Archives for the month of: January, 2011

Plates is a word with many meanings.  It takes till definition 17b for the Oxford English Dictionary to get round to the meaning “insert”: “An impression from a printing plate, an engraving, an illustration; (now usually) a photograph or picture occupying a whole page in a book, often printed on better quality paper than the other pages, and not forming part of the main page sequence.”  To use the word plate in this sense has a slightly old-fashined ring to it, but publishers still often use it in text call-outs or in announcing in advertising copy that the book contains an insert.

There are three ways in which a group of illustrations may be handled.

  1. an insert printed on different paper (coated paper usually) from the rest of the book
  2. a photo gallery, which is similar to No. 1 except that it is printed on text paper
  3. a group of illustrations printed on text paper included in the pagination of the book.

The reason why plates are printed on coated paper as a separate component of the book is almost totally based on convention.  When books were printed by letterpress, or indeed in the early days of offset, a halftone printed along with the text on the same paper, would tend to be of problematic quality.  You didn’t want the presence of a few halftones to force you into printing the entire book on coated paper (which is much more expensive) so the practice developed of gathering the halftones together and printing them separately on coated paper.  This separate insert would then be gathered at the same time as the rest of the book and bound together with the text.  This practice has now (like so many things in book making) developed into a convention, and is almost expected by the market.  So when we do a history trade book we will print the halftones as an insert, not because we couldn’t print them perfectly satisfactorily on the text sheet, but because for that sort of book we think the readers expect to see an insert, and perceive it as adding value.  There is nothing “wrong” with this convention, and it does become almost an imperative when the illustrations are in color.  But inserts are an inconvenience.

I can accept (just about) that the superior ink hold-out of a coated sheet will give you a better reproduction of a medical illustration, and that this could constitute a reason for having an insert.  However when you are printing pictures of the subject of a biography and her family, or a bunch of engravings relating to the Revolution, the material just does not demand coated paper.  What demands the coated paper is market expectation.  I am not under any illusion that I can change this, but I do like to be clear about which parts of our job are rational and which emotionally based.

When we are originating the book, we cannot be sure where an insert will fall – it either has to go between signatures, or (more expensively) in the middle of a signature, and until we have finished typesetting we cannot know where the signature breaks will fall.  As we do not know what pages it will fall between, we do not assign page numbers to the insert.  Thus if a 4-page insert is bound between pages 192 and 193, the pagination, if you were going through the book counting, will go 192, 192A, 192B, 192C, 192D, 193, 194 etc.  When we submit files to the printer we send the Interior as one PDF and the Insert as a second PDF.  This is justified by the fact that the insert will indeed be printed on a different press from the rest of the book, although not probably, as used often to be the case, at a different location.

Inserts, because they require special paper and separate handling in manufacturing, cost more.  Because of this, over time thrifty publishers came up with the compromise of printing some “inserts” on the text paper.  This we often refer to as “a photo gallery”.  A photo gallery will resemble an insert in every respect, except for the paper on which it is printed.  Like an insert it is not paginated.  One disadvantage of a photo gallery is that it is difficult for the reader to locate.  An insert is obvious because the contrast between the coated paper and the text paper jumps out at you.  From a file archiving point of view, the fact that the insert file is separate from the Interior file leads to the potential for recovery from the archive of an incomplete book.  Where there’s a photo gallery not an insert, treating this as a separate file, which all too often happens, is really crazy.  If the gallery is paginated in with the text there is at least some possibility of this being noticed, but most often photo galleries get no page numbers by result of their descent from an insert.  Omitting the gallery from the file is essentially no different from omitting chapter two.  Please don’t do it.


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On an island in the green Isar of song stands the German Museum.  Like so many science museums around the world it is packed with fascinating displays of almost everything you can imagine in the world of science and technology.  If you go to Munich you should certainly visit it.  Several boats, airplanes, cars etc. draw the kiddy crowds, but upstairs there are more technical displays, including a fairly extensive area devoted to the history of printing.  As you can see from this random selection of photos almost all the items on display are captioned in English as well as German.  The book trade in Germany has always been a leader in technology and quality of design and equipment manufacture.

In 2010 I also visited Montolieu, a “village du livre” about 15 miles north west of Carcasonne.  It qualifies as a “village du livre” mainly on account of the many second-hand bookshops in the town, but there is also a small museum, the Musée Michel Braibant, which focusses on the history of written communication as well as printing.

We used to produce books in several distinct phases, each with a journey, often through the mail, in between them.

The author would write the manuscript — usually on a typewriter but occasionally in true manuscript.  I remember working on a bibliography in the early seventies which was beautifully hand-written.  We took it and “typeset ” it on an IBM Selectric typewriter, which was at the time about the cheapest way get a book done.  Authorial expectations count for a lot of course, but it was horrible to change a beautiful manuscript into a very ordinary set of repros.  When the writing of the book was finished the author would wrap up the manuscript in brown paper and string, take it to the Post Office, and mail it to the publisher.  Assuming revisions were required, the editor would mail it back to the author with a letter indicating the sorts of changes needed.  We did everything by letter in those days — picking up the phone and calling someone was reserved for emergencies. It took for ever.  Let’s assume the manuscript only went back and forth to the author once.  It has now been in the mail three times.

When the editor was satisfied that all was well, the book would be sent to production for estimating.  After getting a preliminary design, it was parceled up once again and mailed to the typesetter, who would do a cast off and estimate, and when finished would mail the manuscript back again.  This estimating step usually took about a month.

Back at the publishing house the manuscript would go through design and copyediting.  If the copyeditor was not on staff, the manuscript would once again take a mail journey.  The copyeditor would be unlikely to send the manuscript to the author — the copyediting changes would be discussed by letter, often a very long letter.  Once returned to the publisher the manuscript had now been through the mail seven times.  After final tidy-up by subeditor and designer, it would take another mail trip back to the typesetter.

If the book was being set by hot metal, there would be four distinct steps to reach proof.  The manuscript would be keyboarded.  The Monotype keyboard would produce a punched tape which would be sent to a separate area where the punch tape would drive a casting machine.  The commands in the punched tape would call up in sequence the matrices required to create the individual sorts (bits of metal type) called for.  Each matrix, for an individual character, would be moved into position above a pot of molten metal which would squirt just enough metal into the matrix to produce the character needed.  The result would be lines and lines of separate bit of metal, each one a different character or space band.  These lines were contained in a long tray called a galley.  The galleys were now taken to the composing department, where pages were made up.  The locked-up pages would then move to a small press where proofs would be pulled.  Except in the smallest of print houses these four operations, keyboarding, casting, composition, and proofing, would all be carried out by different people, often in different departments.  Eight trips in the mail plus three changes of department, makes eleven separate steps before we have gotten to proofs.  The Linotype workflow would be trivially different.

Proofs might all be mailed to the publisher, but gradually publishers realized that sending the master proof and manuscript directly to the author would save time.  After proofreading, the author would mail the master proof and manuscript back to the editor or subeditor at the publishing house.  Ideally the author would keep a duplicate proof on which any proof reading marks would have been duplicated, so that discussion could be conducted by letter once again.  Once the publisher was satisfied with the proofs, they would be mailed back to the typesetter. Fourteen trips thus far.

Corrections would be made in pretty much the same way as the original proof was created, perhaps without a stop in the keyboarding area if there were sufficient sorts in the requisite fonts available.  The compositor would make the corrections, picking out each rejected character with tweezers and slipping the corrected one in its place.  The revise would then be locked up again and reproofed.  Of course if the first proof had been a galley proof, not a page proof, the compositor would make up pages at the same time as making corrections.  Into the mail again: this time almost certainly only to the publisher, where the subeditor would check that corrections had been correctly made.  The proof would be signed off for press, and put back into the mail.  So two more department changes plus two mail journeys, eighteen total.

Now we are ready to print, if the book is being printed by letterpress.  But if it was to be printed by offset, the typesetters would make the final corrections, proof it for internal checking, and pull a clean one-sided proof on a highly calendered paper (a repro proof) and mail that to the publisher, who would check it and then send it off to the printer.  If we noticed any errors in the repro we would if we could get out the Xacto knife and cut in a correction ourselves.  Almost all production staff used to be able to wield an Xacto knife.  It has become another lost art.  Let’s say we are up to twenty now.

The printer would take the repros and “shoot” them, exposing them to film to create a negative of each page.  These negatives were then sent to the stripping department where they would be mounted in imposition order onto large sheets of “goldenrod”, an orange opaque paper, using red Scotch tape.  After stripping one plate’s worth of pages the flat would be turned over and windows cut out of the goldenrod to reveal the page negatives.  The finished flats would now be transferred to the platemaking department, where they were exposed onto a photo-sensitive paper, which was quickly developed to make a final proof: the blues — so called because the type and illustrations were blue.  Blues were almost certainly mailed back to the publisher for final checking.  After they were returned (if there were no errors requiring relooping though stripping) the job was ready for plate making.  Then the plates would go to the press room and the book printed.

Academic books, which is what I worked on, were almost never printed on web presses, as they just didn’t have long enough runs to justify the makeready cost.  So after printing, the sheets would travel to the folding department.  From the folding department they would go to the bindery for gathering and binding.  Of course in those days the norm was for typesetting and printing to be in one location, and binding to be done by a separate company.  This pattern was changing in Britain in the sixties and seventies, as more and more printers got binding departments added to their equipment list.  With the development of “cold type” as it was called initially, typesetting could be divorced from printing.  Lots of little typesetting companies sprang up, working with the early film setters or even just typewriter-based systems, all directed at keyboarding and producing repros which could then go to an offset printer to be shot for printing.

Twenty six journeys have been made by the time the book reaches the warehouse.  Today the number could be said to be two.  The manuscript will/can go from author to publisher electronically.  It will almost certainly go to the copyeditor electronically, and copyediting be done on line — though there are of course still publishers who insist on copyediting on paper.  The approval stage can be electronic, and the “manuscript” is virtually certain to be sent to the typesetter via the Internet.  Proofs and proofreading, ditto.  The typesetter will do the functions previously carried out by the four composition departments and prepress departments at the printer, so when the printer gets PDFs they are ready for a quick trip though imposition software and platemaking.  Blues really don’t exist any more, though nervous publishers can look at “electronic blues”.  The author’s keystrokes have thus made their way through the entire process, being modified along the way, to be moved into the pressroom as plates.  More and more presses have their own folders now, so we can remove another trip between pressroom and bindery.

Now some may wish to argue that two is far too low a number.  Of course designers still do their stuff as do copyeditors, proofreaders and even editors.  But nowadays it is rare for these functions to be divided by a physical break in the process, where one person gets up from their desk and delivers the job to another.  How many parcels have you wrapped in the last few years?  The only two real journeys I can see are the carrying of the plates to the press, and the shipping of the books to the warehouse.  I might add another for a trip from pressroom to bindery, as not all plants are totally integrated there.  Whatever number you insist on having, it is much much smaller than the path I described for the sixties and seventies.  These journeys accounted for about a year added onto the schedule.  I can remember in the eighties we were really chuffed to have been able to bring down the schedule from final edited manuscript to bound books to a year.  What is it now?  It’s been totally disintermediated.