Print Positive:
How to Prevent Book Printing Disasters

Got a rush title? Last minute changes threatening the schedule? Tempted to rush the proof checking, skip reviewing the order confirmation? Think again: proofs and print run documents are the thin shields between receiving perfect books and receiving books that are going to ruin your day. Here’s how to ensure print run paperwork really works to your benefit.

How to Prevent Book Printing Disasters

A Note on Personality and Printing
The Proof Cycle: A Chain of Custody
The Printing Chain of Custody, Quote Request to Invoice

The Printer’s Internal Documents
Key Things to Check on Proofs and Order Documents


“You say you don’t have time to do it right. Do you have time to do it over?”
–Bob Ogren, retired letterpress printer

No publisher likes to discover that a print run has gone wrong: printing problems almost always mean delays in getting inventory for the publisher, and often mean financial hits for the publisher or the printer (and sometimes both). If the books make it out into distribution channels before the error is discovered, negative consequences compound: time is lost, sales opportunities evaporate, freight charges accumulate. But because every book’s print run is a multi-step process with tasks that must be performed perfectly accurately both by the publisher and the printer, there is always a risk of error. It is because of this risk that the whole system of trade practices involving proofs and approvals exists. Often seen as slowing down production, proofs and print run documentation have critical roles in keeping production on track and minimizing printing problems.

A Note On Personality and Printing

Are your eyes already glazing over? If you’ve gotten this far you may have a sinking feeling that doing all of this right requires a different personality than the one you have: one that thrives on, or at least tolerates, poring obsessively over excruciating detail over and over again. Good for you for recognizing that fact! If in fact you are not the right person to manage the process, be aware there are people who actually like this kind of stuff: good print buyers are detail obsessed. Find one of them to help you out. It will save you headaches and money in the long run.

The Proof Cycle: A Chain of Custody

You know how in cop shows the handling of the evidence must follow a documented chain of custody so that it holds up in court? The printing proof cycle is a little like that. Every time materials or documents are handed from the publisher to the printer or vice versa, the handoff is documented. Each signifies that the production process has taken another step, and it records the decisions made by the publisher and communicated to the printer along the way. This is super important—neither the publisher nor the printer should take a hit because the other party commits an error. Here are a couple of examples based on sad stories from real life:

Example 1

A publisher and a printer discuss pricing on a run of a particular book at several quantities: 500, 1,000 and 1,500 copies. The publisher decides on 1,000 copies and provides that quantity to the printer in writing via email. The printer, confused by the previous quantities discussed, makes a mistake and prints 500 copies, despite sending a written confirmation to the publisher that they were going to print 1,000. The publisher is dismayed to receive only 500 books and lets the printer know they made a mistake, referring to the email and printer’s confirmation as evidence. The printer is clearly in error and should print and ship the additional 500 books. The total billing should equal what the billing would have been for a run of 1,000, not the billing for two 500 copy runs. (Billing for one 1,000 copy run will be less than billing for two 500 copy runs because of economies of scale.)

Example 2

After much internal deliberation about whether to print 500, 1,000 or 1,500 copies, the publisher sends a print order to the printer for 1,000 copies. In the email confirmation of the order, the printer echoes the run quantity—1,000—back to the publisher. The publisher neglects to review the confirmation—everything’s been fine before, right?—and has it stuck in his mind that they had decided on 500 copies. When, contrary to his expectations, the publisher receives 1,000 copies, he cries foul. However, as in the first example, the run quantity communicated to the printer in writing,and echoed by the email confirmation, decides the issue: the printer is not a mind reader and has no access to the publisher’s internal decision-making. Therefore, the publisher will be billed for 1,000 copies, the amount stated in the print order.

Were it not for the written chain of evidence, a clean resolution of these issues would not be possible. The requirement that the quantity be communicated in writing, and that the printer is obligated to print the quantity specified and no other, protects both parties from any error committed by the other. The other crucial piece is the confirmation: by echoing the run quantity back to the publisher in the email confirmation, the printer accomplishes a number of things:

  • Gives the publisher the opportunity to re-check the quantity.
  • Commits the printer to printing that quantity—no more, no less—protecting the the publisher from an internal mistake at the printer.
  • Commits the publisher to the quantity in the confirmation, unless the publisher responds to the confirmation.

This same principle applies to print files provided to the printer. If the printer prints a previous edition by mistake when provided with new files, that’s on the printer. Conversely, if the publisher provides the files for the wrong edition to the printer and says “print this file,” that’s on the publisher. The printer’s obligation is to print the file specified and no other, not to determine which is the correct file. Without this clear allocation of responsibility, the potential for error multiplies, because the printer cannot possibly have the information to definitely say which file should be printed.

The Complete Printing Chain of Custody, Quote Request to Invoice

“Don’t ASSUME. It makes an ASS out of you and ME!”
–Bob Ogren, retired letterpress printer

The following is the complete print run lifecycle, in documents.

Quote request

The publisher sends the quote request to the printer. The quote request provides the information required for the printer to calculate a price quote: trim size, page count, paper, binding, quantity, etc. Because a quote request does not commit the publisher or printer financially or otherwise, a quote request can be made informally in an email, via a web form on the printer’s website, or even over the phone.

In cases where the publisher and printer have a blanket contract specifying pricing for various printing services, there may be no quote request for an individual print run: the publisher just submits the job, and checks the ultimate invoice against the agreed-upon contract pricing.


The printer prepares a quote based on the specifications provided by the publisher in the quote request. The quote is really where the chain of custody starts. The printer restates the specifications of the book as provided by the publisher and provides pricing. The printer is committing to print the book at the specifications stated in the quote—not any other quantities or bindings the publisher and printer may have discussed—contingent on receiving clean print files. Because memory is fallible, and people who prepare quotes are fallible, it is critical that the publisher review each detail of the quote and make sure that the specs are correct. If they are not correct, the publisher should have the printer revise the quote to reflect the desired specifications.

The quote protects the printer by specifying exactly what they will do for the price named, but it also protects the publisher. The printer can’t claim later that the price is $3.50 per book if they specified $2.75 per book in the quote.

If the publisher and printer have a blanket pricing contract, that contract will likely be referenced in the quote, and the pricing in the quote should match that in the blanket contract.

Print Order

The print order is the publisher’s written order to the printer to commence printing. When the printer has the print order and the print files in hand, production can begin, but not before. Also, the printer can only provide a firm schedule with both print order and print files in hand, because they have no control over when the print files will arrive. In the case of an exact reprint with no changes to cover or text, a print order alone will suffice because the printer has the files in their archives.

The print order should specify quantity and shipping instructions, should echo back all the specifications of the book being printed, either explicitly or implicitly by referencing the quote number and date, and should make note of any special requests or important information like events tied to the book.

It is, unfortunately, very common for publishers not to include shipping instructions with the print order. Without accurate shipping instructions, a printer really can’t provide an accurate price or an accurate schedule. Late shipping instructions are often the cause of late books: regardless of when the book is actually completed, it cannot be shipped without shipping instructions.

Order Confirmation

When the printer receives the print order from the publisher, they will carefully review the order and identify any discrepancies with the original quote. If something needs to be checked or revised, they will communicate with the publisher. If all looks in order, they will volley back an order confirmation outlining the general specifications of the order, including quantity, and referencing the quote. As with all the other steps, this is another opportunity to catch any errors. The order confirmation is the printer’s restatement of their understanding of the project. Make sure it squares with your understanding! Is the order quantity correct? Is it the right title? (There are lots of similar-sounding titles in the world!) Is it the right edition? Let the printer know immediately in writing of any issues—put yourself on record and avoid later problems.

If all of this repetition seems redundant, that’s because it is, and that’s exactly the point. As with language and computer communications protocols, built in redundancy ensures accuracy, if all parties play their roles. (See Chaos, James Gleick.)


Unless the print run is an exact reprint with no changes, the printer will more than likely provide proofs to the publisher. The purpose of proofs is to demonstrate to the publisher exactly how the book is going to print. However perfect the files the publisher supplies, bad digital things can happen due to software issues or operator error. The proof represent the book pages and cover after the printer performs whatever internal magic is required to print. The proofs will also display any bad things that were in the files when they were provided to the printer. In both cases, proofs provide the opportunity to catch and rectify problems before the books are printed and bound. Proofs are also a commitment to the publisher on the part of the printer, essentially saying, “Here’s how the book is going to print. If it doesn’t print like this it is our responsibility to remedy the issues.” Conversely, it is also a statement by the printer to the publisher: “You’d better check this carefully, because this is how the book is going to print, and if you find something you don’t like after we print it, we’re still going to bill you for the run.”

The printer’s responsibility is to print the files as they receive them with maximum fidelity. Even if the files contain an obvious typo, it is the publisher’s responsibility, not the printer’s. The printer should flag the typo if they notice it, but they are not obligated to find the error in the first place. On the other hand, if there are no typos, the printer is obligated not to introduce any, and is responsible for fixing any runs where they do introduced typos.

Proofs can be printed or electronic. In either case they should accurately represent how the pages and cover are going to print. Obviously, electronic proofs will never look the same as the book looks when actually printed on paper: viewing on screens and paper are different physical and physiological processes entirely. Also, with proofs for offset printing, there are some limitations: proofs are not usually printed on the presses that will actually be printing the books, because it is cost prohibitive. Instead, they are printed on digital devices that have varying degrees of fidelity to how the actual books will look. Digital book printing has the advantage that proofs can be printed on the actual presses that will print the final run, as Bookmobile does, providing the best proof fidelity possible within the day-to-day variances of presses.

As with the previous steps, the proofs are opportunity to nip problems in the bud before they wind up stacked on a pallet. Interior proofs should be checked page by page to ensure that the book will print as desired. Cover proofs should be checked element by element: errors on a cover or dust jacket are particularly conspicuous and embarrassing. If reviewing printed proofs, the ideal method to indicate corrections is to write them on the actual proofs and return the proofs to the printer, along with a list of pages with corrections to be made.

Proofs are not, however, a place to edit the book. Corrections or alterations made at this stage are probably 50 times more expensive to make than they would be if made before the print files were provided to the printer.

Proof Transmittal

Along with the proofs, the printer will send a proof transmittal with three options, as follows:

  • OK to print as is.
  • OK to print with corrections indicated made.
  • Make corrections and provide new proof.

OK to print as is
This means that the publisher has carefully reviewed the proofs and sees nothing that needs to be corrected. This commits the publisher to the run, just as the printer is committed to print the books to match the proof exactly.

OK to print with corrections indicated made
This generally means that there are a few corrections to be made but that the publisher trusts the printer to make the changes prior to printing without the publisher checking the corrections. If the printer goes ahead and prints after the publisher signs the proof transmittal this way, then the printer is responsibly for having made the corrections. (If the printer has questions about the requested corrections, they need to straighten that out with the publisher prior to printing, or be liable for any errors.)

Make corrections indicated and provide new proofs
This is the option wise publishers check off if corrections are extensive or complex and they have allowed enough time in the schedule. In such cases the printer may require that the publisher see a new round of corrected proofs rather than taking the risk of misinterpreting the publisher’s intent, or taking the always-present risk of introducing new errors when correcting old ones.

Printer’s Errors and Customer Alterations

As long as there have been printers and publishers, there have been errors on both sides of their transactions. Also, there have always been things that publishers find in proofs that they want to change. Consequently, specific terms have come into being to  refer to the responsibility for these changes. If an error found in proofs was clearly caused by the printer, it is called a Printer’s Error (PE); the printer is obligated to fix PEs at no cost to the publisher. An Author Alteration (AA, sometimes called an Customer Alteration, or CA), is a change the publisher requests to the text or layout after the printer has started working on the project. The alteration may be requested because a typo was not caught prior to submitting the print files, or because an editor wants to reword something: it doesn’t matter, it is chargeable to the publisher because it is a responsibility totally outside that of the printer’s ambit.

In the days when printer not only printed but set the metal type, each AA was billed individually. There are examples from 19th century authors such as Dickens and other who totally rewrote the text on the page proofs, which, in the days of hand-set type, would mean many (billable) hours of AAs. A big profit center for the printer! Nowadays, if alterations are to be made, normally the publisher makes the changes themselves and submits new print files. Instead of charging per AA, the printer will just charge flat fees for redoing all the file prep and providing new proofs.

Shipping Documents

Oh glory day! The books are done! Now the printer ships them and provides tracking information to the publisher. Depending on the shipping method, the publisher can trace the path from printer to warehouse as often as their obsessions require.

Inspection Copies

Sometimes, the publisher requests that a few inspection copies be shipped to the publisher. This is really a holdover from offset days: because proofs for digital printing are produced on the presses actually printing the book, inspection copies are not usually necessary. They also add shipping expense, and time to the schedule if the full shipment is contingent on inspection. Regardless, the idea with inspection copies was that the publisher inspects these copies to make sure the book was printed and bound correctly. The test is: was the book printed and bound with the specified quality standards, and does it match the proof the publisher signed off on? If both of these are true, all is good. If not, then the process begins to determine responsibility for the error(s); this is where the production chain of custody lowers blood pressure and acrimony, as normally it will allow the responsibility for error to be apportioned fairly. In some cases, both publisher and printer may share responsibility, and negotiations ensue to split any adjustments fairly.


The final invoice is prepared either right before the book ships or immediately after. As with previous documents, the invoice should echo the basic details of the print run: title, quantity, etc. The pricing should match the quote. A wise publisher reviews the invoice as carefully, as all the other documents in the production chain of custody. A publisher who wants to maintain a good relationship with the printer will report undercharges as well as overcharges.

The Printer’s Internal Documents

In addition to the chain of custody documents described above, printers have internal documents to communicate specifications and instructions through the printing and binding process, and to record quality control steps. For every print run, Bookmobile produces a sheaf of documents intended to ensure that the book is printed and bound correctly, and that all people involved in making the book check a specific list of Things That Can Go Wrong for the tasks they are performing. These kinds of internal documents are critical to high-quality book printing, but they are not normally anything with which a publisher would interact.

Key Things to Check on Proofs and Order Documents

The following are things with which we often see problems, and should definitely be on a publisher’s list of things to check in quotes, orders, order confirmations, proof transmittals, etc. These are NOT the only things you should check: these are just the highest-risk items.

For Both Covers and Interiors

  • Does the title and author name on the front cover, spine, and back cover match the title and author name in the interior of the book and vice-versa? Are they spelled correctly?
  • Does the ISBN on the back cover match the ISBN on the copyright page?
  • Is the trim size of the cover the same as the trim size of the interior?
  • Does the width of the spine fit the bulk of the interior pages?


  • Is the bar code on the cover and does it scan?
  • Is the cover stock and lamination correct?
  • Is the color correct?
  • Are the type and images legible?
  • If the cover is duplexed, is the inside cover there?


  • Is the interior stock correct?
  • Are the type and any images legible?
  • Are all pages present?
  • Are the margins correct?
  • Are the fonts and line breaks correct?

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