Printing and Design Tips: September 2021, Issue #242

Making Formatting Changes at the Last Minute

A book printing client of mine had a 5.5” x 8.5” perfect-bound book scheduled to go to press last Friday. It had a press run of 1,000 copies and front-and-back French flaps to make it more of a premium product. My clients are a married couple with a small publishing house. Their clients pay a premium for a physical book because they like the tactile experience.

On Sunday afternoon I learned the book might be eight pages shorter than planned. Moreover, I knew the book cover had gone to press two days earlier, on time. The cover designer had formatted the book spine for the proper width based on the paper caliper (pages per inch) and the book length (272 pages). So if the requested shortening of the book were to be implemented, the cover designer would need to adjust the cover.

(That is, we would have to wait for revised pricing, possible additional payment up-front by my client, and revised spine width information from the printer. Then the cover designer would need to adjust the cover file. At best, this would move the Friday deadline for submission beyond Monday--which had already been agreed upon--into Tuesday or possibly Wednesday.)

So it was going to potentially be a problem. Here’s why:

1. Book printing is usually priced by the estimator based on the most economical press signature for a certain press. Although we wouldn’t know this at the time, 272 pages might have been priced at eight 32-page press signatures plus a 16-page signature (nine press runs). Reducing the page count to 264 pages, as the book text designer wanted to do, might have adjusted the pagination to eight 32-page press signatures plus an 8-page signature (still nine press runs), or it might have required a different pagination that might have necessitated hand work or a different number of press runs. We didn’t know. A week prior, this might not have been a problem. However, two days past the initially agreed-upon submission deadline might have compromised the delivery date.

2. The delivery date was firm. The book distributor needed the books on or before January 14, 2022. They would not accept a delivery from my client on January 15.

3. Due to Covid-19, the printer (chosen not only because of their low price but also and more importantly because of the printer’s schedule and the book distributor’s firm deadline) had been both lengthening the schedule and hedging on the number of weeks required. They had received unprecedented book printing volume as of late (as had many of the other seven printers in the running). That is, more clients were printing more book titles with longer press runs than this printer had experienced in recent years—even pre-Covid.

4. Due to Covid, the printer finally made it clear that they would not commit to a schedule (up from eight weeks to eleven during the last week of art file preparation) without 50 percent payment, a signed contract, shipping information, and all art files in hand.

5. With all of this in the ready, the printer finally made it clear that they would do their best to meet the January 14 deadline, but this might change due to paper shortages, paper delivery delays, and Covid-19. They were ramping up staffing, but due to Covid they were still working at the minimal staffing levels of the Covid pandemic.

6. As noted before, none of the other printers could do much better, except for the most expensive printer in the lot.

7. Keep in mind that I had added one week for slippage. I had worked with the publisher to ensure that the cover and text went to press (as agreed upon, with the same specs) one week before the printer’s best guess for a schedule that would include all winter holidays, Covid, etc., and still hit the deadline.

8. Granted, in defense of the book text designer, the book was about to be shortened at the last minute due to author alterations (i.e., text cuts).

The Solution

I called my client on the phone and explained all of these components of final text preparation and their potential ramifications. I urged my client to find a solution that would not change the page count at the last minute.

Fortunately, working with the text designer, my client was able to add back-matter pages about the publishing company and selected blank pages between book sections. I thought this was a great solution. It would add useful information, make the book less dense with the additional blank pages, look intentional and not like a quick fix, and most importantly not potentially compromise the schedule. So now, hopefully, the rest of the process will go smoothly.

What Can We Learn From This Case Study?

1. If this had happened with one printer, I would say the printer might be having problems. But it was happening to all printers I knew. So what I would advise is that you watch for patterns when you’re buying printing. If multiple printers talk of lengthening production schedules, it’s not necessarily helpful to get confrontational or switch to a different printer.

2. Ask your printer about the most economical press-signature page count once you have a good idea of the total page count you’re approaching. Shorter signatures might require handwork. Adding pages could do the same thing, or it might increase the number of press signatures (i.e., the number of press runs needed). This will affect the price. So do this early in the process, not at the last minute.

3. In general, make any formatting changes early in the process, not at the last minute.

4. Once you and the printer have agreed upon a schedule, keep to it. If you fall out of line in the printer’s workflow, you could lose your place and wind up printing a lot later than expected.

5. Find out about paper availability as well as cost. This could compromise your schedule.

6. As they say, plan for the worst and hope for the best. This goes double during Covid. Printers are trying to do more with fewer people. This can be a problem.

7. Be aware of the overall volume of printing in your niche. Print books are hot now. This can affect your schedule.

8. If you hit problems, try to negotiate later delivery dates with those who need the printed products. I asked my client about this, and she was able to move the book delivery date from December 14 to the current January 14. (Granted, negotiating the delivery schedule a second time with the book distributor due to late art file submission would not have gone over well.)

9. As a final Hail Mary pass, I had planned the following. If anything had gone wrong with this printer, I had a back-up printer in the wings. They actually had the highest prices in the lot. I knew my client would hate to have them print the job due to financial concerns, but they were a premium-quality printer. If the first printer’s schedule had collapsed, I would have gone to this back-up vendor as a “white knight” to save my client. The lesson is that it’s smart to have a back-up plan.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He 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.]