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.)

Who should do the indexing?

8 March 2010

You. The big finger is pointing directly at you. Just as probably it was you who had to key the copy-editing changes, you who maybe got to help design the cover, and you who definitely had to do the proofing, so too is it you who’s now expected to index your book – and in double-quick time.


This need not be so. No one is forcing you, personally, to do the indexing. After all, this is skilled work and you may not feel up to the task.

You could instead hire Anthony, an indexer we’ve used on several occasions when the author was unwilling and had the cash to hire a professional. Anthony is reasonably priced (surely he cannot live off these earnings) and not only does he turn out good indexes but also – in effect and free of charge – he gives the book another proofing; tacked onto his indexes is a page or two of comments about errors and discrepancies that he’s found in the text. In short, a professional indexer like Anthony could be just what you need.

But maybe not.

People like Anthony cost money, you cannot be sure you are hiring a good indexer, and they may not be available when you need them. Moreover, an outside indexer has no hope of ever knowing your book as intimately as you do. And, if it is you to do the index, then you can make an early start and refine the index as editing and typesetting progress. It has the added advantage that you can work with the mind map described in my previous post.

Definitely, this issue is something to think about carefully and to fully investigate in good time.

Hiring a professional indexer

If indeed you engage a professional indexer directly, then book a time slot early, and keep your indexer informed as the actual start date firms up. Most important, prepare a clear indexing brief that specifies what you want – issues such as these that will be covered in my following posts:

  • When will you deliver the proofs for indexing?
  • What is the indexer’s deadline for finishing the job?
  • What is the agreed price?
  • How long should the index be?
  • What should be indexed?
  • Is it only one index required or several?
  • How many levels should it have?
  • How should the entries be formatted?
  • Are there any special considerations to note?

Doing the job yourself

If, however, you decide to do the job yourself, then prepare a clear indexing brief for yourself, too. You’ll also benefit from taking note of the other issues and advice found in my following posts.

And whatever else you do, do not skimp on the job. A poor index signals to the reader that this is an inferior book. Do not fail your book at this last hurdle, mere days before it goes to the printer.

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

Finalizing the cover

16 February 2010

Ask any young woman and she will tell you it’s not her brain that counts with ‘real’ men but her body. So says the cliche, but there is an uncomfortably big grain of truth in this observation.


Content matters

Although content ultimately matters – you are unlikely to buy those cornflakes again if they taste lousy – initially, all too often the wrapping counts a lot.

So it is with book covers, as we have discussed earlier. Surface appearances, fripperies.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that this long thread of posts on the design and typesetting process ends on a(n almost) frivolous note. Most posts in this section have dealt with the layout of your text and illustrations – the contents, the serious stuff that your readers are waiting for. And yet, when it comes to the production of your book, chances are that you – like most authors – will show little interest in the page layout but keen interest in every aspect of the cover design.

Time, then, to finalize this surface matter. Unfortunately, all too often, the issues raised are not frivolous ones.

A simple matter

In the best of times, the process of producing a cover is straightforward enough for the cover designer (or typesetter) to finalize. S/he has the cover design and, within this framework, it should be a simple matter to arrange the various cover elements – title, author name(s), illustration, blurb, publisher logo, bar code, etc.

Long time coming

Straightforward enough, indeed. The problem is that covers are not always produced in the best of times. Or, rather, that they are produced in all times. This is a job started early in the production process – if not right at the beginning, right when the book is first announced – and yet it is one of the last things to be finalized before printing.

In between, there is ample scope for things to go wrong. Here are a few of the issues that can arise:

  • The cover illustration is unusable. This can easily happen if only a thumbnail cover image was produced at the design stage and the low-resolution illustration supplied by the author was good enough for that but not for the real cover. The catalogue, for instance, may only need a cover image that is about 33 x 50 mm whereas more likely the final cover will be 152 x 228 mm (6″ x 9″) in size.
  • There is a disconnect between cover and contents. A schism between the cover and page design is not really acceptable (e.g., elaborate, ornate script on the outside with severe, clinical type inside) but it happens, and it need not matter. More problematic is if (say) the author’s name is written one way on the cover, another way inside. Or (heaven forbid) misspelt. Likewise, if one of the editors drops out and the cover designer isn’t informed.
  • The spine width is wrong. Another disconnect. The final extent of the book determines the spine width. If the total number of pages change, then the spine width needs adjusting (no problem – just needs to be communicated).
  • The cover illustration isn’t credited. Another disconnect. A cover photo credit perhaps should always go on the cover but this isn’t always possible or appropriate. But if the credit then fails to appear inside (in the list of illustrations) then there may be an unhappy copyright holder to deal with long after the book has been printed.
  • The back-cover text is too long or too short. The blurb written for the catalogue will probably be shorter than that on the back cover. Indeed, new text should really be written but it can easily happen that the catalogue text is recycled. Also, there may be an endorsement to be added (but which hasn’t yet been received from the fine folk in Editorial).
  • The author hates the cover. The cover image used in the catalogue wasn’t to the author’s taste but s/he was pacified with the assurance “Don’t worry, we’ll do something better later”. Later has now arrived and the author is still unhappy.

No, not simple matters at all, and hardly frivolous.


Once upon a time, covers were designed and created on huge pasteboards. No more. Everything is digital, everything delivered as a PDF file – in other words, in the same way as the inside pages of the book. Among other advantages, this allows authors to participate in the cover proofing process (if allowed by their publisher). But more about that later.

And that is the design and typesetting section finished. Next post, I move on to the proofing stage.

(Post #22 of the Design & Typesetting 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.)

Your role in deciding the cover/page design

20 January 2010

Who knows most about your book? You do. Who decides what it should look like? Someone else. There’s a bit of a disconnect here, I feel.

Publisher territory

Publishers do not expect authors to design their own books, and in fact reserve the right to determine a book’s final appearance. After all, they are the professionals. If you look at your author contract, chances are that you will see a clause something like this one from the standard NIAS author contract:

The Publisher shall have complete control of the production and publication of the Work. Among aspects at the Publisher’s discretion are: the paper, printing, binding, cover (or jacket) and embellishments …

However, being the professionals doesn’t mean that the design of your book is best left to your publisher’s editors, designers, etc. alone. No, you too should be involved, right from the beginning.

Why? I can think of two reasons right off.

  1. With your inside knowledge of your book and its subject, you have a better feeling for what might ‘click’ with your readership and what might be appropriate (even allowed) as discussed in my previous post.
  2. Publishers may be the professionals but they don’t necessarily do a good job if left to themselves. This may be because of the attitude problem mentioned earlier (that the jacket/cover is unimportant) but more important perhaps is the time pressure that book designers work under; the temptation to apply ‘the standard treatment’ to your book will be strong as a consequence.

If you want to achieve a better result, something that brings to life your vision for the book, then it is up to you to work for this – even get a little pushy if need be.

But how much say do you have in the final result? Each publisher is different; some may be flexible in one area but will not budge a millimeter in another. Even so, chances are that your publisher will seize upon any good ideas that you have to make your book stand out in the crowd, shine among its competitors – and sell more copies.

Adding an author perspective to the cover

Chances are that your publisher will welcome suggestions from you for illustrations for your cover, particularly if you have copyright-free material. But your illustrations must be suitable. Keep in mind, for instance, that:

  • The image that you supply should be of a sufficiently high resolution (anything less than one megabyte in size is a waste of time; ideally, the file size should be larger).
  • It should go without saying perhaps but your illustration should be composed nicely, aesthetically pleasing and generally of a good quality (nothing that needs a lot of repair work, for instance).
  • There should be no copyright or other ownership issues with the image. If it needs the permission of someone else for its use, then it is your job to get that permission and pass on to your editor any associated requirements (e.g. that an attribution is given using a specific wording).
  • If the image has to be paid for, then that too is your responsibility (though you can of course raise the issue of compensation with your publisher). It is more than likely that an author is charged less for an image than a publisher.
  • The image must leave enough room for the other cover elements (title, subtitle, author name, etc.) mentioned in my previous post.
  • However, if the illustration is to cover the entire front cover, then it cannot be so ‘busy’ that it fights with the other cover elements. Having a uniform background (like sea or sky) in a suitable part of your image can be useful here.

Inspiration need not come from the world of your research only. Other books can also inspire. What works best for you as a reader? What attracts you aesthetically? Develop a sense of what works and what does not. If you can do this, then you will be able to communicate more knowledgeably and on more equal terms with your publisher on the book design.

However, it is important that you bring any design suggestions to your editor at an early stage. Otherwise, with some publishers, you may not be asked your preference about the cover design but simply be presented with a fait accompli for proofing (after all, you are ‘only the author’). At that point, the design budget will have been spent and any protestations from you are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Adding your perspective on the page design

Getting involved in the cover design is one thing, having a say on the layout of the inside pages is quite another.

Theoretically, you could contribute to the page design brief. Over the years I have had authors taking an active (sometimes too active) interest in the entire book design, but these authors have been few and far between; in practice, most authors show little interest in the page design.

However, perhaps you might like to warm your interest just a little more right now because our thread of posts on design is finished; now we are moving onto the typesetting of your book (first up, what exactly is typesetting, followed by a whole lot of ‘issues’ posts demonstrating why you should care).

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

Making the cover design

19 January 2010

The soul of a book should ideally be seen (or sensed) in its cover. Illuminating the soul is not a simple or easy thing to do. As such, creating the cover is not something done in a moment, even if the final design may result from a brief spark of creativity.

Design brief

As with the page design, the first step towards designing a cover may be to prepare a design brief. This depends on how formalized the design process is. At NIAS Press, for instance, cover ideas are discussed and tried out in consultation with different Press staff and (especially) the author. Because it is a small press at which many publishing functions are undertaken in-house, both initiating and producing the cover is done by one person, and he knows what is required. The design process, then, is quite informal and any design brief largely internalized; any extra considerations are simply handled informally.

At larger (or richer) presses, the design process is likely to be more formalized. Usually a professional designer will produce the cover but it is the production editor (ideally with the author’s input) who will provide a design brief to sketch out ideas and elements to be included in the design.

Cover elements

As I intimated above, some of the elements of the design brief are given. As can be seen in the the following overview, only a few of the items normally found on a cover or jacket are mandatory. On the front cover:

  • Book title, subtitle (if any) and name of author/editor(s)
  • Illustration (optional)
  • Series identification (optional)

On the spine:

  • Author/editor name(s) and book title
  • Publisher’s logo (normal)
  • Series logo/identifying design (optional)

On the back cover:

  • Series identification (optional)
  • Author/editor name(s) and book title (optional)
  • Book description/blurb, if possible with endorsement(s) (normal)
  • Publisher’s logo and/or other identification (normal)
  • Bar code

On the jacket flaps (all items optional):

  • Author details
  • Short blurb
  • Publisher details
  • Place printed

Design considerations

Over and above the inclusion of cover elements, decisions need to be made on some other issues, among them the following.

  • What design is appropriate? Readership matters. Some time ago, we published a book about feisty Muslim women in a certain Asian country. Though Asian in its subject, the book had a very nice, subdued, Nordic-looking cover. This ‘Nordic’ cover worked fine in Europe and the States but feedback I received from the Asian country was that there would have been far greater local interest in the book if its cover had been equally feisty, tinged with local flavours.
  • What is permitted? Taste and sensibilities can affect what is appropriate (as above) but legal issues can also impinge upon the cover design. For instance, I have heard that the face of Elvis Presley has been trademarked. And, closer to home, we are still scratching our heads about the best cover for a new study of democracy and the monarchy in Thailand (a highly sensitive subject as some of you will know). A collage of images tracing the life of the current Thai king was mooted but quickly dismissed; no picture of the king may be reproduced without royal approval. At the moment we are playing with a design using the head of a Thai elephant as a metaphor for the monarchy but not everyone is happy with this idea. (You can see this cover design at the above link.)
  • Full colour or not? Technically, there is no reason today to restrict the use of colour on your book cover. A decade ago, it was far cheaper to print two-colour covers but that is not the situation today with modern printing presses. The two-colour mentality still seems to persist with certain publishers today but I may be wrong here. It may be instead that branding reasons are behind the restriction on the range of colours used; that is a different matter.
  • And what colour? Some factors may limit what colours can be chosen, e.g. a series template or physical restrictions (for example, large areas of solid black on a cover is not favoured in Asia where the sweaty hands of browsing customers can quickly ruin the appearance of a book before it has even been sold). On the other hand, cultural considerations may encourage the use of certain colours (or colour ‘moods’) over others, as should have been the case with the above-mentioned book about feisty Muslim women.
  • Illustration or not? A good illustration can transform a cover and dramatically increase the appeal of a book; a bad one can cause the book to look amateurish and unappealing. It is amazing how awful the covers of some publishers are.
  • Cover text. It is not enough to produce text for the front and back cover, spine and (for jackets) the inside flaps. All of these text blocks need to be designed, shaped to fit the location.

Bringing it altogether

Good design is more than a matter of taste. Even so, it is amazing how different people’s tastes and perceptions are (as so clearly illustrated for me recently in the cover design for our above-mentioned book on the Thai monarchy), and how these can impact on a design – for better and for worse.

As such, there is likely to be a fair amount of consultation (and argument) over the design brief and any cover sketches. But at a certain point, however, eventually a draft cover (or several alternatives) will be created and passed round for comment.

I suspect it is extremely rare for a cover draft to be accepted as is. After all, covers are like bicycle sheds: something ordinary and about which everyone can safely express an opinion. Eventually, however, a decision will be made about the cover though this may be (as in the case of our Thai monarchy book) to go with a temporary cover until something better can be agreed on.

If it is only at this point that you, the author, become involved in the cover design, then you’ve got problems. But more about that in my next post.

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

Cover? Who cares!?

18 January 2010

Fat and sleek, but not for long

Imagine, it is Monday morning in an academic library somewhere, anywhere, and the first post has just been delivered. Among the all the things arriving is a book that has long been awaited. It sits there for a moment, fat and sleek in a splendid jacket. But its impatient borrower must wait; first the book must be catalogued and branded with all sorts of marks and numbers designed to ensure the book is shelved in the right place and cannot go missing.

And what is the first thing the acquisitions librarian will do? He will rip off that splendid jacket and throw it in the bin.

Not wanted, not valued

Have you had a good look at the books shelved in your departmental or campus library recently? If your library is typical, then you’ll see that most of its books are cloth-bound hardbacks. It is all quite drab. The only splashes of colour will be from any paperbacks found in the collection (or, in more recent years, hardbacks with a printed paper case).

So, yes, it’s true; librarians do throw away book jackets – and with good reason, too. Jackets are slovenly things. They have a bad habit of flapping open, sliding down the shoulders of their owners, and falling off onto the floor. No matter how much tape is used to secure them to the book’s cloth cover, invariably the jacket will slip loose and find a place to hide. If it is the jacket on which they have carefully written the book’s classification details, then the librarians have a problem; the book too is now in hiding. No wonder, then, that librarians throw the jacket away and write the classification details directly on the cloth spine of the book.

A dumb attitude

Publishers know this. No wonder then that many put little value in creating a striking jacket design.

Perhaps there is some justification in this attitude in the case of hardbacks, which largely are bought by libraries (though in far fewer numbers than previously). Unfortunately, however, this attitude seems evident in the designs for many academic paperbacks as well. But in my opinion, and as I made quite clear in an earlier post, this attitude is dumb. The (paperback) cover matters, not least because it is a major determinant of buying behaviour among bookshops and individual book buyers.

Taking the time with and investing a little thought into the cover design is thus well worth it, and it need not take that much work or effort either. Preparing and implementing the design is the subject of my next post (with your role in the process following).

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