In one of the most mysterious and hidden corners of the world of children’s books we find
The Production People
If the work of those who inhabit Author Island is to reach a mass audience it has to make the crossing from Publishers Island to Printers Island. On our map it doesn’t look far but the journey across that narrow strait is fraught with perils. The people of all the islands in the Producers’ Group have something at stake as the author’s manuscript or the artist’s originals are transformed into books. However their anxieties and their concerns may be very different as we discovered when we watched The Production People piloting a picture book through the process.
When Jan Ormerod went to see Martin West, an editor at Kestrel, she showed him some black and white illustrations of a little girl waking up. Martin liked them, and encouraged Jan to work the idea into a book with colour. The result was, of course, the award-winning Sunshine. But before Jan could start work on the full set of illustrations for the book, several things had to happen.
Martin called in the production department. Kestrel is part of Penguin Books, and Richard Keller is Penguin’s production manager. His responsibility is to make sure that Penguin’s books are produced as well as they can be for the money available.
‘The first thing to do with a new book,’ says Richard, ‘is to talk about cost-effective sizes and agree on the right specification for it. We do this with the artist and an editor, and what we’re talking about is a size for the book and its number of pages.’
Jan Ormerod went away with two decisions made: Sunshine would have the standard number of pages for a picture book – 32 – and the pages would be 169mm x 254mm. Jan, Martin and Richard had together decided that 32 pages was the right number for the idea in an artistic sense, but they didn’t just pick the figure out of a hat.
It derives from four – the basic magic number in printing. Books are printed on machines which can handle paper to produce four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, etc. pages. Thirty-two pages for a picture book is an economic size because, using the right sized machine, the whole book can be printed with sixteen pages on one side of a large sheet and the other sixteen on the other. That single sheet is then folded and cut, and emerges recognisably a book. (A lot of careful planning goes into making sure page four ends up on the back of page three and is followed by page five’)
The page size was also an important factor for Sunshine. Kestrel wanted to ‘sell’ it internally to Puffin. To make this as cost effective as possible, they went for a page size which would slot into the Puffin picture book format without any adjustments. Puffin would be able to use the original film (more of that later) to produce their paperback. Jan admits she found it difficult to work to that particular page size: but she had to for that most persuasive of all reasons – cost.
Which Printer? How Many Copies?
Meanwhile, Richard Keller and Martin West were grappling with other costing problems. Richard has to find the printer who is not only right for the job, but who will do it for the best price. ‘On a picture book we would certainly get quotes from at least six companies, in this country and abroad. We wouldn’t necessarily take the cheapest, either. We have to look at them for reliability – we’ve got to know they’re going to do the job on time – and also for quality, and that can vary from printer to printer.’
Doing the job on time is important, because Martin will already have scheduled the book – that is, slotted it into Kestrel’s publishing programme. He’ll also want to start looking around for co-editions – selling a book to foreign publishers before it’s been printed and persuading them to let him print their copies with his. Because it costs so much to originate everything that goes into producing one book – the more you can print and be sure of selling, the cheaper each book can be. But this takes time and causes production managers like Richard Keller more headaches. ‘We can’t actually tell the printer how many books we’re going to want printed until the co-editions are sold.’
Enter the Designers
The designers in a production department are the people who decide things like which size and style of typeface to use – there are hundreds to choose from. These days most type is done by photocomposition. This relatively recent development uses computers and the techniques of photography. A keyboard operator punches the words into a computer, which then instructs a machine to produce words on a sheet of paper photographically.
‘We sometimes get the type set first for a picture book,’ says Richard. ‘The artist can then have it on a galley proof (a photocopy of the type) and work the text into the illustrations, instead of trying to fit it in later. But it depends on the artist and the artwork.’
Where the type should go in relation to the pictures is talked over with the artist, the editor and the production manager. Some artists have very firm ideas about this, others don’t. Some ideas are technically difficult to achieve and therefore expensive. The dreaded word ‘cost’ hangs over everything. Sunshine has no text so where to put it is one problem which doesn’t arise as Jan arrives with her finished pictures and the production department tackles the next job.
‘Once the artwork is delivered,’ says Richard, ‘we start work on making it ready for the next stage. We do a paste-up. Sometimes artists do a rough paste-up, and we do a pukka one, but quite often we do the pukka one without a rough.’
Paste-up means what it says. A designer takes the type supplied by a typesetter and pastes it in position on the artist’s illustration. It also means supplying anything else the artist may not have done, like rules round the pages, the page numbers and so on – and putting together the artwork for the title page and the cover. ‘Once it’s pasted up and ready,’ says Richard. ‘we send it off to the colour origination house for film separation’.
To the Colour House
The next time you look at a full colour picture book, really look at it. Every shade, tone and colour on every page is made by separating the original colours into four, then re-combining them at the printing stage. This is known as the four-colour process. The four colours in the process are black, cyan (a fancy word for blue), magenta (a fancy word for red) and yellow.
Separating the colours so that the printer can print the book is a highly skilled and very expensive job. It’s usually referred to as colour origination and is done by specialist companies – colour houses. The traditional method of doing the job – which is still quite widely used – is with a large camera which takes pictures of the whole artwork and produces film. (This film is later used by the printer to make the printing plates.) The artwork is ‘shot’ several times, each time with a different filter over the lens of the camera to screen out three of the colours, leaving a sheet of film which records, for example, only the magenta.
These cameras make an image of the artwork by breaking it up into thousands of tiny dots. Just as with paints you can get most colours by mixing a few basic ones together, so when the sheets of film of the artwork are made into plates and printed one on top of the other, the original colour reappears by a combination of dots.
Most artwork has very few areas of ‘pure’ colour – pure black, cyan, magenta or yellow. Artists mix their colours and the separation of these colours into the four is often very complicated, with dots of each of the four colours in varying combinations needed to reproduce a full range of tones.
Colour reproduction, like other areas of printing, has felt the impact of `the new technology’. Increasingly, colour origination houses are using a new technique for making film. It’s called colour scanning and is done by a combination of laser and computer: the laser is beamed through the artwork and the computer calculates the number of dots of separated colour needed on each of the four pieces of film.
It’s Richard Keller’s job to decide which colour house will do the colour origination for Sunshine. As with the choice of printer, reliability, quality and cost all have to be balanced. For Jan Ormerod Richard’s decision is an important one as Brian Gregory who runs a colour house understands. ‘The quality of a picture book depends on how good the colour film is. It can make or mar it – the separations are absolutely critical.’
The Proof Stage
So that the artist and the publisher can check on this quality, the colour house provides proofs from the film it has made. A proof is simply a one-off printing of the book, done by a special process using only the film. Richard Keller again:
‘Once the proofs are ready, we get the artist, the editor and quite often the colour origination people together to talk about them and any problems that there might be. I like to do it this way so that the interpretation is direct – the artist can talk directly to the man who’s involved in the making of the film.’
They are looking for sharpness, clarity, colour balance – at the quality of the printing as well as for correct register (that’s making sure all four colours line up exactly with no muzzy overlaps). ‘If there’s a problem,’ says Richard, ‘we’ll get the corrections done, and have part or all of the book re-proofed. That costs more, though, so obviously we try to avoid reproofing wherever possible.’
If Jan is happy with her colour proofs, Sunshine is now ready to go to the printer.
Martin West has completed his deals on co-editions and decided how many copies to print (the print run). Richard Keller has chosen his printer and agreed prices. The film from the colour house goes off to be transformed into a book.
It arrives first with the plate-makers. There, it’s placed on metal plates which are chemically prepared so that they are sensitive to light in the same way as photographic film. Light is directed through the film onto the plate, and the image of the film is etched onto it. This stage is crucial to the finished product too. The care with which the plates are made will have a lot to do with how near Sunshine, the book, comes to Jan Ormerod’s originals.
The plates now go to the printing presses themselves. The system most used these days for picture books is called offset litho. In this, the film is exposed onto the plate so that the plate carries a reversed image of it. The plate is bolted on to the press, and inked. Paper is fed through the machine and the plate rolls over it, offsetting its inked image on to the paper like a transfer, so that the printed image is the right way round.
On a four-colour machine, there will be four plates in a row, one for each of the four colours – black, cyan, magenta and yellow. The paper rolls past picking up the coloured dots from each plate. After the paper has been past all four plates, there should be finished, full colour pages – all the dots combined to give a reproduction of the original artwork.
Even at this stage there are problems. The machines have to be kept topped up with the right amounts of ink, and there are likely to be variations in quality during the run. That’s why there has to be rigorous quality control. If there’s too much ink, the books might end up splodgy and ‘over-inked’. If there isn’t enough, they’ll end up washed out and pale.
Once all the sheets have been printed, they have to be left to dry before they can be cut, folded and bound. That’s the last stage, and even there, things can go wrong.
`That’s why we sometimes go to a printer to check a book while it’s being printed,’ says Richard Keller. `Printers do make mistakes – and we like to go along, sometimes with the artist, to make sure that everything goes as smoothly as possible.’
So finally, a small package of books arrives at Kestrel – and Jan Ormerod gets her hands on Sunshine at last. It is 12 months since she first took her portfolio to Kestrel and Martin West spotted those little black and white drawings.
For everyone in the Producers’ Group – it all comes down to
Counting the Cost
Liz Attenborough of Kestrel explains the publisher’s position.
`Publishing a full colour picture book is so much more of a gamble than publishing a novel. We usually take delivery of a book two months before the date of publication. But everybody who’s worked on it up to then the colour house, the typesetter, the printer – expects to be paid 60 days after they’ve finished their work on it. All those bills have to be paid before a single book appears in the shops, before you’re even starting to make money.’
How much does it all cost? Well it could be £15,000 or more just for production. `And all of that is completely at our own risk,’ says Liz. `In the end, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to sell any of these books at all. It’s all money you could simply have thrown away.’
And costs, particularly printing costs, have been rising steadily for several years. That’s what lies behind the movement towards and now even through what publishers call the £5 price barrier for picture books. At Penguin they’ve got a computer to help work out the price they need to charge for a book.
`If it comes up with a figure like £6.82 – or something even higher – then you’ve got to go back and start thinking seriously about it. You might have to try and sell more co-editions – or even shelve the book completely.’
Co-editions often mean there is a price of another kind to pay, this time for the artist. A picture book which is going to be printed in three or four languages can’t have a text in any colour but black – and it must be placed clear of the pictures. All to avoid extra colour separations.
Foreign publishers sometimes object to certain things in the artwork, and a publisher might put pressure on an artist to change something so that the co-edition can be tied up. In Jan Ormerod’s case, the Americans objected to one picture in Sunshine where the little girl’s vest stopped short of what they considered modesty. The question was simple – should she keep her artistic integrity for the sake of one small picture and blow the deal which could guarantee successful publication? Jan grudgingly gave in, and did a new piece of artwork concealing the offending pudenda.
There are other problems, too, for artists. Most of these seem to crop up at the colour origination stage – and that’s the point at which artistic integrity, technology and money meet in dispute over that eternal imponderable – quality.
Never mind the quality, feel the width?
Have you ever felt disappointed when you’ve had a photograph developed and it doesn’t come anywhere near the original you wanted to preserve? That’s what a lot of artists feel when they see either the colour proofs or the finished book. To be available to thousands of readers as a book, their original artwork has to go through the same series of transformations as Sunshine. At every stage there’s an inevitable diminution in quality from the original. It’s like taking a photograph of a photograph of a photograph – each one is slightly worse than the one before.
The aim is to keep that diminution in quality to the very minimum – and that’s where the problems occur. The more time a printer is given to work on a book, the better the final product is likely to be, but all that work costs money. Artists may want publishers to keep correcting colour proofs until they’re almost perfect – but publishers don’t have that kind of money.
Julia MacRae, who has published many award-winning full colour picture books, knows all about the problems. `You have to make your artist very aware that he’s unlikely to get facsimile reproduction of his artwork. The basic limitations of the four colour process are such that it’s only in exceptional circumstances that you can get anywhere near exact reproduction of things like colour tone.’
It’s that phrase – `the basic limitations of the four colour process’ – which really points the finger. In fact you can print with more than four colours. You can print in five, six, or umpteen – but that gets more and more expensive. Four colour printing is economical.
`But there are certain colours which are impossible to get right,’ says Richard Keller, `like certain browns and purples. If you had eight colour printing you’d have a better chance of getting them right – but you simply can’t afford it.’
Brian Gregory in his colour house feels strongly that when a piece of artwork arrives full of browns and purples virtually impossible to get right, he’s been landed with a problem which could have been avoided. `Penguin are very good at getting us in right at the idea stage to talk to the artists and make them aware of technical problems like that. But that’s rare. It’s a shame, but often it seems that some artists work in a vacuum, unaware of the sort of problems their work can give us.’
`We could give them an enormous amount of technical information which they could incorporate into their work, giving themselves less disappointment – and us fewer headaches. I know an artist isn’t going to change his style just to suit us but there are special colour books which show the complete range of tints we can achieve with our machinery. I think every artist ought to have one.’
Artists’ attitudes differ. Charles Keeping after many years appears resigned. `The four colour process is frustrating because it’s impossible to get a full range of tones and colours. But you’ve got to remember that you’re an illustrator. I’m a professional. I accept the limitations of the medium I use. I’m about books, not original artwork. I take a lot of trouble with my originals, but I still believe they’ve got to be in a book.’
Janet Ahlberg’s style is very subtle. She uses a water colour, wash technique and her pictures are very delicate. Lovely to look at, but sometimes a devil for colour origination. Kestrel admit that her work costs more in the colour origination stage because the colour film needs re-touching at every stage to be anywhere close to the original artwork. Janet is unrepentant.
`I know that my work might be difficult for a printer to cope with,’ she says. `But I try not to compromise. There are definitely some things you can’t do, but I’d never not do something which I knew to be right because it was difficult for the printer. It’s not the way I work – and I can’t work any other way.’
But oh the difference – to whom?
As a result of the growing complexity – and growing cost – of the printing process, especially of colour origination, there has to be a constant dialogue between all the islands of the producers’ group. For example, the new generation of colour scanners have drums on which the artwork has to be stuck so that the laser can do its job. Up to now, most artists have used stiff, white art board for their work – and obviously, this can’t be bent round a drum without it cracking and ruining the illustration.
When an artist supplies work on stiff board a skilled man slices off the top layer with a surgical scalpel; it’s time consuming, expensive and also dangerous for the artwork. That’s why Martin West at Kestrel – and many other editors and production managers – are encouraging their artists to work on paper flexible enough for the scanner drum.
It has been known for artists and publishers to get into acrimonious debates about this sort of thing. `I can understand why, but artists do sometimes tend to over-react on the question of colour proofs,’ says Richard Keller. `I believe, though, that we have to find some sort of mean, something which is acceptable to the artist and to us, aesthetically, technically and financially. At the end of the day, you sometimes have to look at the book and forget the original artwork. If people like it and they buy it, then that’s the best you can hope for.’
This is the good ship Books for Keeps’ last visit to the Producers’ Group of Islands for the time being. In January we cross the Ocean of Opportunity to the Consumers’ Group.
For new readers an account of the voyage so far is available in back issues of the magazine. All prices include postage.
The Editors (includes map of the World of Children’s Books): No. 10, September 1981, 75p
The Publicity People: No. 12, January 1982, 85p
Authors Island: No. 14, May 1982, 85p.