‘My book is at the printer.’ Now, that sounds nice. There is a solid promise to your book; no longer is it a vague wannabe that may or may not come to something. One might almost imagine the book taking shape in the hands of a big, burly, hairy-armed midwife.
‘Printer’, however, is a relative term. In fact, your book could be printed by quite different people in a variety of ways and places. Let’s take a brief look at these.
One or many
The solitary craftsman working at his printing press is a rarity; he exists but is more than likely to make a living from printing business cards, letterhead paper, etc. I doubt that many books are printed by such a person in these modern times. No, your book (and the books of any author you can think of) will be printed in a factory employing many people – maybe hundreds of them – carrying out a multitude of tasks. Along the way, in this series of posts, you may meet some of them.
It is rare for an academic publisher (indeed any book publisher) to have an in-house printing operation – that is something more common for very short-lived publications such as newspapers or magazines. One major reason for this is that different books need different printer set-ups, so there is a clear incentive for publishers to shop around for each individual project to find the printer most suitable in terms of technical ability and price.
One of the last academic presses with a significant in-house printing operation is Cambridge University Press (CUP), which indeed tried to chop this a year or two back but abandoned the attempt after a huge uproar.
(Note the name ‘press’ and the assumption that printing is an in-house publishing function. Once upon a time, it was the reverse; publishing was an add-on offered to authors by their printers. There’s more about this here. Times have changed; printing and publishing have gone their separate ways. In the process, however, publishers – who, let’s face it, are in some respects mere purveyors of promise – boosted their credibility by retaining the solid word ‘press’ in their name. This is why, when we talk about ‘a press’, we refer to a publisher and yet, when a book goes to press, it goes to a printer. Quite confusing.)
A major reason why CUP wanted to severely scale back on its in-house printing operation was the fact that it has outsourced much of its book production to India. This is something i have discussed often before (here for instance) but, briefly, although there are numerous printers in Western Europe and North America, a large number of Western publishers choose instead to have their books printed either in cheaper places like Eastern Europe or Asia. This is because of the huge financial pressure they are facing and because they find that the prices charged by printers in developing economies are low enough to more than outweigh the extra cost of getting books shipped great international distances to their various warehouses. Nor is this just a Western phenomenon; for instance, it least one Singapore publisher I know has looked at moving part of their printing offshore.
Some printers are set up for printing large quantities, producing books in their thousands or even tens of thousands, although that is admittedly a rare occurrence for an academic book in the humanities or social sciences (but not at all unreasonable for, say, a medical textbook). Other printers have set themselves up to be able to offer competitive prices on the smallest of printing jobs, down to just a few hundred copies, or even single copies in the case of digital printing (see below). Yet others have invested in machinery that enables them to provide really high-quality image reproductions for books on art and design, or to handle extra-large sizes, or to print on unusual papers.
Nor are all printing functions necessarily undertaken under the same roof. It is common that a printer may only print the (black and white) body pages of books while another specializes in printing high-quality colour covers and, somewhere else, a book bindery takes these two components and binds them into finished books.
Litho vs POD
No doubt the initial printing of your book will be in the hundreds (if not thousands) of copies. As such, in the posts that follow we shall be looking in greater detail at traditional printing processes. Perhaps you will also notice that the printing works described is a big, all-in-one operation located somewhere in Asia.
Let’s take a ride, the first stop the pre-press department.