Thursday, December 17, 2009

Finding a printer

Full disclosure
I purchase printing and binding services as an agent for my clients. I pass through the exact amount I am charged. I do not charge a markup or receive a commission. This is just a service I provide, at no cost, to help ensure that my publishing clients receive finished goods whose quality reflects all the hard work that went into designing them and get them at a fair price. So what follows does not reflect any financial interest on my part.

What is a high-quality book?
In discussions on various LinkedIn groups (and in other venues as well), I regularly see people with a variety of backgrounds endorsing the “high quality” of books produced by one printer or another, one subsidy press or another. These statements don’t mean a lot to me, because I don’t know how knowledgeable these individuals are about printing and binding production values.

I’ve had printing company reps proud of their companies’ work send me sample books that ranged from bad to godawful. So I have reason to suspect the judgment of authors who tout the great quality they got from a vendor.

I’m picky. Here are some of the things I look for.
  • I expect good backup. What does that mean? It means that if I hold a leaf of the book up to a light, the type on the back of the leaf should align with the type on the front. The left and right margins should be exactly even and the top line of type should be exactly even. I should not see the type on the back misaligned from the type on the front by even a millimeter.

  • I expect black ink to be black, not gray, and I expect it to be that same black throughout the book. The type should not vary in density from page to page or from the front of the book to the back. There should not be reflective glare from the type (seen when toner is applied improperly in digital printing).

  • If there are halftones, I expect good tonal range and contrast. If there is line art, I expect good sharpness.

  • I expect precise folding. What does that mean? It means that if I riffle the pages (like an animator’s flip book or like a deck of cards), the top margin should not waver up and down but should remain constant throughout the book. I’m not talking about pages where the margin is designed to be different, such as chapter pages. I’m just talking about the work of the folder operator.

  • I expect the book to be trimmed square and to size. The dimensions of the front cover should match the dimensions of the back cover and both should be within a very close tolerance of the design size.

  • I expect the cover (for a perfect bound book) to be properly aligned, with the spine centered, all live copy within the safety margin, and bleeds intact (no white showing).

  • I expect the cover to be glued properly, with no excess glue squeezed out and with the cover glued evenly onto the edge of the first and last pages. Looking at the top and bottom of the spine, I expect the glue layer to be even from the front to the back of the book and the top to the bottom.

  • I expect coatings and laminations to be applied properly, with no peeling or curling.

  • I expect a printer that services small publishers to screen submitted files for suitability and to advise customers when the files have significant problems (such as poorly prepared images or low-quality typesetting). “We print whatever the client sends us” is not an appropriate policy for companies serving the self-publishing market.

Four tiers of printers
There are roughly four tiers, in my mind, of book manufacturing:
  1. Non-specialists. These are printers for whom book manufacturing is an occasional job. The category includes the local Docutech center, accustomed to printing and binding documents that businesses distribute internally or to customers. It includes local job printers who send the printed pages out to a local custom bindery. It includes larger commercial printers who do that or perhaps have a small finishing department. It includes printers who solicit book business to fill holes in their schedule but really aren’t equipped for it; the shoddiness of their books is obvious.

  2. POD. The major players in the print-on-demand market are like talking dogs: it isn’t that they’re good at it; the remarkable thing is that they do it at all. For the most part, their employees do not come from the book manufacturing industry; they are trained on the job, and they measure their success by how fast and cheaply they can fill an order for a single book. Book quality is passable, and it meets the needs of the POD market.

  3. “Good” book manufacturers. This group includes many companies whose names are bandied about, with enthusiastic recommendations, on self-publishing mailing lists and websites. These are good, solid printers who produce acceptable books you might find on the shelves of any bookstore. Most people will be insensitive to defects. Problems I’ve seen include less-than-perfect backup, mediocre folding, some quality control issues in cover application, and—probably the biggest problem—a willingness to print completely unacceptable files. They are within ethical boundaries to simply print what’s sent to them. Nonetheless, if they are going to cater to amateurs, I think they should either push back when they receive garbage or they should fix the problems and charge for the service. At the very least, they should flag such jobs internally so that when someone like me asks for samples they refrain from sending out those books.

    Another feature of this group is that their digital short-run books and their offset books are easily told apart.

  4. “Excellent” book manufacturers. This group includes some of the largest book manufacturers in the country (as well as some smaller ones and some that are not in the country). While their bread-and-butter customers are large publishers, they are efficient enough that they can also happily serve the independent designer market (not sure how well they handle amateurs, though). Quality ranges from perfect to near-perfect, and only a technical examination can distinguish their offset work from their digital work. In my experience, prices in this category are actually lower than in the “good” category (I don’t know why, but I also don’t ask why).
That said, were I to have a job very different from past jobs, in terms of paper, page size, binding type, or quantity, I would certainly get bids from printers in both the “good” and “excellent” categories. It may be that one of the “good” printers has a sweet spot that enables it to come in with a low price. So far that hasn’t happened, but I’m not oblivious to the possibility.


JFBookman said...

Dick, thanks for an excellent and useful article. It's obvious that you look at the products of these printers with an experienced eye. What would be even more fascinating if you care to add it at some time would be to name actual companies as examples of each category.

Dick Margulis said...


I wanted the focus to be on training publishers to know how to look at a sample (and to know to ask for one). I'm not interested in badmouthing companies that fill an important niche in the market. After all, it's ultimately the publisher's responsibility to choose the right level of quality at the right price.

And at the top end, I don't want to endorse a handful of printers, either. There are others who are just as good. And with my luck the first person who goes to one of my favorites will either be the hard luck customer who gets a lousy job or else be such a royal pain that the printer is upset with me for recommending them. Safer to keep the focus where it is. ;-)