Printer’s proofs

26 June 2010

Now your book is really at the starting line. The PDF book files delivered from your publisher have been transformed into a print-ready format in the printer’s pre-press department; printing is just minutes away. Ready, set, … .

Well, no, wait a moment. As mentioned in my last post, specimen proofs must first be printed off and sent to your publisher for approval. These allow publishing staff to check that text pages are ordered correctly, cover colours match, etc. Only after the approval of these printer’s proofs can the actual printing of your book proceed.

No author involvement

This proofing process is one that you will not be involved in – unless, that is, yours is an art book or similar highly illustrated work where fidelity of reproduction is paramount; here it might be appropriate for authors with their superior knowledge of the subject to be consulted.


Just what these printer’s proofs look like depends on the type of printing intended and the type of equipment the printer uses. If it is a digital, print-on-demand job, then what the publisher is likely to receive is a printed copy of the book, i.e. looking exactly like all subsequent copies would look like.

However, if it is a traditional lithographic printing job, then – unless these proofs are machine proofs (more about them below) – the printer’s proofs received will be quite different and look nothing like the final printed book. The book pages may be in loose-leaf form or – more likely – gathered in signatures (in which case the proofs take the form of a bundle of booklets). Such page proofs may be called blues/blueprints, diazos, ozalids and Vandykes, depending on the technology that produced them.

In all cases, however, because these proofs are printed on something like an ink-jet printer (with all sorts of compromises being made with regard to colour, resolution, etc.), the proof print is only indicative – something to check that nothing has been imposed upside down or out of sequence, for instance. Even the cover proof tends to be printed using an ink-jet printer or similar but usually the quality is good enough to flag up any major problems.

Machine proofs

Although none of these conventional printer’s proofs match exactly what the final printed copies will look like, a ‘perfect’ proof is possible but not cheap; to get this requires a machine proof, i.e. a proof printed off the actual printing press that later the book will be printed on (and not just printed off; the press needs to be set up first – quite a rigmarole for a single proof copy). As you might guess, then, this printing of a single copy is an expensive proposition that few publishers contemplate investing in. (Again, it is the high-quality art book that may need this sort of proofing.)

Publisher feedback

If it’s anything like usual, the printer’s proofs for your book will arrive by courier at the door of your production editor and s/he will have only a short time to check these. The printing presses are not actually throbbing there, waiting to start on your book (no, there’s dozens of other jobs to be done, with presses often running 24 hours a day). But there is an air of urgency and no doubt your production editor will be praying for a clean sheet, no errors.

In your case, everything is fine; the proofs are approved and the printer gets the go-ahead to print. Now, finally, all systems are ‘go’. Time to descend into Hell’s Kitchen.

(Post #6 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Who proofs

27 February 2010

I believe that my last post established the need to proof your book. The question is, who should be put to do this tedious work? You. Sorry, but that’s how it is. Your involvement is unavoidable.

The buck stops here

Whether or not your publisher proofs your book (and my guess is that most do, sometimes by employing an outside professional proof-reader), the ultimate responsibility for checking the proofs lies with you. Subsequent book reviewers may sniff at the failure of the publisher to properly edit your book, but you will be blamed for making the original error.

Likewise, the typesetter keeps an eye open for the conversion errors discussed in my last post but ultimately it will be your responsibility at the proofing stage to pick up any such problems.

Why? To be sure, there is the wider issue of whose work is this (an issue I should have addressed under editing and will get back to). But ultimately it is your book that is being published. You own it, you too are responsible for its success. And, as such, in the words of Harry Truman, ‘The buck stops here’.

Avoiding humiliation

A sense of personal ownership and responsibility may not be the only motivation, of course. A powerful – and personal – reason for authors wanting their books properly proofed before printing is to avoid later embarrassment (not to say humiliation).

All of us will have suffered the temporary humiliation of discovering we have spent the whole evening at some public event with our trouser buttons undone, a breadcrumb dangling under our nose, whatever. But longer lasting, even more public humiliations are waiting in ambush, promising ever after to haunt you. The most damaging of these for an academic author can be the book review.

Seriously, would you want a review of your book to conclude on this note?

Correspondingly, editing seems to have played almost no role in the production of this book. Countless grammatical mistakes and other errors mar the text. Important and commonly used words are misspelled, such as ‘dominos’ [sic] (p. 117).  There are also numerous small errors of fact and usage – sometimes the author mistakenly refers to Walter W. Rostow (pp. 5, 8, 129), and at other times, correctly, to Walt W. Rostow (p. 121); in one paragraph (p. 12) the author refers correctly to “the Tengku,” meaning Abdul Rahman, but a few lines later, confusingly, to “the Tungku” (a “tungku” is a trivet or brazier). These errors aside, the author has identified a topic of genuine importance, and his new book will no doubt stimulate much additional scholarship.

Mind you, the above review may not be fair; this may be yet another carping book review for which there is a long tradition in the academies. I have no idea in this case. Fair or not, such a public drubbing is not exactly a great career booster (or a good way to start the week).

(I should add that one review of our own book wasn’t much better. Again, the chief complaint was that the proofing wasn’t up to scratch.)

Not your business

One set of proofs you need not concern yourself – the printer’s proofs. These are output during the printing stage and are not something that authors tend to be involved in. (That said, there are some types of book – art books, for instance – where it might be appropriate for authors to be consulted.) More about these proofs later.

But otherwise

However, what I am discussing now is your involvement in the typesetting or author’s proofs, the so-called first and final proofs. These are another matter.

Here, at this stage, not to proof your book would be a criminally stupid waste of all the hours you have put into its creation. More to the point – as you will find out the longer you are involved in publishing your research – publishers know their stuff but it is always you, the author, who knows your stuff. Look after it.

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


16 June 2010

There are many types of printer, as we have seen, but your book is being printed for the first time. Chances are, then, that it will be printed by an offset printer, taking form in a rather scary, noisy place where huge lithographic printing presses tirelessly grab, ink and eject thousands of enormous sheets of paper every minute of the working day. Hell’s kitchen is not where the work begins, however, not where the print files for your book arrive from the publisher. No, the first stop is paradise.

Behind the double doors

More than likely, your print files will be delivered to the printer via the internet (though not by e-mail; the files are usually too large). But let’s pretend in your case that everything is on a DVD coming to the printer by courier.

Today, it’s Hasan making the delivery in his brightly painted courier van. He knows where to go, skirting the tumult of the print shop, dodging a fork-lift truck loaded with paper, and arriving at reception. Mrs Khoo is on the phone and, seeing the envelope and its contents description, silently begs that Hasan deliver it directly upstairs to the pre-press department. He doesn’t mind; Mrs Khoo looks just like his auntie.

The din of the printing presses follows Hasan up the stairs but, at the top, there are double doors. Behind them, all is hushed and a shoe rack reminds Hasan to remove his shoes; this is a clean zone sealed off from not just the noise but also the dirt of the outside world.

In front of him is what looks a bit like a gamer’s paradise: a series of rooms in which he glimpses big-screened Macintosh computers and all manner of other strange equipment. Nor are the people here like the solid, chunky guys wearing overalls you see downstairs; no, frankly, they look like office workers. Indeed, some of them could be the kids you see downtown in the video game arcades and internet cafes – nerdy types.

Welcome to the pre-press department.


Hasan has gone now, together with his shoes, but your book files remain and already they are being loaded onto the pre-press server.

Essentially, from this point, the PDF files delivered from the publisher are prepared for printing. A key process here is imposition, whose purpose is to remap the linear sequence of pages onto giant sheets of paper that ultimately will end up as 16-page signatures. This mapping is complicated because the original pages must be scattered, turned and placed on the sheet so that, when it is printed on both sides, folded and trimmed, the 16 pages appear in their correct sequence and orientation. The following diagram probably explains this better.

Just how the whole process is achieved depends a bit on how sophisticated the printing company is. Twenty years ago it was common for the typesetter to output to film, which was then manually imposed (or ‘stripped’) on a light table to create the sheets. (Indeed, camera-ready copy was also common at this time, i.e. laser-printed pages were cropped and stuck together inside a sheet-sized frame and then filmed.) Today, however, digital processes exist that quickly and accurately automate the imposition process.

Once the sheets have been created, the final printing plates can be made. Again, traditionally this was done via an intervening step using film but increasingly the direct computer-to-plate process is used. Whatever, the end result is a metal or paper plate on which a mirror image of each book page is etched and then – by the application or repulsion of ink – reproduced as a positive image on paper during printing.


The above description implies there is only a single plate used to print each side of the signature. But, if pages are coloured (i.e. more than black, white and shades of gray), then additional plates are needed. These days, typically four plates will be used, one for each of the CMYK process colours (cyan, magenta, yellow and black [key]) on which the printed colour spectrum is based. Otherwise or in addition, spot colours (specially mixed to a specific hue) may be used.

Should multiple colour plates be needed, then colour separation of the PDF files received from the publisher will need to be done as one of the first steps. Here is an example of how this might look:

Not so fast!

Once the printing plates are ready, your book is ready to print – yes? Well no, actually, because I’ve rather jumped ahead of things. At the time the signature files are created, specimen proofs are printed off and sent to the publisher for approval. I’ll describe these printer’s proofs in greater detail in my next post.

(Post #5 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Printing your book

2 June 2010

Finally, after an express train of last-minute urgencies has thundered through your life, everything is quiet. No one calls with a voice edged with adrenalin. No urgent e-mails exclaim frantically in your in-box. Tentatively, the cheeps and chirps of life’s other priorities begin to be heard again. At last you can say ‘My book is with the printer’ and attempt to move on to other things.

Meanwhile, somewhere else on our planet, your book is taking physical shape. In the next few posts we’ll visit this world, a place often resembling the Gothic Christian afterlife – a glimpse of heaven, vast reaches of purgatory and a few areas of utter hell.

Welcome aboard.

(Post #1 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)