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.)

Index length

12 March 2010

Winter this year in Copenhagen has been cold and snowy (and I’m sick and tired of shovelling all that white stuff; the searing heat of Bangkok tomorrow should be a shock). Overcoats are seen here far more than is usual, some looking more comfortable than others. An index is like an overcoat: too small and its squeezes its wearer in a wrestler’s clamp, too big and it lets the cold air seep in underneath.

Knowing beforehand

A year or so ago, we hired someone to index one of our books. He was very good, very thorough, and also flagged up a number of typos and inconsistencies in the text that had been missed. There was a problem, however. The index delivered was 64 pages in length (about 23 typeset pages), the maximum amount of space available 12 pages. Drastic cuts were made.

A key lesson we learnt from this experience was to be (even more) clear about how long we expect an index to be. In your case, your production editor should know how many book pages are available for the index. Make sure that you are informed about this before you start indexing.


Is there any real limit to how long your index should be? Yes. In fact, there are several factors at play here.

  • Perception. Indexes are like books: if too short, they may be treated with disdain (a 2-page index may be seen as pathetic and laughable) but, if too long, they may be regarded as unwieldy and ‘over the top’.
  • What is physically possible. Books tend to be sized in multiples of 16 pages because that is how they are printed (on big sheets of paper holding 8 book pages on each side; more about book length here). If (say) the total extent of your final proofs is 276 pages including prelims, then no more than 12 pages will be available for the index (or 28 pages if an extra 16-page signature is to be used).
  • Flow-on effects. In the above example, no publisher will agree to an index that when typeset fills 13 pages and causes there to be 15 blank pages at the end of the book.
  • What has been announced. A 12-page index is quite reasonable, even generous. In the above example, it would be unlikely that an index longer than this would be permitted if the book has been announced as being 288 pages in length.

Calculating size

Of course, there is a confusion and potential trap for you when I talk about ‘pages’ above. The number of typeset index pages is not the same as the number of ordinary (A4 or US Letter) pages on which you prepare your index in Word or another word processor.

Typeset indexes are generally set quite tight in a smaller font size and laid out in at least two columns whereas more than likely your index will be prepared in 12-point Times Roman with generous line spacing. As such, your typesetter should be able to fit a bit more than two of your word-processed pages onto one typeset page in the book.

As a rule of thumb, then, if told that you have (say) 8 pages available for the index, then you can count on having 17–18 pages in Word for your index (though obviously not single-spaced in a tiny font size).

If the amount of space is too little or (in some ways, worse) too much, then there may be an issue of what (how much) you are indexing, the subject of my next post. If so, re-evaluate your situation and – if not resolved – contact your production editor urgently.

(Post #7 of the Indexing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Who should do the indexing?

8 March 2010

You. The big finger is pointing directly at you. Just as probably it was you who had to key the copy-editing changes, you who maybe got to help design the cover, and you who definitely had to do the proofing, so too is it you who’s now expected to index your book – and in double-quick time.


This need not be so. No one is forcing you, personally, to do the indexing. After all, this is skilled work and you may not feel up to the task.

You could instead hire Anthony, an indexer we’ve used on several occasions when the author was unwilling and had the cash to hire a professional. Anthony is reasonably priced (surely he cannot live off these earnings) and not only does he turn out good indexes but also – in effect and free of charge – he gives the book another proofing; tacked onto his indexes is a page or two of comments about errors and discrepancies that he’s found in the text. In short, a professional indexer like Anthony could be just what you need.

But maybe not.

People like Anthony cost money, you cannot be sure you are hiring a good indexer, and they may not be available when you need them. Moreover, an outside indexer has no hope of ever knowing your book as intimately as you do. And, if it is you to do the index, then you can make an early start and refine the index as editing and typesetting progress. It has the added advantage that you can work with the mind map described in my previous post.

Definitely, this issue is something to think about carefully and to fully investigate in good time.

Hiring a professional indexer

If indeed you engage a professional indexer directly, then book a time slot early, and keep your indexer informed as the actual start date firms up. Most important, prepare a clear indexing brief that specifies what you want – issues such as these that will be covered in my following posts:

  • When will you deliver the proofs for indexing?
  • What is the indexer’s deadline for finishing the job?
  • What is the agreed price?
  • How long should the index be?
  • What should be indexed?
  • Is it only one index required or several?
  • How many levels should it have?
  • How should the entries be formatted?
  • Are there any special considerations to note?

Doing the job yourself

If, however, you decide to do the job yourself, then prepare a clear indexing brief for yourself, too. You’ll also benefit from taking note of the other issues and advice found in my following posts.

And whatever else you do, do not skimp on the job. A poor index signals to the reader that this is an inferior book. Do not fail your book at this last hurdle, mere days before it goes to the printer.

(Post #3 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.)

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.)

Making proof corrections

3 March 2010

Now is the time for you to advise your production editor of any corrections and other changes to the first set of proofs. As we shall see, there are several ways in which this can be done. At this point, the issue of how many changes you can make may raise its ugly head. This delicate matter is discussed in a later post. At the same time, someone else may be proofing your text.

Author corrections

When marking changes to the proofs, follow your publisher’s instructions carefully. Possibly you will be expected to mark the actual printed pages, using proof-reading marks as in this sample. Some publishers even require their authors to mark the text using a special colour (red ink, for instance).

(Common proofing marks are listed in my next post.)

Let’s face it, however, these proofing marks aren’t that easy to remember. Many authors will prefer to annotate the proofs with their own system of marking up. If your production editor is reasonable, this shouldn’t be a problem provided the annotations are clear and consistent.

A common alternative to marking up the printed proofs is to prepare a simple list of changes. This can be written in a text file and sent to the publisher as an e-mail attachment or even written directly in an e-mail, as in this example.

And increasingly authors are using the commenting features now available with Adobe Acrobat and Acrobat Reader (and illustrated here).

Publisher’s proofing

At the same time that you are preparing your author corrections, chances are that someone else hired by your publisher will be proofing the text as well. This could be an in-house editor, the copy-editor (an attractive proposition as s/he is already familiar with the text) or a professional proof-reader.

Again, the results may be advised to your production editor in various ways but the key difference from what you have advised is that the proof-reader doesn’t necessarily know what is correct. Yes, typos and the like can be corrected but often cases of inconsistent spelling/usage can only be flagged up.


Thereafter, your production editor will need to reconcile the two sets of proofs to avoid the typesetter receiving contradictory sets of instructions. Obviously, as part of this reconciliation, any inconsistencies in your text spotted by the proof-reader will be referred to you for clarification.

Thereafter, everything is returned to the typesetter, who will then begin finalizing the layout of your book and returning a second (usually final) set of proofs.

(Post #6 of the Proofing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

First proofs

1 March 2010

Normally, initial typesetting of your book will not take too long, especially if no attempt is made to finalize the pagination of the book (for instance, no illustrations yet placed in the document).

As we have seen earlier, the result of the initial typesetting is a set of first proofs delivered to the production editor. These proofs will be quickly checked then your production editor will send you a copy for proof-reading. At the same time, chances are that someone at the press or an outside professional proof-reader will check this first proof as well.

About the first proof

The proof received will almost certainly be typeset text output on ordinary pages (described and illustrated here) rather than the galleys of yesteryear. In all probability, these page proofs will not have been finally paginated (essentially because the illustrations are missing and some changes to the text are expected). In addition, as pointed out in Leena’s mail above, much else about the proof indicates that it is a preliminary version of your book. For example:

  • The running heads are incorrect or non-existent.
  • The text will likely be loose in places (any hyphenation or massaging of the character spacing yet to be done).
  • Text may not completely fill the page so that page bottoms in a two-page spread are not lined up.
  • Tables may straddle two pages.
  • Figures and illustrations may be missing (though, as illustrated in my previous post, space may have been reserved for these).
  • Any ‘hard’ cross-references (like ‘see overleaf’, ‘see page 43’, etc.) should be flagged as provisional.

On the other hand, you should expect something more than a picture of the typesetting in its raw, newly converted state. In particular:

  • The book/page design should be apparent in the page layout (e.g. trimmed page size and fonts are correct).
  • Paragraph (and character) styles should have been implemented in the text.

Your primary task

What your production editor will be expecting you to do in quite a short time is carefully to go through the proofs, marking up any changes required. (My next post describes marking up in greater detail while the subsequent post lists the common proofing marks used in printing and publishing.)

Mainly, you should look for problems in the text, examples being:

  • Typos.
  • Corruptions in the text (perhaps caused by the text conversion problems described a month ago and again more recently).
  • Missing text.
  • Incorrectly formatted text (e.g. missing italics).
  • Paragraph appearance is inappropriate (possibly due to incorrect assignment of paragraph style).

Of course, you may wish to request other changes that have nothing to do with errors in the text. This is a problematic issue that I shall discuss in a separate post later this week.

Proofing with the other side of the brain

In addition – although the lack of illustrations, final formatting, etc. may force you to stretch your imagination somewhat – now is probably the last moment when you can comment on the page design and request changes. (Unfortunately, for most authors it is also the first time that they have seen how the publisher intends to layout their book – so this is a last-gasp thing I am foisting upon you. Indeed, it is probably too late for you to make a similar ‘right-brain’ assessment with the final proofs that I suggest in an upcoming post.)

While it is unlikely that you can get your publisher to completely change the page design presented to you, there is a chance that you can convince your production editor to make some changes. For instance, if you can demonstrate that the fonts used evoke a mood/approach at odds with (your treatment of) the subject, then it need not be too late for such a systematic change to be implemented.

Be smart, however, in what you request. You’ll have a greater chance of agreement to global changes that can be implemented relatively easily rather than to custom changes that must be made on a case-by-case basis.

And finally

There are different ways of noting your proofing changes/corrections; these I describe in my next post. If you choose to mark up the proofs received from your publisher, then make sure that you save a copy of what you send back. This will be your reference at the final-proof stage, ensuring it is quick to check that the changes you requested have been implemented.

(Post #5 of the Proofing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)