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.)

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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.)


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.)