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The first Unplugged event of 2018: Talking Production

Abbie Headon is BookMachine’s Commissioning Editor and runs Abbie Headon Publishing Services. She champions fresh approaches to solving the industry’s challenges and can be found mingling at most publishing events.

At London’s Library Club on Wednesday 21st February 2018, we kick-started the new BookMachine Unplugged series: a year-long sequence of events looking at the latest developments in publishing from across the whole industry. The first event focused on Production, hosted by Ken Jones, Director of Circular Software and a member of BookMachine’s Editorial Board.

Our first expert speaker was Heather O’Connell of Bluebird Consulting. Heather started by explaining that production teams do far more than simply turning a creative dream into a reality on time and on schedule. She outlined a few of the wider activities of a good production team in her talk.

Firstly, production staff look at the bigger global and economic picture. To give recent examples, the Brexit referendum had an immediate impact on print prices, and a recent landslide in Chile caused a global rise in paper prices. Teams also have to look ahead: with rights deals being made up to a year or eighteen months ahead of printing, they need to predict how prices and other factors will change over that period when providing quotes. Conflicts, oil prices and currency fluctuations are just some of the factors they have to bear in mind.

Building relationships is a second key activity for production staff. For the last twenty years it’s been a buyer’s market, where publishers can set the terms with printers, but now all those things are changing, and production teams are asking themselves ‘What can we do to become a better customer?’ We need to ensure the security of our supply chain, and particularly how we can make ours more secure than our competitors’. Creating lasting relationships with printers is more beneficial than switching printer frequently to save 5p here and there.

Another key consideration is sustainability of supply: it’s not fun when a printer goes bust while they’re working on your project. At that point all your paper – or even all your finished stock – is stuck in the factory and there’s nothing you can do about it. So it’s vital to be aware of how economically viable your printer is, and also how big a customer you are for them. If you’re their sole or most important customer and you withdraw your work, that also carries ethical implications.

Finally, there are other ethical issues to bear in mind, such as labour relations, modern slavery, chemical waste and other environmental questions. We need to know that the books we produce are safe, especially when they are children’s books.

James Carey, a consultant at Q5 Partners, was the second panellist. He focused on the demands, challenges and opportunities for production teams.

The primary demand for production staff is to deliver a good product at the right price.
The price of some products, such as brown craft paper, have increased by 100-150% over the last ten years. But with these challenges, new opportunities arise, when suppliers start offering additional services to publishers to offset the impact of higher print prices. For example, if we use localised storage solutions, warehousing some of our stock in China with the printer, we could save the time and money we’d spend shipping the stock from China to the UK and then shipping some of that stock back to China.

The next challenge is inventory turn. Printing higher numbers brings your unit cost down nicely, but it’s important to keep your unsold stock at a manageable level. Amazon are masters at this: they sometimes sell 20 times more copies of a book than they ever have in hand at the warehouse. We need to emulate their model.

Agility may be an overused buzzword but it’s vital in production. Maybe we should be thinking about printing in different locations at the same time, to ensure faster delivery to customers and save shipping costs. This kind of project is a big organisational challenge for publishers, but if we put the effort in, there’s a lot of opportunity to save costs in the longer term.

Finally, James talked about publishing’s redefinition as ‘the content business’, which he keeps hearing about. For him, this means that we have an obligation to match the form of delivery to the customer’s and marketplace’s needs. So, while one territory might be happy to pay for a high-end hardback, another territory might be better placed to buy the same content in a paperback format with lower-spec paper. We need to think about ways to get the right content in the right form to each market that we serve.

Ken Jones, our host for the evening and Director of Circular Software, was also the final panellist. He presented a hit list of things we’ve learned over the years that we need to unlearn…

1. We need to stop talking about ‘300 dpi’ images. For over twenty years, we’ve been using pixels, not dots, so we should be using ‘ppi’, pixels per inch, as our standard measurement. The figure of 300 that is traditionally used throughout publishing can actually create limitations: for example, many printers can now print more dots per inch than was the case in the past, so you might be able to get a better quality output with higher ppi. Conversely, some images print perfectly well with a lower ppi, however strange this may sound.

2. CMYK is not a colour. It defines an amount of ink, and varies depending on the printing process, the paper type, the paper coating, and so on. When specifying colours, we shouldn’t focus on the CMYK value, but on the colour itself. When we transform digital images to CMYK, at best we’re wasting time; at worst we’re discarding colours and creating extra work.

3. When we think about the co-edition business, the first factor that comes to mind is the ‘text black’ used to separate the black of the text (which is translated differently in each edition) from black elsewhere in the text. This difference is now created with layers – it doesn’t need to be done with two different inks any more.

4. We need to up our game regarding file types. Tiffs and .eps files are OK but they’ve had their day, and we need to use newer, better ways to save our files.

5. Next, Ken recommended that we stop emailing files to each other. As soon as you email something, it starts to become out of date, and everyone’s inboxes start to fill up with multiple versions. There are plenty of ways to save files in a shared location, such as Dropbox and Google Drive – and if our IT departments are holding us back on file-sharing, that’s something that needs to be addressed at the organisational level.

6. Finally, Ken issued a stern warning to ‘get your shit together’. File naming may not be fascinating party topic, but it’s vital. If you name something in a predictable way and put it in a predictable structure, it’ll be easy for others to find it (which is especially important if you’re away). It’s essential to have your files created centrally and correctly.

The evening ended with a series of detailed questions and some vigorous discussion – which is no doubt going to continue beyond the event. We can’t wait to bring you the rest of the series, and hope to see you there!

You can register and find out more about upcoming events from BookMachine via this link to the events page.

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