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.)


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.)

Getting ready to print

8 June 2010

At NIAS Press, we call it ‘flicking through’. I’m sure there is a proper name for the process – final-final proof? – but essentially this is a last-minute checking of the cover(s) and body pages to ensure there are no silly mistakes.

This task is usually carried out by press staff (often including the production editor). The author is almost never involved.

A few of the classic errors picked up at this late stage are:

  • Details on the cover (e.g. subtitle) do not match those inside the book.
  • The wrong publication date is stated on the copyright page (normally because publication of the book is delayed).
  • Chapter titles in the table of contents do not match those in the text and/or in the running heads (names may be different or it could simply be that the capitalization differs).
  • Page numbers stated in the table of contents and in the lists of tables, maps, figures, etc. do not match the actual pagination in the text.
  • Caption text in the lists of tables, maps, figures, etc. do not match those in the text (as with chapter titles above) but note that this may be deliberate (e.g. because only abbreviated details are stated in the prelims whereas on the actual page the full details are given, including source and acknowledgement of permission to reproduce the material).
  • A chapter title, heading name or caption that should be listed in the prelims is missing there.
  • Chapter titles in the running heads are out of sync with the chapter pagination (e.g. the last two pages for Chapter 2 use Chapter 3’s running heads).

No matter how hard the production editor tries, some blemishes can slip through. This can be embarrassing but it is rare that the error is serious. (That said, it can be; I remember one publisher having to withdraw and reprint an annotated edition of the Koran due to a single spelling mistake being found a few days after publication.) However, once this last-minute check is done and any mistakes corrected, the book files will be uploaded to the printer.

Finally, your book is (almost) out of your publisher’s hands. All that remains is to create the final print files and send them off to the printer, something done very quickly and simply these days via the internet (often via the medium of a FTP server).

Now our attention can shift to the printer. The question is, which printer?

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

What to index

16 March 2010

Apart from the number of pages available, there is another important factor determining the length of an index: just what is to be indexed. This is not an issue considered in advance by most authors, I suspect, but your choices here will add to readers’ perceptions about the index and your book.

Does it look as if the indexing job has been thoroughly done – but not overblown – or is this a skimpy (even sloppy) affair? Although a threadbare index useless to its purpose will immediately signify that the rest of your book is equally inadequate, more is not necessarily better. There are limits.

So what material should be indexed in your book?

Obviously, your body text must be indexed, but what about notes that comment on the text? Citations and bibliography are usually not indexed; will you follow that practice? Some publishers think it unnecessary to index a glossary (indeed, sometimes an index becomes a kind of glossary), but consider it essential to index any illustrations and captions. What does your publisher say?

With luck, your publisher will have guidelines on all of these matters but otherwise simply use your common sense.

As you can see, decisions need to be made here but they are not life and death issues, nothing even to lose sleep over. Indeed, although what you chose to index can be significant, the ultimate quality of your index depends on other factors, not least the intellectual conceptualization of the index (or mind map, discussed here) and its ‘visualization’ in the index structure, the subject of my next post.

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