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Printers, publishers, and . . .

Earlier this morning, on a mailing list, someone trying to sort out a list of printers began to ask a question by positing “There are many, many on-demand book printers/publishers online, some with very low prices.”

I responded as follows:

Stop. Right. There.

You’re dumping alligators, seaweed, hippopotamuses, and pond scum into one bucket just because they all live in water. So let’s try to sort them out into categories. Then it will be much easier to compare services and prices.

REGARDLESS OF WHAT COMPANIES CALL THEMSELVES OR SAY THEY OFFER, what we’re interested in is what they are and whether they provide the services we need. So let’s use our own bafflegab-free definitions and ignore the marketing materials.


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  • A publisher is someone who puts money at risk to produce and market a book.
  • A publishing services company is someone who provides services such as editing, design, indexing, or proofreading to publishers.
  • A book packager is a company that prepares books for publication on behalf of a publisher.
  • A printer is someone who owns printing equipment and accepts customer files for printing.
  • A book manufacturer is someone who prints and binds books under one roof.
  • Offset printing is printing from metal plates hung on a press and is typically used for 300 or more copies of a book.
  • Short-run digital printing is using digital printing equipment to produce one or more copies of a book for delivery to the publisher (or to a fulfillment warehouse).
  • On-demand printing is using digital printing equipment to produce a single copy of a book for direct delivery to a retail customer on behalf of the publisher.
  • A print broker is someone who accepts a job from a publisher and then forwards it to selected vendors for the required services.
  • A vanity press is a company that combines the services of a publishing services provider and a print broker and overcharges for both, making it impossible for a publisher that contracts with them to make a reasonable profit. Otherwise known as pond scum.

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Now, WITHIN A CATEGORY, it is possible to compare companies and evaluate whether one provides better quality or better services than another, and that can be a productive exercise.

There are book manufacturers who specialize in working with amateur publishers (high school yearbook staffs, for example) and have customer service reps (CSRs) who are adept at hand-holding.

Some of these companies also do a superb job of book manufacturing. Others tend to cut corners.

In contrast, there are book manufacturers whose CSRs are nothing more than traffic managers (friendly, competent, polite traffic managers). Any technical questions are forwarded to a technician, and the answer that eventually comes back may or may not be clear. These companies work directly with professional print buyers at publishing companies and with professional book designers, customers who are expected to provide trouble-free files for printing and clear specifications for the job. Within this subgroup of book manufacturers, some companies focus on quality and some focus on price.

Similarly, with short-run digital printers, there are companies that specialize in book manufacturing for publishers, and there are others that specialize in church cookbooks, machinery service manuals, and programs for the local high school football awards banquets. And, oh yeah, if you have a book of your weekly newspaper columns from the local shopper, they’ll throw that together for you too. So, again, you can compare on quality and price.


Instructions to authors who think an Excel worksheet is a table

This is directed to people who work in Excel a good deal of the time and who would like to see their worksheets reproduced in a book for which they are preparing a manuscript.


Print it.

That’s right. Print your worksheet. The part you want shown in the book. You probably know the size of the book page by now, and I’m guessing it is not 8.5 × 11 inches. More likely it is 6 × 9 inches or thereabouts. So set up your page margins to limit the printed area to, say 4.5 × 7.5 inches. (On US letter paper, you would do this by making the top and bottom margins 1.75 inches and the side margins 2 inches.)

Okay, what you have now is approximately the way your worksheet will look in the printed book. It’s permissible to run the table broadside (so the book has to be turned 90 degrees to read the table). The compositor may typeset your table rather than running it as an image of your actual worksheet, but the amount of type that can be squeezed into the page doesn’t change much when that step is taken. So if the information on your test print is too tiny to read, then it will be too tiny to read in the book as well.

The key thing to keep in mind is that your worksheet can have an enormous number of rows and columns, and you can navigate around it just fine on your computer monitor. But a printed table in a book is limited to the size of the printed page. You can’t just select a large region of your worksheet and shrink it down to page size and expect it to be legible.


What does this mean to you as an author?

It means that you have to think about the way information is organized for presentation to the reader. The way you have it organized now may perfectly suit your workaday purposes, but it may not work for your audience. So you need to select and organize the information in a way that will make sense to a naive reader. If you have a great deal of information to present, arrange it into a limited number of columns but allow it to run to a large number of rows. This will be printed on consecutive pages, and readers will understand it. If you instead have a limited number of rows running across a great many columns, there is no convenient way to make that comprehensible in a book. (Foldout pages are expensive and generally not available for short-run books. Trust me. Yours is a short-run book.)


What else?

After you create a new worksheet organized for the reader’s benefit, provide that as an actual Excel file to your editor. You may also want to provide an image of a table in your Word manuscript file, to show how and where you want the table to appear. But that is not sufficient in itself. The Excel file is needed as well, so the compositor has the table contents to manipulate and not just a picture that will then have to be typeset from scratch.


One more thing . . . equations!

Another problem that sometimes arises is the confusion between Excel formulas and equations. If you are explaining to the reader how to set up a worksheet, by all means cite your formulas just as you have them. But if you are expressing a mathematical truth, use an equation editor, or at least don’t complain when your editor uses one. As an Excel user, you probably don’t think about whether variables are set in italics or not. But in traditional mathematical notation, the choice of type font carries information (real information, defined by Claude Shannon as that which resolves an uncertainty). A letter set in italics is a variable. The same letter set in roman is a constant. In boldface it’s (usually) a vector or a matrix (depending on the context), and so forth. Greek letters are part of the picture, and faking them (using lowercase u instead of Greek μ, for example) is a no-no. In Excel, none of this is relevant. But for an equation on a book page, whether it’s a display equation or part of running text, it’s important. I’ll leave it up to you and your editor whether you assign variable names to business quantities or spell them out in their entirety (net profits = . . . vs. P = . . .). Just follow the conventions and everyone will be happy.


Okay, that’s it.

Set up the table with the book page in mind and provide the file to the editor. Follow mathematical notation conventions. Just doing those three things will make the whole editing and production process much smoother for everyone.

Thank you for your cooperation.

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