Meet Production Deadlines
Tips on Negotiating a Schedule That Works
By Michael Washburn
Your publishing house just signed a contract for the next book of pictures by a famous photojournalist.
The publicity department wants to set up signings in bookstores in several cities, and requests for advance copies are already coming through the fax machine.
As the production manager for this book, you hate to think of what will happen if any snags derail the project and set back the release date by days or weeks.
You must make the job go smoothly. In order to do that, you need to be hyper-aware of the lurking problems — and some possible solutions — in your area of the industry.
While the snags that can throw a book off course are as myriad as the kinds of books on the market, talks with project managers at various publishing houses, and with print vendors, reveal a few issues that cut across all genres.
Chances are the creative folks involved in a book project — the author, designer and editor — each has his or her own concept of how it should turn out. But whether your next deadline is the on-press date or just the printer's film-in date, there should be consensus about the length, content and overall style of the book.
Authors, especially newer ones, often have a hard time getting this, but there are ways to make your point. Stress to your author that simple changes become much less simple as a project moves along. As Sharon Castro, a sales representative for Maryland-based Phoenix Color, notes, even a change as minor as a text correction can take the printer much longer to make than expected.
At the proof stage, says Castro, the book is likely to have already gone into a format such as PDF, so now it exists as shapes in an electronic file rather than words. Tell your author that when a correction made to a proof reaches the printer, the latter has to retranslate the file back into the format where the change is possible. "Corrections that seem simple to the customer may actually add days to the schedule."
Go into the project with the understanding that an author has a lot of latitude right up to a fixed date — say, the first proof date — but no text changes will take place after that unless you find an embarrassing typo. (If you use a crack copyeditor, that won't happen. If there are none in-house, hire a freelancer.)
One tip that Castro offers printers is to give publishers (who can pass on to authors and designers) a 'drop dead' date — the absolute final date for revisions — even while, at the printer's end, there are in fact a few more days built into the schedule to allow for possible changes. So if more do come, deadlines still get met, and the printer appears to be bending over backward to make everyone happy.
Printers are not "all-purpose"
As a production manager for a book publishing house, I have found that the color proof stage often is the first point at which people involved with the book really sit down, take a look at the pictures and evaluate them. Raoul Goff, president of San Francisco-based Palace Press International, is correct to note that "clients make changes to ... images in the final stages of creating film or at blueline stage."
Goff suggests that if clients have the means to generate laser prints of images while the project is still at the concept stage, then they should do so. That's the right time, he says, to decide that a picture's light/dark contrasts give it poor quality. Maybe you should have it retaken, or maybe there's another one you should use instead. Then you'll go into the project with the lead time you need to do a meticulous job.
Communication is crucial
Regardless of how you plan the review and correction of your materials, be sure that others talk with one another. Some printers say they often lose time because a freelance designer sends them material with missing components, such as fonts or EPS files. In spite of the missing items, the publisher often expects the original schedule to hold.
Fortunately, you can go to a printer who has both the good sense to anticipate just such a scenario, and the technology to deal with it. Gary Oversmith of Von Hoffmann Graphics, Owensville, Mo., one of the three largest North American printers in terms of revenue, says his plant uses two electronic pre-flight specialists whose full-time jobs are to check material as it comes in for, say, a missing font or for software that's not a good match for the plant's imposition systems. So problems come up right away, not weeks or months later when the book is in prepress or in queue for printing, when losing its place in line would add to the delays in getting the missing materials.
Facing external forces
Whatever you do in your capacity as project manager, there is no getting around the fact that many outside forces — like the current state of the paper market or the market for case materials — can have an effect on your schedule.
You may fax your purchase order to the printer only to find the paper vendor has too many orders to fulfill and can't take another from your printer. If you're smart, you may already have done what Mary Lou Menches, production manager at University of Illinois Press, suggests: You've spoken to the designer and author and have worked out a plan to use an alternative stock whose ppi is so close to your original choice that you won't have to fuss with negatives for the book's cover.
"Try to look for ways out of the crunch," says Menches, who sometimes pursues an option that many project managers have never considered: going around the printer and calling the paper vendor directly. Menches offers a few tips for such negotiations. If you're fortunate, a vendor who is already planning to fulfill an order for the stock with another client may run a bit more than the necessary amount to fulfill your tag-along order.
Or maybe the vendor is waiting for a green light from a client who is stalled for one reason or another (fussy authors again?) and will take your order for the stock while the pre-existing client sorts things out.
Technology streamlines production
In publishing, as in other industries, a smart project manager looks to the future and considers how to use recent advances to speed up the production process.
Linda Lusk, manager of purchasing at Practitioners Publishing Co. (PPC), a Fort Worth, Texas-based publisher of tax accounting information, uses PPC's longstanding, but simple, method for effectively circulating proofs — the materials move around in compact single-format binders, and editors have to treat the penultimate round of proofs as the final one. But more importantly, says Lusk, "the process has improved immensely since we've gone electronic with our product. We send completed PDF files via a secure FTP site, either the printer's or our own. We no longer see traditional bluelines."
Print providers also recognize the advantage of going electronic. Ron Mazzola, executive director of marketing and sales at McNaughton & Gunn, a book manufacturer in Saline, Mich., suggests that publishers "use digital proofs for cover and text."
And Oversmith at Von Hoffmann says his firm is encouraging clients to make use of the scheduling edge that PDF technology offers.
Seize the spotlight
In contrast to editors, production managers are often the unsung heroes of book publishing, taking blame when something goes wrong with a project and getting no recognition from the public for their successes. But there are ways to make production less headache-inducing while streamlining the process. The much-hyped book of combat photography for which you're responsible will hit the stores right on time. And at least among your colleagues, you'll be something of a celebrity yourself.
Michael Washburn is associate editor of Thames and Hudson, a New York City-based book publishing company.