50 Years of Book Production

David BannDavid Bann has worked in production at Penguin, Rainbird and, most recently, Michael O’Mara Books. Here he takes a look back at the dramatic changes that have taken place in the way books are produced, since the 1960s.

In my 50 years working in production, I have seen enormous changes in the way books are produced. In my first job at Penguin in the 1960s, some books were still being printed on flatbed presses from metal type. The type itself was set using Monotype or Linotype machines, which were invented in the late 19th century and little changed since then.

Linotype machine
Linotype machine (Deutsches Museum) – used for typesetting books up until the late 1970s


The next development was making plastic or rubber plates from the type and printing on high-speed reel-fed presses, but still using the letterpress process. Offset lithography took over in the 1970s, both for black and white books and four-colour. The developments in offset (sometimes combined with printing abroad in Europe and the Far East) enabled the successful publishing of colour reference books by pioneers such as Paul Hamlyn and Mitchell Beazley.

Also in the 70s, there were big developments in typesetting and pre-press. Type was beginning to be set on film rather than metal and scanners were used to separate colours using the four-colour process. By the 1990s books were being typeset using desk top publishing with software such as Aldus PageMaker (now InDesign) and QuarkXpress, meaning that typesetting could be brought in-house and was often done by designers or editors rather than specialist outside typesetters. Eventually, this software developed to encompass colour illustrations as well as text and meant that a lot of colour pre-press work could also be brought in-house. The key innovation was the Adobe PDF, a file made to a common set of standards, which could easily be sent by e-mail or FTP to authors, editors and designers and subsequently to print from, rather than the large unwieldy packages of film used to print colour books previously.

Most recently, the use of digital printing rather than offset has enabled very short runs (sometimes of a single copy) allowing the publication of titles that previously would have been uneconomical. Of course, the other big development was ebooks, which are rapidly gaining a large share of overall book sales.

Although there is a large and healthy UK book printing industry, it is mainly devoted to black and white printing of novels and text books and most colour printing is now done abroad in Europe or the Far East.

Much has changed in the office as well. In the 60s, we didn’t have fax, e-mail or computers, so all communication with the outside world was by telephone or letter – impossible to imagine in today’s offices!

All of the above developments have combined to dramatically reduce the cost and time for producing books, as well as making the process much more accessible to the creators of content.

David Bann is the author of Book Production Control, a manual for production staff in book publishing. The work done in the production department is described in detail, together with guidelines on how it should be achieved.
Areas covered include pre-press, estimating and costing, print buying, specification, scheduling, orders, co-editions, quality control, recent technical developments in e-books and digital printing, production and the environment, organizing your work, working with colleagues and working with suppliers.

Related Articles

Sign up to our Newsletter


* indicates required

BookMachine Ltd. will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing. Please let us know all the ways you would like to hear from us:

You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at hello@bookmachine.org. We will treat your information with respect. For more information about our privacy practices please visit our website. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp’s privacy practices.