Meet the printer

14 June 2010

‘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

Finally, there is the difference between traditional offset, lithographic printing and the new digital, printing on demand – something explored in my earlier post on printing revolutions.

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.

(Post #4 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

How much can you change at proofing?

4 March 2010

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the mental shift required of authors in the transition from editing their manuscript to typesetting their book, of the need to let go, give their book its freedom. However, sometimes this shift only truly comes at the proofing stage when the author suffers a rude awakening about what changes are actually allowed. Suddenly, there is heard the discordant sound of money being demanded with menaces.

How can this be?

Typesetters must be paid

Today, more likely than not, the typesetter of your book isn’t someone beavering away in a dungeon beneath your editor’s executive suite. Rather, he is a freelancer whose office looks out on cows and crops somewhere out in the countryside or an employee of one of the big Indian outsourcing firms in an industrial park on the outskirts of Chennai. Either way, the typesetter is paid for his work – and often on a per-page basis, not by the hour.

(See here for more about typesetters – and designers – and how they tick.)

In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that typesetters try to avoid being saddled with extra, unpaid work by threatening publishers with penalty charges. In turn, to protect itself, the press will seek to pass responsibility for any such costs over to the author.

Contractual consequences

Has your contract a clause something like this?

If so, you are in good company. This sort of wording is pretty standard among publishers. Indeed, sometimes it can all get quite mathematical. The terms of a contract may well include a maximum amount of proof corrections that authors can make at the publisher’s expense. Anything over and above that level will be charged back to them. What of course the press is doing here is to protect itself against any extra charges levied by the typesetter for ‘unnecessary’ changes.

While most publishers would accept some changes, please bear in mind that alterations to proofs are time-consuming, costly and can introduce further errors. Many typesetters thus charge publishers for every single correction apart from those that relate to fixing typesetting errors, not least those arising from the file conversion, as we have seen. (Not even typos are exempt; after all, these should have been picked up during copy-editing.) Charges can escalate rapidly, and eventually (as seen above) your own pocket could be at risk.

Proofing on a short leash

Perhaps because she doesn’t feel comfortable with this situation, your production editor is likely to work hard to avoid any possibility of such charges raising their ugly heads. Pre-emptively, she will do this by clamping down hard on what changes you are allowed to make to the proofs.

Arguably, this is quite reasonable. The time for resolving ifs and maybes was in the writing phase. Clarifications, restructuring and polishing your text belonged to editing, likewise any last-minute content changes. Thereafter, it is only reasonable to expect that the text delivered for typesetting is final. Consequently, your job now is only to correct any typesetting errors but otherwise to make no changes.

That’s all very well and good but, out in the real (scholarly) world, something pertinent to your text may well have happened that absolutely must be mentioned in your book, or there could be typos and factual errors that (true) should have been but were not picked up in the editing process. As I said above, most publishers would accept many such changes but expect that the patience of your production editor will rapidly wear thin. Some leeway will be given with the first, unpaginated proofs but almost nothing with the final, paginated proofs.

As for feedback on (and suggested changes to) the page design, something that I raised as a possibility here during the first proofing and that I’ll elaborate on in my next post about the final proofs, expect that here especially you will encounter quite stiff resistance.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still take a step back and look at your book with a critical eye. You can be sure that others after publication will be doing the same. You may not win the argument in every respect but you could still achieve a better look for your finished book.

(Post #8 of the Proofing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

What is typesetting?

22 January 2010

With the design phase now completed, your manuscript and the design brief will be sent to a typesetter, who will take your text and illustrative material, setting it out on the page ready for printing.

An art and process

There is a lot more to typesetting (and its sister, typography) than you would think. Both have their origins in the Gutenberg revolution and each, in their different ways, were concerned with the presentation of textual material in type format ready for printing. In earlier times there was a big difference between them. Typography was the art of designing, setting and arranging type whereas typesetting was the process (or craft) of actually setting the type.

Note the class difference: typography wore a beret and twirled a designer’s pen, typesetting wore an apron, punched type and had ink on its fingers. As we shall see, however, the differences between the two have blurred in recent years.

Together, typography and typesetting combine an art and process that only really succeeds when invisible. In many respects, the layout of your book is comparable to the background music added to a film. Its primary duty is to make your text clear and accessible, but ideally it should also enhance the meaning with mood and style. Though stylish, the layout must also be durable (indeed timeless), transcending fashion. Much creative energy goes into this art, which is the subject of passionate debate among its practitioners.

At the forefront of the publishing revolution

The differences between typesetting and typography have narrowed (even blurred) due to the digital revolution and advent of desktop publishing (DTP), which has virtually obliterated other forms of typesetting in recent years.

At the sharp end of publishing – in the production of books, journals, etc. – the old, quite laborious and expensive process of producing print-ready material by hand-setting individual lines and pages of type (a job for well-paid tradesmen) has given way to on-screen, WYSIWYG page composition using personal computers and (usually) lower-paid semi-clerical staff.

In parallel with (and a precondition for) this transformation was the development of things we all take for granted today (everyone, not just publishing professionals) – the personal computer, DTP software, new digital fonts (see below), laser printers using the Postscript programming language, and PDF (which renders Postscript into a viewable, WYSIWYG format). An even more recent addition has been the arrival of text mark-up languages like XML; originating from the old pre-DTP typesetting systems, these are still esoteric, even for many publishing people.

For a while, typesetting came in-house for most publishers and many of the old, specialist typesetting firms went bust. In recent years, however, further cost-cutting by publishers has seen this typesetting work move out to local freelancers and further afield to places like India. (I have described this development elsewhere in greater detail, if you are interested.)

At the same time that the process of page layout has been transformed, a parallel transformation has been seen in typography. Here, there have been huge advances in typographical design, not least the development first of scalable, digital fonts followed by an explosion of new designs and more recently the digital capture and standardization of all the world’s varied alphabets and scripts in the form of Open Type fonts.

These advances have been an essential feature of the digital revolution in publishing. Without them, there would be no #e-publishing, no e-readers like the Kindle, probably no iPhone or other smart phone, and indeed even the PC, Web, etc. would be far more limited things than they are.

Key concerns and tools

According to Wikipedia, ‘Traditional typography follows four principles: repetition, contrast, proximity, and alignment.’ The same could be said for typesetting; they are classic requirements of a good design and layout. In essence, then, when laying out your book, your typesetter will be concerned to:

  • Fit your text and illustrations into the agreed page extent.
  • Place text and illustrations in an effective and appropriate combination.
  • Apply a layout that is uniform and predictable.
  • Implement a design that is elegant but also clear and readable.
  • Deliver the print-ready PDF files on or before the agreed date.

Given the sophistication of today’s DTP software (programs like Adobe InDesign, for instance), the typesetter of your book will have a vast array of tools at his/her disposal to ensure these goals are met. There are too many to list here but among them will be:

  • a selection of appropriate fonts in different sizes and styles;
  • paragraph and character styles, assigning uniform values to text (font, size, colour, alignment, etc.) that can be globally changed in an instant;
  • hyphenation, character spacing (kerning) and line spacing (leading), allowing fine adjustments to how much space an amount of text actually fills; and
  • much more (e.g. alignment and rotation, linking to external files, layering, use of colour, etc.)

Such is the world of the typesetter. But, as shall be seen in my next post, this esoteric world about to impinge on your own.

(Post #8 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Meet the designers (and typesetter)

9 January 2010

In publishing these days, almost everyone looks the same. Yes, clothing and hairstyle may differ (and let’s not forget attitude, accent and class) but everyone works on a computer. Look more closely, however, and the differences become more apparent. What sort of computer are we talking about and which software is being used? Who is the press insider and who the hired help?


In former times, the differences were clear. Editorial and marketing staff were office types, the former usually middle class (if not upper class) and intellectual, the latter often seen as more common and tainted by money. Increasingly, women were commonplace. In contrast, typesetters rubbed shoulders with the printers and got their hands dirty; they were craftsmen, working class and blokes. They were also part of the industrial elite.

Designers lay somewhere in-between. They, too, learned a craft but design was (and is) one of the creative professions; one should expect to work closely with architects, engineers, artists and other creative types as well as with people in advertising and marketing, areas where creativity is valued.

The computer revolution changed this picture, typesetters moving from setting metal type on-site at the printing works to setting virtual type on screen on big typesetting machines located elsewhere. The PC and desktop-publishing (DTP) revolutions completed the transformation. Today, virtually every designer and typesetter works on a computer. The old days of real cutting and pasting have gone.

Amateurs and distance workers

What the DTP revolution also allowed, however, is a dramatic decline in the use of qualified designers and typesetters in the publishing industry. Partly, this was a result of cost-cutting by presses but the trend is also in keeping with the industry’s origins as a profession for gentlemen, an industry distinguished by the work of gifted (and not so gifted) amateurs.

Especially in smaller presses, then, it is quite common for editorial and marketing staff to undertake design and typesetting work. For instance, though without the slightest design or typographic training, I design almost all of the covers for books published by NIAS Press, typeset the occasional book and in the past have even created customized fonts to meet our needs. Such involvement is not at all extraordinary.

This ‘democratization’ of design and typesetting work has also meant that it can be passed on to low-paid amateurs, of course, and indeed outsourced to ex-industry professionals now working freelance and costing less than if they were on the press staff. Moreover, in recent years, outsourcing of typesetting and other pre-press work to India by Western presses is increasingly common. (Several earlier posts have discussed this issue, most notably this one. Click on ‘outsourcing’ in the right-hand tag cloud to view all of these posts.)

That said, although many presses have cut costs by outsourcing or employing low-cost amateurs and/or by the use of template designs, some presses still find it worthwhile to employ professionals to undertake this work.

I suggest you keep this nuanced picture in mind in the description that follows and in subsequent posts dealing with design and typesetting.

Different types, much in common

In the new democracy of design and typesetting, it is quite possible for the designer and typesetter to be one and the same person; chances are they are different, however – or that the typesetter creates the page design but the cover design is assigned to a specialist cover designer.

This is not surprising; the work has much in common but it is not the same. Typesetters and page designers should obviously care about the aesthetics and accessibility of a text but a central concern is ‘fit’ – how to ensure that the finished book ends up with the number of pages it is supposed to have (and hence keep printing within budget).

In contrast, the cover designer must produce covers that are attractive to look at and ideally also a bit intriguing to encourage potential buyers to pick up the book. At the same time, cover designers must satisfy a number of practical concerns such as that the cover works both when viewed face-out (as it should ideally be seen) and spine-out (as on the shelf of a bookshop or library).

That said, there is much in common between designers and typesetters. Both work with an intimate knowledge and appreciation of spatial relationships, colour and fonts, and both need to be skilled at using images to good effect and at enhancing image quality.

For their work, moreover, both designers and typesetters are likely to use a powerful Macintosh computer running highly specialized software. Because of its superior graphics capabilities, the Mac has long been dominant in both pre-press and printing work. (It was this tiny but lucrative slice of the computer market that allowed Apple to survive during the long years of otherwise utter Windows dominance.) The domination of Abobe Creative Suite as the software package of choice is more recent but with InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, Acrobat and more, use of the package is almost inescapable.

This can be seen in the next few posts, which deal with the page design and cover design.

(Post #3 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Live update from the Frankfurt Book Fair

26 October 2009

Live update?

I’ve been back from Frankfurt a week now and this is my first post in weeks. So much for the live update that I had planned.

The problem is that the wireless connection on my Macbook Pro is broken, a major hassle that made communication at Frankfurt rather difficult. Must get it fixed (when I can afford to be without the laptop for a few days – sigh).

Recessionary blues

Anyway, Frankfurt was somewhat subdued, far fewer editorial types in evidence than usual and the usual hype over bidding wars for the latest Dan Brown or whatever was unconvincing. Even the end-of-day receptions at different stands seemed ho-hum this year.

But the significant revelation for me was when one of our regular buyers, a guy called Holger, pointed out that the aisles in Hall 8, where as usual our stand was (and where most of the other English-language presses hang out), were wider than usual. So I strolled to the end of the hall and looked. Holger was right. There were about 3 rows of booths fewer than usual. The recession is biting, if only a bit.

Sadly, one of the casualties was The Guardian, whose attendance in its usual slot in row B was in the fair catalogue but at the last minute was replaced by some publisher or other. Normally, the good people from The Guardian dish out free copies of the newspaper, hoping we’ll be tempted to subscribe. Obviously, not enough of us have been doing so.

More e-readers, so what?

Every few days another e-reader is launched. There were a few at the fair. One looked interesting but incredibly the exhibitor had it behind a plastic shield so actually twiddling with it was quite impossible, a huge turn-off.

Just before Frankfurt, Amazon went (almost) global with the Kindle. Interestingly, this did not seem to make the splash at the fair that I assume Amazon had expected. The Kindle has some nice features (not needing to upload its content from a PC, for instance) but increasingly its power-saving e-ink technology is being seen as drab (no colour) and the machine lacks some of the wow stuff you’ll find on an iPhone. And rumours persist of an Apple tablet that blows the Kindle and the other e-readers out of the water.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, despite the ever frenetic hype about digitization and e-sales, I felt there was a general wait-and-see attitude beginning to be noticeable among publishers. Their core profits remain in print sales, despite 400% increases in digital sales here and there (four times very little is not much more, no matter how impressive the increase may sound).

Also, publishers remain wary about Amazon getting to dominate the e-book market. But Google’s ‘land grab’ (as some have put it) in the e-world is potentially more revolutionary. To me, it seems more and more likely that the Google Book Settlement – an American legal settlement but with global effects – will be challenged by the European Union.

And if Apple and Microsoft enter the fray? All hell could break loose.

The Indians are coming

Finally, I found it interesting that this year the guest country was China (you may have heard about the ham-fisted attempts to stifle the voices of dissidents at the fair) but in business terms the Indians made a far greater impression. Not only were Indians selling a profusion of different publishing services (they now dominate globally in pre-press services and maybe have already overtaken the Chinese in printing services) but Indian publishers are increasingly visible – and confident – as buyers as well as sellers of publishing rights. As always, my various Indian visitors were charming, often witty.

In contrast, the Chinese were only interested in selling, and little thought seemed to being put into getting onto the wavelengths of Western publishers, i.e. into tuning into how to open their wallets.

An interesting contrast.

Problems with the author-publisher disconnect

13 August 2009

Another issue with the use of diacritical marks in books, as raised in recent posts, has nothing to do with their use per se. The issue is wider and impacts on the use of all kinds of special material. That issue is the disconnect between the specialist knowledge of the author and the quite different specialist knowledge of the people involved in publishing the author’s book.

What on earth has this got to do with diacritics? A lot, actually.

Ideal vs real editors

In an ideal world, a press will have commissioning editors who know quite intimately the field(s) in which they are publishing. They will be familiar with the literature, the key people in the field, and have a good sense where each discourse is developing.

Maybe. It’s a nice ideal, anyway.

It is just as likely (and probably normal) that a commissioning editor is stressed, has a work load far greater than she can efficiently cope with (‘she’ because most editors are women), and must commission in more fields than she can possibly be truly familiar with. On the other hand, as a general rule, editors are well educated, read widely and have a breadth of vision that many authors lack, so focused are they in their particular field. As such, a good symbiotic relationship between author and editor can produce a great book. Sadly, all too often both are far to busy for this to be perfectly achieved.

In earlier days, it was common for commissioning editors to undertake the substantive editing of a work (i.e. editing of content for structure, meaning, etc). At the same time they would copyedit the text (correct the spelling, grammar, logic, factual errors, etc.). However, it is rare these days for a commissioning editor to actually ‘get her hands dirty’ at all with the manuscript and, except in small publishing houses, she is most unlikely to typeset the work. Instead, presses rely on the peer review process and the conscientiousness of the author to fix any scholarly concerns. As for the process of transforming the raw, delivered manuscript into a printed book, all stages are carried out by people with publishing skills and knowledge. Almost certainly they do not have any of the specialist knowledge of the author, nor are they likely to be interested in acquiring this.

Outsourcing publishing work

Add globalization to this author-publisher disconnect. Pressure for cost cutting and quite a bit of fashionable hype has encouraged more and more European publishers to shift their production work, including typesetting, offshore. India is the hot destination. American publishers are slightly more parochial here though for decades I know that in my own area – Asian Studies – many US presses have outsourced typesetting of books involving Chinese script to Hong Kong.

(Such global outsourcing is not new. I remember back in the early 1990s hearing how – in the days before authors delivered their manuscripts on disk – the keying in of the manuscript text was commonly done by thousands of low-paid women in Mauritania. Why Mauritania? I don’t know, maybe because the labour was not only cheap but also of a high quality. And, then, an even cheaper source of skilled labour was found: Greater Los Angeles! In the same way, the hi-tech development of Silicon Valley was made possible by the proximity of cheap labour next door in San Jose.)

The results have been mixed, one might say. It doesn’t help here that Indian outsourcers have been too successful. There are only so many skilled staff available (and the Indian job market is notoriously volatile; a better job offer is always of interest). As a result, one hears rumours and scuttlebutt of uncles and cousins with no skills (but lots of loyalty to the firm) being hired to help out. No one, of course, knows the true situation. Time and again I read about the triumph of this publisher’s outsourcing strategy but, let’s face it, there is little likelihood of any production manager admitting that his firing of most of his local staff and relocating all production work to India was a disastrous mistake.

It was no surprise, then when recently a colleague of mine working with Chinese script (not diacritics, but the moral of the story is the same) had a few problems getting his book typeset. It went through eight proofs before the eminent university press publishing his book hired a Chinese expert to stand over the Indian typesetter and ensure that the correct text was being keyed (rather than any old Chinese-looking character inserted, as before). The problem here was that the typesetter had problems with the font and – not understanding a word of Chinese – was unable to make an informed decision. Bad guesses were made instead. This isn’t all that unusual.

And the result is …

This is where the author-publisher disconnect starts to bite. OK, so the typesetter may make mistakes but surely these will be picked up in the proofing? Well, not necessarily. Normal errors should be discovered (though one hears all the time of photos being reproduced upside down or inverted – something any attentive author should have picked up). Last-minute discoveries of spelling mistakes are commonplace at proofing. But errors in special material? No, it is unlikely that the publisher’s proof reader will be able to pick up a missing dot under that ‘s’, an accented hat over that ‘o’, or whatever. The onus is on the author, a situation not always with a happy ending.

I raise an issue here, something for authors to be aware of. I am not suggesting that the only solution to problems in the proofing and correction of typesetting errors for diacritical marks, non-Latin text and other special material is that these should be excluded from books – not at all.

But there is an issue, and it’s one that needs addressing.


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