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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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Archive for the ‘Book Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: Book and Magazine Signature Work

Monday, January 6th, 2020

If you’ve been in book or magazine printing for any length of time, the term “signature” is familiar to you. You probably think automatically about how your print book or magazine will break down into the most optimal press signatures to keep the printing cost down.

On the other hand, if you’re used to designing and printing flyers, large-format signage, and other products without multiple pages, then the term signature is probably new to you.

A signature is a press sheet with a certain number of pages printed on both sides, folded and trimmed such that the pages are all consecutive. Pages are laid out in this way (called a press imposition) so that four, eight, sixteen, or even thirty-two pages can be printed at the same time (if the press is “perfecting,” or printing both sides). If the press is not a perfecting press, then one side of the sheet is printed at a time. The ink is then allowed to dry. Then the job is “backed up.” (That is, the stack of press sheets is turned over, and then the sheets are fed through the press again–often with new press plates–to print the other side of the press form, which is the name for an unfolded signature.)

You can do the same thing with a smaller job. In this case, you would just print more than one copy of the job on a press sheet. For instance, if you’re printing a four-page, 8.5” x 11” (when folded) brochure, you might lay out two of these such that they will be printed simultaneously on a press sheet. In fact, to avoid changing the plates, you might even place one two-page spread face up and the other face down on the same sheet. In this way, without changing custom printing plates, you can print one side of the sheet, dry the ink, and then flip the stack over and print the other side of the sheet (called work and turn or work and tumble, depending on how the press sheets are turned over—side to side or end over end).

I know all of this may be confusing or maddening. But here is how it is relevant to commercial printing products with multiple pages.

The Case Study

A client of mine is producing a relatively simple print book. It is 5.5” x 8.5”, with 60# white vellum text paper and a 12pt. cover. The cover will be coated with a luxury matte film laminate. The book will be perfect bound. It will also have a 16-page insert printed on 80# gloss coated text paper. All told, the text will be 288 pages, and the insert will be 16 pages, so the total page count will be 304 pages plus cover.

Now, back to signature work. This would be absolutely the same if the product were a magazine. As long as we’re doing multi-page work, like a catalog, magazine, or print book, we talking about press signatures.

A 288-page book can be composed of 72 4-page signatures (highly inefficient), 36 8-page signatures, 18 16-page signatures (more reasonable), or 9 32-page signatures (ideal). Think about it. If your book page size is small enough and your press sheet size is large enough to fit 16 pages on either side of a press sheet, you can produce the entire print book in nine press runs (as opposed to 72 press runs if you can only fit four pages on a press sheet: two on either side of the page). Less time, less money. Also, fewer consumables such as press plates, fewer wash-ups, and therefore less labor.

If you take a sheet of paper, draw a rectangular press sheet, and rule out sixteen pages on this drawing, you can visualize what I’m saying. Now, write 40” on the long side of the rectangle and 28” on the short side. This is the total length and width of the press sheet, so you can further label the drawing by noting 8.5” (length of the individual pages) in each of the smaller book pages within the large rectangle across the 40” dimension and 5.5” (width of the pages) for each book page across the 28” dimension.

Of course, this assumes your press is large enough to accept a 28” x 40” press sheet.

When you have drawn out this miniature press sheet diagram, you will see that the long side will accept four 8.5” page dimensions equaling 34” (close enough to the 40” length to allow for gripper margin, printer’s color marks, and bleeds). The short side of the sheet will accept four 5.5” book pages, totaling 22” of the total 28” width of the press sheet.

So this is an economical use of the press sheet (less waste, and more print book pages per press sheet allowing for fewer press runs).

The Insert

My client’s insert will be 16 pages. It will be printed 8 pages on either side of the press sheet, so presumably it can be produced “two-up” on a 28” x 40” press sheet. This just means that when the press signature is folded and trimmed, you will get two full 16-page signatures from each press sheet. As noted before, the insert paper will be a gloss text sheet, and the book text pages will be uncoated book paper.

So this will be the marrying of two separate paper stocks: one a single, 16-page gloss text signature containing photos (which will look crisper on a gloss coated stock) and nine 32-page text signatures on an uncoated 60# offset paper.

Now the insert can’t go just anywhere. It has to go between press signatures. This may be a problem editorially. For instance, the gloss coated photo pages may pertain to certain pages of the remaining text. But if they all have to go together (all sixteen pages), and they all have to be positioned between text signatures (between any two of the nine comprising the text block), then their placement will be constrained.

Options

Let’s say you had money to burn. You could do things slightly differently. If some of your text signatures were shorter than 32 pages (let’s say two 16-page signatures in one position in the print book), you would have more options for placing the insert. Conversely, you could break the 16-page photo signature into two 8-page signatures and position one in the first half of the book and the other closer to the end of the book.

Either way, you would be decreasing the size of a press signature and thus necessitating more press runs to create the same book (plus new plates and ink wash-ups, so more labor, more materials, and more time on press at the printer’s hourly rate). You may still want to do this, for editorial reasons (pertaining to the content of the print book rather than to its most efficient manner of production).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

If you are doing signature work, the first thing to do is think in terms of signatures. This will gradually become an automatic approach. Ask your printer about the size of the press and the size of the largest press sheet it will print. (Some presses will even print a 50” sheet.)

Then think about the number of book, magazine, or catalog pages you can get on a sheet and what size they must be. You will need to ask your printer how much space he will need for color bars and other printer’s marks, for the commercial printing press gripper (to pull the press sheets through the press), and for bleeds on the book pages. You’ll need to leave this much space as you determine the page size of your book, catalog, or magazine.

Your printer can teach you how to fold a sheet of paper to create a model of a press signature. You can then number the pages to see how the press form (the unfolded press sheet) can be printed and then folded into a little 8-page, 16-page, or 32-page booklet, after which these little booklets can be stacked and then bound together.

It’s also most useful to see all of this actually happening at a printer’s plant (to see the printing of one side of the sheet and then the other), then to see the folding, signature stacking, binding, and trimming operations that yield multi-signature products.

Once you have seen all of this being done and also have the little folded models and drawings of the press sheets that you have made, you will find it a much more intuitive process to lay out each signature of a print book and to understand where you must position an insert produced on different paper.

Book Printing: An Approach to Multiple-Signature Press Work

Monday, December 30th, 2019

A print brokering client of mine will soon produce a set of print books that provide a good object lesson in both the differences between digital and offset printing and also in ways to save money by creating larger press signatures.

Background Specs for the Two Books

To provide some context, the first job is a run of 20 copies of an 80-page, 5.5” x 8.5” perfect-bound book, on 60# white offset text with a 10pt cover. It is a reader’s “galley,” a proof for reviewers to check for errors prior to the final press run of the print book. In many prior printings of books for this particular client, I have contracted for the commercial printing of 50 or 75 copies, but to save money and meet the reviewers’ requests, my client only needs 20 this time. Other copies will be printed out from a PDF file as needed. This is not a problem, since only the content will be relevant for corrections. (That is, this doesn’t need to be a perfect rendering of the final print book.)

The second book is a higher-end version of the first. It has French flaps, luxury matte film laminate on the cover, a press score, and deckled edges on the face trim of the book. It also will be produced on a 60# natural eggshell text stock. It will be 5.75” x 8.5” (slightly larger in format than the first book) because the French flaps on the covers will extend slightly beyond the deckled edges of the text stock (thus requiring a wider horizontal measure). In contrast, the galley books will only be 5.5” wide (with no cover flaps). After all, they are only a proofing device; therefore they don’t need the expensive, high-end production values. My client will print either 1,500 or 2,000 copies of the final print book.

Considerations for the Books

My client had asked to produce a 78-page book (in both cases). For the sake of consistency, I made both books 80 pages, since the 1,500- or 2,000-copy run will need to be produced via offset lithography (too long a press run to be a cost-effective digital job), and this print book will therefore need to be a multiple of 4, 8, 16, or 32 pages. This is because it will be composed of press signatures (large flat press sheets folded down and trimmed into little 5.75” x 8.5” booklets). In contrast, since the 20-copy print book will be produced digitally, it will not need to be printed in press signatures. In fact, as long as the total length of the book is a multiple of two pages, the 20-copy “galley” book can even be a 78-page printed product (divisible by 2 pages but not by 4, 8, 16, or 32). (This is a benefit of digital printing, which is not really signature press work.)

When I received pricing from the book printer, the first thing I noticed was that he had given me the option for printing in 48-page signatures or 24-page signatures. This told me that in contrast to my original assumption about 4-, 8-, 16-, and 32-page signature options, this printer’s (larger than expected) press actually allowed for larger press signatures at this particular page size (5.75” x 8.5”). That is, the size of the press sheet the printer’s large book press could accommodate would allow 12 pages, or 24 pages) to be produced on each side of the press sheet before it is folded down to the 5.75” x 8.5” stacked press signatures that would comprise the 80-page book. The printer would offer an approximately $100-$200 discount for larger, 48-page signatures. Why? Presumably because they would necessitate fewer press runs.

(To provide an example, a 96-page book would comprise two 48-page press signatures. Or it could contain four 24-page signatures. If you can produce the book with two press signatures, you only have to run the press half as many times—two rather than four. This saves time and materials, and hence money.)

Going back to my client’s actual print book, 80 pages is not divisible by 24 or 48 pages. When I noted this to the printer, he said this was a general statement about ways to save money on his press, but that he would still give me the lower price because the 24-page vs. 48-page signature stipulation didn’t really apply to my client’s work. (It did, however, remind me why it is good to design books with the largest possible press signatures.)

What we finally settled on for the final print book with the French flaps was a signature composition of one 48-page signature, one 24-page signature, and one 8-page signature for a total book length of 80 pages. (My client did not plan to bind anything within the larger press signatures–a reply card or small press signature of photos on different paper stock, like gloss coated paper. Otherwise, this would have necessitated breaking the larger press signatures into smaller signatures–maybe three 24-page signatures with an 8-page photo signature on gloss stock between two of them–requiring more press runs for more money.)

Finally, I compared the estimated prices to those of another print book this client had produced in the same format but with a 128-page book length rather than an 80-page book length. The prices for the 80-page book almost exactly matched the prices for the earlier-produced 128-page book. Needless to say, I queried the printer. He said the 60# natural eggshell paper had driven up the cost by several hundred dollars (compared to the price of the 60# white vellum of the first book), despite the fact that the job was a short book with a 1,500- or 2,000-copy press run.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

Even though the specifics of this case study are rather convoluted, there are a number of object lessons the job illustrates:

  1. If the normal assumptions for offset printing press signature lengths are 4-pages, 8-pages, 16-pages, and 32-pages, don’t make this a hard-and-fast rule, as I did. Ask the printer. Larger presses at some book printers can accept other signature page counts such as 24-page and 48-page signatures. The longer the press signatures, the fewer the press runs. Unless you need to break a press signature into smaller signatures to insert a card or alternate paper stock, go for the longer signatures to save money. But always ask your printer about this first.
  2. Understand that digital printing does not require (or for the most part even accept) traditional press signatures. Therefore, if you need to add or remove book pages, you can do this in multiples of two pages. Ask your printer if your combined page count and press run will benefit from either offset lithographic printing or digital printing.
  3. Nice paper costs extra money. The total cost can be surprising. Ask your printer about options, if you want a natural color—cream–rather than a standard blue-white press sheet. Sometimes your printer can get you a deal on paper if you list the required specifications—weight, thickness, color, brightness, etc.–instead of asking for a particular brand of paper. Get printed samples, particularly if you plan to print color images on natural paper. (The yellowish tinge of a cream stock can affect people’s flesh tones in bad ways.)
  4. If you don’t need a galley proof version and a final version of your print book, you still may benefit from a lower-production-value and higher-production-value version. This might be a case-bound version vs. a perfect-bound version. Or it may be a low-end version on white offset with flush-cut covers and a cover varnish for one version, and French flaps, luxury matte film laminate, press score, and natural eggshell paper for the other. You may want to sell these for different prices, as a normal version and a premium version.
  5. Regardless of what you do, remember two things: 1. Involve your printer early in the process in terms of available book printing techniques, pricing, and schedules; and 2. always ask for samples of the printing (or binding, or coating, or foil embellishing) effects you want for your print books.

Book Printing: Always Submit Accurate Art Files

Monday, December 9th, 2019

Over time, small errors often grow in their scope and effects, and in book printing this can mean that a problematic file you submit today can delay the ship date for your project (or incur extra fees). If your project is time sensitive, this can be a serious source of stress.

The Case Study: A Case-Bound Textbook

A client of mine has come back to me this year with a book printing project I used to broker for her company. Her boss had chosen a different printer for a few years, but I was fortunate enough to win back the work once my client had regained control of the print book.

My client is very detail oriented and schedule oriented. Therefore, I padded the schedule a bit before I presented it. I wanted to make sure there was room to address author’s alterations. After all, in the five years I had worked with her prior to our hiatus, her print book designers had often requested corrections on multiple pages at proof time.

That said, I was actually surprised this time that as early as the book printer’s preflight stage there were problems with the margins of the book, the placement and accuracy of running headers and folios, and, in the case of the dust jacket, missing artwork.

To put this in context, this particular job is a 305-page, case-bound textbook. Interestingly enough, the press run is only 350 copies, and the specs for the case-bound cover materials are quite unique, firm, and precise. Since most vendors with whom I work will not print anything less than a 1,000-copy run via offset lithography, and since these same vendors have only limited options for case-binding digitally printed books (in order to keep costs down), I returned to a vendor in the Midwest for this job, a vendor with precisely the equipment to use the exact materials my client needed to match a previously offset printed case-bound volume of this textbook.

So the art files didn’t pass preflight. Live matter art on the pages fell too close to the trim, and page numbers were inconsistent (and in some cases not even correct relative to odd-page and even-page placement). In addition, running headers (text at the top of the page close to the trim margin including the title of the book) were inconsistently placed.

In response, my client’s print book designer made changes in some cases, agreed to live with the limitations in other cases, and uploaded a complete new file for the entire book.

To make a long story short, this happened two more times. Additionally, on the third attempt (approximately three weeks from the start of prepress work on this title), he submitted individual corrected pages rather than a complete, single file for the print book.

Making Sense of All of This: The Implications

So at the end of the three-week period we were still at the beginning of the process. Keep in mind that this printer, like most, will not commit to a delivery date prior to receipt of a signed proof approval. If the original file submission date is eight weeks out from the requested delivery date, this is an irrelevant target if the files are wrong. Only after the proof approval form has been signed (and in this case only after a revised contract reflecting a different page count from the initial bid had been signed), does the printer schedule the printing, binding, packing, and shipping steps of the book manufacturing process.

And this is all quite reasonable since the printer did nothing wrong, and since the printer has many other clients who have carefully followed (to the letter) all protocols for preparing art files.

My guesstimate, at this point, is that the ship date will slip about three weeks. My client (the one coordinating the buying process, not the book designer) understands the problems completely and is very accommodating. She plans to change the delivery date on her marketing materials. No harm/no foul. Not every client would be this accommodating. Some would even blame the printer.

What We Can Learn From This Case Study

Learn from my client’s mistakes so you don’t make them yourself. Consider these suggestions:

  1. Determine when you will need finished print books (when you absolutely need them). You may be lucky. You may have wiggle room in your schedule.
  2. Tell your printer what this “drop-dead” date will be, and see how his schedule looks. Printers are often busier in certain months than in others. For case-bound print books, some will offer you six weeks, others will offer eight. (This is often prior to shipping. Be sure to ask.) Some printers, the pricier ones, will even do the work faster, particularly if they know far in advance and have been working with you for many years. But you often pay a premium for this kind of “Cadillac” treatment. Often it’s worth it.
  3. If your book printer says six weeks overall, plus shipping, make your schedule seven-weeks in length. Be safe. Assume there will be corrections at the proof stage.
  4. Consider all elements of the schedule: preflight, proofing, corrections, printing, binding, packing, shipping, and delivery.
  5. The particular printer with whom I’m working on this job has a current 20-day schedule for production. That’s four weeks. If there is a holiday in this period, that’s longer than four weeks. Weekends don’t count. This production schedule only begins after final proof approval. Keep this in mind for your own work.
  6. Assume the physical proof will ship about five to seven days after you upload book files. Confirm this with your printer. If you get a hard-copy proof, you have to add proof shipping time to this schedule (both ways, from the printer to you and back to the printer when you’re done). You may want to consider a PDF proof instead, particularly if your book has black-ink-only text. Maybe a hard-copy cover proof and a PDF of the text will suffice.
  7. If you need revised proofs, ask for PDF proofs. Don’t add additional time to ship proofs for successive revisions.
  8. The printer’s proof is not the place to edit your manuscript. Things happen. Granted. But make sure the margins are accurate, that you’re not too close to the trim margin, that your running headers or footers are consistently placed, and that everything else is as close to perfect as you can possibly make it.
  9. Ask how close you can come to the trim margin: Usually live matter can come no closer than 3/8” from any trim. Your printer can be more specific for his equipment. (My printer for the job I mentioned says it’s 1/2”.) If anything on the page (text, photos) comes closer, it might get trimmed off and land on the bindery room floor.
  10. Ask whether your printer wants a completely new file with your corrections or just individual corrected pages saved as PDFs. Ask about extra charges. The printer I’m working with at the moment charges an extra $19.00 per page for individual pages that need to be swapped out. He prefers to receive an entirely new file from my client (and will accept three sets of files, plus preflight time, prior to adding extra charges).
  11. Throughout the entire process of creating PDF files and uploading them via FTP to your printer, use the printer’s “file creation and transmission” cheat-sheet, and adhere to all of its requirements. Not doing this opens you to extra charges and longer production schedules. If you don’t understand something, ask your sales rep or customer service rep.
  12. Not all printers have the same sense of urgency that you do. Sometimes this depends on the culture of the particular part of the USA (or other country) in which you’re printing (no offense to anyone). Pushing the vendor seldom helps. They have other clients. Particularly if the errors are yours. Some of the printers I work with will give me their cell phone numbers and take calls after hours. Others won’t even return calls or text messages as fast as I want them to during the work day, but their work comes out looking perfect. You choose your battles based on the quality of the printed samples, the overall price, and your history with the printer. As with all relationships, some things go smoothly, while other things drive you nuts.

The best single piece of advice I can leave you with is to pad your schedule–amply. Leave time for errors. They happen. Better to factor this into the schedule than to let it take years off your life.

Book Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photographs

Monday, September 23rd, 2019

A long-standing consulting client of mine designs print books for the World Bank, the United Nations, and other governmental and non-governmental agencies. She pays me to review her designs over the phone with her, page by page. She started as an editor, and over the years I have helped her learn to also be a print book designer. She’s very good. Sometimes I look at her work and say to myself, “I wish I had designed that.”

Needless to say, in your own design work, it’s always good to have another print professional check your work. As I have learned from working with my consulting client, sometimes the reader does not immediately “get” why we have made design decisions, photo selections, or type choices, and being able to bounce these design decisions off another designer always improves the final product.

A Few Issues with My Client’s Photo Treatment

I thought it might be useful to discuss some of the overall choices my client made regarding photos. You may learn something applicable to your own print book design work from my client’s photo choices and my responses.

Last night’s two-hour design analysis session focused on a book about Bangladesh. All of the design issues (type, design grid, infographics) had been addressed, and my client’s client was happy. The only variables to address were photo selection and photo treatment.

First of all, in this book my client either presented the photos as duotones (brown and black, like old sepia-toned photos) or as full-color images. This choice depended on the placement of the photos (within text or within sidebars and such).

My client told me that she had screened back (ghosted) the 4-color images by 25 percent because they were not of professional quality (i.e., they were snapshots). She thought this reduction in image color saturation (I believe she had used the “Luminosity” control in InDesign) would make the flaws in the photos less evident.

I actually voiced some concern about this choice. I told my client that when I was an art director I used to do the same thing (ghost photos), but that I would only do this if I planned to position type over the ghosted image. The ghosting of the image made the reader see it as less important than the surprinted type. (The fainter-than-usual image appeared to be in the background, which made the type stand out more.)

In my client’s design, I thought that readers would view the ghosted (less saturated) images as less important, or as too lightly inked (i.e., as a flaw). So I suggested that she only “dial back” the intensity of the colors (their saturation) by about 10 percent instead of 25 percent. I said I thought her readers would be less critical of non-professional photography than of what appeared to be an error in printing (the overly light photos).

On a more positive note, I did tell my client that her duotones were outstanding. I think she achieved her goal (giving the images less of a journalistic feel and more of an artistic feel). Many of these photos were of stellar quality, and she made them quite large (a focal point of the design). I told her I thought this was also effective, just as I thought making the less professional images smaller might make their flaws less visible to the reader.

Design Motifs (and Considerations)

One of the design motifs my client used in her print book on Bangladesh was to stack horizontal strips of photos (duotones) one over the other on the divider pages. She then repeated these strips as running headers at the tops of all following pages (repeating the image on the left and right at the top of the page until the next section, when she would change to the next photo in the stack).

I said I thought this was a good way to set up a rhythm in the design. I also said that it provided a visual anchor at the top of the pages from which to “hang” the columns of type and photos. I said I also liked how she had reversed the folios (page numbers) out of these thin (maybe 1” deep by the width of the page) photos.

That said, I did note one potential problem. The top of the head of a girl alone on a roof in one photo came very close to the trim (head trim, or top of the page). I noted that printers’ trimming capabilities are not perfect. If the trimming knife came too close to the girl’s head (or cut into it), the reader would see this and consider it a flaw. So I suggested that my client re-crop the photo to give the girl’s image more head room.

The tight cropping of images in the running headers, particularly those images that contained a number of faces, posed challenges. I loved the motif, but I suggested to my client that she change the crop of one photo in particular. Everyone else’s head was either fully in the horizontal frame or cropped (somewhat severely) below the nose. However, one woman’s face extended off the top of the page, eliminating her eyes and forehead.

I told my client that severe photo cropping did add drama to her images. I liked the motif. I thought the reader would accept tight photo cropping as long as one or both of the subject’s eyes were visible. Cropping through the mouth was more acceptable, but having the woman’s face extend off the page and omitting her eyes would be seen as a flaw. Granted, I did note that tight cropping of such photos (to fit in the 1” tall strip at the top of the pages)–when they included numerous people’s heads at different levels–would be a major challenge.

Technical Difficulties

My client noted that she had been given the photos (as JPEGs) by her client and that she had to use them. Two of these were initially 72dpi photos. My client’s client had changed them to 300dpi images (also known as interpolation), inadvertently adding noise and other flaws to the images. I told my client that this had happened because interpolation “makes up” picture information that is not really there in the first place. The better way to address photos is to always request 300dpi images and then never enlarge them (i.e., reduce but never enlarge). In addition, my client’s client had overly sharpened one image in Photoshop before sending it to my client for use in the print book.

Since it was very late at night, and since the print book had to go to press the next morning, this is what I said. I told my client to use Gaussian Blur (under the Filters menu, under Blur) in Photoshop to “slightly blur” the dots all over the photo subject’s face (the result of oversharpening). Then I had her use Unsharp Masking (also under the Filters menu, under Sharpen) to make the photo appear crisper. (Photoshop does this by increasing the contrast between adjacent pixels.) I then told my client to only do this in an absolute emergency. I reminded her that starting with a 300dpi image is the “best practice.” She agreed.

I did however note that if you can reduce the size of an image or turn it into a duotone or even interpolate an image and then print it very small, as long as you are below the threshold of visibility, your reader won’t see the flaw.

I would even add to this caveat that producing a print book on highly textured paper will also minimize flaws in photos, because the paper will scatter the reflected light rather than direct it straight back to the viewer’s eyes (as will a gloss coated paper stock).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Be objective in judging your photos. Consider their technical quality as well as their content and aesthetics.
  2. Often you can minimize flaws in photos. Make them smaller than the better photos. Turn them into duotones (or use another approach that highlights the aesthetics of the photo and minimizes its technical flaws).
  3. Don’t come too close to the trim. Either bleed an image off the page or give it at least a 3/8” or more (ask your printer) margin of error. The trimming knife in the printer’s bindery is not always precise.
  4. Always use photos that are 300dpi at the final size (100 percent size). Then crop them close to the final dimensions (in Photoshop). If you don’t have this option, as my client did not, research Gaussian Blur and Unsharp Masking on the Internet. These image tools, in combination, might save your photo. But then remember to make the photo as small as you can, because interpolation is never a good thing.

Book Printing: Pearson Shifts from Textbooks to Digital

Monday, September 9th, 2019

I spend a lot of time in thrift stores with my fiancee. She looks at the clothes; I go for the print books. In fact, I’ve collected quite a library of textbooks, which I have used since graduating from college to augment my education (and particularly my knowledge of commercial printing, art, and business).

So I’m familiar with the name Pearson, a mammoth United Kingdom publisher of textbooks. I have many of their titles on my bookshelves, all purchased second hand.

Pearson’s Move from Print Books to “Digital First”

Given my predisposition to learning from print books, and my work as a printing broker, I was surprised and a bit saddened by the news that Pearson will be “ending all regular revisions for its print college textbooks.” (I took this quote from an article I found today entitled “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” published on 07/16/19 by Sarah Min, of online Money Watch.)

According to Min’s article, Pearson will “focus on updating its digital products more frequently, offering artificial intelligence capabilities, data analytics, and research.”

This has to be taken in context, I think. The price of textbooks has been soaring, costing as much as $200 to $300 for a single print book. In contrast, e-books are closer to $40 each.

In addition, students, most of whom are on a tight budget, have been motivated to approach the secondary market to buy used textbooks, thus reducing the revenue of textbook publishers like Pearson. And this is not a situation affecting only Pearson. Other textbook publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have been moving in a digital direction for a while now, investing heavily in artificial intelligence (as it pertains to textbook material, such as online audio, video, etc.).

According to “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” Pearson considers this shift to digital first to be a win/win for students and publishers. The students get the enhanced learning capabilities of online media, and the publishers can eliminate the direct materials costs associated with book printing (all the paper) as well as the costs of storing printed books and fulfilling orders for print textbooks. In the long run, publishers will make more with this business model.

According to Pearson CEO John Fallon, as quoted in Min’s article, “ Students are getting more comfortable with e-books as the functionality gets better” (“Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy”).

The Other Side of the Coin

Being a print broker and a lover of print books, I was not sold on this approach, so I did some more research.

I found an article entitled “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?” that provides a different view. It is from The Science of Learning and is dated 08/23/17. It was written by Claudia Wallis.

I was not deterred by the date (approximately two years ago) because of the scientific evidence it presents, which I don’t think would have changed in two years.

The gist of Wallis’ argument is the following:

1. Students learn better from a print book, in part because there are fewer distractions, in contrast to the multi-tasking approach of the Internet.

2. Students learn better when they can make notes in the margins of a print book. It has not yet been proven whether copying and pasting text electronically from source material works as well as underlining and hand-note-taking in fostering reading comprehension and the retention of facts.

3. Wallis references the work of Patricia Alexander, a University of Maryland literary scholar, whose research from 1992 to 2017 uncovered only 36 studies (out of 878 potentially pertinent studies) that directly addressed whether online learning was as effective (in terms of retention and understanding) as learning from a textbook. So the bottom line is that more work needs to be done regarding how people learn and how online resources and print books compare in this regard.

4. Wallace references the work of Patricia Alexander in Review of Educational Research, which confirms that, for longer works (above 500 words), reading on a digital device reduces comprehension, when compared to a print book. (Apparently this is due in part to the flickering of the screen, the scrolling, the glare of the screen, and the fact that we are accustomed to multitasking on a digital device instead of focusing intently in a linear manner on the subject matter.) According to Alexander’s research, digital book readers have more confidence in the depth of their learning (due to the perceived increased reading speed on digital media) but had lower actual comprehension and retention. Apparently, readers of print books absorbed and retained more details.

5. Regardless of the medium, the most powerful approach to education is one that involves students’ “deeply questioning the text” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).

6. Some texts (and some subjects) are linear and lend themselves to print books (as Wallis notes, based on findings by Joost Kircz, a Dutch scholar on this subject). You read them from beginning to end. Other subjects and books lend themselves to a less linear approach. These might benefit from the added videos and audio tracks accessible through online media. According to Kircz, these enhancements might include links to “annotation, elaboration, contrary views, media, etc.” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”). One benefit of digital media is “in a digital environment we can easily enable a plurality of reading paths in educational and scholarly texts.” (Joost Kircz and August Hans Den Boef in The Unbound Book). “Not all information is linear or even layered.” “The question is to what extent can we mimic human understanding” (Joost Kircz in “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).

The Takeaway

So, from my perspective, the question of whether to choose digital or print books involves the following issues:

  1. How do people learn? We need to better understand the mechanics (i.e., the brain functions) involved in the comprehension and retention of new subject matter.
  2. Do some kinds of subject matter lend themselves to one medium or the other? For instance, can a novel (a linear text, presumably), work better as a print book? Can the digital enhancements of online video and audio hyperlinks improve one’s ability to learn other kinds of subject matter?
  3. Do all people learn more efficiently and effectively from the same media, whether online texts or print books?
  4. Are we making decisions based on the effectiveness of the medium or its cost (from the point of view of the student) or its potential for revenue generation (from the point of view of the publisher)?

My educated guess is that “digital vs. print” will eventually be like the “radio vs. television” dilemma. People thought images would replace words. Now we have both. I think some people will learn better from printed books while others will learn better from online media. And I think this will change based on the kind of subject matter in question.

I think print books will be with us for a long time, although I think the ones that remain will incorporate the higher production values (for example, intricate die cuts or nuanced cover coatings) that set print books apart from digital books.

Book Printing: Finding Your Optimal Minimum Print Order

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

A commercial printing client whom I have mentioned before regularly reprints a series of color swatch books during the year. They are a bit like miniature PMS color swatch books, but their purpose is to help my client’s clients choose colors for make-up and clothing based on their complexions.

These little books are approximately 1.5” x 3.5” in size, are 118 pages plus covers, and are bound with a single screw and post assembly in one corner. The printer prints the swatches, drills and round corners the pages, collates the pages, and then binds each print book prior to shrink-wrapping it.

There are 28 master copies with titles related to the four seasons. During the year my client reprints a certain number of copies of each master text based on the orders she has received from her clients. The most recent reprint, for instance, was for 81 books. For these she paid $1,862.00, or $22.99 per book. On another occasion, she printed 154 books for $2,809.00 or $18.24 per book.

Explaining the Numbers

The first question most people will ask is why the unit costs are different. Why should my client have to pay $18.24 per book for one reprint and then several months later, when she has another batch of customers interested in her product, why should she pay $22.99 per book? Moreover, how can she know what to charge her clients if the unit cost keeps changing?

First of all, the overall price at any level, whether 81 books or 154 books, reflects two things: fixed costs and variable costs. I never formally studied economics, but I have learned this over the years. The fixed costs reflect the activities needed to prepare the job and set up the print run. These tasks include loading and opening the job files for my client’s product, making any corrections, producing PDF proofs, and, after proof approval, reloading the job into the computer and preparing for the actual print run.

My client usually prints between one and six copies of each master print book depending on her clients’ needs. This is one of the reasons the job is printed on an HP Indigo press. That is, her job is produced digitally via electrophotography (laser printing). Fortunately this involves less make-ready of the press than offset lithography, but there is still some work to do before the actual custom printing process. After the set up is complete, the press run cost varies based on the number of copies produced: hence, the range noted above from $1,862.00 to $2,809.00 for 81 to 154 copies. The length of the press run itself reflects the variable costs because these change depending on the number of copies produced, ranging from $18.24 to $22.99 per book.

Ideally, my client will produce more rather than fewer books. This actually benefits everyone. The printer makes more, and my client pays less per print book (you can see graphs of this sort of thing in economics books, where the unit cost drops as the manufacturing run increases).

If my client wanted significantly more copies of each master book (and a printer would need to figure out the exact number that would be appropriate for this), it would be less expensive to produce the books via offset lithography rather than laser printing. In this case, the make-ready (all activities, in this case, related to getting the offset press ready to produce the first and then all subsequent copies of each page) would be more involved. It’s a more time consuming, and more complex, procedure to make and hang custom printing plates on the press, prepare the ink, wash up the press when needed, etc., than it is to run clean, contained digital printing equipment.

That said, there would be a large magnitude of an increase in the final number of printed pages, so the overall cost of the print run (in the multiple thousands of copies range) would yield a lower unit cost (fixed preparation costs plus variable job-run costs divided by the number of books in the press run).

As noted before, in your own work it is prudent to ask your printer where the optimal transition point would be in choosing digital laser vs. offset lithography for your print books. It will depend on the number of copies and the number of pages in your print book, as well as the commercial printing equipment your supplier has on his factory floor.

Your Minimum Order Based on Page Count and Press Run

My client just took orders and deposits from a handful of customers and now wants to produce a reprint costing approximately $1,000.00. That’s her target “spend.” So I asked the book printer how many final copies this would yield, assuming that there could be any number of copies of any of the 28 master print books.

Since the $1,862.00 press run yielded 81 copies, I guessed that $1,000.00 might yield 20 or 30 copies, at most, since a lot of the $1,000.00 would be committed to the make-ready costs.

So I was surprised to receive the following cost spreadsheet from the printer:

5 copies: $1,765.00
50 copies: $1,806.00
81 copies: $1,862.00

In his email, the printer noted that the high cost was due to the set up time and minimum charges for lamination.

Now upon further review, I also thought about the following. The round cornering is a die-cutting operation (a metal die cuts rounded corners on all sides of each color swatch card). So between the laminating of each sheet (done by an outside vendor) and the die-cutting, the job is more complex than initially conceived, and it also involves minimum orders for the subcontractor to avoid his losing money on a short run.

Therefore, the book printer advised that my client use the 81-copy press run as a target minimum order (an order yielding a reasonable unit cost and factoring in all preparation and clean-up costs). This would avoid the $353.00 unit cost for 5 copies or $36.12 unit cost for 50 copies (as noted in the printer’s spreadsheet above).

With this information plus the job history of printing 81 to 154 copies over the last year or so, my client could get a really good idea of how much each print book (each unit) would cost, depending on how much her overall “spend” was ($1,862.00 to $2,809.00 ), and she could determine an amount to charge her clients for each book that would cover the costs and also yield a profit. (On small orders, then, she would make less per unit; the cost to her clients would be closer to what the printer had charged her per unit. And on larger orders for clients, she would make more per unit.)

Again, it would behoove her to wait until the last possible moment to receive client orders and then place an order with her book printer. Larger orders would always be better.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

I’d encourage you to do what I did. Get an economics textbook at a thrift store and study the section on fixed expenses, variable expenses, unit costs, and marginal costs (the cost of “one more unit” of anything produced). It will be much more interesting than it was in school because it will apply directly to your own print buying work, right now. Studying this will help you understand why longer press runs are better.

Learn the differences between digital printing (such as inkjet and laser printing) and analog printing (such as offset lithography, screen printing, flexography, or gravure). Pay particular attention to the steps involved in “make-ready” for each kind of commercial printing technology. This will help you understand the differences in fixed and variable costs for different jobs produced with different technology.

Discuss with your printer what the optimal transition point would be for your print book (whether you should print it digitally or via offset lithography). You will need to tell him the page count and number of copies needed.

Don’t assume the quality will be exactly the same for digital vs. analog (traditional offset). Ask for printed samples, preferably with whatever cover coating you have chosen (UV or matte laminate, for instance). Fortunately, digital printing is getting to the point that it usually looks great compared to offset lithography, but if your job involves 4-color images, it’s always best to review printed samples before making your decision.

And if you don’t like the samples of a digitally printed cover for whatever reason (different digital technologies, such as laser vs. inkjet, or different brands of digital printing equipment yield different levels of quality), consider hybrid printing. For instance, you may want to produce the text of your book digitally and then have the printer offset print the covers. It’s always smart to discuss all of these options with your print sales rep based on both price and quality, and to confirm your choice based on your review of printed samples.

Book Printing: Ensuring On-Time, Accurate Delivery

Monday, August 19th, 2019

“We uploaded the art files to the printer only a day late. Why can’t the printer make up the time? Don’t they want our business?”

A print brokering client of mine asked these questions recently, reminding me that their print books needed to be in the book distributor’s possession on time, and not even a day late. (To be completely honest, I have exaggerated my client’s actual questions a bit in order to make a point: Schedules matter.)

It is important to remember that your commercial printing job (and in most cases your schedule, or drop-dead delivery date) is of utmost importance to you, but at the same time your print provider has many clients who feel exactly the same way about their projects. Some of these will flow smoothly through the process. They will arrive on time and then proceed through all the various stages of the process (prepress, printing, finishing, packing, and delivery).

Others will hit snags. Maybe your files will not pass preflight (perhaps there will be problems with the resolution of the photos). Maybe, when you receive the hard-copy proof, you’ll catch an error or two.

Errors like these, the ones you have inadvertently introduced into the process, will slow you down. These are different from errors the printer introduces into the process (such as a broken saddle stitching machine that slows down his bindery work, perhaps necessitating overtime work to compensate).

Error-Free Files

I had a client earlier this year who submitted three 5.5” x 8.5” print books to press. There was a simple editorial correction needed on one of the book covers. Because of this, the printer put all three books on hold while the cover designer made and uploaded corrections and while new proofs were generated and approved (fortunately they were PDF proofs, so no further time was lost mailing proofs to the client and then back to the book printer).

This revision process (for as small a correction as was needed) added a week to the overall production schedule. Did the printer need to take this much time? After all, the book printer’s actual production time was probably only minimal. While it’s true that fixing the problem most likely took very little time, it disrupted the overall workflow of the book printing plant. To minimize this, the printer focused first on the clients who had provided accurate, error-free files—on time—and then came back to my client’s three print books.

Not all printers are like this. Printing is a business, and different printers have different business models. The one in question has rock-bottom prices but provides stellar-quality products. Therefore, they are always booked. In fact, since the overall volume of book printing has been increasing year over year in the recent past, the turn-around time this book printer now offers is much longer than even a year ago.

Other Options

My client could go elsewhere. A reasonable choice. I work with another printer that’s huge. They are a consolidator. They have branches all across the country. They also do digital printing (which my client needed for these three titles due to their short press runs). But this printer’s business model involves limiting the choices for digital binding to keep their machinery costs down. After all, if they offered all types of binding (French flaps on the paperback covers, for instance), this would require additional machinery, which would require additional expense, which would drive up the costs the printer must charge customers.

A third book printer will do almost anything I need. They’re great. However, I have to pay a premium for this. Some of my customers prefer this treatment and are willing to pay for it.

So my client made his choice. He chose two of the three manufacturing goals (quality, price, but not speed). In effect, we paid for the discounted price.

Some will say that clients now demand more, and it’s possible to hit all three goals (quality, price, and speed). That sounds good, but in reality those printers who over-promise eventually go out of business.

For instance, I’ve had clients leave for other printers who promise more only to find that their schedules were not met or that the printed jobs were not of the highest quality. These clients then came back to me. In my case, as a printing broker, I try to advise clients not to do this because it takes time: going out, finding a new printer, having problems, and then coming back. This can also waste a lot of money.

Now I want to make it clear that the situation I’m describing is very different from working with a printer who is slow, sloppy, and/or inaccessible. Most are not. Some get into trouble precisely because they are trying to be all things to all people. They are charging less than the competition, taking in too much work, and turning it around with too few staff. Eventually they go out of business.

How do you know what’s really happening with a particular printer? You don’t. This is where experience comes in. If a long-standing relationship with a printer who has been a good partner hits a bump in the road, you can discuss matters, be frank, and come up with solutions. But if you’re working with a new printer, it’s usually smart to start slowly. Make your first few jobs small ones with flexible deadlines. Then you can build up to large, deadline-critical custom printing projects.

The Solution

After the first set of this year’s print books came too close for comfort to my client’s drop-dead delivery date, I came up with a solution for the next set of three jobs. I asked for the printer’s longest projected time frame for each component of the schedule based on the printer’s workload at that particular time (which was heavy). Then I listed them:

  1. Prepress and proofing
  2. Printing
  3. Binding
  4. Shipping and delivery

Then I added a week to the estimated prepress and proofing stage. Then I added a week to the shipping stage. Then I added a week to the whole process just for safety’s sake. Would I have done this for all printers’ schedules? No. In some cases my clients want to go go with the more expensive printers I frequent, and these book printers don’t often present this problem.

So in the simplest terms, I acknowledged reality. Then I made a conservative schedule. Not just a realistic schedule, but a conservative one, with wiggle room. With this in hand, I approached both my client and the printer, received their approval of the schedule, and made sure everyone had a final copy. This was our agreement. At this point it was set in stone, but I sweetened the pot by arranging prepayment. The printer needed half of the cost up front, but since my client “got it” (he understood human motivation), my client offered to pay for the entire order at once, up front.

Keep in mind two important things. My client had been exceptionally pleased with this book printer’s prior work. All books delivered for several jobs had been gorgeous. Also, this printer (and most others) require cash-only clients (as opposed to credit clients) to pay the first 50 percent prior to the onset of the job and the final 50 percent prior to its shipment. This is the norm (an accepted trade custom in commercial printing). So by paying both 50 percent, up-front payments together, my client showed good will, made it clear that the job was a real job, and didn’t pay any more than was required (he just paid it earlier).

Final Check of Art Files

When the text designer sent me final art files for the three print books, I carefully checked the individual pages in the PDF file and also the trim size (format) of the books. Two of the three had the correct format. One was slightly off-size–in error. I brought this to the text designer’s attention, and she quickly fixed it. (If I hadn’t caught this error, the printer would have caught it in preflight, and this would have used up precious time in the schedule. In fact, all three books might have been put on hold until the problem had been fixed.)

My client also caught errors on the cover of one of the three books. He asked whether I thought it would be better to upload the files now (one day past the submission deadline) and make corrections at the proof stage, or whether he should take the time to correct the files first. My response was that it was definitely worth taking the time now.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Make a schedule. Pad it. Then get everyone’s buy-in. Then, don’t deviate from the schedule. Remember the consequences of missed deadlines.
  2. Realize that you can have any two of the following: quality, speed, price. Any vendor can make wild promises. Choose printers that under-promise and over-deliver. Don’t waste time looking for the perfect printer. It’s more than likely that you’ll spend a lot of money and time, and wind up back at your first printer’s door.
  3. That said, develop relationships with printers prudently. Start with small jobs and then build to larger ones.
  4. Have more than one person check your art files. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s always better to fix them before submitting files. Don’t wait until the proofing stage. You will not make up lost time.

Book Printing: Pearson Shifts from Textbooks to Digital

Sunday, August 11th, 2019

I spend a lot of time in thrift stores with my fiancee. She looks at the clothes; I go for the print books. In fact, I’ve collected quite a library of textbooks, which I have used since graduating from college to augment my education (and particularly my knowledge of commercial printing, art, and business).

So I’m familiar with the name Pearson, a mammoth United Kingdom publisher of textbooks. I have many of their titles on my bookshelves, all purchased second hand.

Pearson’s Move from Print Books to “Digital First”

Given my predisposition to learning from print books, and my work as a printing broker, I was surprised and a bit saddened by the news that Pearson will be “ending all regular revisions for its print college textbooks.” (I took this quote from an article I found today entitled “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” published on 07/16/19 by Sarah Min of online Money Watch.)

According to Min’s article, Pearson will “focus on updating its digital products more frequently, offering artificial intelligence capabilities, data analytics, and research.”

This has to be taken in context, I think. The price of textbooks has been soaring, costing as much as $200 to $300 for a single print book. In contrast, e-books are closer to $40 each.

In addition, students, most of whom are on a tight budget, have been motivated to approach the secondary market to buy used textbooks, thus reducing the revenue of textbook publishers like Pearson. And this is not a situation affecting only Pearson. Other textbook publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have been moving in a digital direction for a while now, investing heavily in artificial intelligence (as it pertains to textbook material, such as online audio, video, etc.).

According to “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” Pearson considers this shift to digital first to be a win/win for students and publishers. The students get the enhanced learning capabilities of online media, and the publishers can eliminate the direct materials costs associated with book printing (all the paper) as well as the costs of storing printed books and fulfilling orders for print textbooks. In the long run, publishers will make more with this business model.

According to Pearson CEO John Fallon, as quoted in Min’s article, “ Students are getting more comfortable with e-books as the functionality gets better” (“Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy”).

The Other Side of the Coin

Being a print broker and a lover of print books, I was not sold on this approach, so I did some more research.

I found an article entitled “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?” that provides a different view. It is from The Science of Learning and is dated 08/23/17. It was written by Claudia Wallis.

I was not deterred by the date (approximately two years ago) because of the scientific evidence it presents, which I don’t think would have changed in two years.

The gist of Wallis’ argument is the following:

  1. Students learn better from a print book, in part because there are fewer distractions, in contrast to the multi-tasking approach of the Internet.
  2. Students learn better when they can make notes in the margins of a print book. It has not yet been proven whether copying and pasting text electronically from source material works as well as underlining and hand-note-taking in fostering reading comprehension and the retention of facts.
  3. Wallis references the work of Patricia Alexander, a University of Maryland literary scholar, whose research from 1992 to 2017 uncovered only 36 studies (out of 878 potentially pertinent studies) that directly addressed whether online learning was as effective (in terms of retention and understanding) as learning from a textbook. So the bottom line is that more work needs to be done regarding how people learn and how online resources and print books compare in this regard.
  4. Wallace references the work of Patricia Alexander in Review of Educational Research, which confirms that, for longer works (above 500 words), reading on a digital device reduces comprehension when compared to a print book. (Apparently this is due in part to the flickering of the screen, the scrolling, the glare of the screen, and the fact that we are accustomed to multitasking on a digital device instead of focusing intently in a linear manner on the subject matter.) According to Alexander’s research, digital book readers have more confidence in the depth of their learning (due to the perceived increased reading speed on digital media) but had lower actual comprehension and retention. Apparently, readers of print books absorbed and retained more details.
  5. Regardless of the medium, the most powerful approach to education is one that involves students’ “deeply questioning the text” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).
  6. Some texts (and some subjects) are linear and lend themselves to print books (as Wallis notes, based on findings by Joost Kircz, a Dutch scholar on this subject). You read them from beginning to end. Other subjects and books lend themselves to a less linear approach. These might benefit from the added videos and audio tracks accessible through online media. According to Kircz, these enhancements might include links to “annotation, elaboration, contrary views, media, etc.” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”). One benefit of digital media is “in a digital environment we can easily enable a plurality of reading paths in educational and scholarly texts.” (Joost Kircz and August Hans Den Boef in The Unbound Book). “Not all information is linear or even layered.” “The question is to what extent can we mimic human understanding” (Joost Kircz in “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).

The Takeaway

So, from my perspective, the question of whether to choose digital or print books involves the following issues:

  1. How do people learn? We need to better understand the mechanics (i.e., the brain functions) involved in the comprehension and retention of new subject matter.
  2. Do some kinds of subject matter lend themselves to one medium or the other? For instance, can a novel (a linear text, presumably), work better as a print book? Can the digital enhancements of online video and audio hyperlinks improve one’s ability to learn other kinds of subject matter?
  3. Do all people learn more efficiently and effectively from the same media, whether online texts or print books?
  4. Are we making decisions based on the effectiveness of the medium or its cost (from the point of view of the student), or its potential for revenue generation (from the point of view of the publisher)?

My educated guess is that “digital vs. print” will eventually be like the “radio vs. television” dilemma. People thought images would replace words. Now we have both. I think some people will learn better from printed books while others will learn better from online media. And I think this will change based on the kind of subject matter in question.

I think print books will be with us for a long time, although I think the ones that remain will incorporate the higher production values (for example, intricate die cuts or nuanced cover coatings) that set print books apart from digital books.

Book Printing: A Fanciful Journey Toward a Print Book

Monday, August 5th, 2019

I am a pushover when it comes to romance and swashbuckling. I must have been a pirate in a former life. So when I had the opportunity to join a Facebook group connected to a print book a client of mine was designing for a friend, I joined.

My client’s friend apparently is writing a book, a journal of sorts, describing his early life, many years ago, in the cannabis trade. Now I know this is less highly charged now, and I neither oppose nor condone its use, but this sounded like a good story.

So when I reached the Facebook page and joined, I first assumed that all of the Facebook members—who made me feel quite at home with their welcome—lived together on a beach in some Caribbean land as ex-patriots presumably fleeing the law. I further assumed that if they were keeping on the low down and engaging in legal professions, they were probably digital nomads writing or designing articles and books, and then submitting files over the internet while lounging in their beach huts.

(I have since discovered from my friend that almost all of them are in fact scattered–separately–across the United States. They are middle aged or older, and they presumably all have day jobs. Oh, well.)

The Tone of the Journal

To protect the innocent, I will not get specific about the content of the print book. At the very least, this is because it has not yet been published. So for now we’ll assume it is like Miami Vice set in Tahiti, full of smuggling and theme music for all the main characters. (One of the inhabitants told me he was homeless, but upon further reflection as to how this might be true if he was writing to me on a computer, I asked my friend. She told me he was renting lake-front property. He just didn’t own a house.)

That said, the exposure to the Facebook page has given me a wealth of information on the tone of the print book to come, such that I can now make cogent suggestions regarding its format, paper, binding, and perhaps even design (hopefully without stepping on my friend’s, the designer’s, toes).

Magic Translated Into Print Book Production Values

Having reviewed and considered the photos on the Facebook page along with the writings from both the author and the other group members, and having been told by the author that he wants to charge more than usual for the book, I had some thoughts.

First of all, I agree with a Dr. Who (on television) t-shirt I have that pretty much says that in the end we’re just stories. In my own view, someone who can tell a good story full of concrete, evocative details that engage the reader emotionally can charge almost anything. People love stories. Good marketing is even based on telling stories, on engaging the reader’s emotions. Particularly if the stories are believable—as was the story I gleaned from the Facebook page.

How this filters into print book production specifications is what this blog article is really about, and I think that as designers and print buyers each one of us needs to be able to understand the story, whether the printed product will be a book, a brochure, a sign, or anything else. Then, each one of us has to translate this story into a printed product using the aesthetic building blocks of design and the physical building blocks of commercial printing.

So these are my thoughts, which I have already started to share with my friend who will be designing the print book:

  1. If the author plans to charge a premium, it will be important to make the book presentation unique.
  2. This may include such attributes as an unusual size (not the traditional 6” x 9” or 8.5” x 11” of contemporary trade books, which cost less than what my friend’s client plans to charge). Perhaps a square, large-format book would be intriguing to the reader.
  3. It may include such trappings as French flaps. These are the extensions to the paperback cover that fold back into the book and extend 3” or 4” across the interior front cover. They make the book look like it is a hard-cover text with a dust jacket. These are very popular, apparently, in Europe, so they lend an international sensibility to the book: perhaps an air of mystery or opulence.
  4. Since the subject matter involves cannabis, I plan to suggest a more earthy approach, involving an uncoated, heavily textured paper for the interior pages of the print book. I can acquire paper samples from my printing suppliers when the time comes. I may even suggest a toned paper, perhaps an off white or a light gray or green. Anything that has a crunchy granola feel.
  5. Given the subject matter, I may also suggest an uncoated cover stock. I need to be very careful, though, because uncoated paper does not necessarily age well. Readers may easily crush or dog-ear the cover paper, inadvertently, through heavy use. Even if the paper holds up, the ink printed on the cover may smear unless it is coated, which would defeat the purpose of having an uncoated cover stock in the first place.
  6. Granted, I have seen designers use a light varnish to seal ink on an uncoated stock, even though it’s a little like painting a sponge. You protect the ink but you can’t see any gloss. Also, ink laydown on a textured cover stock with a “tooth” (uneven surface) may be a bit uneven, with pinholes, so the design of the cover art will be of prime importance. It must be printer friendly as well as attractive. The custom printing technology (offset vs. digital) will also be important in order to ensure good ink or toner coverage on the cover paper.
  7. Readability. This is not a printing consideration, but since the writer already noted that he likes Comic Sans for a font, I checked this typeface out on the web. I went to Google Images and found the whole alphabet. It is attractive. It seems to be casual and quite appropriate for the storytelling tone of the print book. However, I’m not yet convinced that it will be easily readable over the course of 200 to 300 pages, especially by older readers. So I suggested to the designer that she increase the point size, increase the leading (space between lines), and make the copy flush left/ragged right. The typeface will echo the tone of the book, but it must be readable.

These are just some initial thoughts. In fact, when we get closer to publication, I’m going to ask the printer for samples of uncoated, printed cover stocks. I may also ask the paper merchant to create a mock-up of the entire print book on the selected stock to give the reader an idea of what the final book will feel like in the reader’s hands. A good story, written by a charismatic storyteller, skillfully designed, on substantial paper with special flaps, should fetch a premium. It all comes down to the same magic I felt on the Facebook page, when I thought all inhabitants of The Crew lived on the beach of the same Caribbean island and were not in fact retired men and women scattered all across the United States. Magic sells.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Anything from a book to a brochure must captivate the reader. This is a magical act. It is based not only on the story (referred to in the popular media as “the narrative”) but on the design and printing values.
  2. First, understand the tone of the book. Breathe it in. Let it sit with you, and then turn this into a design based on all the traditional tools: page geometry, font, color, imagery, etc.
  3. Turn two dimensions into three. The writing is abstract. The design adds the visual cues. Now add the tactile element: the print book production values.
  4. Acquire related print products, then consider unusual treatments that will set apart your printed product from all others. This includes paper, trim size, binding technology and materials, perhaps adornment such as foils, cover coatings, and such.
  5. Make sure all of this is congruent: writing, design, and paper. Even the commercial printing technology is important. Maybe a print book about pirates should be printed via letterpress, not offset lithography. Maybe it should be printed on a faux parchment with a mottled paper surface.
  6. Get samples: printed samples and paper books. It’s great to visualize something in your own head, but if you’re going to see how it’s really going to look—and feel—nothing beats a printed sample. It also helps you communicate with the author and the printer. Use the paper sample books not only to select paper stocks but to make sure they are current. Papers come and go. Check the dates on the paper swatch books. Make sure your printer can get the paper. Moreover, make sure the paper is reasonably priced and doesn’t require a special order or a minimum amount.

Use everything you know about paper, design, and commercial printing, but go beyond these and consider reader psychology, marketing tactics, and even the art of storytelling. To misquote Dr. Who (from British television): If it’s all a story, let’s make it a good one.

Book Printing: Why Skill in Typesetting Is Important

Monday, July 1st, 2019

One of my new clients is a “wordsmith.” She helps authors get their books into print and then promotes them. I have a lot of respect for her. Just recently, though, as I understand her situation, a new client of hers asked her to not only edit the text of his print book but also lay it out in MS Word. He wanted to save money by not paying a designer to lay out the text of the book (fortunately, he did pay for a professionally designed cover).

I want to clarify the direction in which my thoughts are going. My client referred to the text design of the print book as “desktopping.” This term, in itself, does not carry the weight of the skill and experience of the proper term, “book designer.” In fact, it is easy to assume that just because one can process the words of a print book, add photos, add a table of contents, and such, that this is of the same caliber as the product created by an experienced designer who understands typography, layout, page grids, the use of white space, and all the myriad of nuances that make a professionally designed book aesthetically appealing (and easier to read).

When I started in the field of publications management, back in the late 1970s, I would take the manuscripts for the magazine (I was the managing editor) to the typesetter. She produced galleys (a photographic process of setting each line of type on a dedicated computer). These were then physically pasted up on grid paper based on a mock-up of the design that I had created. (The key here is that the typesetter did nothing but set type. She was an expert in this aspect of publishing.)

Granted, this was before desktop publishing, which democratized publication design by making it “possible” for anyone to produce text. But the typesetter understood the various classifications of type, how the type letterforms differed, why to choose one over another, and how to “tweak” type with such precise controls as kerning and tracking. She also understood such elements of design as adding letterspacing (moving successive lines of type slightly apart to improve readability).

The designer who then pasted up the magazine also understood these elements of design. She knew exactly how to specify these type nuances and communicate directly with the typesetter such that both professionals could work together to create a readable, attractive magazine based on the paper mock-up I had taped together (using photocopies of the strips of typeset manuscript—the galleys). Everyone understood their own and everyone else’s job. Everyone could communicate based on this understanding. But since everyone’s respective job differed from everyone else’s and since each required a depth of knowledge not held by the others, it took all of the participants to produce a quality magazine.

Then, in the late 1980s, everything changed. At that point, everything could be done on a desktop computer. Granted, this made the publishing process faster, easier, and cheaper. Untrained staff could produce a newsletter for next to nothing. For certain things, that’s great. (I’m a great believer in doing what is necessary in a particular situation, neither more nor less. For certain publishing tasks, good enough is good enough. Most people won’t see the difference. When I started in the field, I couldn’t tell the difference.)

Back to My Client

I don’t want to disparage my client. I think she is wonderful and highly skilled. However, in order to help her prepare the text for her client’s print book (with me working as her commercial printing broker), I have had to teach her to look closely for a number of things. Catching and correcting these errors will make her client’s book look more professional and be easier to read. If you are new to design, these are some things you might want to consider as well, whenever you design a print book:

  1. My client set the entire book—excluding the cover–in MS Word rather than InDesign. Some printers won’t accept MS Word files. When processed in prepress, some MS Word files can apparently develop problems. I believe these include reflowing of copy and/or potential inadvertent font changes. This may have been addressed and corrected in the recent past, but I was always taught by printers to use InDesign or Quark. Typesetting functions of these dedicated page composition software packages are more nuanced and more precise. In my client’s case, she will save the MS Word file as a PDF (which should eliminate problems, or at least keep them from creating unexpected results). However, I have asked the printer to check the files carefully as well. When my client reviews the hard-copy proofs of the print book, she will also be able to look for any anomalies (changed fonts or reflowed copy). But if she had used InDesign, there would have been far less opportunity for error.
  2. The Takeaway
    Always use a dedicated page composition program for laying out your publication, brochure, or any other commercial printing job. Don’t use Microsoft Publisher. Don’t use Illustrator. Don’t use Photoshop. Use InDesign or Quark.

  3. My client set the text of the book justified, without hyphenation. Therefore, MS Word either jammed words together (with too little word-spacing) or put too few words on a line (sometimes only three words with large spaces in between). This minimizes readability, because the spaces between words are so different from line to line throughout the 428 pages of the book. And minimized readability tires the reader’s eyes, making it less likely that she or he will continue reading. Moreover, if the type looks amateurish, people will question the accuracy of the content. It’s like a bad proofreading job. If your manuscript has spelling errors or errors in grammar, the reader will wonder whether the facts in the print book are also incorrect. It’s human nature. In fact, it may not always even be conscious. And at best, it slows down the reader’s progress.
  4. The Takeaway
    Avoid justified text whenever possible. Flush left/ragged right text is easier to read because the space between words is always the same. The reader’s eye gets used to this, and she or he gets into a reading “rhythm,” proceeding more quickly through the text. If you have to justify copy, use hyphenation to minimize differences in word spacing. But also carefully review the text (on a printout, not the computer screen) to identify problematic lines of type (which create a condition known as “rivers of white” running down the page).

  5. My client left some subheads at the bottom of pages without the paragraphs to which they referred.
  6. The Takeaway
    Make separate review passes through the entire print book text, looking for a number of errors and inconsistencies: in hyphenation, spacing between lines of type and particularly between typographic elements such as bulleted items (anything where the spacing is different from that of the running text). Make sure there are no “widows” or “orphans” (parts of words at the beginning or end of pages). Leave subheads with at least a few lines of the following paragraph, and start a new page with at least a few lines of copy.

  7. My client kept all photos as RGB images in a book text file that was for a black-ink-only print job. While the digital printer will automatically convert these to grayscale (black and white halftones), some of my client’s images will become too dark in this transition. So I have asked her to change the mode from RGB to grayscale and re-import the images. This way she will see how she can expect the final printed images to look. If they are too dark, she can lighten them before sending the job to press.
  8. The Takeaway
    Never send a color job to press with RGB images. Images for print should be CMYK (if the book is full color). For black-ink-only text blocks, always use grayscale, not color or bitmapped, images.

  9. On the title page, my client did not kern the letter pair “Wa” (in the word “War”). In large type, pairs of letters such as “Wa”–or, worse, “WA”–will appear to be too far apart. In my client’s case, this looked amateurish because of the size of the type (the title of the book on the title page). The type size magnified the flaw.
  10. The Takeaway
    In your own work, print out a copy of the text, and look for too much space in the pairs of letters, particularly in larger type. Learn how to tighten type using the “kerning” function (again, something like this will be superior in InDesign and Quark because these applications are intended for typesetting).

Why Is This Important?

Everything you design, print, and distribute is an ad. It reflects the quality of your work. If your type design looks amateurish, this will make your reader question the accuracy of the content, at worst, or tire his/her eyes, at best.

What’s the Most Important Thing You Can Do to Avoid These Problems?

Study typography. Learn the difference between Old Style, Transitional, and Modern typeface classifications. Learn to kern type. Make the study of type an interesting, lifelong pursuit. Understand how typography fits into the overall design of a printed piece. Look at printed jobs you like and try to articulate why they are attractive. Expect your knowledge base to grow and expand, but assume this will take time. If you don’t have the time, hire a professional designer (not a “desktopper”), and then focus on what you yourself do best.

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