on a heavier (thicker), higher-quality stock and coated on the outside with a UV coating or varnish. Varnish can get that super glossy look. UV coatings help keep the colors from fading in sunlight, and also helps keep finger prints from appearing.

On self-cover jobs, the cover is printed on the same stock as the text at the same time, on the same press as the inside pages of the magazine. This is the cheaper way to go and is often used on catalogs and smaller page-count magazine jobs.

Note, when you run a separate cover, page 1 is typically the first right-hand page inside the magazine. On self-cover jobs, the front cover if often—but not always—considered page 1.

How to determine your magazine page-count

Along with the number of copies you plan on printing, page count is often the leading driver for the cost of magazine printing. Magazines are typically printed in signatures of 16 and/or 32 pages on what is called a web-offset press.

Your typical web offset presses have the capability to print 16 pages on one sheet of paper (8 or 16 pages on each side).

After it is printed, the sheet is folded down, inserted, bound and trimmed at the same time with the rest of the signatures for the magazine.

You can go with an 8-page signature, but you’re basically paying for 16 pages worth of paper. The printer still prints the 8-page signature on the same, larger sheet of paper, then may throw away the unused stock. For the most efficient cost, use 16- or 32-page signatures.

Example: a magazine that has 5, 16-page signatures would have 80 total pages. If it is a separate cover, as most magazines would be, it would be specified as 80 pages plus cover.

One exception to the 16-page rule would be a scenario where you only needed a few thousand copies. At these quantities, a sheet-fed press would likely be used.

In this case, the press may use smaller sheet stock (versus large rolls of paper with a web offset printer), and 8-page signatures as well as 4-page signatures may be okay.

Stock (aka the paper you print your magazine on)

The weight (thickness) and grade (quality) of stock (paper) has a significant bearing on the price of printing your magazine.

Weight is described in pounds (#), and there are cover weights and text weights (e.g., a 60# cover weight is heavier than a 60# text weight).

Grade is typically specified as as No.s 1 through 4, with No. 1 grade being best and No. 4 grade being worst. It gets pretty complicated and, after all my years in the business, I still request samples to make sure I’m comfortable with the weight and grade of stock I have specified.

Stock offers several options including uncoated paper, gloss-coated, dull/matte-coated and coated one side. These can be chose on your preference of look and feel for the magazine.

For the purpose of setting a budget, I typically spec a No. 3 grade, 70# dull-coated text for the inside pages, and a No. 2, 80# matte-coated cover weight for the cover. You can always—and many frequently do—change the specs before you ever make a final order.

I recommend requesting dummies (bound and trimmed blank magazines), using 2-3 different stock weights and grade scenarios. This will allow you to touch and feel what your final magazine will be. Printers are usually happy to put these together and send them to you.


Color magazines are printed using a CMYK, 4-color process (C for cyan, M for magenta, Y for yellow and K for black). Black and white pages would be specified as one color. For the cover, if you wanted a UV or varnish coat on the front (outside of the cover), you would typically specify 5/4 color (i.e., 4-color process plus UV on the outside, and  4-color process on the inside).

Black & white pages are usually cheaper than color pages, and if you intend to include a mix of 4 color and black & white pages in your magazine, you need to take signatures into account and keep those black & white pages contained inside of a complete signature.


The most economic route is to specify saddle-stitch for your binding. Saddle-stitch is the method that uses wire staples to keep your magazine together.

As your page-count increase or, if you are looking for a higher quality finish, perfect binding can be used. Perfect binding is a more expensive method that glues your magazine together and has a square spine that can be printed on.


This specification tells the printer what format you will deliver your content in. In the old days, printers wanted to know if you were delivering camera-ready art of or film. In today’s world, printers want to know what digital file format you intend to provide.

Sending your files in native format (e.g., QuarkXpress or InDesign) costs more because the printer must deal with layout files, fonts and  images separately. This takes more time for the printer to process and increases the chances of problems occurring.

The safest and most economic format to deliver is hi-resolution PDFs. PDFs include all the required data in one encapsulated postscript file. PDF’s are the standard of the industry, and all designers should be able to deliver PDFs.

Quantity of Magazines to be Printed

We saved the hardest spec for last. Determining the quantity is a critical step in the cost of magazine printing and in your distribution planning. The number of copies you print is directly related to your distribution, which determines the value of your advertising

But be careful. The first issue off the press is the most expensive. Once you pay for setup and that first issue rolls off the press, the cost of each copy dives, and keeps dropping the more copies you order. So it’s tempting to say, “well, for an extra X number of dollarrs, I can charge Y more dollars for each ad and make Z more profit

Selling ads on a new magazine is tough and startups often sell way less than they hoped to sell. Distribution is also be a challenge, so I recommend starting small and growing your quantity and distribution organically, as the market allows. Speaking of distribution, read my article Getting your Magazine on Newsstands.

It’s a Wrap

Remember that your initial goal is to get an estimate—not a final cost. When starting a new magazine, it is important have a good idea of the cost of magazine printing, but you do not need an exact number. This information will help you put together a workable plan, but it will also help you determine if the project is even feasible.

Another goal of this process is to nail down your final specs. When you request a quote from a printer, it doesn’t hurt to provide them with an existing magazine that has the type of stock, binding and coatings you like.

Ask the printer to replicate this as close as possible. And remember: don’t be afraid to ask the printer to send you some dummies. These would be blank, fully bound and trimmed dummy magazines that you can hold in your hands and get an exact idea of what your magazine will feel like when is produced.

Once you make the decision to move ahead with the magazine, you will want to tighten up your specs, and get final quotes. I highly recommend contacting David Greenbury of Publication Printers in Denver, CO. I do not receive any commission for referrals. These guys are just the best folks I’ve found in my career as a publisher.

If you are considering launching a magazine, I applaud you. Contact Canyon Media and schedule a complimentary 15 minute consultation with me and I’ll answer all your questions and do my best to help steer you in the right direction.

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