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.)

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.


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.)