Everyone has a spine. Sure it’s not a part of the body we tend to think about or receive compliments on (how hard would you laugh if someone said, “My what a lovely spine you have …”), but it holds everything together with subtle precision. The same is true of a magazine spine. It’s probably the last thing you notice when you pick up your favorite publication, but without it you wouldn’t even want to try to sift through the piles of pages.
There are two types of binding for magazines: perfect binding and saddle stitch, otherwise known as wire-sewn. In a perfect bound magazine, printed sections lie on top of each other, with the backs of the sections held together with a thermally activated adhesive. In a saddle-stitched magazine, the sections are stitched inside of each other and held together with wire staples.
So how do you pick the right binding style for your publication?

When choosing between the two, cost is the No. 1 factor for most publishers, says Hammock publisher John Lavey. “Perfect binding is more expensive and requires a minimum page count and heavier paper stock to make it work,” he says. Saddle stitching is not only cheaper but also faster, making it more economical for many smaller publications.
The aesthetics of the binding style and how your audience receives it should also weigh into your decision. As Lavey says, “Perfect binding is as necessary to some kinds of magazines as engraved invitations are to some kinds of weddings.”
Other factors to consider:

  • Cover. Due to the sequential process of printing, a perfect-bound magazine must have a separately printed cover, while the cover of a saddle-stitched magazine can be printed as part of its outside section, or its signature.
  • Page count. Most side-stitching lines can only handle a book with a thickness of about 200 pages, while perfect binding often requires a minimum of 100 pages or so, depending on the thickness of the paper.
  • Editorial and ads. If you use different paper within the magazine to identify editorial and advertising pages, it might be necessary to perfect bind. This is because saddle-stitched signatures are placed inside of each other, and each type of paper that you use will carry pages in both the front and the back of the book.
  • Color. Do you use color throughout your magazine, or color in the front and black-and-white classified advertising in the back? If you do the latter, keep in mind that in saddle-stitched magazines, color is more difficult to contain within limited sections because the color positions aren’t grouped together, but split up in sections stitched down the middle.
  • Inserts. Unless they are glued to another page, single-page inserts cannot be bound into a saddle-stitched magazine because they have no spine to pass staples through.
  • Trim. On thicker saddle-stitched magazines, you must allow for a “creep,” or a slight shift in the middle sections. Because of the thickness of the paper builds up the outside sections, these middle sections tend to fan out, and the trim could cut off the edges of some of the printed material unless allowances are made.

Of course, the most important thing to consider—next to cost—is your audience. If you’re producing a high-end, lifestyle magazine for an affluent audience, for example, you would probably choose a perfect-bound magazine because it’s perceived as a higher quality product. For a backpack-size, how-to magazine for outdoor buffs, though, saddle stitch would probably be more economical and appealing.
Most newsstand magazines are perfect bound, but there are some exceptions. Until recently, Southern Living Magazine used saddle stitching. Check out this post for more on why the longtime magazine made the switch to perfect binding. (Hint: It had something to do with economics and reader demographics.)