Sunday, April 4, 2010

Publishing Part 3 - Printing Problems?

(you can find Publishing Part 2 HERE.)

I want to step back from the numbers involved in publishing for a minute and talk about some of the technical aspects. Particularly, a problem that I encountered twice and how it was finally solved.

First, let's step back to 2007 when Nothing Better Vol 1 was published. I was pretty excited - I'd won a Xeric grant and was able to spend a little extra money on putting some classy French flaps on the book cover. It was going to look really nice! Files were sent off to the printer and I soon received my proofs. They looked awful. The art looked like it had been run through a copier multiple times. The line work looked fuzzy. I asked my rep at the printer about it (this was at Quebecor/Lebonfon). She stated the poor quality was just the proofs, that the final art would look just fine. I was a little leary. I hadn't had this issue with my previous books. The proofs I got for those looked just like the final art, as they should. But I also knew that Lebonfon was going through some changes, that maybe they had changed their internal workflow and so on. So I listened to my rep at the printer. I should have listened to my gut.

The production on the cover of NB Vol 1 looked fantastic, but the interior art looked fuzzy in the same way the proofs did. I talked with the printer right away and asked for an explanation and a reprint as I was not happy with the quality. I double-checked my files and the proofs I had sent. They were all fine. The pre-press department at Lebonfon couldn't find any issues. After a lot of hassle in which I stressed how unhappy with the quality I was, I finally got a letter from the pre-press manager stating they didn't know what had happened but that the quality of the books wasn't poor enough to merit a reprint. My rep ended up offering me a %20 discount. I got almost $1000 back. So that was kind of good.

                                   fuzzy                             not fuzzy

I should stress that this issue was not the end of the world. Few people even noticed the problem unless it was pointed out and they looked closely. But as someone who's day-job involves print-related technology, I take a little pride in *occasionally* knowing what I'm talking about, especially when it comes to printing books!

I honestly would have preferred a reprint instead of the discount just because that first NB collection felt like such a big deal to me, especially with the Xeric grant. But the discount did prove to be a bit of a blessing. When it came time to print NB Vol 2 (which I discussed in Publishing Part 1), I took that refunded money from the first book and used it to pay for the printing of Vol 2. So that was kind of nice.

But the thing is, I ran into the same issue of fuzzy art with Vol 2 at first. The outcome was completely different though and I am confident it was because I dealt with a small, local company who was willing to work with me to solve the problem. With the first book at Lebonfon, I was just a small-time customer. Even though I was paying them ~$5,000, it wasn't enough to merit the best customer service they could provide. They took my money, printed my books and that was that. The nice folks at Bookmobile listened though.

So what was the problem? When you save or export files to a PDF there are a few default presets for Web, Screen or Print. And all of them have a setting for compressing text and lineart and it is ON by default. The thing I'd learned though, was that when you compress lineart, it looks like crap! The point of using compression is to cut down on file size, but if it compromises the quality of your work then it's not worth using.

I didn't think to ask the printer about it until Vol 2 because the files I sent to the printer both times were full-res PDF files with *no compression* and yet for some reason they were coming out looking like they'd been compressed. It occurred to me this time around (mostly since I've seen the issue at work more and more in the last few years) to wonder if the pre-press workflow at the printer wasn't set up to use default PDF settings. (And oddly enough, I did not have this issue with the test books I had made at

When you submit files to a printer someone in the pre-press department opens the files, makes sure everything is there, looks good, and then sends it through an automated workflow to properly set the files to run through their system for print and generate a proof. Part of that workflow would include re-saving the PDF file. And it was then that I thought they must just be using those default PDF settings, including the default compressions settings. I was on to something!

I asked my rep at Bookmobile if this might be the case and she passed that on to their pre-press/setup department. Sure enough, I was right! They generated a new PDF and proof without the compression settings and it looked just great. How I wish I had thought to ask the people at Lefonfon about this, but I also wonder if it would have really made a difference. As a small-time customer they seemed relatively indifferent to my problem and to them, that first book was still 'good enough.'

From my perspective, I'm glad I got to the bottom of the problem because I knew it wasn't something I had done wrong. When you're in a situation like that you feel like you can't rest until you've figured it out. I'm also glad I found a printer to work with who was willing to go that extra step and provide really good customer service. 

Even though my problem was solved, I've noticed a lot more professionally published books over the years with this same issue and it's because people don't pay close enough attention and it's always 'good enough' for them. Larger publishers who carry more weight with their spending dollars stand a better chance of demanding reprints or fixes, so this was also a lesson in the dollar being the bottom line with a lot of companies. Unfortunately that's how it works in the world of business and production goods. But it doesn't have to be.

It's also a great lesson in the world of commercial printing that your proof should ALWAYS look exactly like the final product. If it doesn't, don't sign off on that proof until you're %100 satisfied. And if your printer isn't able to deliver the quality of work you want then take your business elsewhere and let your dollars speak for *you!*