How to choose the right paper for your magazine


The look and feel of the paper your magazine is printed on is as much a part of your brand as the magazine’s title. Your paper says a lot about the quality of your publication, and the choice should be given considerable thought and exploration. Of course, it’s also true that paper takes up a significant part of your budget, so the decision has to involve cost.

Whether you’re planning a new magazine or just thinking about how you can make your current publication better or more cost-effective, having some knowledge about what goes into paper choice is helpful. Your printer’s representative is, of course, a great resource, but nothing can take the place of knowing what you’re talking about before you seek further advice.

Understanding the language of paper

Paper is a pretty basic commodity, but the variety, in terms of quality, is huge. Paper production goes on here in the United States, in Canada and in other countries around the world. The choices can seem overwhelming. However, when it comes to selecting the right “stock” for your magazine, you need to look at the broad types available and their grade, weight and finish. Let’s explore these terms one at a time.

Grade: What’s best for your audience

The grade of the paper you purchase for your publication depends on its brightness. Premium papers have the highest brightness, and lower grades have lower brightness. Below premium, the grades are numbered #1-#5, with #5 being the lowest.

Also included in the specifications paper manufacturers provide are gloss and opacity. Gloss has to do with light reflection—how much light is reflected from the surface of the paper when the light’s angle is 75 degrees.

Opacity refers to blocked light. Higher opacity paper blocks more light, thus preventing images from showing through.

Most magazines use mid- to lower-grade paper, ranging from #3 to #5. But it all depends on your audience. If you’re communicating with gardeners, model builders or amateur geologists who want information more than stunning images, #3 to #5 paper is probably fine. On the other hand, if your readers are architects, artists or fashion professionals, you’ll likely want to opt for a higher grade.

Weight: Heavier might be better—or maybe not

More technically known as basis weight, this factor has a lot to do with the feel as opposed the look of the paper. Heavier papers just feel more substantial. They’re also more expensive and can affect mailing costs.

Most publishers use stock of two weights for their magazines: cover and text. Cover stock is generally heavier and stiffer than text stock to provide a substantial feel as well as some protection from damage.

When you use a phrase like “20-pound gloss text” or “80-pound matte cover,” you’re referring to the weight of a ream (500 sheets) of that particular type of paper at its standard sheet size. These sheets are much larger than your 8.5”x11” office copy paper.

Finish: In the end, it’s all about look and feel

Which speaks to your audience the way you want it to: glossy or matte? Glossy paper grabs the eye. Matte paper is easier to read and has a comforting feel. Glossy helps make images pop. Matte can indicate you care about the environment.

Because the finish has so much to do with the feel of your paper, a good way to judge which one works best for the audience you serve is probably to handle it.  Even better, have your printer create a mockup of your publication using your choice of paper.

One other finish option is silk. This choice can be seen as a hybrid of gloss and matte. The paper doesn’t reflect light, so you don’t have to worry about glare affecting readability, but you get the image sharpness of a gloss paper. Silk finish does have one important drawback, however. After printing, the pages have to be sealed. Otherwise, the ink will rub off.

Keeping paper costs under control

Of course, you also have to think about paper costs. Here are a few considerations:

  • Know your demographics and your industry category and fit the finish to the audience and your brand image.
  • If you’re looking for crisp, sharp reproduction, go with a gloss finish. You don’t have to use premium grade paper to get good results.
  • Gloss papers generally are less bulky than matte papers. A matte-paper magazine and a gloss-paper magazine with the same number of pages won’t be the same thickness.

The budget rules, so your choice of paper has its limitations. On the other hand, there are so many choices available that you can probably find an excellent solution among them and still stay in business.

Costs aren’t the only consideration, after all. The first thought should be for your readers and advertisers. They might not realize it, but the paper you print on affects their perception of the value you offer. The balancing act deserves the time it takes to make smart decisions.


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