a group of six people standing shoulder to shoulder in a conference hall

Expanding My Understanding of Publishing at the PubWest Conference

Although I’ve been learning a lot about the different facets of publishing at Ooligan Press and in the Book Publishing Program, I wanted to learn more. So, when I heard the 2023 PubWest Conference was happening in Seattle, I jumped at the chance to attend.

The Publishers Association of the West (PubWest) is dedicated to offering professional education, providing publishing-related benefits, creating opportunities for members and associate members to do business, speaking as an advocate for members, recognizing outstanding achievement in publishing, and providing a forum for networking to their publishing and associate members from across the United States and Canada. Founded in 1977 as the Rocky Mountain Book Publishers Association, the association initially focused on supporting publishers in the West; it now consists of members across the US and Canada and even overseas.

This year’s PubWest Conference was unique in that it overlapped with The Book Manufacturers’ Institute’s (BMI) Book Manufacturing Mastered Conference. BMI supports book manufacturing leaders in their work to drive the promotion, efficiency, and growth of book markets for readers and educators in North America. Established in 1933, BMI’s early roots are connected to the “Employing Bookbinders of America” which started out in the early 1900s as a group of bookbinders in the city of New York.

Being a collaboration between BMI and PubWest, the theme of this year’s conference was, fittingly, collaboration.

Kicking off the conference was a panel on Book Manufacturing in 2023 and Beyond. The panel consisted of Angela Engel (The Collective Book Studio), Bill Rojack (Midland Paper), Joe Upton (Gasch Printing), Tim Hewitt (Friesens), and Moderator Matt Baehr (BMI). My knowledge of the production side of making books was severely lacking, so this panel was incredibly illuminating. I knew peripherally about supply chain issues caused by the pandemic, but I hadn’t realized how drastically the process of manufacturing books has changed. Book manufacturing capacity peaked in 2000, and it’s now 75 percent less than pre-2000. Seventy-five percent less! Capacity, scarcity of supply, decreased options, and labor issues were all discussed. The key takeaway from the panel was that publishers and printers are partners and they need to communicate, collaborate, and make compromises for everyone to get what they need.

Being interested in marketing and publicity, I attended a workshop on How to Read Your Market. The panel consisted of Joe Biel (Microcosm Publishing), Richard T. Williams (Independent Publishers Group), Robert Sindelar (Third Place Books), Bob Durgy (BR Printers) and moderator, Sidney Thompson (Independent Publishers Group). Topics that were discussed included Amazon, brand, fandom, niche markets, the impact of the pandemic, and the impact of the changes in book manufacturing. Again, it was awesome to hear from not only publishers but also printers and booksellers on the trials and tribulations of the book industry.

I was particularly interested to see the results of the PubWest Book Design Awards. As the current publicity manager, I’m responsible for submitting our books for awards, and I had submitted one of Ooligan’s titles for the adult trade non-illustrated category. I was disappointed that our title didn’t win, but the competition was fierce. So many excellent, innovative, and beautiful books were featured at the awards and passed around the audience.

I also appreciated attending Indigenous Voices, a panel on indigenous publishing featuring Terri Mack (Strong Nations Publishing) and Tess Olympia (Sealaska Heritage Institute) and moderated by Doug Symington (Friesens). It was inspiring to see the work that Terri Mack had done with Strong Nations Publishing. The advice she had for publishers was to take great care and have attentiveness with indigenous books—from pairing cover artists from the same communities as authors to making sure permissions are granted for the stories being published. Tess Olympia was equally inspiring with her work at the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Among other contributions, they have substantially increased literacy in Alaskan communities through the Baby Raven Reads program.

The conference ended with Speedy Spiels, in which eight speakers had six minutes each to speak to the topic of collaboration. It was a riot! Some gave quick presentations, some sang, and one speaker even did a magic trick. It was a great way to end the conference.

Getting in-person insight into the behind the scenes of publishing and mixing and mingling with book professionals was a fantastic experience. It’s a truly special industry and kind of magical when you think about it: all the hard work, creativity, ingenuity, artistry, craftsmanship, editorial insight, marketing, publicity, the blood, sweat, tears, and love—everything—that goes into making books.

background photo of bookshelf. arched white text box says "Inside Ooligan Press:" center image is Ooligan Press fishhook logo; text bar at base says "All About Printing"

Book Printing 101

If you’ve ever picked up a book from your local library, bookstore, or online retailer and thought to yourself, “how was this printed,” “why is the cover bound like this,” or “what are these fancy ripped edges called?” buckle up, because this post is for you. Book printing is one of the last parts of a book’s journey before it gets shipped out to your local bookstore, and there are different types of printing used throughout the industry.

Offset Printing

Offset printing is typically used for large scale commercial print runs by larger publishers, like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and Pan Macmillan, since this type of printing can be costly for smaller print runs. This is because this type of printing uses metal plates specifically created for each page. Rubber is melted onto each plate to form the interior of the book. Depending on the dimension of the pages, the plates can have anywhere from eight to thirty-two pages per plate, which means that there are often dozens of plates per book. After the plates are made, paper, often in reels, is loaded into the printer and the plates are used to transfer ink to the paper. Then the pages are sectioned, bundled, trimmed to size, and readied to be bound with the cover. The cover is printed on a separate type of paper and uses a different process than the interior because it may require specialty printing like embossing, foil, or other detailing. Once each component is complete, the whole is assembled and glued together.

Digital Printing

Digital printing is very similar to your at-home printer only on a larger, much higher quality scale. This type of printing is often used by smaller or indie publishers as it is more cost effective for smaller print runs. Once the digital file is received by the printer, they set to work trimming paper, in stacks rather than reels, to fit the printer. The pages are loaded into the machine and sent through the printer. Instead of printing with ink, digital printing uses toner and completes one book interior in order, where offset is completed in sets of pages called signatures then compiled in the right order post printing. Once again, the cover jacket is printed using a different machine and then the interior and cover are joined together using glue.

You can watch a quick video about PNW-local printer Gorham Printing’s process here: How Are Books Made?

Embossing & Debossing

Covers are their own unique print process for both offset and digital printing. Often they contain details that are not in the interior like embossing or debossing. Embossing is when the cover is pressed between two plates to create a raised design in the paper. Debossing is the exact opposite where the design is indented rather than raised. Usually debossing is combined with details like foils or metallic ink, but not always.

Deckled Edges

Those books with the ripped pages are created intentionally in modern publishing, but actually used to be considered a defect of the papermaking process. They are called deckled edges or simply rough cut pages. These edges give some books a more antique look and are simply a design choice.

Gilded Edges

Another fancy way to spice up a book’s pages are gilded edges. Foil or metallic ink is painted onto the edges of a bound book to create a more refined edge. This is often used in special editions. A really common example is the gold or silver edges found on bibles.

There are many more terms, techniques, and processes that can be found in book printing. But the basics have been covered above. The size of the print run, the details on the cover, and the overall appearance of the book depends on the ever evolving printing process.