Binding

9 November 2010

As I noted in my earlier post, today the bindery is often located on the premises of a printing works though traditionally it has been located elsewhere as a separate business. Anyway, wherever it is found, the bindery is a glue-sniffer’s paradise. This is because its whole purpose is to take the printed sheets and covers from the print-shop and transform them into finished books. An essential ingredient in this transformation is glue.

Binding process

In itself, the book binding process is quite straightforward though the mechanics of binding can shade between automated mass-production and the handwork of a master craftsman. The sequence is:

  1. If it hasn’t already been done at printing, each sheet is folded into signatures (usually made up of 16 pages).
  2. Typically, the signature is stapled through its centre fold so as to fasten all the pages together.
  3. The raw book block is formed by collating the signatures. This is often done by using a mechanical hand dipping into storage bins where the signatures are stored or by fetching signatures from a rotating carousel. It is possible to have material such as a colour insert tipped in (hand inserted between two signatures) but this is very expensive.
  4. The gathered signatures are clamped and bound together, then fastened to the cover (if a paperback) or binding material (if hardback). Today, this is usually done by using glue. There are many different types of binding technique (see below).
  5. The book block (or actual book in the case of paperbacks) is trimmed to size.
  6. For hardbacks, the trimmed book block is fastened to the hard case.
  7. The finished books are made ready for shipment. Sometimes they may be shrink-wrapped (especially so if the book has loose items – like a DVD – to be safeguarded from theft or accidental loss). In all cases, the books will be packed in cartons and fastened together on a pallet.

Types of binding

Although a reasonably straightforward process, there are quite a few variations in the above sequence. These mainly occur at step 4 where, essentially, the choice is between different types of binding:

  • Perfect binding (normal with paperbacks), where the folded edges of the gathered signatures are chopped off and the resulting smooth edge is then roughened and glued to the cover; or
  • Sewing or stitching the signatures to backing material (and sometimes to each other), this material in turn (at step 6) fastened to end papers, then the whole package fastened to the casing material. There are lots of different wonderful names used for these techniques (saddle stitching, for instance) as well as for the materials used (e.g. head- and tail-bands, a.k.a. wibbling).

Library binding is a variation of the latter type of binding, in essence a higher-quality piece of craftsmanship using more durable binding materials. However, the squeeze on library budgets has caused some libraries to opt for cheap paperbacks instead (where these are available), the calculation being that, if the first cheap paperback falls apart, a second copy can be bought (and, later, even a third). The accumulated cost is still less than the cost of buying a book (or rebinding it) with a library binding.

Types of covering

As noted above, there are different types of covering. Normally with books, we talk about hardbacks and paperbacks but there is more variation within these two categories:

  • Cloth binding, i.e. the hard case is covered with an artificial cloth material and the spine is embossed (usually in gold) with the author–title details and publisher’s logo. Often this cased book has a protective jacket/dust cover.
  • Semi-hardback (or super-thick paperback) using thick, flexible card over sewn or stitched signatures.
  • Conventional paperback, perfect bound.
  • Paperback with flaps.

In addition, the finished bound books may be enclosed with a protective slip case. This is more common with multi-volume sets (especially reference works) and for those single volumes needing to be seen as a prestigious and/or luxury product.

Finishing up

The last step of the binding process is of course to ship out the finished books. Some of these will go as advances to the publisher (the subject of my next post) but the bulk of the stock will be shipped to the publisher’s warehouse(s), more about that later.

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

Advertisements

Hell’s kitchen – on the print-shop floor

4 November 2010

Bedlam or Mozart?

Earlier, I described the hushed, clean zone of the pre-press department. Beyond the double doors, it is a different, almost primitive world with scenes straight out of the devil’s kitchen, a place moreover that often smells like a glue-sniffers’ convention. But above all else, this is a world coloured by one thing: the noise of many huge lithographic printing presses tirelessly grabbing, inking and ejecting thousands of enormous sheets of paper.

My first impression of such a ‘print shop’ was incredulity. How could anyone work in such punishing, epileptic noise? Of course, us visitors were the only ones listening. The shop-floor staff at this Danish printing works all wore headphones and went round in a calm, deliberate manner. For all I know, they were all listening to Mozart. This Danish print shop was immaculately clean and tidy, moreover.

This is quite a different picture from some of the printing works I have visited in Asia, for instance, where the work situation can be dismal. Certainly, I rarely saw headphones there and I shall never forget the sight of two miserable-looking workers enveloped in a haze of chemical dust as they shovelled a mountain of paper offcuts into rubbish bags.

Many different printing presses

Even at the smallest printing works, there are likely to be quite a few different printing presses. This is because it is vastly cheaper to use a press for one type of job all the time as it avoids the need to continually strip, clean and reset the machine after every job. Such down-time is incredibly expensive.

Typically these days, in any printing works will be found quite a few monochrome presses, printing in black and white only (as this is the most common type of printing job, especially in book printing). In addition, there will be a number of colour presses set up to print the four process colours – cyan, magenta, yellow and black – that are the basis of all colour printing. (Of course, a print job can involve the use of spot colours – special, pre-mixed inks of a specific hue – but here the printing press will have to be specially loaded with this spot colour and stripped and cleaned after its use.)

Of course, many printers want the latest shiny new toys and you can be sure that the latest German wunderprinter will be found even in the back streets of Chennai or Lima. Old presses take a long time to die, however, so all too often right next to the newest machine will be a press that is many decades old but still capable of churning out high-quality work; it too will fill a production niche.

There are, besides, different types of printing technology (and this of course is changing rapidly). Newspapers and magazines are printed on presses loaded with giant rolls of paper, for instance. But for book printing what you will typically see used is a sheet-fed printing press, i.e. the machine is loaded with a huge pile of giant sheets of paper that are then grabbed and pulled through the press, ink being applied in the process.

Printer setup

In this traditional world of offset printing, the presses must be set up for each new print job. Here, the printing plates created in the pre-press department are each – one after the other – fitted onto the printing press. Setting up each print job is time-consuming and thus relatively expensive because all the plates must be got ready, the correct inks and paper loaded, and special instructions (not least print quantity) taken on board. (Just which paper is loaded is hugely important. I’ll return to this in a later post.)

Moreover, the mini-setup/changeover between plates and sheets (described below) also takes time; that said, printers generally have developed routines and rhythms that allow this work to be carried out very efficiently. However, once everything is set up, copies can be printed off at a great speed and with very little additional cost.

Less for less

This has huge economic implications. There is a high initial setup cost to be distributed over the number of copies printed at low individual cost. The more books are printed, then the lower the share of initial costs applied to each copy. Offset printing is thus good value for print quantities of hundreds or thousands of copies, but ruinously expensive – indeed technically almost impossible – if you only want dozens of copies (let alone just a single one). If the number of copies to be printed is less than 400, then print on demand (using giant, glorified photocopiers) makes the most economic sense.

Sitting uncomfortably between POD printers and the big printing firms that churn out tens of thousands of copies in each print run (they are the printers of the Harry Potter books, for instance) can be found short-run printers. I remember a few years ago hearing such a British printer specializing in academic books complain that in earlier times 1,500 copies was regarded as a short run; now (such was the collapse in academic book sales) a short run was 400 copies. And yet the publishers still expected to pay less per copy than they had before. This printer looked old and tired. It’s not nice being in such a squeezed situation.

Printing process

After initial setup, the real work begins. If it is a monochrome job, the process is relatively simple. First, one side of the sheet is printed then a new plate loaded and the other side printed. (Modern duplex printers are able to print on both sides of the sheet simultaneously, being able to hold all of the plates required for printing a single sheet.) This process continues until all sheets are printed, each stacked separately. A typical academic book that is 288 pages in length would have 18 such stacks each of which eventually will be folded into signatures.

Colour print jobs are more complex because for each side of the sheet, four separate printing plates have to apply their own coating of cyan, magenta, yellow or black ink. Obviously, the colours have to line up perfectly, hence the vital importance of registration marks placed around the margins of each page to ensure pinpoint accuracy.

The presses do not run unattended but are policed by an operator (maybe even a master printer) who will periodically remove sheets from the printed pile to check them for problems. This quality check is not only for colour registration but also things like sharpness and ink density. All such sheets are discarded after inspection; they are not returned to the pile. As such, it is difficult to print the exact number of copies ordered. Indeed, printers always print quite a few extra copies (perhaps 10% of the total printrun) with there being a fair few overs above the number of copies ordered. For this reason, printers usually offer two figures in a printing quote: one price for the exact number of copies being quoted for and another price that includes an extra X run-on copies at a discounted price.

Yes, this is a wasteful process and arguably the term ‘green publishing’ is a contradiction in terms. But that is the subject for another post.

Meantime, it is time for all of those piles of printed sheets to move on to the bindery, the location of my next post.

(Post #7 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


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.

In-house?

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.)

Where

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.

Specialization

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.)


Printing revolutions

7 June 2010

Most of us have a secret vice, something we don’t usually brag about. Mine is that I balance all the serious, academic material I read on the job by consuming more trashy literature in my spare time – thrillers, historical fiction and (especially) crime. And in a word, that’s what I do: consume – borrow what I can via the Danish library system (quite a lot) and for the rest buy via an internet bookseller. Once I’ve read a book, I pass it on to another or even (and this enrages my wife) throw it away.

This may be a vice but it’s a darn sight cheaper than going to the movies.

You may be wondering, what’s this got to with printing? Quite a bit, as we shall see.

e-This, e-That

Nowadays we hear a lot about the internet revolution and how this is ushering in a new era of e-books, ‘green publishing’, greater consumer choice, etc., etc. Gone will be the days of that dinosaur, the printed book. Gone, too (though this is hardly talked about) will be the bookshop and that creaking edifice, the book trade, which sustains it.

Indeed, it is said, the printed book has only ten five two years of viable life left in it. Game over, enter the Kindle, the iPad or something that will prompt us all to go digital – and go digital all the way, 100%.

There is, however, a wee fly in the digital ointment. Another revolution is also in full swing: a printing revolution.

e

p-This, p-That

The computer and advent of digital communication have brought us the internet but they have not been the only technological developments happening. Globally, there has been a general shift from electro-mechanical to electronic technology. This has had an impact on all areas of life and all types of consumer product (think about modern cars, washing machines and telephones, for instance).

It has also had a major effect on the whole production process in publishing. In an earlier post, I described the changes in typesetting technologies and practices in recent years. Fundamental changes have also affected the printing world but here the transformation is incomplete and indeed several different developments are happening at once. Some of these are:

  • Printing presses are becoming faster, more sophisticated and can print fewer copies than before at an economic price.
  • Introduction of new print-on-demand (POD) technology has made single-copy printing feasible.
  • Some big booksellers are thus experimenting with in-store printing of stock.
  • The globalization of bookselling and entry of non-traditional retailers like supermarkets have driven down book prices dramatically. This is forcing publishers to cut costs, hence they are squeezing printers and other suppliers.
  • Printing prices are falling, not least because publishers have become willing to go offshore to find the best printing deal. In academic publishing especially, there has been a major shift of production and printing to India and China.

Let’s explore some of these points in greater detail.

Traditional book printing

Traditionally, books have been printed using offset lithographic presses in a lengthy process that essentially has three phases:

  • Pre-print: converting the material for printing to a print-ready state. (Once upon a time, typesetting was carried out at the printing works and was part of this phase.)
  • Physical printing of the book pages and cover material.
  • Gathering and binding of the printed sheets and covers into finished books.

Here, the presses must be set up for each new print job. This is time-consuming and expensive but, once done, copies can be printed off at very little additional cost. That means there is a high initial cost to be distributed over the number of copies printed at low individual cost. The more books are printed, the lower the share of initial costs applied to each copy.

Offset printing is thus good value for print quantities of hundreds or thousands of copies. As such, it is still the dominant form of printing carried out today. However, it is ruinously expensive if you only want dozens of copies, or even just a single one.

Enter POD

Major hassles for publishers are reprints (when, say, only a few copies are needed), overstocks and warehouse storage in general. The advent of new, digital print-on-demand technology in the 1990s promised a solution to these problems. Well, the solution isn’t there yet (especially in the early days, the print quality of POD copies was far inferior) but the prospect of a solution is still there.

With POD, publishers do not print books for their warehouse shelves, but only print as and when orders are received. Printing digitally means that there are few set-up costs, so the unit cost is the same whether you print one book or 1,000. Many printers now offer such a digital service but in addition warehouses are now offering such POD services.

The trouble is, though, that – while the unit cost of printing small quantities or even single copies is much lower than for offset printing – it is still too high to be profitable for the initial printrun for most publishers. In practice, POD is therefore mainly used as a service to authors, keeping their books in print indefinitely. But the hope is that in the near future unit prices can come down to a level where POD-only publication becomes a real option.

Printing inside the bookstore

Print-on-demand technology has developed to the point where proponents now talk of placing POD printing equipment in every bookshop. Instead of carrying stock in the form of books, then, bookshops could become ‘content kiosks’ where customers browse through files before placing print orders for immediate execution, a little like today when ordering ‘instant’ passport photos from a camera shop. By the time you have had a latte in the bookstore’s in-house cafe, the book you ordered is ready for collection.

The aptly named Book Expresso machine offers such a service. I described it in operation in an earlier post.

Currently, the initial investment in equipment is huge and beyond the reach of smaller bookshops. It is also quite likely that shops would continue to carry a certain amount of stock for impulse purchases, so we would be surprised if bookshop fronts became as small as passport photo booths. But it could happen, and POD systems are already being trialled in a few major bookshops (at Blackwells on Charing Cross Road in London, for instance) and at least one large library.

The question is, of course, unless that latte is exceptionally good, why people should continue bothering to visit bookshops if the browsing experience becomes limited to looking up a print catalogue? That could be done at home over the net.

The p-book isn’t dead yet

As a result of these printing revolutions and the associated bookselling price war, all of those thrillers, ‘krimis’ and historical novels which I buy are getting relatively cheaper to buy. Indeed – morality and the fate of our planet aside – I can afford to consume and discard them.

Yes, I’m taking away Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to read on our iPod Touch this summer. I also look forward to buying an iPad sometime soon. But for my serious reading, for the meantime at least, I’ll be sticking to physical books. I am not alone here – and that has major implications for publishing and bookselling, whatever the hoopla is about e-books.

More specifically, the knock-on effect is it’s likely your book will be more than just an ethereal digital being. It will be printed, become a physical object, something to fondle and show to your mum.

So, after this long digression, let’s follow that process of physical creation. This starts with the publisher doing a final check before sending the print files.

(Post #2 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)