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.)


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.)


‘Soon’ is a four-letter word

6 March 2010

Some books seem to take forever to publish. (It’s not for nothing that this long series of posts on book production was initiated by the question ‘Why is my book late, and why does it take so long to publish?’) Even the most eager customer can start to lose heart as the long months of waiting turn into years (though rarely into decades). And it can be worse for authors.

But all is forgiven when, finally, the publisher answers with some relief, ‘It’s nearly finished, it’s being indexed’. Suddenly, everyone has a spring in their step, the juice of keen anticipation on their lips.

Indexes have that effect; the end of that interminably long production process is indeed near. ‘Soon’ is a four-letter word – but a nice one.

Indexing is an important milestone in the process of publishing a book but, as we shall see, its duration is just a brief moment in the overall book project. Brief it may be but nonetheless – as can be seen in the list that follows – the issues relating to indexing are neither small nor unimportant.

Let’s look at these in turn.

(Post #1 of the Indexing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Final proofs

5 March 2010

Once the text is completely stable, and any illustrations have been sized and inserted, the typesetter paginates the book and produces a second (and hopefully final) set of proofs for checking. In urgent circumstances, it is not unknown for authors to receive only a single set of paginated proof pages, but two proof stages are more common. At the same time, you should get a proof of the finalized cover.

Page-proof checklist

However, the second (paginated) proofs are not yet another opportunity to check your text; by now, as we have seen, your production editor will be pretty intolerant of ‘unnecessary’ changes. While you should keep an eye open for any errors in the text not previously spotted, at this stage the things that you should be focusing on are quite different. Now, you should check that:

  • All corrections marked on the first proofs have been correctly implemented.
  • All figures, illustrations, captions, tables, etc. are placed where they belong (or in close proximity to this).
  • Any illustrations look as they should (in terms of quality, size, colour, orientation, etc.).
  • All footnotes (if used) are placed on the correct page.
  • Chapter titles in the table of contents match those in the text, not only in wording but also in upper or lower case. (The same applies for figure captions, etc.)
  • Chapter titles in the running heads match (or are reasonable short forms of) the real chapter titles.
  • Page numbers stated in the table of contents, list of figures, etc. are correct.
  • Any ‘hard’ cross-references (like ‘see overleaf’, ‘see page 43’, etc.) are correct.
  • Pagination of the book is consecutive (with numbering of the preliminary pages as a separate series using roman numbering).

Of course, any corrections and other changes to these proofs should be marked up as discussed in my earlier post.

Proofing the cover

I have already discussed finalization of the cover in quite some detail elsewhere. Suffice to say here that what you should be seeing now is not some cover concept or even a well-developed draft but the final version. As such, you will need to be proofing not only for errors but also omissions (a promised photo credit in tiny type on the back cover, for instance).

Given the central importance of the cover, it is wise to take special care on the cover proof.

Avoiding the errata slip

Publishers hate having to insert an errata slip in a book, not least because it is time-consuming, expensive and unnecessary (and because it is an open admission that the proofing of that book was inadequate – not a good look).

As such, because this is likely to be your last chance to check the entire book (see below), be rigorous with your proofing. This means, too, that you should look at the whole book – both inside pages and cover – making sure that everything is right. (This is especially relevant because the cover and inside pages are usually produced by different people.) Otherwise you may end up disappointed when holding your wonderful new book in your hands and discovering a silly mistake.

This is what happened to one of our authors a few years back. The title page she delivered for editing had an old subtitle. There was nothing wrong with this (hence it survived the editing and typesetting unscathed); it was simply the wrong subtitle. The new subtitle appeared on the cover of her book and in all sorts of marketing material. It was also the one that was registered in various bibliographic databases.

Unfortunately, neither the author nor anyone at the press noticed the minor discrepancy in subtitle wording until after the book was published. She requested an errata slip. Fair enough, but I was not amused.

Making a ‘right-brain’ assessment

In addition, at this stage it would be a good idea to flip through the book looking at each double-page spread (easiest done in Acrobat or Adobe Reader) and analysing the layout in a more ‘right-brain’ fashion. Are the pages balanced and aesthetically pleasing? Do the page bottoms line up? Do you like what you see?

Of course, it may be dumb me suggesting that you do this ‘right-brain’ assessment now as there is no way that either the typesetter or your production editor will contemplate major design changes at such a late stage. The time for such feedback should have been at the time of the first proofs or even earlier in the design phase (if you were consulted, that is. The whole issue of what you can and cannot expect to change at the proofing stage is discussed in detail here.)

That said, it is your book, your child. If you don’t care about how it is dressed, who else will? And what will your readers think if, when they encounter your book, they are distracted by its appearance and maybe even fail to take it seriously?

A wee bit of assertiveness with your publisher doesn’t harm once in a while.

Finalizing the proofing process

As with the first proofs, your job is to indicate any changes required either on the proofs or in a separate document, returning these (or a message that there are no changes) to your production editor. Usually, there is great pressure for this to be done quite quickly. As before, make sure that you retain a copy of these proofs.

At this stage, however, and before you return the proofs to your publisher, you may have an extra task to complete: preparing an index. If there are minimal changes to these second proofs, then it is normal that they are used for the indexing (that is, if it is the author doing the indexing); this saves time. More about this in my next post, which starts a new section of the production process looking at indexing.

And, as far as you are concerned, that is (almost) the end of the proofing process. (‘Almost’ because you should get a chance to see the typeset index and maybe even the whole book again after any second-proof changes have been implemented.) From now on, you will take a back seat as far as the production process is concerned. More proofing will be done but this will be by (or at the behest of) your production editor; as noted earlier, it is unlikely you will be involved.

Time then (after the indexing) to move on with your life. Indeed, already by now, you may need to start refocusing your attention on the promotion of your book. But that is another story.

(Post #9 of the Proofing 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.


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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.

Outputs

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.)


After the editing

31 December 2009

Congratulations! You and your manuscript seem to have survived the editing process. Do not think, however, that now there is a moment to relax. This is highly unlikely.

All the while that you and your manuscript have been roiling through the intestines of editorial, other parts of the press have been at work on your behalf, not least marketing people getting your book announced. However, also busy is an area of the production department that you haven’t encountered before where more creative types of people may be found. It is, then, now time to look at the work of the book/cover designer and typesetter (though never forget that the role of the production editor remains crucial).

Over the next few posts, I shall explore this fascinating corner of book production (well, I think it is fascinating), looking at:

These posts will then culminate in a discussion on proofs and proofing, the next section in this series of posts.

(Post #1 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Meet the editors

25 December 2009

Now that you have delivered your manuscript (maybe a few months late, but there were so many other interesting or important things for you to do), it is only a matter of a quick polish and your book is half-way there to the book launch and universal acclaim. Correct?

Actually, no. There is a long, hard grind ahead.

The transformation of your manuscript into a published book begins in the publisher’s editorial department. We’ll explore what actually happens in a moment (well, tomorrow) but first let’s look at the people you’ll be working with.

First up, at least in her opinion, is the commissioning editor. Without doubt, this is this person you’ve had most dealings with to date – the person who initially assessed your book proposal, had it peer reviewed, ‘sold’ your project to the editorial board, negotiated a contract with you, etc., etc. Quite possibly, much of this work has been handled by an editorial assistant, a drudge willing to undertake all sorts of tedious work in the belief that one day she too will be promoted to commissioning editor. Often this is true.

Contrary to popular belief, commissioning editors do not spend their days in soft chairs surrounded by big piles of manuscripts, nor their evenings in cosy restaurants chatting up prospective authors. There are elements of this in the job but much more. What? More about this another time. Let’s stay focused on the transformation of your manuscript.

At this point, when your finished manuscript arrives in the publishing house, the most important editorial people may in fact sit in a different department, production; this depends a bit on how things are organized at that press.

The key person here is the production editor, someone who might instead be called production manager, managing editor, desk editor and so forth. But while there are a bewildering variety of job titles for this role depending on the press, its importance cannot be overstated. This is the Fat Controller.

(Oops, here I go again, offending my publishing colleagues. All too many have read Wuthering Heights but not Thomas the Tank Engine. OK, forget the Fat Controller. Think ‘conductor’ instead.)

If your manuscript is a sheet of music, then the production editor is the conductor who ensures that the orchestra plays together, in harmony and with inspiration, making beautiful music. (That sounds much better than playing the Fat Controller but both characters fulfill the same role.)

Supporting the production editor is a team of editorial/production staff. You’ll meet some of these people later. Most important now, however, is the copy editor (either a specialist who may be a freelancer, or sometimes an in-house desk editor already familiar with your work).

(Hmm, notice the name ‘desk editor’ popping up again? Like the production editor, copy editors have different titles. In the case of copy editors, however, not all of them are nice.)

Sad to say, copy editors are not always an author’s favourite person. Why? Many authors think their copy editors are anal-retentive types, nit-pickers able to spot an error or inconsistency at 50 paces but incapable of appreciating what they are reading, right under their nose.

There may be a grain of truth in this assessment; certainly, it takes a special type of person to filter a screed of text written over many months (if not years) and bring to it a uniformity and correctness as if it had been written with the wave of a magic wand. This is a superhuman role that, not surprisingly, few copy editors are able to live up to.

OK, team assembled, now on with the show (in my next post). Meantime, a Merry Christmas to you all.

(Post #1 of the Editorial section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)