Advances

24 November 2010

The arrival of advance copies of a book is a special moment. Emotionally, the book is out; it is real. This is the moment to feel it was all worthwhile (and to brag just a little).

There is more to advance copies than feeling good and bragging, however. They have several other purposes.

A final check

For the publisher this is a last chance to discover and rectify errors. True, the book is printed so any changes are limited unless reprinting is decided upon. But should this be necessary (or, say, an errata slip inserted in the book), then at least this can be done before the books are shipped all over the world.

Review copies

Sometimes, publishes will send advance copies of the book to a few key journals as well as to the news media. Timing is critical here. Some publications like the Library Journal in the U.S. will only accept new titles for review several months ahead of publication, the idea being that the review is before publication of the book. It may be impossibly early for ordinary advances copies to be used here and instead such early review copies are usually galley proofs but today it is just as easy (if not more so) to deliver an ‘advance copy’ specially printed by a POD printer ahead of the main litho printing.

The news media also want early review copies but here timing is even more tricky. The essential nature of the media is its short attention span and the ephemeral nature of its product (today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper, as we used to say). As such, any news or reviews of a book carried in the press tend to be within a few days of publication; review copies may well have been sent to the journalists only a week before. As such, publishers will only send copies to the media when they are certain that sale copies of the book will be available within a few days. Given the vagaries of shipping times, then, the publisher may judge it wise to hold back on sending such advance copies to the press or instead may send these advances but request an embargo on coverage until after sale copies of the book are available.

Obviously, such time sensitivity and media awareness only relates to those few academic books that are either timely and/or controversial.

Marketing copies

A common use for advance copies is as conference exhibits. For instance, in my own field, a key conference held each year in late March is the General Meeting of the (U.S.) Association of Asian Studies. Among the several thousand delegates attending will be librarians scouting for interesting additions to their collections. Also there will be teachers scrutinizing the latest titles in their field and deciding which (if any) should be adopted for course use in the new academic year. Ensuring that an advance copy is on view at the conference can have a major effect on sales.

For this reason, too, it is common for a publisher’s distributors to want copies of the book ahead of arrival of their shipped copies.

Reference copies

Given the competing demands for copies of the advances, it would be easy for the publisher to end up with none. This happened to me recently when inadvertently our only remaining advances of a controversial new title were exhibited and then sold at a big conference. Afterwards, it was embarrassing that I had no copy on hand when discussing the book with various concerned parties. Reference may not be a glamorous use of advance copies but it is an important one.

Author advances

That said, all things considered, in my opinion the prime use of advance copies is to reward the author with a foretaste of things to come. The hard grind finishing the book is over but equally important is the author’s promotion of her/his book in the months (and years) that follow. This vital contribution to the success of their book is not appreciated by most authors. (More about this in a later post.)

Authors may not get all of their author copies before the main shipment has arrived but it is usual that they receive one or two copies. Of course, any serious bragging at the book launch requires delivery of the main shipment (one point of the launch being to sell lots of copies to those attending) but often these advances are very useful to authors, arriving just in time to be shown at an important meeting or job interview.

Now

But such meetings and interviews are in the future.  It is now that the bell rings at the reception counter of your workplace. A courier stands there with a brightly coloured package. You sign, barely noticing as the courier leaves. Inside you can feel the copies. The Book, it has arrived, your child is born.

Enjoy the moment while it lasts. Getting a few advances from the printer is quick by courier but, as we shall see, shipping the rest of the copies to the warehouse and then out into the libraries and bookstores can take forever (or so it feels). More about that in my next post.

(Post #9 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

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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.)


Typesetting phases and outputs

12 February 2010

For the last two weeks, I have been blithely discussing what typesetting is and the issues relating to it but without actually describing what is produced. Time for a short overview before we move on a new thread of posts, on the proofing process.

A duet

Typesetting is not a single event in the production of the book pages; rather, it is a multi-phased process and one interwoven with that for the proofing of the book. In a sense, one could look at typesetting and proofing as a duet sung by a tenor and soprano.

Their ‘performance’ looks somewhat like this (but note that approaches do vary between presses):

  • Initial typesetting
  • Output of first proofs
  • First proofing
  • Completion of typesetting
  • Output of second (often the ‘final’) proofs
  • Second (or ‘final’) proofing and indexing
  • Output of print-ready copy
  • Final-copy check
  • Delivery of print files to the printer

Let’s look at the initial typesetting, its completion and briefly at how the proofs are output. More detailed descriptions of each of the proofing phases shall follow in my next thread of posts on proofing.

In addition, also required (and not mentioned above) is typesetting of the cover/jacket (more about that in my next post).

Initial typesetting

Practices differ between typesetters and another major factor is which typesetting software is used. However, likely steps are as follows:

  1. Finalization of the page design (as discussed here).
  2. Creation of typesetting documents meeting the design specification.
  3. Conversion of those input files not conforming to the page design/software requirements (e.g. image files changed from colour to monochrome and from JPEG to TIFF format).
  4. Marking up of text files with consistent paragraph styles that match those defined in the destination typesetting documents.
  5. Import and placing of text files in the typesetting documents.
  6. Assignment of paragraph and character styles to the text and any tables (or, if already done at step #4, then fine-tuning of styles).
  7. Import and placing of any image files in the typesetting documents (often this step is left until completion of typesetting).
  8. Generation of first proofs.

Proofing output

Not too many years ago, when typesetting was done on specialist machines, the initial proofs were output in galley form, i.e. as continuous text without any page breaks marked and printed out on what looked like giant-sized toilet paper. As the layout was finalized, the book would be paginated, subsequent proofs clearly showing the page breaks. These proofs, too, could be printed on long galleys or guillotined into their individual pages.

The output of today’s PC-based desktop publishing systems is utterly different, being based on the industry-standard PDF format (though other output formats are possible). Galleys are gone; everything is either printed on ordinary (A4 or US Letter) paper or output as PDFs. Moreover, there is little difference in the appearance of (say) the initial set of proofs and the final print files sent to the printer (not least, all proofs are paginated).

The shift to PDFs has been a revolutionary development for authors. This, however, is something I shall take up next week in a new section of posts detailing the proofing and indexing process. Proofing outputs are discussed in greater detail here.

Completion of typesetting

Just what is needed to be done to complete the typesetting process depends of course on if step 7 above was done during the initial typesetting or has been left until now. If the latter is true, then likely steps are as follows:

  1. Keying of any text changes from the first proofing.
  2. Import and placing of any image files in the typesetting documents.
  3. Re-evaluation of the likely extent of the book including space for the index (not yet prepared, of course).
  4. Possible adjustment of the page design (especially of the font size and line spacing) to meet the final extent set by the production editor.
  5. Pagination of the book (including subtle adjustments to line spacing, to the placement and size of tables and illustrations, etc. to save on – or add – a few lines here and there so that the target page count is indeed reached); the ideal is that each double-page spread has even page bottoms, its composition is evenly balanced and the overall effect is aesthetically pleasing.
  6. Finalization of any page-specific cross-references.
  7. Generation of second (often ‘final’) proofs.

After the return of any changes resulting from the final proofing and delivery of the index, typesetting concludes as follows:

  1. Keying of any text changes from the final proofing.
  2. Typesetting of the index.
  3. Generation of print-ready copy for checking/approval by press staff.
  4. Delivery of print files to the printer.

Time then (almost) to move on to the proofing and indexing of your book but first let’s return to your cover and its finalization.

(Post #21 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)