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.)

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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.)