I recently attended a panel discussion at which someone insisted that there was absolutely no question about it, you could tell in an instant whether a color piece had been printed by offset or digital, and that offset was obviously, to anyone who knew printing, markedly superior. It reminded me of the seventies in Cambridge where the same thing was being said about offset and letterpress (black & white admittedly) to offset’s disadvantage. You can of course feel the recessed impression on a letterpress page, so even a relative printing ignoramus like me can easily tell them apart, but other than that it’s difficult to discern a difference. Anyway whether letterpress is better than offset or not is kind of academic: how many books are printed by letterpress today?

My feeling about  these sorts of quality assertions is always that, in book manufacturing, the reaction of “someone who really knows printing” is ultimately irrelevant. We are not in business to win prizes for printing excellence; nice though it may be to get recognition for our efforts. What is important is whether the book is printed well enough that customers will be induced to (or at least will not refuse to) buy it because of “production values”. And I do believe that the customer, of course not “someone who knows printing”, is by and large ridiculously tolerant. This should not be taken to imply that bad printing is something we should encourage: given your druthers, you’d rather get a book that was printed excellently than one that was just printed well, but in some cases, a book which is printed rather poorly will do just fine for the intended market. Too much specialized knowledge can be a barrier to success. I remember one job, years ago, where I inherited a dispute with the cover printer over the 3rd or 4th press proof. My predecessor had been louping the proof and sending it back marked up with instructions like “- 2% cyan, + 1% magenta” etc. in bubbles all over it. The thing was still garbage. In my innocence I said as much and asked for a new original photo — end of problem.

So here is an article by Frank Romano in Book Business who confirms my impression that color digital printing can actually be pretty damn good. He refers to the new business of self-produced photo albums, facilitated by Lulu and Blurb and other similar sites. These books are all digitally printed on a good coated sheet, often in quantities in the single digits, and are beautiful (I make no endorsement of the design or content, just the printing). Thousands and thousands of these books are being printed now — wedding albums, recollections of a vacation, family reminiscences, sporting events and so on. They make some of the cheap offset reprints you used to find on the remainder tables look pretty sickly.