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Print Production: An Array of Options

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by Deb Vanasse, IBPA Independent staff reporter

Deb Vanasse

The flexible nature of independent publishing allows you to select the processes and printers that match your needs.

To paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous quip, rumors of the death of print have been greatly exaggerated. As technological advances improve the quality and cost of production, print continues as a mainstay of the industry, with publishers leveraging their options in order to maximize efficiency and profits.

“A very flexible operation now is the order of the day in publishing,” says Steven Spatz, president of BookBaby, which integrates print production into a line of services that includes editing, design, and distribution. Some jobs might be done in the US, others overseas. A publisher might opt for digital editions for certain titles and offset for others. Copies of the same book might be produced digitally by one printer and using offset processes by another.

Choosing a Process

Not long ago, offset was the only choice for print production, resulting in large runs plus costly and cumbersome warehousing. Now publishers use print-on-demand (POD) technology to print copies as needed, moving between POD and offset at different points in the marketing cycle. When digital technology is used to produce small batches of inventory instead of one order at a time, there’s also the option of digital short run (DSR).

“I always start with 50 copies as a short run to send out to reviewers and to check for errors—you can look at a screen page a hundred times and still miss an error that jumps off the page the first time you have the print book,” says Dave Charlesworth, owner of Probabilistic Publishing in Sugar Land, Texas. “Then if the book starts to sell, I follow with 200. If it does really well, we short-run as needed until we can get an offset run completed, which takes months rather than weeks.”

Digital printing is also useful for keeping a title in stock between offset runs and for keeping it in print as sales decline. Nevertheless, there are publishers who eschew the concept of printing copies only as they are ordered. “While POD is fine for self-publishers and publishers who want to keep their authors locked into their houses, as a commercial press I believe we have an obligation to our authors to sell their books,” says Rudy Shur, publisher at Square One Publishers of Garden City Park, New York. “If we can’t sell at least enough books to justify a short run, we should consider reverting a book’s rights back to its author.”

On the other hand, there are publishers who rely exclusively on digital print production. “I would advise people to look carefully at what the new digital printers can do,” Spatz says. “These machines are really fabulous these days.”

Given the inherent limitations of the offset process, Spatz only recommends it for runs of 10,000 copies or more. “Just turning on those giant machines costs so much money,” he points out. “Just to get a make-ready, you’re going through a lot of paper. You need to have a long run to justify it.”

Print on demand makes good sense for small publishers who are building an audience without a sales history to predict demand, notes Robin Cutler, director of IngramSpark. “The other thing about POD that is fantastic is that if an author wins an award, gets a great review, or makes a typo that they want fixed, that information can easily be updated and printed on every book after that,” Cutler says. “If you have inventory, you’re more or less stuck with that version.”

With digital processes, there are some limits regarding the types of paper, trim size, and covers, but options are continually expanding, according to Spatz. For instance, BookBaby recently added hardcover to its POD options, and he expects the POD print arms of Amazon (CreateSpace) and Ingram (Lighting Source, IngramSpark) to follow suit.

What about color? There is a mindset that with digital printing, color is of a lesser quality than with offset, notes Tim Leonard, account executive at Bookmasters, another integrated service print company. But using toner-based production, he says, “Our POD books are accepted as any trade book produced in the industry.” There’s also the worry that color printed using digital processes is of a lesser quality than color printed with offset.

Spatz agrees that advances in technology have led to striking improvements in digital production. Even if it’s a coffee table book filled with color photographs, customers should no longer be able to tell the difference between a book produced digitally and one produced with offset, he says.

At IngramSpark and Lightning Source, color printing is processed using CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black), so that all colors are derived from combinations of these four colors, as opposed to spot color, in which each PMS (Pantone Matching System) color is printed on its own. “For most publishers, the four-color process works really great and creates a high quality printed book,” Cutler says. “We introduced inkjet technology a few years ago that we call ‘Standard Color’ that offers high quality color printing at a very affordable price.”

If publishers are getting inferior results from POD, it may be that their printer is using an older machine. After five to seven years, Spatz says, digital machines may have quality issues. Problems can also occur when printers fail to match the paper to the machine, or if they have inferior binding and cutting equipment. And, of course, if the digital file isn’t properly designed and configured according to the printer’s guidelines, the results are likely to disappoint.

Choosing a Printer

Before signing on with a printer, wise independent publishers weigh their options carefully—and depending on the production needs for various titles, they may well engage the services of multiple printers.

Cost is an important consideration, but it’s far from the only factor. “We first look at the unit price of several print volumes, but then select [a printer] based on quality and reputation,” says Jack Carlson, owner of Clear Creek Publishing in Tempe, Arizona. “We often ask for sample books to see the quality and resolution of the color covers. We know they will send us the best, so if we get something that is not that great, we cross them off the list.”

In addition to high printing resolution on the cover, Carlson checks the sample copies for smooth trim edges, no scratches, paper quality with no bleed-through to the other side, and balanced ink coverage in the photos. He also makes sure the binding is not so stiff that the book won’t open easily.

Having co-owned a printing company for 10 years, Shur agrees that quality and reputation are important factors in selecting a printer. “A publisher should look for an honest and reliable printer who gives you the best prices first and stands behind his or her work,” he says. “If you have not worked with a printer before, always ask their sales rep to provide you with the company names and contacts of three other publishers they work with. Over the years, this practice has been very helpful in sorting out the vendors we work with.”

Several years ago, Charlesworth devised an effective way to determine whether companies could make good on their promised service—he ran a “print-off” to see which of three printers would come through on time.

“I had been receiving e-mail and paper mail ads from several printers advertising short-run capability,” Charlesworth explains. “I had a book coming out that had a lot of interest, so I ordered 50 copies from each printer at the same time.” Each printer knew and agreed to the delivery date, but only one actually delivered on schedule.

When comparing price quotes on offset runs, publishers may find wide variations. That’s because different companies use different equipment and processes, explains Leonhart. In addition, he points out that some companies lack the capability to bind in-house.

Publishers should always get a price based on the correct specifications, Shur recommends, and they should negotiate rates for overs and unders—discounts that apply when a run goes slightly over or under the specified quantity.

Noting that many printers won’t ship until payment has been received in full, Eve Rickert, managing editor of Thorntree Press (Portland, Oregon) suggests publishers also evaluate a printer’s payment terms. Is a fee assessed for payment by credit card? For same-day payment by electronic fund transfer?

Once they’ve established relationships with their printers, publishers can negotiate even better terms, notes Rana DiOrio, founder of Little Pickle Press (San Francisco). “It’s an earn-in process,” she says. “With a demonstrated track record, publishers can ask for net 60 or even net 90 terms. They can ask for the ceiling of their credit to be raised. They can also request print and hold, where a printer stores a publisher’s inventory for free instead of sending it to the distributor where it will incur inventory charges.”

The cost of color is another concern—some publishers think they can only afford to print offset color in Asia. “Asia is still very price-competitive because of the labor rates,” says Todd Vanek, vice president of the corporate division of Bang Printing, which offers digital, sheetfed, and web offset printing as well as multiple binding lines. “But as equipment becomes more efficient, this gap is slowly narrowing.”

Leonhart agrees that for color pricing, Asia can be difficult to beat, especially for large runs or specialty specs. “But you also need to consider quantities and the time frame for printing and the time to ship the product to the US from Asia,” he notes. “US four-color printing can be the best business option for many publishers.”

For publishers opting for POD through Lightning Source or IngramSpark, Cutler notes that the same print options are available through both services. Lightning Source is set up for publishers whose lists exceed 50 titles, while IngramSpark offers services, such as e-book distribution, that are likely to appeal to smaller presses.

Solving Problems

Publishers work to establish and maintain good relationships with cost-effective, reputable printers whose customer support teams are at the ready to address questions large and small. Among the common problems that arise:

  • Communication: At Thorntree Press, Rickert reports occasional poor communication about timelines and difficulty getting accurate information about ship dates. To alleviate such concerns, Vanek advises publishers to keep an open dialogue going with their printers regarding turn times and availability in the printing schedule.
  • Quality: Problems with color and photo reproduction may be averted through effective use of the proper technology. To achieve quality photo reproduction using digital processes, Leonhart notes the importance of delivering top-notch files. “With POD, the publisher will get what they supply, as POD is a hands-off process,” he explains. “Everything is automated. So this is on them to make sure the photos have the proper contrast.”
    • To get color in the end product that matches color in the files, Leonhart recommends supplying images as CMYK and in 300 dpi resolution. With regard to covers, Vanek reminds publishers that lamination and coatings can alter the overall color.
  • Delays: To avoid the domino effect caused by print delays, savvy publishers are poised to adjust their schedules as needed. “Our biggest problem [with print production] has been unforeseen delays in printing coupled with an unexpected surge in demand, resulting in stock-outs,” Charlesworth says. “We try to budget contingency in our time planning but still get caught occasionally.”
  • Shipping damage: Smashed corners, dented spines, mangled covers—shipping damage quashes the excitement of receiving newly printed inventory. At Clear Creek Publishing, Carlson has reduced these incidents by including an “Inspecting, Packaging, and Skid Requirements” letter with his accepted printing quote. The letter specifies that printers should make a final inspection of all books, shrink-wrap in groups of three, tightly box in quantities of 36 with a full sheet of card stock at the top and bottom of each stack, label the cartons, ship on a skid rather than a pallet, and apply corner protectors to the carton stacks.
    • For publishers who want to circumvent the bulk packaging problem altogether, BookBaby recently introduced an option that facilitates sales of digitally printed books via “Bookshop” webpages. Inventory is guaranteed, and POD product is shipped directly to consumers or bookstores.
  • POD barcodes: Barcodes on the endpapers of POD titles annoy publishers who wonder why their books have to look different from those printed using offset processes. But these barcodes identify where each book is printed—a requirement of the US government, Cutler explains—and they aid in quality control.
    • For assurance of the best possible product, the proof is in the proof. At Bang Printing, Vanek says customers can pay for Epson proofs to ensure a more accurate color match, and if there is still some doubt, they can request a press check onsite at the printer’s facility.
    • Spatz also recommends checking print proofs, as approximately 40 percent of his customers do. He points out that at BookBaby, proofs aren’t done on a demo machine, so the proof is exactly the same as all other copies.

The Future of Print

Never before have there been so many options for print production. With all of these options, the future of print looks bright. Costs will continue to come down for digitally-printed specialty books, says Spatz, and paper and trim size choices will increase. Already, IngramSpark and Lightning Source have a relatively new square trim size, and they’ve also added a duplex option—printing of blurbs or other promotional material on the inside of a paperback cover—on certain trim sizes, Cutler says.

Flexible by design, independent publishers are well-positioned to make the most of this expanding array of choices, selecting the processes and printers that best match their needs—and enhance their bottom line—for each title in each phase of its existence. Whether produced domestically or overseas, whether printed using digital or offset machines, whether warehoused or made to order, printed books continue as a cornerstone of the industry.

Deb Vanasse is co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the author co-op Running Fox Books, She is the author of 17 books. Among her most recent are WRITE YOUR BEST BOOK, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest, and WHAT EVERY AUTHOR SHOULD KNOW, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion, as well as WEALTH WOMAN: KATE CARMACK AND THE KLONDIKE RACE FOR GOLD.

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