Book review: Book Production

More than any other role in publishing, production seems to be one in which people learn by doing. Whereas editors and designers have a wealth of  professional development courses and workshops at their disposal, those who shepherd publications through the production process don’t have as many options for structured learning. Some design courses touch on how to liaise with commercial printers, but most of the managing editors and production managers I know started off in either editorial or design and fell into the rather critical role of project management without specific project management training.

The lack of formal training hasn’t been particularly detrimental to those in production, who are generally tapped for those jobs because they’re already super organized and are adept at problem solving. What courses and workshops also offer beyond just their content, though, is a tribal culture, where you can learn from more experienced peers through an oral history of sorts. When that aspect is missing in your career, it can be pretty easy to feel isolated.

Enter Adrian Bullock, a publishing veteran who has written Book Production (published by Routledge), a lucid and comprehensive guide to everything from project management and prepress to printing, binding, and getting stock into the warehouse. Written in crystal clear, plain English, this book offers practical advice about how best to balance the needs of a book’s various stakeholders, recognizing that in the real world, the goal of publication production management is to reach an acceptable compromise between speed, quality, and cost. Eschewing the sentimentality that publishing-related books often carry—about the industry’s contributions to culture, the beauty of books as artifacts, etc.—Bullock’s book is grounded in the best practices of making the business of publishing viable:

The big difference between a publishing project and, say, building a school, is that publishing projects are usually carried out in a highly competitive, commercial environment, where there is an unremitting drive to produce new products and a premium on bringing them to market as speedily and cheaply as possible, working in the knowledge that someone else might get there before you, and produce a better or cheaper project into the bargain.

In this kind of environment time becomes speed, money becomes price, and quality can become relative. Skills, equipment and project logic are all co-ordinated to make the project move faster and cost less than one’s competitors can. (p. 7)

One of the book’s major strengths is the way in which it formalizes project management principles in a publishing context. Bullock emphasizes the need for a well-defined project management cycle that incorporates a clearly articulated plan, implementation, and also a post-mortem phase:

It is precisely because life in production can be so relentlessly hectic and busy, and there is a tendency to move without thinking from one project to another, that reflection plays such a vital part in project management, and why reflection should be formalized to become standard procedure at the end of a project, giving everyone involved a chance to discuss what they think went well, what didn’t go well and how things can be done better the next time. Reflections should take no longer than 20–30 minutes, especially if project team members know that it is standard, and come to the meeting prepared. (p. 76)

Bullock is clear about the many demands of a job in book production. Above all, however, a project manager must be a good communicator:

Communication is a vital tool in managing the project: its value cannot be overstated. Poor quality communication is one of the commonest causes of unsuccessful projects… (p. 21)

Communication starts with the project definition and continues right through to completion. The more that people directly, and indirectly, involved in the project know about it, the better. Telling people – in-house staff, suppliers and other stakeholders, what is expected and what is happening, helps to manage expectations and eliminates last-minute surprises. (p. 22)

A sound project definition notwithstanding, the number of variables in a project mean that something will likely go wrong somewhere. Adrian Bullock offers this level-headed advice:

It’s only when the problem has been solved and the project is moving forward again – and only then – that you can start to work out what went wrong, how it went wrong, whose fault it is, how to prevent it recurring, and the amount of compensation you could reasonably expect, if the supplier is at fault. Remember that the person whose fault it might be could well be the person most able to sort out the problem. (p. 73)

Whereas Book Production‘s first section deals with managing editorial and design, its second half looks at physical production. Bullock gives a fascinating overview of the raw materials that go into a book—how paper is made, what kinds of inks are used for printing and glue for binding, etc.—and offers tips about selecting an appropriate commercial printer. Throughout, he reminds readers to be mindful of environmental issues, from considering recycled paper options to keeping track of the number of book miles that stock has to travel.

With the increased awareness of environmental and green issues, you would want to know how green your printer is in terms of how it manages its impact on the environment. This could be through an accredited environmental management system (EMS), which has been certified to a recognized standard such as ISO 14001. Or it could be that the printer has reduced its emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from printing, uses recycled paper, is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified and has policies for waste recycling and energy reduction. (p. 65)

Bullock mentions several other standards and certification programs that production managers should be aware of, many of which can help streamline workflow. For example, ISO 9001 certification means that a printer has excellent quality management systems in place, making it unnecessary, some publishers believe, to proof printer’s proofs; using the International Color Consortium colour management system can eliminate the need for colour correction; and

JDF [Job Definition Format] is an XML-based industry standard, which is being developed by the international consortium CIP4 (the International Co-operation for the Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress Organization). According to the CIP4 website, JDF:

  • ‘is designed to streamline information exchange between different applications and systems
  • is intended to enable the entire industry, including media, design, graphic arts, on-demand and e-commerce companies, to implement and work with individual workflow solutions
  • will allow integration of heterogenous products from diverse vendors to create seamless workflow solutions.’ (p. 98)

This last example shows that although Book Production is focused mainly on traditional print books, it also gives up-to-date information about XML and other digital workflows, as well as print-on-demand and short-run printing technologies. This book is packed with case studies that show the reader what kinds of scenarios can arise in book production and how best to implement the ideas that Bullock has laid out in the text. Those new to book production will appreciate this book’s clarity and thoroughness. Seasoned production managers will find affirmation in having their practices validated and reinforced, and they may even learn about some recent developments that might make their jobs a lot easier.


Rather than give this book away at an upcoming EAC-BC meeting, as I’ve done with the other books I’ve reviewed, I’ll be offering my copy of Book Production as a door prize to participants of the upcoming PubPro 2013 professional development event. Register now!

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