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The Proof Cycle for a Print Book ( A Case Study)

I recently reviewed a book proof for a client. It included three parts: a cover signature, two four-color front-matter signatures to be printed on gloss stock, and about ten signatures for a two-color directory to be printed on uncoated stock.

Proofs for the cover and front matter signatures were of a higher quality than the directory pages and were printed on gloss paper. Since these pages included about 50 print advertisements (reflecting a sizable investment by the 50 individual companies), it was important to see exactly how the color would look and at what resolution the images (in both the ads and the six editorial photos) would print. (Printers often have special distinctions for these high-resolution inkjet proofs, such as “Level 1” proofs.)

Sending the Printer FPOs for the Ads

I had submitted the ads early as high-resolution PDFs, and I had placed TIFFs of the ads within the front matter section of the book in the InDesign file. I had covered each ad with the word “FPO” (for position only) in large type. I wanted to give the printer extra time to review the ads and catch any errors. After all, these ads had come to my client's office from a number of different ad agencies--with and without printer's marks, crop marks, etc.--and I wanted to make sure everything was acceptable and standardized in the final book.

I paid the printer a little extra to replace all advertisement FPOs with the live ads and also to stitch together all pieces of the cover (front and back exterior, front and back interior, and spine). This way I could also be sure that the spine would be the proper width for the exact number of book pages based on the caliper (pages-per-inch) of the chosen paper stock.

Since I had negotiated a good overall price for printing and mailing the book, I regarded the extra money paid for replacing the FPO images as an investment in the accuracy of the job. I could, of course, have made the decision to place all ads in the InDesign file myself. In addition, I could have created a single, oversized cover file including all four covers plus the spine. But instead, to ensure the accuracy of the ads and cover, I sent the printer the native InDesign files for the cover and front matter--along with all fonts and linked images--so he could make the necessary changes.

I was only comfortable doing this because I had worked with this printer for several years on this very directory. I had a high level of trust and comfort with his work (and with my customer service representative's attention to detail). Prior to uploading the job to the printer's FTP site, I compressed the files into a “zip” archive for protection in transit, and then I sent a list of the files to my CSR so she would know exactly what I had just transmitted.

Proofs of the Directory Pages

The directory page proofs were produced on an uncoated paper stock as “Level 3” inkjet proofs (lower in quality than “Level 1” proofs, not color-accurate, and merely intended to show the placement of all elements of the page). In this case I had provided the art file as a high-resolution PDF, since I did not want the printer to make any changes (in contrast to the cover and front matter). Prior to uploading the PDF to the printer's FTP site, I spoke with my CSR. She and I discussed all elements of PDF creation needed for this particular book printer, including resolution, bleeds, subsetting of fonts, crop marks, etc. Since different printers have different preferences regarding the options for PDF creation, I wanted to make sure I uploaded a usable file.

In contrast to the cover and front matter, the directory portion of the book only printed in black and a PMS color (not 4-color process). Whereas the front matter and cover proofs needed to be true to color, the directory proof did not. I really just needed to see the placement of graphic items and the placement of color.

Nevertheless, the process color simulation of the PMS purple I had chosen was way off the mark. It looked almost black. Therefore, I confirmed with the printer the exact PMS color he would need to use. My CSR noted that since inkjet printers build PMS colors from process colors, some simulations of PMS colors using process inks would match and some would not. I had known this, and I was pleased to see that the sign-off sheets for the job included not only the paper and press run information but also the exact PMS ink I had chosen for the highlight color in the directory pages.

(I had chosen the specific PMS color to match the prior year's book. If I had needed to choose a PMS color that would have exactly matched a particular process-color build, I could have checked my Pantone Process Color to Match Color book. Books like these show a swatch of PMS color next to the nearest match “built” from process inks. Under a good light, you can see which are dead on and which only come close to matching. Since the number of colors you can produce using only C,M,Y, and K inks is smaller than the number of possible PMS colors--i.e., the process color gamut is smaller--some PMS inks are not reproducible using process inks.)

Corrections to the Proofs

My client and I found eight pages that needed corrections. All were within the directory pages. Therefore, I made the corrections in the original InDesign file and then distilled eight separate, corrected PDFs, which I labeled as replacements for the individual pages. To be safe, I asked the printer to provide revised soft proofs (post-RIP-processed, revised pages sent to me for approval via email). You can never be too careful.

The Sign-off Sheets

The sign-off sheets for both the initial proof and the corrected pages were invaluable. These listed the press run; the paper used for the cover, 4-color insert, and directory pages; and the color, including the exact PMS ink to be used in printing the directory pages. Essentially, these were contracts between the printer and the client.

"Old-School" Proofs

As I reviewed the inkjet proofs for the print book, I thought about the proofing technology that preceded digital output. Back in the day, the cover proof would have been a Cromalin or Matchprint, and the text would have been a blueline. In all cases, negatives of the four process colors plus any PMS colors would have been made, and for the multi-colored press work, any corrections would have necessitated making entirely new negatives and then new color proofs. The process took time and was expensive. Moreover, the proofs had to travel from the printer to the client and back again, so the entire process took much longer than it does now.

Today, virtual proofs can travel instantaneously from printer to client for immediate approval. If hard-copy proofs are desired, as with my nonprofit directory job, any changes to the files can be made, and new inkjet proofs can be printed very quickly. In almost all cases the step of making negatives has been eliminated, and the step of burning printing plates follows all other digital steps. It is unusual, in fact, to need to burn new plates. So proofing early and often, with digital methods increasingly faithful to the color of the final printed output, is cheaper and faster.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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