What authors need to know about printing. (Yes, printing.)

Your job is to write. The publisher’s job is to turn what you write into a book. So why should you worry about printing? Those ink-stained wretches can handle it, right?

Not quite.

Musicians need to know about microphones. Architects need to know about plumbing. If they don’t, what they conceive doesn’t come out quite as wonderful as they imagined — and might not be possible at all.

In the same way, you, the author, need to know a few things about printing. Even now, most readers are going to be reading your book on the printed page. I’m continually explaining to authors what is and isn’t possible or advisable based on how that printed page comes to be, and what it can and cannot do. Because once, long ago, I ran the print production department at a publisher — and because hot lead and printer’s ink run in my veins — I have a unique perspective.

Here’s what you need to know to about how your work gets printed and how that affects what’s possible or desirable in the way you write it.

(These tips apply to traditional publishing or hybrid publishing. If you self-publish with IngramSpark or Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, some things are different — and I’ll note those parenthetically after each tip.)

Page count matters . . . a lot

What difference does it make if your 70,000 word manuscript comes out at 250 pages or 300 pages?

It matters because paper and printing cost money. They are the most significant cost that the publisher has. The more the printing costs, the higher the book’s price has to be for everyone to make a profit. So if you decide to include a 30-page appendix just in case people want to see it — or insist that every chapter start on a recto (right-hand) page — you might get some pushback from the publisher, or they might insist on a higher price point.

Page count is typically a multiple of 16, because the printer prints sheets of 16 pages (called signatures) and folds them up to create book pages. If your page count is just one page over a multiple of 16, you’ll have 15 blank pages at the end of the book. If your publisher is complaining about that one extra page you wanted to sneak in, this may be why. (The number 16 here may vary in some printing processes, but the principle is the same — a single additional page may require printing another signature and adding a bunch of wasteful blanks at the end.)

(In print-on-demand processes, cost is still proportional to page count, and much higher for each copy than a traditionally mass-printed book. Print-on-demand doesn’t use 16-page signatures, so you won’t have blank pages unless you specifically asked for them.)

Printing is slow

Once the pages are laid out and ready, they print the book, right?

Nope. The printing presses are a big, expensive resource. That means they’re typically running day and night. And that means your book has a time slot reserved on those presses.

For cost effectiveness — and in case you, the author, might ask for late changes that could screw up the schedule — that slot is probably weeks after the pages are laid out. And if your publisher is economizing further, the book might be printed overseas somewhere, where it is cheaper.

That’s one reason why the schedule is so much slower than what we digitally spoiled authors imagine it ought to be.

(Obviously, this is not a problem for print-on-demand.)

Color is a pain in the butt

“Hey. Let’s print the book in full color!”

As an author, you might think this is simple — after all, your graphics (made in PowerPoint?) appear in color. Why not use color everywhere in the book?

The biggest reason is cost. Color printing is far more expensive than black-and-white. Unless your book will get a significant benefit from those color graphics, it’s probably not worth it.

A full-color book really ought to have design elements, like heads and sidebars, that are also in color. But that adds complexity to the design process. If you’re writing a textbook or a cookbook, that’s worth it. If you’re writing a business book, probably not.

There’s a compromise here: a two-color book, with printing in black and a second highlight color, such as red, green, or blue. You can use that highlight color in your designs. But laying out a book with such elements is more complex, and potentially subject to errors (like a head that’s printed in the wrong color). Two-color is intermediate in cost between black-and-white and full color.

Unlike the display on your screen, where each pixel can be any color you want, printing creates color by making multiple impressions on the same page. If the color plates are slightly out of alignment, you get terrible-looking images with gaps and shadows, which are especially ugly in photographs. Sure, you can blame the printer, but color is harder to print properly.

For all these reasons, most books are printed in black-and-white.

(Print-on-demand has all these same issues; color is more expensive to print and color design is more challenging.)

Graphics take extra care to render properly

That graphic that looked great on your computer screen may look terrible in print, unless you prepare it with an eye towards the printing process.

A color graphic printed in black-and-white is going to look bad unless you have a designer prepare it properly. Contrasting colors, like red and blue, may translate into the same shade of grey. Your designer will need to redo the graphic with shades of grey in mind.

And those shades of grey have limits. A 30% density grey may be hard to distinguish from a 25% density grey when printed. Depending on the printing process, you’ll want to use a limited set of shades.

In some printing processes, grey-scale photos render poorly. Check with your publisher when submitting photos.

Ideally, you should submit graphics in a vector-based format that includes lines and shapes, like an Adobe Illustrator file. Publishers and editors can manipulate such formats to fit printing requirements. If you submit a bitmap file, such as a PNG or jpeg, insufficient resolution may make the result appear jagged or pixelated in the page.

If your graphics are large and complex, they may be difficult to comprehend when reduced to the size of a page. If the type in the graphics reduces to 6- or 7-point size in a book with 11-point text, that’s going to be an eye-test for the reader.

Graphics are also a design problem. If they include text, does the typeface match the fonts used in the book? If you have a finely-tuned design sense, you’ll want to revise the graphics to match the font families used in the main text.

Every graphic is an opportunity to introduce problems. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use graphics. It means you should consider how detailed they are, and how much value they carry, before just throwing them into the manuscript.

(All of these problems afflict print-on-demand books, too. The difference is, you don’t have a publisher to protect you from creating graphics that look awful on the page.)

Managing inventory is extremely challenging

Because printing is slow, publishers need to carefully estimate (that is, guess) how many books to print. Or, if stocks are getting low, to reprint.

If the first printing is 10,000 copies and they sell 3,000, that’s a lot of expensive waste. And those unsold copies will be coming back from the bookstores, creating further inventory management issues.

On the other hand, if the first printing is 3,000 copies and there is demand for 10,000, bookstores and Amazon will be out of stock for weeks. And that’s a disaster.

I’ve seen both situations. And they’re both awful. Guessing demand is hard.

(Obviously, print-on-demand doesn’t have an inventory issue, since each copy is printed as needed.)

Links don’t work

Online writers get used to putting links into text.

In print, you have to change those into footnotes with difficult to type URLs in them. If you’re used to blogging, for example, this will change the way you think about the text.

Late changes wreak havoc

Authors used to online publishing processes that allow tweaks up to — and even after — a piece is published are often astonished at how resistant publishers are to late changes.

There’s a reason for that.

That word you added on page 23 may cause a line to run over, which pushes a paragraph to page 24, which prevents the graphic from fitting properly at the top of page 25.

Your late change could introduce a grammatical error, an inconsistency, or a pagination shift that invalidates the index.

Late changes threaten quality. That’s why the publisher really doesn’t want you to make them. And once the book is printed, those quality problems persist in every book that’s printed — until the next print run.

Why should you care?

I share this information so that you, the author, can make informed decisions.

First off, you need to balance publishers’ ability to drive distribution and manage these processes with print-on-demand, which mitigates some of them at the cost of pushing more responsibilities onto you and restricting the book’s availability.

You also need to know how decisions you make, especially about graphics, page count, and late changes, can create problems for the publisher and therefore, for the quality of your book as it’s rendered into print.

You can ignore these issues and blame the publisher when the book doesn’t come out the way you expected. But isn’t it better to know a little more about how printing works, so you can avoid the problems in the first place?

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  1. I find that the best way to avoid having extra blank pages in the back of a book is to print “This page is intentionally left blank” on each one.