Saturday, August 28, 2010

A bizarre disconnect

I use a virtual company to manufacture some books. My direct contact is with a U.S. firm that consists of a sales office, a customer service office, and a warehouse where they receive books from printing plants and ship them on to publishers. A second U.S.-based company consists of a prepress studio, where technicians review customer files for flaws before releasing them to the company in Asia that does the actual printing. At the printing company, another prepress office processes the files to prepare them for the machines that produce the printing plates.

This is akin to the game of telephone you may have played as a child. As a result, sometimes the publisher’s and designer’s intent is not translated perfectly into finished product. Frankly, it’s amazing the system works as well as it does most of the time.

End sheets
The odd thing that happened yesterday was a message from the U.S. prepress company telling me that I needed to make some technical corrections in the files I had submitted. These were all minor and consisted of changing some parameters related to ink color and, in one case, the location of some printer’s marks. Ten minutes work altogether. Not a problem.

But the final request puzzled me.

I should say, as an aside, that I don’t often work on books with printed end sheets.

The end sheet is the stiff paper that is glued to the inside of the case on a hardcover book, where it conceals the edges of the cover material, and to the first page or last page of the book block (the sewn signatures of printed pages), thus helping hold the cover onto the book.

Most of the hardcover books I work on call for plain end sheets or perhaps end sheets printed in a solid color or made from solid-colored paper. However, the book I uploaded yesterday called for illustrated end sheets, the first time I had done them with this particular printer. Because the end sheet is a single piece of paper the size of two book pages, that’s how I laid it out—one landscape page twice the size of a book page, with the illustration placed on it.

The message instructed me that the end sheet should be laid out as two pages rather than as a single wide page. This struck me as so strange that I called the prepress guy who sent the email. He told me, yep, the plant printed the end sheet as two separate pages. I suggested he actually open up a hardcover book and look at it—that the end sheet had to be printed as a single sheet; otherwise it would not serve the purpose of holding the cover onto the book. Nope, he said, two pages. He was sure this plant printed end sheets that way, and that’s how I was to submit the file.

In the end, I submitted the file that way, and no harm done. It will print fine—as a single sheet of paper.

But the disconnect that stunned me is that I was talking to someone who went to school to master the arcane details of prepress work (a highly skilled trade requiring intelligence, talent, and training) but who had perhaps never been inside a book bindery or even thought about how a book is assembled from its parts. He knew only that the printing plant we were dealing with wanted the files formatted a particular way and made no connection between that and the actual printing of the end sheet or gluing up of the book.

The digitization of the printing industry has created a situation where the person preparing matter to be printed on a press and bound into a book need have no firsthand knowledge of any of the physical processes involved. I’m flabbergasted that the process works at all.

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