Most people do not know that publishers have a Production Department, let alone what it does. Liz Attenborough investigates.
To find out what happens in a publisher’s production department, I spoke to one of the twenty-eight members of the Penguin Books production team, Alison Davies. Alison is the Production Manager for Children’s Hardbacks at Penguin, and with her team of five staff she handles around 400 titles a year – half will be new books, and half will be reprints of existing titles. The books are published under the imprints of Hamish Hamilton, Viking and Dutton, and most of the books will later become Puffin paperbacks.
What does a Production Department do?
‘The production department is here to supply the book to the agreed specification at the agreed price on the agreed date, and the specification will include getting the best possible quality for the price,’ says Alison. So what does that mean in practice? ‘At the basic level we are advising on the size of the book, the paper that can be used, the colour techniques we can employ, the timescale – all the advice necessary on the technical side of the business. And of course the details of what all this will cost.’
Interaction with Other Departments
The department within the company that children’s hardback production liaises with the most is the children’s design department, and next in line would be the children’s editors and the stock control managers.
‘We have to understand what the editors want, and give it to them in the most cost-effective way. We also have to work closely with the designers, to help them achieve the end results they require without going over the budget.’
It is interesting to note that Alison talks about the requirements of the editors and designers – what about the authors and the illustrators? Alison is dealing with titles from such prestigious names as Allan Ahlberg, Quentin Blake, Jan Ormerod, Dick King-Smith, Jan Mark and Jill Murphy among many others. ‘Yes, at a large place like Penguin, we are one step removed from the authors and illustrators. That has a plus side and a minus side – on the plus side we have to be pretty focused on our task with such a large flow of work, and the fewer people we have to deal with, the better. On the minus side, we do have to rely on those intermediaries to pass on all the information at the right time. Some illustrators do come in to the office to correct the colour proofs of their picture books, and it certainly makes it more interesting for us to deal with them directly, even though it probably takes more time.’
Suppliers Out of House
Whilst editors are dealing with their authors, and designers dealing with their illustrators, Alison and her team are dealing with their stable of suppliers, who number around 20 key ones. These are typesetters, printers and repro houses – ‘companies that turn artwork into film for printing’. ‘Around half our key suppliers are UK or Europe based, with the others in the Far East. Dealing with the Far East printers is relatively straightforward as our main point of contact with them is through someone known as a Print Farmer, who is based in the UK. He knows which printer has the right capacity for a job, and will fix for the supply of paper, too.’ In some companies the production manager would be responsible for buying the necessary paper for each job, but at Penguin all the paper for their massive UK printing needs is handled by one Paper Purchasing Manager. Alison makes her decision on where to place the printing of each book on the size of the intended print run. ‘There are some large, juicy jobs that everyone wants to try and get from us, but there are plenty of small margin jobs that are harder to place.’ If it is just a small number (2-5,000), the likely printing destination for colour books would be in the Far East. If the print run goes over 5,000, it is more likely the printing would be donein the UK (or Europe) so that a closer eye can be kept on the project. A large print run usually means it is a high profile book, often with several editions for a number of overseas publishers, and Alison is likely to visit the printer at the start of the main printing run to check that all is well with the colour just as it is beginning its large machine run.
It all sounds highly technical, so I asked where Alison had acquired her knowledge. Much of the technical training is on the job. ‘Actually, I milk our suppliers for as much information as I can – they are the ones at the cutting edge of the new developments, and they have to tell mehow they do things when they’re trying to sell me new systems and new techniques.’ Alison has been working in Penguin’s production department for seven years now, and in that time the technology has changed dramatically. ‘The old letterpress technology (where raised images impressed onto the paper) had all gone before I joined, and everything was already printed litho (where the printing plates are flat, and the images to be printed are treated chemically). But it’s on the pre-press side where things have changed most dramatically. That is in the early stages of taking the artwork and text through to the ready-to-print stage. The technology is changing all the time, and it’s vital we keep up with it so that we can utilise the best of the new in our work.’
Alison has to help designers and editors to keep up, too. ‘What can and can’t be done canreally only be demonstrated by being seen.’
The production side needs to be considered at the earliest stage of any new project, particularly if it is out of the ordinary in any way, or going to be major. ‘If there’s a largemulti-national co-edition to be planned, the schedule is affected just as much as the price.’
‘The Frankfurt and Bologna Book Fairs loom large in our planning, as we need to get material early enough to get colour proofs or mock-up dummies prepared to gauge other publishers’ interest.’
Like most children’s publishers, Penguin Children’s Books publishes new books monthly, but the heaviest period for new book publishing is the autumn which means that April and May are particularly busy months for production staff as they get the last of the checking done so that everything is finally ready to go to the printer for printing. Books need to be in the warehouse two months before their actual publication date to fulfil bookshop and overseas selling needs. ‘Generally we need a year from receipt of the manuscript to get a finished book if it is just a straight novel, but fifteen to eighteen months from the delivery of the artwork if it’s a picture book. It seems a long time, but with new and reprint publishing each month there are constant proofing and scheduling requirements to adhere to. It is very systematised but needs to be in order to put through such a high volume of books – if the bulk goes through smoothly on long schedules, we’ve got time to spend on the less standard books that need particular care.’
I asked Alison if production people needed high numeracy skills, since so much of their work is involved in costing the books. She laughed. ‘I don’t think anyone here has anything more than maths to GCSE standard. It’s really analytical skills that are needed more, so we can identify problems, and plan the best way to go for each book.’
A Career in Production
So how do people get into this line of work? ‘Most people don’t know that a publisher’s production department exists, so no one really knows they want to get into it. It wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do, but after a number of different jobs (including being a temporary secretary at Hatchards bookshop and being a sales repfor a saddlery company) I joined Penguin as a secretary and it happened to be for the hardback production manager.’ Since that start, in 1990, Alison has worked her way up through all the various stages to her position today, reporting into the Hardback Production Director, who in turn reports to the Group Production Director.
The best part of the job is ‘working within a creative environment but working in a very practical way. I find it very satisfying being the middle person operating between the editors and designers within the company and the print trade outside. Most people arrive in production departments bv accident, but once they are here they get a lot of satisfaction from the job and don’t want to move.’
Alison continues to get enormous satisfaction from seeing the advance copies of new books direct from the printer. ‘The whole office swoops on the box of new books, and there’s silence as everyone looks at the finished article. Yes, wedo look anxiously to see if there are any mistakes, and we may be a little disappointed if the colour isn’t quite as we had hoped it might be. But however long you are in this job, that moment of excitement seeing the finished book for the first time never goes away.’
The worst part of the job is perhaps ‘wanting to be more lavish on something, but not being able to because of the constraints on the costing. And the schedule driven pace means that we sometimes feel we could perhaps have done better, done more, if we had been given more time.’
Alison thinks that Penguin is a fantastic company to work for, and says, ‘Production suits me very well. I wouldn’t want to be an Editor!’
I asked Alison if the new technologies, and the arrival of Desk Top Publishing, meant that there might not be any need for a production department in the future? ‘The job will continue to change, but I think there will always be the need for somebody to translate the creative ideas into practical reality – but who knows how things will develop?’
Liz Attenborough was formerly Children’s Publisher at Penguin Books. She now works as a children’s book consultant.
Publishing Profiles No. 3 will go behind the scenes in the Design Department.