One tends to think of printing as a clanking machine shooting sheets of paper out having impressed some ink onto them. But while it is indeed that, it is more. Leaving aside all the preparatory pre-press work, there are two steps in printing. The run, which is what my first sentence was attempting to describe, and the makeready. Makeready — setting up the machine — takes place for every job, and has to be carried out before a single copy is printed. To set up a offset printing press you need to mount the printing plates, load the ink and dampening solution, make sure they are flowing freely and adjust their balance, fine tune the relationships of ink and dampening rollers, as well as plate and blanket cylinders. The aim of these and other preparatory procedures is to avoid wasted time and paper once the job itself has started to print. As part of makeready a few sheets will be run to check everything’s in alignment. Usually it’s not, and adjustments have to be made and a few more sheets of paper “wasted” as makeready checks. In letterpress days it was necessary to pack fillers below the type from in order to ensure that it came into even contact all over with the impression cylinder — to avoid its printing feint in one area and overly bold in others. All these operations take skill and time, which means they cost money — and all before a single sheet has been printed. I just read, in a family history by my cousin Patrick Mark, that a large Quad Demy Perfector at Harrison’s in St Martin’s Lane, where he worked in the early 60s, would take more than a day to make ready. This standing cost motivated the constant search among printing equipment manufacturers for machines with quicker and quicker makeready.

Now that we are moving from offset to digital printing, makeready times can come down more than ever. The extreme case is a one-off on-demand digital set up, where in terms of the individual book there’s effectively no makeready — in so far as the machines are made ready, that takes place in the morning before we start running. The invoiced cost of printing ten copies will just be the cost of one copy multiplied by ten, whereas with an offset job the unit cost will be the cost of each piece’s journey through the press, PLUS a share of the makeready; basically the total makeready divided by the number of copies printed.

See also Unit cost.