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Production | Inside Publishing


The Production Department - what it does

Chris Holifield 2017Once your book has been edited and designed, it will be ready to go off to the production department. They will be responsible for printing and binding it, and arranging for its delivery to the publisher’s warehouse. This is the department which has been most radically affected by the many changes in technology which have revolutionised how books are produced.

Since the printing and paper costs are the most expensive part of publishing most books, the production department is responsible for the careful expenditure of large budgets. Sometimes individual departments will have a contract with one printer, but more often they will use a range of printers for different kinds of books, ranging from high quality colour printers, perhaps in Italy, Spain or the Far East, to paperback printers, who would more often be based in the UK or the US.

Quality is always important, but cost tends to be a paramount consideration, as publishers’ margins get ever-tighter under pressure from booksellers to give more discount. The printer’s ability to turn around quick reprints may also be vital if a book is riding unexpectedly high in the bestseller lists.

Printing processes

Until relatively recently, printing processes had not changed all that much since Caxton’s invention of the printing press using moveable type. But the last four decades have changed all that. Hot metal was replaced with computerised typesetting. The traditional compositor passed into history and been replaced by designer-typesetters using Mac

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machines. The traditional letterpress process was replaced with litho (offset lithography) printing. Now we have moved a further step and manuscripts are digitised right at the start of the publishing process, so that they are available as an electronic file.


The copy edited manuscript will be sent off as a disk, usually no longer to a specialist typesetter, as used to be the case, but to the printer. The typesetter use Postscript-based programmes such as QuarkXpress to key in the text and, if the layout is straightforward, the programme will also lay out the pages according to a standard design.


Proofs are supplied to the publisher, to be checked by the author and usually by a freelance proof-reader and the corrections are then made. Once the proofs have been approved, the typesetter will supply the paginated output as a disk using PostScript or PDF software. From this data the printer will make the printing plates. If the book contains colour illustrations, disks are now supplied as fully formatted PDF files. Using the disks, the Printer makes litho plates for each of the colours to be printed. Platemaking from disks is described as disk-to-plate or CTP. The plotter proof is a final check.


Illustrations are converted to digital form by a repro (reproduction) house or by the printer. For black and white half-tones the image needs to be screened, i.e. broken up into dots to achieve the range of tones between black and white. For printing in colour four plates are used (or sometimes more to achieve other effects such as special colours), which is why it is referred to as ‘four-colour printing’. Books with integrated pictures will need to be laid out page by page and this is usually done by the in-house or freelance designer working on a Mac computer.

The printer arranges the pages in such a way that 8,16 or 32 or more pages are printed at one time, but that once the sheet is folded the pages will be in the right sequence.


These days most books are printed on litho (offset lithography) machines. Those used for colour work are usually sheet-fed, but big web machines are used for monochrome (black & white) and for mass market paperbacks., which print on reels and can be very fast. Monochrome and colour sheet-fed presses can run at 12,000 sheets per hour and web offset at around 15,000 per hour for printing books.


Paperbacks are generally perfect-bound, which means that they are bound by cutting off the spine folds of the sections and gluing the cover into the book. Some hardback books are still produced with sewn binding, but many are now unsewn using either notched or slotted binding – the sections are glued together but retain the folds on the sections. The days when perfect-bound books were likely to fall apart are now long past, but sewing does produce a stronger binding and a more quality feel, although it increases the cost of the product.

Digital printing

The last fifteen years has seen the latest advance in printing, which is to digitise the text and cover of a book and print it on a digital press. This is much more like a desk-top printer than the traditional printing press and enables short run printing or even one copy to be printed on demand. This technology uses digital files rather than printer’s plates, which enables publishers to print small quantities of books and is useful for keeping backlist titles in print. The revolution that print on demand has caused in printing has enabled 'the long tail' of books which are still available 'on demand'.


Some publishers have their own paper stocks but most use paper supplied by the printer. Paper prices have remained relatively stable over the years, but there have been fluctuations in price which have led to over-supply. This has been followed by the closing-down of capacity and then by scarcity and rising prices. Although price changes generally relate to demand and thus the health of the world economy as a whole, they can be sparked off by other factors, such as rumours of scarcity.

Quoting and the print-run

The production department will get a quote for printing the book from the printer, or work it out according to their scales and contract with the printer. These days the print-run is fixed at the last possible moment to avoid overstocks and take advance orders into account, particularly those from the big bookselling chains. No publisher wants to have money tied up in stock, but the arrival of ‘just-in-time’ printing has produced additional strains, especially if the pressure to produce books cheaply has led to printing in the Far East or far from where the books are needed.


With the arrival of the e-book on a mass scale, which was really only in 2009, the production department has also become responsible for producing books as e-books, which can be downloaded online and then read on an e-reader or computer. Obviously this cuts out the traditional print process, but there is ongoing debate about the costs of producing e-books.

Production and the author

As an author you will probably have little direct contact with the production department. They value delivery of material on time, a quick turnaround of the proofs and no late changes, as they are the workhorses who keep publishing houses on track. If a book is running late, the publisher may be reluctant to delay it for sales, publicity and budgetary reasons. The book will have been booked it into the printer for a particular date, which it will miss if the author is behind schedule. The result is often that the poor unfortunate production department will be expected to make up for lost time by performing miracles and compressing their schedules to get the book delivered on time!

Chris Holifield