Producing a typescript for a book, answering copyeditor queries and correcting typeset proofs may be familiar to most authors (if not, see the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment authors and editors page), but what happens after that? How does an electronic file become a physical book? This is what I was finding out on a recent visit to our printer, TJI.
Based in Padstow, Cornwall, TJI is a thriving UK manufacturer, printing all types of books from large-print for the visually impaired to textbooks and academic monographs, with every variation in between. There are two types of printing, lithographic (the most traditional and cost-effective for medium-long print runs) and its newer upstart, digital (great for short print runs and print-on-demand).
Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (previously SVEC) books are initially printed on litho, with any reprints produced digitally.
Prepare for takeoff… a book pre-flights
As the publishing manager of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series of books, once I’m satisfied that both the text and cover are final, our typesetter prepares a set of press-ready PDF files and sends these to TJI through an ftp site. A member of the client services team from TJI downloads these files and converts them for positioning into 32 page sections (‘signatures’) or divisions of 32. Further file analysis takes place: are the images of the requisite quality? are the running heads and page numbers in the correct place (and we’re talking to the correct millimetre here)? I was amazed at how much pre-print checking is carried out, which shows the care TJI take in their work.
On to the factory floor – plating up
The printer-ready files are digitally uploaded to the plate-making unit. A ‘plate’ is a large sheet of aluminium where the surface is burnt away by a laser beam so that only the material intended for printing remains.
From plate to paper…
The aluminium plates are now transferred to the printing unit, which has already been set up according to the print size, paper type and extent of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment book. The text is printed in 32-page signatures which progress to the folding line where they are folded and notched on the inside margin, and then gathered in their correct order to form books (‘book blocks’). (As Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment books are sewn, traditionally the most secure form of binding, the notches on the inside margins are for both the threading and binding of the text pages, and the subsequent gluing of the cover onto the spine.) It’s important to note that at this stage, the book blocks are still untrimmed, so that all pages of the book can be trimmed together at the end along with the cover.
The book blocks move on to the binder. The first process involves compressing any air out of the book blocks, and the second process involves sewing together the book blocks. The book blocks are then pulled out of the binder so that they can be paired up with the book cover.
And finally the cover
As the text pages are being printed, folded, gathered and sewn, the cover is being produced separately on a full-colour lithographic press.
Covers for Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment books are slightly unusual as the inside and outside covers are folded back to create ‘flaps’ to preserve the strength of the paperback cover.
Glue is introduced into the notches on the book block spines and the covers are attached. To further add to the intricacy of printing, our Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ‘flapped’ books are sent along a slightly different binding route than standard paperbacks as the standard paperback trimming would effectively trim off the flap. So with covers opened out and pinned back, the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment book fore-edge is trimmed, the covers are closed and the book then rejoins the standard binding-trimming route so that the top and bottom can be trimmed.
And there we have… a printed book! The 21st century printing process may be mostly automated, and a far cry from the days of the 18th-century handpress, but the skill and precision involved should not be overlooked.