Saturday, July 31, 2010


Wednesday afternoon I sent a book to a printer. The book in question is 584 pages and includes 192 images, many of which are bleeds; and numerous tint blocks, some with special visual effects. The book will be printed in softcover and lithowrap hardcover with dust jacket, so there were three separate covers in the package. The cover design incorporates white text dropped out of a background, colored text on a tinted background, and other effects.

Friday at 6:15 am, FedEx picked up the proofs for the book from the printer. The entire job, in other words, went from submitted files to completed proofs in about a day and a half.

When I heard from the printer that the proofs had shipped, I thought back to my days working for a book printer in the early 1980s.

To begin with, manuscripts came to us as typewritten pages with handwritten editorial redaction. These typewritten pages may have been produced on a word processor rather than on a conventional typewriter, but we were not yet at the stage where publishers could reliably send manuscripts electronically. Initially, we relied on accurate markup by editors and the knowledge and training of our keyboard operators to correctly translate the author’s raw, unmarked typescript into all the right fonts and line lengths and indents and spacing. Later we introduced a modern, computer-mediated system for which a couple of us received training in the special markup codes the system required. The keyboard operators just typed those codes, and the computer took care of the fonts and spacing. But every character still required a keystroke.

The output of the typesetting system was a light-tight cartridge of exposed, photosensitive paper that had then to be carried to the darkroom and run through a film processor. The processed galleys were proofread, and new galleys were processed again and delivered to me. I cut them apart, ran them through a waxer (a machine that spread a thin coating of melted wax on the back), and pasted up pages.

Meanwhile, photographs came as glossy photo prints. Each one had to be measured with a densitometer to determine the correct exposure needed on the copy camera (a Brobdingnagian version of the type of camera you might envision Matthew Brady using). I then had to determine what percentage to enlarge or reduce the image, make a number of camera settings, place the image on the copy board, go into the darkroom (the back of the camera), cut a piece of film the right size, load the film, load the halftone screen in front of the film, expose it, expose it again to make the dots the right size, and run the film through the film processor. It was hard to make more than ten or a a dozen good halftones an hour. Each had to then be printed on photo paper to create a low-quality print to be waxed and positioned on the page.

The complex sort of pages involved in the book I just sent off to the printer would have taken about fifteen minutes each to paste up, once I had the corrected galleys and the photo prints in hand. So if you’re keeping a running tally, that’s roughly nine weeks of typesetting, two days of making halftones, and three weeks, with overtime, of paste-up. But let’s not count the typesetting or the paste-up, because, after all, I did send made-up pages to the printer. We have to count the two days in the darkroom, though.

Next, once all the pasted up pages were proofread in house, copies of them were sent to the customer for checking, and corrections were made (figure two or three days altogether), I took the pasted up pages and went back to the copy camera, this time making large negatives of four pages each. Two more days.

With the page negatives and the halftones in hand, I then had to carefully position them on large sheets of mylar (one sheet for the page negatives, another for the halftones) over a ruled master that I had spent an hour or so creating. For each sheet of mylar (holding 16 pages), I had to cut a vinyl mask so that only the correct content would be exposed (text from the page negatives, and just the correctly cropped area from each halftone). Pages with screen tints required additional steps, including complicated multiple exposures in the darkroom. Altogether another week and a half of work. Two more days just to expose the proofing material and cut and fold the proofs.

And after all of that, all I would have to show for my efforts would be a proof of the black-and-white pages. I would not have begun to work on the covers yet.

The small company I worked for did not do its own color separations. I would have spent at least a day, perhaps two, doing the multilayer comprehensives for the covers, but then they would have gone out to a color shop, at a cost of several hundred dollars, to prepare the color separation negatives that would come back to me for stripping. I would have then gone into the darkroom with the color separations and made duplicates so we could print the covers two-up. That, plus stripping three different cover forms and proofing them, would have occupied another couple of days.

Are you keeping track? That’s close to three weeks of work, in the early 1980s, to get from camera-ready pages to proofs ready to send the customer. Instead of the day and a half it takes now.

But the work I did back then as an offset lithographer was comparably fast and efficient in relation to what would have been done thirty years earlier, in a letterpress plant.


1 comment:

JFBookman said...

The "rubylith" days, I remember them well. Thanks for this trip down memory lane, Dick.