The Business of Books: The Front End

When it comes to current trends in the business of books, the world of prepress is no different: We are seeing shorter runs, higher demands and more advanced technological capabilities. Workflows have come a long way since the 1970s and 1980s, and are now more streamlined than ever. As digital is seemingly dominating print, it’s continuing to show more of an effect on prepress.

Joanne Shwed, owner of, a prepress provider of book production services to publishers and self-publishing authors, has been doing prepress since the late 1970s, before the age of computers.

Changing With the Times

“The first typesetting machine I had was an IBM Selectric Composer. It looked like a typewriter and had memory. If you wanted to change a font or go from italic to bold, you had to type in a code, put in an italic ball or bold ball, change the font, stop it, change the ball, type one word, then change it back again. This became very tedious,” Shwed recalled.

“We had to process film. The process involved stinky chemicals and long strips of type that we cut and pasted onto screens. That’s how pages were made back then, until computers came out and we can actually see letters and numbers on a screen in front of us.”

WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), part of early desktop publishing, was a system for displaying content representing something similar to final output on a monitor. This was an advancement during that time, but “if you wanted to draw something simple like a box, you would have a screen full of code,” she warned.

The 1990s and early 2000s brought significant changes to the industry, such as the introduction of Microsoft Word, QuarkXPress, and Adobe InDesign. Book designers used to have to print proofs from a paper output, but PDFs have since replaced the need for printing and mailing out proofs.

The Internet also plays a major role as it allows prepress providers to work with people from all over the world.

“For authors, Microsoft Word can track changes, meaning I can mark changes onto their documents electronically and send it to them. There are no marking changes on paper. When I get done with all the edits, I can just pour them into a page layout program and add style tabs, drop caps, or other style elements and assign tags to them. I can change 50 headings from 12-point to 14-point at once, and once the book is laid out, it’s easy to repaginate and reformat,” she offered.

And now, on-demand book printing has “revolutionized” her business again. More people are now self-publishing, according to Shwed, since it’s easy to take a PDF and post it to a site such as, obtain an ISBN number, put the order number next to the book, and have one book printed at a time. Much of her business involves preparing authors’ PDFs for on-demand publishing.

“On-demand liberates authors; the front end of book publishing is much less overwhelming for them now. Everything is automated, easy and people can download files quickly from FTP sites. Business has grown because people want to be in control, and self publishing puts authors in control of their work. The self-publishing field is growing,” she said.

She also stressed the importance of forming partnerships with printers who don’t have an in-house prepress department. “Partnering with printers forms a cross-promotional effect. It’s a win-win relationship that creates business.”

Implementing the Strategies

Allworth Press, located in New York City, publishes books to help creatives (writers, artists, actors and designers) succeed.
“We get manuscripts, come up with in-house ideas for books, and we go out and look for authors if we have good ideas. We set up a contract with the author who agrees to royalties, and once the book goes into production, the prepress process including the cover design takes nine months before the book goes into printing,” explained Publisher Tad Crawford.

“The editors send the author a questionnaire and edit the manuscript, then it goes back to the author for revisions. From there, the manuscript goes to the copy editor, then back to the author for proofing. The document gets sent out for page layout, composition, and blurbs for the back cover. The designer of the back cover gives us back the template and we have the files ready for the printer and the interior,” Crawford explained.

Allworth Press doesn’t have an in-house prepress department. “We outsource our design work because of pricing. The design work is usually done in InDesign, Photoshop or Illustrator. Our ‘prepress department’ just consists of editors,” he noted.

Publishing companies are also doing more electronic proofing, and printers are using CTP technology, all of which makes book printing faster. At Allworth Press, all copy editing is sent through FTP servers.

The Prepress Lifecycle

Kevin Spall, president and CEO of Thomson-Shore, a manufacturer of soft and hard cover books in Dexter, Mich., described how the trends in prepress date back many years.
“One of the primary measures as a driver is cycle time. The quote to the estimate stage is important, but it’s ultimately about the delivery of the file to ‘when do I get the product.’ Then there’s the proof, and the OK to proceed stage, also known as preflight. Four, five, even six years ago, the (preflight) process was in terms of a few days, but now the expected time is usually a day,” said Spall.

He continued to explain the preflight stage: “The ‘It’ thing now is the file drop to proceed stage, or mechanical preflight—is it laid out with the right margins for back drop? Until about 18 to 24 months ago, we created an organizational shift that eliminates what used to be a dead zone in this area. We created pods, where the CSRs open the file and determine whether or not it matches the specifications required to go further. Next, the prepress specialist, who is beside the CSR, makes sure the spines are right and the bleeds are the right width.”

Proofs usually go out 24 hours later, but this remains a pressure in the prepress area. To combat this stress, Spall talked about the “lights out” prepress model, which involves customers sending the company a file complete to its specifications so a PDF can be generated.

“To do this ‘lights out’ model properly, the customer must set up the file perfectly and drop it into a hot folder. The process is supposed to be completed within minutes if done correctly, but we have to worry if our customers are ready for this. The ‘lights out’ prepress provides time savings and cost savings benefits. We provide training for our customers in the form of Webinars,” he noted.

Education Is Key

Thomson-Shore’s educational Webinars are done at least monthly and offer training on Kodak’s Prinergy and Insite soft proofing system. Twenty to 30 people log into them at a time to review live demos and videos.

Spall continued, “We have a customer advocate whose job is to relate to customer front end issues, for example Photoshop transparency problems. We find this service to be a real value to our customers.”

Because of what’s happening lately with the economy, Spall said publishers are choosing to keep the prepress work and page layouts in-house. He said people are trying to save costs by preparing their own files. “The problems we face—wrong fonts and bleed issues to name a couple—aren’t different (than in the past) but the folks who are doing this work aren’t professionals, so there’s a higher level of error. We try to overcome this by having our Webinars on bleeds, impositions, and fundamentals.”

“During these times, it’s time to focus on printing 101: page layout topics,” he continued. “There’s a turnover issue in the industry and we’re trying to save money on turnover every couple years. Right now, there is a vacancy in the page make-up area.”

However, he said that although it’s time to go back to fairly basic issues, it could pose a problem with the ‘lights out’ opportunity. If the files aren’t done properly, this concept won’t fly.

Lastly, another area he said to focus on is automation, but only as much automation that feels good to the customer. “There’s a lot of miscommunication out there that says we can lower costs by holding the customer’s hand. That’s not true. We still need to invest in the customer service department. When companies do business with automation, you still need people to implement it properly. The folks who are in the self-publishing market need a lot of attention,” he said.

Preparing for Print

Other trends in book production, besides shorter run lengths, include lower costs of operations and color books.

“With digital, the expectation is for it to grow 10 percent in book pages. That’s because of the demand for high-quality textbooks and educational books,” commented Eric De Goeijen, vice president of Océ Production Systems.

“The prepress area is the largest area of growth. Another prepress trend is Web-enabled printing, or Web to print. This is ongoing in the book market and is an integration of solutions with publishers and printers,” said De Goeijen.

“In the workflow arena, we’re seeing professional services as an integral part of the process. It’s about sharing knowledge and experience while developing business with customers. Cost reduction and machine utilization are also important; it’s about the more you can load on a single device that lowers costs,” he further noted.

Océ Software Marketing Manager Buddy Mountcastle explained that there are four categories of prepress: submission, preflight, proofing and production management. “Publishers are trying to streamline book publishing and address the needs of short runs,” he said.

Océ PRISMAweb is Web-to-print software that streamlines ordering, processing, and production management. Ideal for the graphic arts industry or corporate print facilities, this printer-independent workflow software is a full PDF-based, Internet store-front, workflow, prepress, and management solution.

“Oce PRISMAaccess, an internal software application, gives larger corporations the ability to take in jobs and submit them electronically to the printer through a job ticket via the Web,” Mountcastle explained.

“Once the books are in preflight, they go into the central management queue and work management queue, then the administrator can accept the jobs and launch PRISMAprepare to add tabs, change spine covers, or more,” he said.

Books are printed in color more often. PRISMAproduction is ideal for managing color content, layout, and print properties. Customers can digitally proof their jobs before going to the printer.

Once the job is prepared, PRISMAaccess can connect to print engines to complete the job.

Putting it into Practice

Headquartered in La Vergne, Tenn., Lightning Source is recognized for making digital one-off book printing and distribution a practical reality. Since its inception in 1997, Lightning Source has successfully crossed conventional book manufacturing lines, emerging with on-demand production.

Lightning Source uses VarioStream 9210 systems along with Océ PRISMAproduction POD software, Unity RIPs, master servers, and a failover server. The new technology integrated seamlessly with the existing front end, which puts the documents together, and hands them off to Océ PRISMA software to create print data streams ready for printing.

“Switching from one technology to another is like doing a heart transplant,” noted Lightning Source Senior Vice President and General Manager Charles Marshall.

“When you have a shop like ours, you can’t miss service levels. We wanted to pull the prior technology out and put the Océ systems in without missing a beat. And that’s exactly what happened thanks to a great partnership between our IT and engineering staffs and the Océ support team,” he said.

Integrated Book Technology (IBT Global), a Troy N.Y.-based digital book manufacturing company, pioneered digital book production in 1991. Since then, the company’s business has continued to grow, with a focus on scientific, medical, technical, scholarly and school textbooks.

IBT produces books in quantities from one to 2,000 and provides publishers with true cradle-to-grave production solutions across a title’s lifecycle.

The shop uses Océ PRISMAproduction POD software to automate the workflow and manage output. Customers submit files electronically, bring them in on disks or sometimes deliver hard copy books that IBT scans and digitizes. Most book blocks are printed on the Océ VarioStream 7650 systems.

IBT Director of Technology Steve Pratt noted, “Our average print run is 330 books, with an average book length of 300 pages. And with the technology we have now, we can just as easily handle a quantity of one as we can 1,000 books.”