Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Mysteries of Printing

When talking about the printed book, I think it's important to talk about offset printing. Offset printing is the term when you're hiring the services of a printer and printing a large volume, as opposed to opening a document at home and printing it with your home printer or obtaining the services of a photocopier.

Before one chooses offset printing, I think every publisher should ask themselves whether it's worth it. If you're printing under five hundred copies, you might want to look into alternative methods of producing your book. Of course a safe minimum print run is a thousand but some local printers do accept print runs of 500, although it's probably going to be expensive.

Offset printing has several steps. In this essay, I'm going to talk about sheet-fed offset printing which is most likely what a lot of publishers are using. It's called sheet-fed because the paper used in printing are sheets of paper which you feed into the machine. The other method would be web offset which uses a web printer. Now I'm not going to talk about web printers because 1) I don't know any experts in web printing but more importantly, 2) web printing is used for extremely huge print runs, usually for broadsheets and publications that run in six digits. I've seen web printers and they're huge. Kenneth describes them as holding "lots of tissue paper" which isn't far from the truth because paper used in web printers are gigantic paper rolls that could easily squash people and there's lots of them.

The first step when talking to a printer is getting a quotation. Printing a book isn't a simple process. You simply don't say "I want to print a book like that" and that ends there. It's more akin to renovating your room, where you're choosing paint, wallpaper, etc. and it all depends on the dimensions of the room. Books (or any other publication) is pretty much like that. So when talking to a printer, don't expect them to blather immediately about prices. Tell them your specs and let them do their research on how much it'll cost you. Here's a quick rundown on what you usually need to take note (and by no means is this comprehensive):

  1. Paper type -- Common paper options are usually newsprint or bookpaper but there's lots of other paper types out there. Aside from choosing whether it's newsprint or book paper, you should also take into consideration how thick it is, measured in poundage. For example, we usually refer to the thinnest, usable book paper as Book 60. If you want thicker paper, it could be Book 70 or 80 or even higher.
  2. Dimensions -- What's the size of your publication? And in this case, you need to be specific (which will affect a lot of things, from your book design to the spine of the book to how much is your bleed area). A 6 x 9 book for example will probably be cheaper than producing a 12 x 18 book (but there's a lot of other factors to take into consideration). Here's a hint if you're on a tight budget. Book paper in the country usually has two sheets: 22 x 34 and 25 x 38. Your pages will be cut off from those sheets and there will be wasted paper. If you want to save on money, your dimensions should be one that has the least paper wastage or maximizes how many copies you'll be printing.
  3. Color - Printing follows the subtractive color model which leaves us with four primary colors to work with: CMYK or Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. If you're just printing in black and white for example, you'll simply be using Black. If you're printing a photograph, you'll need all four colors. There are also other options which we call special color and you can use it to produce colors not available in CMYK (such as metallic silver) or produce a specific color when you're not using CMYK. Special color however is another color when it comes to film and plates (I'll discuss this later on) so you should also take this into consideration. As to note complicate your life, I won't talk about having specific pages use full-color and the rest of the publication just a single color. It's possible though and it can save you in costs if you know what you're doing but that's something you should discuss with your printer.
  4. Cover - The cover is pretty much like #1 to #3 except it's specifically for the cover (because you know, book covers don't usually use the same paper as the book pages). Repeat process #1 to #3 except you should probably choose a thicker paper and there are other, more expensive options which you might want to consider since this is the cover we're talking about. Examples are spot-laminate (only a portion is laminated), C2S (glossy/coated paper), or simply a thicker stock of paper. If you only chose one color before, you might want to make your cover full-color.
  5. Print run - How many copies are you printing? The law of Economies of Scale and if the print run is high enough, Diminishing Returns, will affect the costs. But I'll take talk more about this later on.
  6. Folding/Binding/Cutting - These are usually the final steps once the printing is done. Someone has to fold or cut the pages and eventually bind them (unless all you're printing is a flyer or a poster). Common binding options are saddlestich (staples) and perfect bind (glue and the most common for books). Filipino students who are used to the photocopying textbook services will be familiar with spiral binding, in which books are bound by rings.
  7. Miscellaneous Costs - There's probably something I forgot to factor in so I'm calling these miscellaneous costs. Also bear in mind that you should clarify with the printer whether they'll be delivering the finished product to your doorstep or whether you're getting it from the printer. Transportation is another cost you should factor in. Then there might be errors or revisions when you're actually printing the actual book so there might be some additional costs there. Let me tell you now, printing isn't perfect. Most of the time, something goes wrong. Don't panic, that's normal. Talk to your printer about it and then you can either come up with a compromise, or you could look for another printer.
Now that we're done with the quote, we'll move on to the actual file you submit to the printers. (In between this, you should have had someone write, design, and edit the book. I won't elaborate on that process as that's easily a comprehensive article in itself.) Make sure the file is in CMYK (as opposed to RGB which is the norm for computers) to factor in the fact that you're using offset printing and more importantly, make sure the file you're submitting is in hi-res. Hi-res is short for high-resolution and a safe value for that is 300 dpi (most web-only images are 72 dpi which is why they might come out poorly when you print them) although I've heard of people submitting as high as 600 dpi. The main point is that for each process involved, the quality of the file degrades, and having a high dpi gives them more to work with. Also, as much as possible, submit your image files as TIFFs. JPEG, while space efficient, is a horrible format for printing. JPEG's compression is such that every time you make changes, no matter how minute, there's a degradation in the quality.

From the computer, the next process for the printer is Color Separation. What this means is that it'll break down a document into is color components. If you're only using one color, usually black, it'll just break it down to the black component. If you're using full-color, it breaks it down to the for colors: CMYK. Obviously, if you picked full-color, this is a significant cost in this process. If you simply chose to print in black and white, you're cutting your cost in this process to a quarter.

What follows next varies depending on the facilities of your printer. A more modern approach is CTP or Computer to Plate. What this entails is that from the computer, it makes plates of your manuscript. Each color will require one plate (see above) so again, whether you chose full-color or single color has a significant bearing in this process. The other, more traditional method is that from the computer, the file is converted into negatives or film. The film is like your blueprint for the plates when you don't have access to CTP. Again, there's one film for each color. After that is Stripping to make sure that what comes out in the plate is correct, everything from pages to Registration.

I'll take a step back and insert an optional process here. This optional process is called proofing and it's basically your preview of the finished product. When you order proofs, it usually comes out in all the color combinations possible (i.e. Cyan, Cyan and Black, Cyan Magenta and Yellow, etc.). It's an additional cost to you but in my opinion, it's well worth it. This is the only time you'll catch corrections or to check if the color is right and it's been in my experience, every single time, there's something wrong. (Of course having said that, there will be some errors you can live with and some you can't.) In CTP, this happens before the file gets converted into plates (the printer will probably use a high-end conventional printer to print this out). In film/negatives, this happens after Stripping and before the plates come out.

Next step is the plates. In manufacturing, they're the equivalent of the product mold. You can just think of them as the templates for which the printing machine will follow. Again, each color has its own plate. For the most part, plating is an expensive process yet it's the last step before the printer actually prints your document. If you want to make corrections to the book, make sure you do it before that particular page gets converted into plates. Once the printer has made the plates and you want a revision, they'll have to make new plates and that means additional charges to you.

After the plates, it's off to the machine! There's not much I can elaborate on this part except that the printing machine does its job and you should just let the printer handle the details such as feeding it paper or placing the oil-based ink. What you end up is close to the finish product but not quite yet. Again, if you want to make corrections at this point, once you've seen the actual printed stuff, it's going to cost you lots of money. Not only do you have to make new plates, you have to pay for the ink, the paper, and the labor. Or you could just live with the mistake, your choice.

Once you're satisfied with the output, there's the simple but tedious process of cutting, folding, and binding the book. Again, there's room for error here but depending on the error, it might be something as cheap as removing the binding from the book and rearranging the pages, or something as expensive as printing the entire document again because it was cut wrong (thankfully, no need to make new plates since the error isn't in the printing itself but in the cutting).

And there you have it, the finished product! Of course here's some advice. In low print-runs, a big chunk of your costs will come from the plates. As I said, plates are like the molds of the printer. Whether you're printing a thousand copies or a million, you'll still be using the same mold. It doesn't take a math genius to figure out why increasing your print run lowers the per-unit cost. Having said that, huge print runs will be expensive because of unavoidable costs: paper and ink.

This guide is by no means comprehensive but rather a basic introduction to the printing process. I'm sure there are things I missed out and there are efficient, cost-saving means if you know what you're doing (i.e. choosing black and a special color if you're just using the black and orange colors instead of CMYK, the fluctuation of paper prices, etc.). Anyway, special thanks to Kenneth of Kemdy Prints, Inc. and all errors are mine, not his. (Elbert and Jaime of Nautilus Comics were also helpful as they were one of the first people that got me acquainted with printing.)

Kemdy Prints, Inc. is at 43 General Lim St., Heroes Hill, Q.C.


chat said...

This article reminds me of when I got our wedding invitations printed by an offset printer. My question is what is the typical file format required by the printers? I have made my invitation in Photoshop but my printer asked that I convert it to Illustrator. Is this typical? What is the best file format to use?

Charles said...

The printers I know accept most formats, whether it's a TIFF, JPEG (not recommended), Photoshop, Freehand, Illustrator, Corel. If you want a universal file, it should be PDF. But normally just ask the printer beforehand what their preferred format is.

The good thing about Illustrator is that it's vector-based, which means that no matter how stretched or shrunk the file is, it'll still look good (same applies to Freehand).