When there are tons of metal and hours of sweat lying behind a printed book, it’s obviously a good idea to proof it carefully. When I started in the business it was normal to go through two stages of proof at least, more if there was heavy correction. We’d hire freelance proofreaders to read blind (i.e. without the manuscript) while the author was reading against copy. Even before the publisher saw a proof the printer might well have pulled a proof, had it read, and made corrections. W. Edwards Deming, the efficiency guru, maintained that Cambridge University Press was the world’s best typesetter and never made errors. He didn’t realize that this was because they would habitually read a proof of the journal in which he published his work before sending it out, and make corrections then and there, so that the proof he thought error-free was actually a proof in which the obvious errors had been corrected already. This of course played into his central thesis which was more or less “take care of the input, and the output will take care of itself”. I don’t think we’d be giving away any trade secrets if we admitted that less proof reading is being done today.

Proofing of type is only half the story. We also like to proof the printed piece. The letterpress printer would probably pull a press revise from the locked up formes before putting the job on press. This would be checked for imposition, folding the sheet to see it all runs in sequence, and might well be read for content by the printer’s proof room. It would not be sent out to publisher or author. If the book had color illustrations they would have been proofed previously with progressive proofs. A progressive shows cyan only, magenta only, yellow only, and black only (CMYK), then combinations of them culminating in the full four-color image, all showing registration marks. In letterpress printing each color would be represented by a separate metal cut (or “block” in Britain) which would all have to be imposed separately in four different formes. Checking register from one forme to another was obviously important. In offset printing the same layout would be needed, though we would be dealing with four plates rather than four metal formes. One of the reasons Hong Kong became so popular for color printing in the seventies of the last century is because their labor costs enabled them to press proof entire books on small proofing presses, showing an almost identical quality to that which they would achieve on the run. Seeing color illustrations in position along with the type was an innovation — at least an innovation at affordable prices — and made it so much easier to check a book rather than using a type proof, and a pile of progressives for the color art.

Now that book work is being prepared on computers the expectation that the color in the final printed piece will match the color seen on the computer monitor has become a nagging problem. Because computers work with RGB, not CMYK, using additive not subtractive color, it is never going to be possible to print by offset to match the color seen on screen or on a laser proof. The trouble is though that editors and authors are shown a cover on screen or as a laser proof printed out from the computer, and tend to fall in love with that version. Nobody knows for sure how to adjust the color in the file to fool the offset color system into reproducing the “correct” color. I used to get around this by sending along the laser proof and telling the printer to match it as closely as possible, regardless of what the files seemed to be asking for: this often seemed to work, whereas trying to adjust the files never did. You’ll find people who swear by their Epson proofers, but it’s always going to be a color-matching compromise as you move from one medium to another.

Now when we make a print-on-demand book, the digitally printed book is proofed in final form. At last the ultimate proof — a proof that looks exactly the same as the bound book —  showing exactly what every copy ever printed will look like. Print-on-demand depends on processes and workflows enabling the profitable printing of a single copy of a book. The proof you see is nothing more than the first order filled for this ISBN. You can of course make corrections to your proof, so that the revised proof will then be the pattern for every subsequent identical copy. But what you see is what you’ll get, for ever more.

See also my earlier posts on Galleys and Blues. A nice blog post about typos comes from the New York Times Opinionator blog of 17 July 2011.

(At the request of Vin Hamilton)