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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Book Printing: Handing Off PDF Files to the Printer

A print brokering client of mine is getting closer to handing off files to the book printer. She has been producing a 550-page cookbook in InDesign, including many hundreds of photos prepared in Photoshop. What makes this a challenge is that she is relatively new to Photoshop.

At the same time, the book printer I’m most comfortable handing her work off to (who is also the low bid) would prefer PDF files rather than native InDesign files. To complicate matters, PDF creation still requires premium quality native InDesign files as a base from which to produce press-ready PDFs, and there are many, many options for creating PDFs. Moreover, these options differ from printer to printer depending on many things, such as their prepress workflow software.

The gist of what I just said above is that it’s easy to hand off a problem file if you don’t do things right.

What Is a PDF File?

PDF stands for portable document format. This format allows you to distill an InDesign file (and all the fonts and images you have used to create the file) into a format easily printable on any computer. If you’re producing low-resolution output on a desktop printer, it’s relatively seamless. But if you’re printing high-resolution images in cyan/magenta/yellow/black on an offset press, you need a more comprehensive approach.

That said, if you can create a successfully preflighted InDesign file that correctly addresses issues of color space, resolution, image usage, font usage, and such, and then distill this into a successfully preflighted PDF, your book printer’s likelihood of producing both a proof and a final print job that meet your expectations is very high. Or, at the very least, you will see the problems early when you review the proof. And you can be confident that a successfully output proof will ensure a successfully printed job.

In addition, since you can embed the fonts in a PDF, you do not need to hand off your fonts to your printer. Also, your printer is less likely to encounter font substitution problems that would adjust (or totally move around) the text on your pages.

However, to be safe, it’s always good to send your printer a hard-copy proof to which he can “reconcile” the PDF and final job (i.e., something physical to match).

Keep in mind that a PDF will not improve anything in your initial InDesign file. If the photos are not of sufficient resolution, the PDF will not sharpen them. It won’t brighten photos or fix anything else. It will only allow for a smoother transition of your art files from your computer to your book printer’s computer.

Now the bad news is also the good news. You can only do limited editing to a PDF file. This means that when you hand off PDF files to your printer, if you find problems on the proof, you will have to correct the files in InDesign, distill them again into revised PDFs, and then hand these off to your printer for revised proofs. The good news is that there is very little that can change in the files you hand off to your printer (compared to native files), so you have almost complete assurance that your proofs will look exactly like your submitted files. (This is not the case when you hand off native files.)

Back to My Client

To get back to my client, all of this is relatively new to her. And there are a lot of options (multiple screens’ worth in InDesign) that need to be addressed in preparing PDFs correctly.

In addition, “correctly” means different things to different printers, since printers often have different prepress workflow software packages (such as Rampage or Prinergy).

In my client’s case, the printer has agreed to accept both PDFs and native files. If there are problems in the PDFs my client supplies, the printer will potentially be able to address them using her native InDesign files (i.e., the original, and editable, art files).

Fortunately, my client can distill PDFs directly from InDesign. Or she could use Acrobat Professional to distill the InDesign files into PDFs (but not the less-complete, but free, Acrobat Reader).

To make things easier, I plan to create for my client (with the book printer’s help) a cheat sheet showing which options to check or uncheck on the screens InDesign presents when you create PDFs. She can then put together a short test document (four or five pages addressing text issues, color issues, and image resolution issues). If the files pass preflight, she can then go ahead and distill the 550-page print book.

Variables/Issues to Consider

Here’s a short list of issues my client will need to consider (and that you may need to address when distilling files from your own InDesign projects). The best way to ensure success is to request the printer’s “guidelines” document for creating PDFs for offset print output. This document will make your life much easier (it will tell you what options to select for your printer’s specific workflow software), and it will make your printer’s life much easier (because your files will work smoothly).

  1. Document size.
  2. Bleeds (usually .125” or more).
  3. Margins. (It’s usually best not to put anything—type or images—closer than .25” from the trim.)
  4. Color space. (Make sure the job is CMYK or black only, not RGB. Convert spot colors to process colors, or ask your printer how to specify spot colors.)
  5. Crop marks.
  6. Transparency (with or without flattening). If this doesn’t make sense, ask your printer.
  7. Fonts. Embed them in the PDF. If they can’t be embedded (due to font licensing issues), ask your printer for a work-around.
  8. Image resolution. Use photos that are at least 300 dpi at the final size.
  9. Number of pages. Send either the whole book as one PDF or as several PDFs with a range of pages for each. Label accordingly. (Discuss with your printer.)
  10. Unused colors. If you have defined colors and then decided not to use them, delete them from your color palette. Never use “Registration” or “Auto” as a color. These will not output correctly (in some cases all type and imagery may show up on all printing plates).
  11. Preflight both the native file (before distilling the PDF) and the newly created PDF to catch all errors before submitting the PDF to the book printer.
  12. Only use “rich blacks” (a combination of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) for solids and area screens, but never for type. (It would be too difficult to closely register four printing plates for small type while holding detail in the type serifs.)

Discuss these issues with your printer. This is only one set of specs I found online. Other printers will have different needs.

Extra Screens to Address

In InDesign, for instance, there are five computer screens of information to address when creating PDF files. In most cases these will involve only a few checkmarks (on-screen) based on your printer’s needs. They are called: “General,” “Compression,” “Marks & Bleeds,” “Output,” and “Advanced.” It is also wise to check “The Appearance of Black” in the Preferences window.

Final Thoughts

You can do this successfully (and so can my print brokering client). All is takes is study, practice, and communication with your book printer (or commercial printer, for that matter). After you do it once, you’ll know exactly what questions to ask your printer, so you can set up your files in the best way for his particular computer prepress system.

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