I spent half a day yesterday touring the Lehigh Phoenix printing facility in Rockaway, NJ, and I had such a great experience that I just have to share some of the details. I also have a much better understanding of what happens to a book after it leaves our office in InDesign format and before it returns to me in advanced copy form. Granted, I see it in between during the color proofing process, but I really did not have any conception of the many steps that are necessary to bring books into the world. The color proofing I’m used to is only one tiny element of what goes on at the printer. The process I’m about to describe really applies to the kind of books Abrams does: full-color, highly illustrated books, be they adult of children’s. Some of the basics apply to your typical fiction and nonfiction hardcovers and paperbacks of course. Also, if you are a printing professional, please try not to judge my poor approximation of the process or think less of me when I describe your technology as “super awesome machines.”
Sending a bunch of editors to a printer press might not seem like an obvious day trip. We know about words, right? But we’re talking about Abrams editors here, so it’s actually like releasing kids into a candy shop, because we just go crazy over special features. We love beautiful materials here and everyone has to think about the book package from its conception, be they editor, designer, or production manager. While at the press I saw three new and different treatments that really got me excited: a faux-leather case material, spot glitter on a cover, and a glow-in-the-dark ink! Now I just need to acquire a project that clearly calls for all three of these treatments!! WANT!
Our host Michael Wettstein was extremely gracious and introduced us to a bunch of wonderfully pleasant and helpful people who were kind enough to explain their jobs to a couple of curious editors. Michael picked us up outside the Abrams office in Chelsea for the hour-long drive into New Jersey, complete with newspapers and bottled water in the backseat. Talk about customer service! We had a fun drive out to Rockaway and mostly discussed our summer vacation plans and somehow got derailed into a competition trying to name ten countries that are only four letters long. We only thought of eight! It’s still bothering me! We got down to business when we arrived at the plant though.
Our first stop was the pre-press floor, where we were shown the many devices used for scanning and the machines that make the color proofs I mentioned. First misconception cleared up today: Color proofs do not come from printing presses. Fact: They come from small Epson printers, similar to the ones we might find in our offices. Much, much, much better than the color printers in my office, mind you, but the same in concept. Not a huge machine, just a super awesome little color printer (technical term). The pre-press technician makes several sets of proofs as they adjust color on our books until they’re happy with the results. They also perform all kinds of little tweaks, smaller than the eye can see, to insure there are no white lines between colors or unwanted dot patterns.
Next stop: Plate making! This was the craziest part and a step I basically did not know existed. Ignorance! A super cool machine burns the images onto an aluminum plate, then cleans and buffs it. Four plates are made for every sheet in the book: one for black, cyan, magenta, and yellow. Books print in CMYK, not RGB, which can be a really big problem if the art isn’t properly adjusted before it’s sent to the printing company. The finished plates look like old photo negatives. Raise your hand if I’ve lost you! Questions will be allowed afterward.
The most important stop was of course the factory floor. We were really lucky (or Michael secretly planned it) and one of our books was on press while we were there: a reprint of Eddie Trunk’s Essential Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. The book has to be run through a ton of different machines before it’s complete. The first applies the ink and a technician can check each sheet and adjust the color on press using what looks like an electronic piano. There are other machines that make the cases using cardboard and the printed sheets. A book can be bound in one of two ways and each requires a different machine: sewn or glued (called notch). In the past, you could only really get notch in U.S. printing, because sewn is more time consuming and costly so it’s mostly done overseas. BUT, sewn books last longer and actually look nicer in my opinion. Ever buy a book that won’t lay flat? You try to rest it to an open page and it just keeps closing? Chances are it’s notch binding. A sewn book lays flat, while notch will close right up. BUT, Lehigh Phoenix has a sewing machine and are able to do sewn books right here in New Jersey. I got really excited and hope that more U.S. printers will try to make sewing work.
In total, up to seven or eight machines can be involved in the book-making process on the factory floor. And the process is definitely not all automated. Technicians work at every machine, often checking the finished product or slotting in the components to be bound together.
Before we left the plant, Michael treated us to a heap of free children’s books and an open invitation to return. I now feel I have a far better understanding of the sheer amount of work that goes on while the book is away from Abrams. I also smell like ink and glue.
The realities of printing versus ebooks is a whole other issue and one that could fill many posts, but I must say that I still think there’s something irreplaceable about the beauty of a printed book, especially when images are involved. Readers may not know the words to describe the features we add to covers and interiors–fifth colors, foil, spot UV, gloss, matte, embossing, debossing, cloth cases, gatefolds, inserts, three-piece cases, and more–but I think everyone understands how cool it looks. When a book catches your eye, when an image pops, it’s because the printer has applied some special treatment or sourced a special material to get that effect. They may say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we all know that we most certainly do.