The Evolution of Modern Book Production Technology by David Brimble

David-Brimble_profile-e1454088661506We asked trusted whitefox freelancer (and Unsung Hero of Publishing for 2016) David Brimble (Hodder, BBC Books, Random House) for an abridged overview of what has changed in book production technology since he began his career. Read on to find out exactly how digital made working remotely as a production specialist possible. Learn more about David’s services at davidbrimble.com.

Nearly a decade before the explosion in digital publishing, hastened by the arrival of the Kindle, book production was beginning its own digital revolution.

Up until the late nineties, text-led books were typeset in dedicated software systems requiring very specialist operator skills and space-hungry computing power. Books in their print-ready form were output onto ‘Camera Ready Copy’ (CRC), a heavy, photography-type substrate. The printer would photograph this and output the capture to film, which would then be exposed on the printing plate to be used on press.

One major innovation was the ability to output the print-ready book to a digital file format rather than to analogue hard copy. Initially, this was Adobe’s Postscript format, which gave way to their Portable Document Format (PDF) within the space of a few years. PDF had the enormous advantage of being viewable on-screen using the free-of-charge Adobe Reader program, irrespective of the package from which the file was created. Postscript files required a hard copy (now laser printer paper rather than CRC) as a proof of the content of the file, to enable checking by Editorial and Production. PDFs could be checked on-screen as well and, perhaps more importantly, could be much more easily circulated in-house and externally.

When the Kindle arrived in 2007 (how is it that long ago already?!) some maintained that publishers were caught unawares and lagged behind in providing for the demand for books in this form. In truth, PDF enabled publishers to start gearing up for digital publishing in the early 2000s, and it was certainly happening at Hodder Headline, where I was working at the time. Truth is the Sony Reader (available from 2004) and other early e-book devices didn’t result in anything like the interest the Kindle later did, but much of the ground work had already been done when the Big Bang finally happened.

Back in the era of CRC, before PDF became the norm, page layout and typesetting techniques in their previous forms were already giving way to less expensive, more broadly accessible Desktop Publishing (DTP) hardware and software. The Apple Mac and, initially, QuarkXPress, PhotoShop, then Adobe’s Creative Suite (these days far and away the dominant force), brought us to a situation where consistency in the production of digital files for print was key, in order to provide digital ‘Assets’ to the publisher more generally, for ease of use in Publicity, Marketing, Rights and elsewhere, and in digital publishing later on. The new DTP packages provided for this in a way their less accessible forebears had not.

In the production of physical books, PDF became the dominant carrier for print files alongside huge developments in litho print technology, particularly in pre-press. Computer-to-Plate (CTP) was another massive shift. Digital files could now produce printing plates directly, with no need for a film stage in between. Speed and quality improved immensely, particularly the latter in the case of colour book printing. As photography itself has become very much a digital medium the workflow for producing physical books is now almost entirely digital, from image creation, through layout and design, proofing and into print.

The current stage of development, made possible by this streamlining of the manufacturing process, is digital printing, where the data is output directly onto the substrate with no plate in between. This reduces the start-up costs and can make producing fewer copies at a time more cost-effective than was the case before. Publishers are using this to keep stock levels (and warehousing costs) lower for books selling fewer copies, and self-publishers can limit their financial exposure by printing their books on demand.

Book printers would once have devoted a sizeable section of their factory to storing film and plates from previous jobs. That space may now lie empty or contain one or more digital presses, augmenting the higher volume litho machinery.

When I started out, a Production Department in a large publisher could be waist deep in boxes of A4 CRC or laser paper ready to go to print, with a CD or DVD disc or two buried in there somewhere. These days the main focus of activity is often the online database, from which much of the daily work of costing, scheduling, purchasing and sending and receiving files is managed. You would also expect to find a Digital Asset Management (DAM) archive in some form, making all the content of the books readily available, whether that’s to facilitate print, digital publishing, a newspaper serialisation, a foreign rights sale or any number of other requirements.

I can’t imagine trying to manage the production process as remote-working freelancer at the time when I entered the industry. There used to be so much cumbersome material to move around, but fortunately for me quite a bit has changed.

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