As every good production controller knows the cost of a print run is upfront. For illustrated books in particular, a major investment of time and hard cash is needed to get artworks and photography done, edited content completed and layouts finalised, proofed and signed off.
Only once the printing plates have been made and the presses are rolling do we start to get close to having a saleable product.
With modern digital printing techniques short runs become a little more cost effective, but even when considering this, a large and largely fixed set of costs have to be be swallowed before getting your book to this point.
But… this also means that once your book is on press, actually the incremental price of producing one more book is tiny in comparison. It comes down to the physical costs of a few sheets of paper, a small amount of ink and similarly small and incremental extra finishing and shipping costs.
Mixed up in gambling and gangs
Publishers are gamblers. They take a punt on creating a product that they hope is going to sell and are willing to put their money where their mouth is.
Back in the1970s the newly formed Dorling Kindersley (now known as DK, part of Penguin Random House) took the really smart move of hedging their bets and asking other, foreign language publishers, to join forces in a cooperative effort to extend their print runs and lower their unit costs.
This forty year old idea of ‘co-edition’ printing was such a good one that it remains in use by many publishers today. Printers use the term ‘ganging up’ to describe combining multiple jobs in a single print run.
The publisher benefits by spreading the cost of production between co-edition partners and the reader benefits from professionally researched, illustrated and designed books in languages and niche subject areas that would not have existed otherwise.
Now for the science bit
In order to reduce production costs, the co-edition publisher typically provides their translations in a single colour. All their text, and also any images that are specific to their language, must be in one colour – Black.
Back in the seventies, when printing plates were made from photographic film instead of digital files, an extra film called a ‘separation’ was supplied to make this ‘Text Black’ plate.
The most basic way to create editions in multiple languages was to print a set of colour pages that can then be printed again with the translations. This method, called ‘overprinting’, requires two print runs – one for the full colour CMYK images and another using just a single colour press which is cheaper to setup and run.
A more efficient process was to use a larger five colour press which could be used to print the CMYK and the Text Black plate at the same time, with the press only stopping to swap the Text Black plates for each language. The Text Black is still being overprinted.
When Apple and Adobe brought us the desktop publishing revolution back in the 1980s the concept of an ‘overprint’ setting arrived in our page layout software. This meant a ‘Text Black’ colour could be used within the software to identify the translated text which could then be used to make the separate printing plates.
Text Black is as cutting edge as the Fax machine
Fast forward another thirty years and we now use PDFs instead of film and we can now use layers, not Text Black, in our page layout software to isolate translations. The translation layer still typically only uses black which is set to overprint but with some careful setting up, images and translated text can be combined more easily and visual effects are possible that were not possible in the old days of Text Black such as mixing text with images whilst still keeping a single plate change for translations.
These days printers actually combine the black translation file with the common images and print a cheaper four colour (CMYK) only job, whilst still only needing to change the black plate for different language editions.
I helped DK remove Text Black from their workflow over ten years ago but still find myself advising well known publishers to this day that there really is no technical reason to still be using Text Black in 2016 and in fact it is outdated, unnecessary, confusing and restrictive.