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Meet the Presses

For the first time, a production editor visits his printing plant.

By Norman Jeffries - January 14, 2004

Stepping onto the floor of the printing plant for the first time was like visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a field trip when I was eight years old. Back then, I'd had to endure the teacher's lecture on crumbling ancient Greek pottery, then another on equally ancient but differently provinanced carpets from some time before calendars and Atari, before suddenly, finally, we came upon the Met's grand hall of arms and armor. It was a glorious awakening for that somnambulant boy. And a recent visit to Landmark Printing, in darkest Maryland, presented a similarly stunning revelation.

My corner of the publishing world is a small one. Literally, in fact: It's somewhere between a cubicle and an office—an officle, if you will. Metaphorically, it's a horse with blinders, running in circles. I am a production editor, so I know nothing about acquiring manuscripts, determining editorial style, disputing copyright ownership, or blitzing a direct-mail campaign at millions of unsuspecting consumers. But I do know my blindered world. I know my desktop layout programs like the brothers I grew up sharing a bedroom with. I rejoice in Photoshop's peccadilloes, Illustrator's indulgences, and all the crash-causing Quark quirks you could shake a stick at. They are valued compadres in my battles to produce product.

But, like with a lot of things important to me, I had never bothered to look deeper into what happens next, what occurs in that dark, esoteric abyss into which the files are released and flung wildly through cyberspace (or, yawn, overnight mailed) to a colossal printing fortress somewhere far beyond even the PATH train. I've always just assumed that, like a telephone, the process will work. In fact, it's sort of nice how my vast ignorance makes it all seem quite beautiful and magical.

Or at least it was. Until, to decimate an Aldous Huxley quotation, I was informed that all would be revealed: A printing rep had invited me to tour her plant. Begrudgingly, not ready or willing to waken, I agreed, and the next week I set off for some nameless Maryland town. I spent a pleasant night in a local Marriott, where, upon checking in, I was informed by the desk clerk that both the Kmart and Wal-Mart just across the four-lane highway were open 24 hours but the bowling alley had already closed.

I got up the next morning, fresh and alert (there was no late-night bowling, after all), and headed over to the mythical printing plant. The first half of the tour was spent seeing the editorial/production acceptance process, which all takes place inside of computers: Files are received, ripped, placed, stored, retrieved, transmitted, and so on. This was the fingers-crossed portion of the process. Were my files formatted properly? Were the grayscale scans going to be legible? Will someone call my office to admonish the bleeds, the trapping, my poor font choices? I quivered in the presence of the people in the room; they had seen my faults laid bare before them. One of them appeared to be tracking me with his steely eyes, like a portrait in a horror movie.

This all transpired in a windowless space housing a half-dozen Macs, all dutifully whirring and chirping as they crunched and spat out files to an oversized printer. A woman collected the pages, measured them, held them back to back against a light box, and finally folded them into something resembling a book. These were my scentless blues, I knew: the folded-and-gathered proofs that would be sent to my office, the penultimate step in the process and the final check to make sure all is well. The woman, seemingly just out of her teen years, performed her job with a world-weariness I'd previously thought the province of only mailmen and small-business owners. Her folding technique (a slight ennui to her motions, but entirely accurate and swift) echoed the previous night's scenery—watching the delivery guy assemble boxes as I waited for dinner at the Joe's Pizza on the safe side of the four-lane.

Back in the prepress room, I agreed when asked by my tour guide that yes, the phantom goings-on in this room are indeed enlightening. I didn't add that they were also fairly boring, as healthy doses of viewer faith must be applied to understand what was occurring; whatever the technicians were doing could only be explained with metaphors. It all happens inside machines, which weren't even facing my way, and watching it was all vaguely disappointing.

But perhaps that was the plan. At some point, the tour guide could no longer hold back. She knew where her money's made—but she made you work for it. The teaser area was the plate-making area, where the digital files are transferred from the film onto the silver plate via light exposed through the negatives onto an ink-receptive coating of the plate. (Or else by fairy dust. I forget which). This, of course, also happens inside a big machine. Unlike the computer room, at least here there was something to play with, and I was fortunate enough to shake one of the plates, which created movie-magic-type thunder while the technician scowled at me and continued his elucidatory recitations.

Duly primed, though, we finally entered the hall of arms.

A press floor is part Rube Goldberg contrivance, part Terry Gilliam spectacle, and part Henry Ford assembly line. It is loud, there is dirt, dust, and sour smells, and there are men in t-shirts with blackened coalminer hands and earplugs dangling around their necks on plastic ropes, like peyos. The presses, though unfortunately none were hand-cranked, ran the gamut from beastly iron two-color stationary camel-humped antiques to state-of-the-art automated, preset, preprogrammed cyborgs with running boards and pulsating illuminations. Behemoth Heidelbergs (a fitting name for these efficient appliances) chirped and droned out pages and pages of printed material. My guide and I stopped a moment to watch two operators, working with the choreographed precision of concert pianists, change the plates on one such contrivance. When they were done, we climbed aboard a narrow catwalk and stood over the tray where additional ink can be poured in. Staring down into the many visible and moving bits of the engine, I realized this was the part in the story where, were I Charlie Chaplin, my tie would get stuck in the rollers and I would be dragged into a gear-and-cog-infested underworld of elaborateness.

I am, however, not Charlie Chaplin, and I was eventually forced to leave these wonderful beasts behind. I followed as we moved on to the binding-and-folding machines deeper inside the cavernous maw of the building. Here, the devices flip, spin, fold, glue, and dry like twin Seussian devices of efficiency. They lazily sprawl out like uncoiling snakes in the sun. Over their rollers passed texts that were being beaten and creased into recognizable form. A constant chugging and thwapping sound engulfed us as we strolled past the binding station, where the odor of hot glue filled the air. Over the noise, my guide gestured to a bucket of solid yellow glue pellets, which I scooped up and, still following his pantomime, tossed into a orifice of the binder where they slowly softened and dissolved.

All in all, there was more manual labor than I had suspected (lifting, carting, button-pushing, to begin with), and I learned that the geometric yellow lines of the forklift path are to be heeded at all times. I rotated in place and admired the world I had entered. How long had I worked in publishing and not seen this colorful, energetic end of the spectrum? How could this have remained hidden from me? It was like that old fraternity prank where your brothers move your bed out from the comfort of your room into the street and you wake up befuddled and disoriented amid the maelstrom of morning rush hour. I don't think I am more interested in machinations or processes than the next, but this was an enlightening experience to have notched on my bedpost.

And what is there that I will take away from this? How does this make a point? The curtain has been lifted and the Great Oz has been revealed, of course, but that's a pretty hoary observation. Perhaps more profound: I work in metaphors, and, out on the floor of the plant, metaphors and a quarter will buy you a copy of the New York Post; metaphors have a tendency to turn to castles in the sky when confronted with people whose forearms are as big as my neck. I know that when I create a "page" in Quark, it should become a page there in Maryland, but I also know that an architect and a bricklayer never get along as well as when the job is over.

Back at my desk, away from the thrumming activity of the plant, transmitting files is still an invisible faith-based 1's-and-0's operation. But now the landing, the arrival, and the set-in-motion of the files has been explained and verified. I kicked the tires and checked under the hood. It's a sturdy and to-be-trusted vehicle, for sure. And each time I send a file to press, I still feel the dull edge of paranoia until I see the blues and hold them in my hands.

Norman Jeffries is the pseudonym for a production editor living in New York who, for the moment, would prefer to remain anonymous.



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