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The (not so simple) Printing Process

I’d been cooking up plans for my book launch since summer 2021, while I was still beavering away on the words. I made enquiries at my local cat cafe, excited by the prospect of a purrfect cat-themed event, once the book was complete. The cafe’s owner was happy to host it, so ideas were soon swirling around my head and providing extra motivation as I cracked on with editing Part 2; Molly’s story.

The editing process inevitably took longer than I hoped (check out my blog post from March 13th to read about my editing strategy), so my plans for a pre-Christmas book launch fizzled away under a mountain of minor alterations and grammatical corrections. As December approached, I had to face the fact that my launch event was going to be pushed back into 2022. However, keen to accomplish my goal of publishing before the end of the year, I got Soulcat finished in time to release on Kindle on Christmas Day, and opted for have a paperback launch in the Spring.

Not being naturally blessed with skills in the Planning and Deadline-Meeting departments, I can look back now and say I’m rather impressed with myself that it all came together in time. Granted, it wasn't the smoothest ride, but the experience has provided me with some decent blog fodder, so there's that.

Before I could launch Soulcat on paperback I needed to actually have some copies to sell, so my priority in the new year was to get it printed. Up until that point, printing a book was something I considered way beyond my capabilities, knowing very little about publishing. But somehow other authors managed it, and given that my Grandpa started his own publishing company in the 70s, I decided it shouldn’t be an unattainable feat.

Trusting the internet to tell me how it’s done, I read through various articles and social media posts, and then turned to Google to source suitable printing companies, clicking through to a few that looked promising. They each had an had online form that generated a quote based on my specifications. The first piece of data they needed, understandably, was the total page count. I've never understood how writers know how many pages they've written. They announce their page count as if they’ve typed their stories straight into a published book, but when you’re using a programme that defaults to A4 and doesn't configure itself to novel-sized pages - which I’m not sure any programmes do - how on earth are you meant to know?

According to the internet, a novel-sized page can contain anywhere from 200 to 400 words, depending on the page size, font and spacing. I pulled a couple of books off my shelf comparable with what I wanted Soulcat to look like, and made a rough count of the average number of words on a page, giving me a guide to work with. My total word count for Soulcat was 67,404. Being the perfectionist that I am, I went through it chapter by chapter, calculating the potential minimum and maximum word count for each one, including partial last pages. I totalled up the figures and added extra for the front matter (title pages) and the acknowledgements etc at the back. My final range worked out at 250-285 pages. The exact number would depend on the font size, which would affect the number of words per page. The seemingly simple question of ‘page count’ ended up taking me around an hour, and several stretches of my brain matter, to figure out.

I typed 280 into the box, hoping that would be the maximum number of pages I would need for a top-line quote. As it turned out, my printed book is exactly that - 280 pages - so my fastidious calculative efforts weren’t in vain!

I scanned down to the next option on the form, hoping the complicated bit was done, and found myself looking at a drop-down menu of book size options. Telling myself I should have known the next question would be another stumbling block, I went on the hunt for a tape measure and gathered up the selection of books I’d picked out for the word count. Of course, none of them matched up with the size options on the screen, so I ended up cutting sheets of paper to a few of the listed measurements, in an attempt to visualise my book in my hand. Did I mention I’m a perfectionist who’s terrible at decision-making? Those qualities were proving most unhelpful!

With my page count calculated and book size chosen, the question of cover style was a refreshingly easy pick - gloss finish - and the paper stock quality had thankfully few options to choose from. It helped that I knew I could go back and adjust it later, to play around with the quote, so I went with a standard choice. The next question however, gave me pause, and flagged up a potentially budget-busting element I’d chosen for the book.

Each chapter of Part 1 is punctuated with a photo of Molly, which needed to be printed in colour. This didn't just mean extra ink, it meant a whole different grade of paper for the photographic print. Most of the printing companies I’d found offered quotes for either black and white or colour pages, with no option for a combination. Unsurprisingly, the colour option was prohibitively expensive. I considered having the photos printed in black and white, for a substantial saving, but my perfectionist streak wasn't having it. The photos of Molly are beautiful. Removing the colour would have taken the life out of them, defeating the whole point.

Incidentally, this is also the reason I haven't opted for Amazon's print-on-demand service. After uploading my manuscript and cover files, and filling in their form with all the same choices as above, including colour pages, their printing cost came out at £7.48 per book. The minimum they would allow me to charge for it was £12.46, and that would generate zero royalties for me! In order to make it worth my while I'd need to charge around £17, for a paperback! I could sell it for £8.99 if I chose black and white only, but given that price was more than my planned RRP for a copy with colour photos, I wasn’t happy to settle for that option at that cost.

So, hunting out the best value printers for my requirements was my only reasonable option. I found two companies able to quote me for a mix of pages; standard black and white with an additional fee per colour page. One was significantly cheaper than the other, plus they were more efficient with sending me an accurate quote and answering my questions. By pure coincidence, they not only happened to be located in the area I used to live, they’re called the Catford Print Centre. So it felt serendipitous all round!

By the time I confirmed and accepted the quote it was mid February, so my plan for a launch in March or April was realistically going to be the latter, at best. Some may have called me foolish for giving myself just two months for a print run, but ever the optimist, and with a life-long mantra of 'It'll be fine' I naively thought I'd given myself plenty of time.

I'd heard multiple accounts of self-published authors lamenting how hard it was to get their books formatted for the printing process, but I felt confident I could get it done fairly easily. I'd already worked my way through formatting the cover and manuscript for Kindle, and with the printing company being professional and experienced, I was sure it would all come together smoothly and in plenty of time. Famous last words, obviously.

The printers required a PDF of my manuscript, but I couldn't work out how that would relate to book-sized pages, since PDFs are standard A4. My pages were numbered, but since the file was in A4 format, there were significantly fewer than my estimated 280. Surely the words needed to be spread out over smaller pages, which would change the page numbers and increase the total? My brain doesn’t work well with numbers and maths; I’d tested its limits while calculating my page count, so trying to wrap my grey matter around these logistics felt like my synapses were exploding, and my brain was threatening a total meltdown.

I called Catford Print Centre, who advised me to increase my font size and then print out a sample page scaled down to roughly 80%. That would equate to an A5 page. I wanted my book to be smaller than that, so I went back through their size options to check (and double check) which one would look best. Each printing company has a unique list; strangely there is no ‘standard’ book size, and they all offer slightly different measurement choices. Following more paper cutting, book-staring and to-ing and fro-ing, I persuaded myself to make a firm decision. Then I had to twist my head around the calculations for increasing the font size and then shrinking the PDF to the correct proportion, to get it looking right. Each time I altered an element I printed out a couple of pages, trimmed them down to size, and compared the margins and fonts with the books I liked the look of. Then I went back, adjusted the font size or the scaling, and had another go. Soulcat is a book of two halves, and each has its own font, so I had to repeat the process for Part 2. Changing the size of the text impacted on the formatting, so I had to scan through every page checking for anomalies, like the last word of a paragraph hanging over to a new page, or a blank line between paragraphs sitting at the top of a page, using up valuable space. The programme I write with - Scrivener - isn't very helpful with these kind of adjustments, so I compiled my manuscript into a Word document, which was more compliant and saved my formatting alterations once exported to PDF. Many time-consuming attempts later, my manuscript was ready to go!

My brother, Tim, helped me design the back cover, in much the same way as he helps me with most things: I send him my draft and he improves it! I used Canva for my cover design, as it’s fairly straight-forward to use, especially since my front cover was very simple to put together. That photo of Molly was an easy choice for my branding. It was taken by my ex, Craig, and I’d had it in mind for the front cover ever since I decided Soulcat was going to be a book. The back cover content and design was a fresh challenge, as was designing the spine, which I hadn’t factored into my ‘to do’ list, but with my brother’s help, we created something I'm really rather proud of.

With all the elements finalised - manuscript, front cover, back cover and spine - I loaded everything into an email and sent it over to Catford Print Centre, feeling pretty chuffed with my achievement. It was a big, daunting task done and dusted. I received a swift reply, dousing my celebrations like a downpour at a picnic. My manuscript was fine, but the cover didn’t match their spec. It turns out Canva isn't a printer's best friend, and the bleed I'd added to each of the files wasn't sufficient. Also, since I'd sent over the front cover, back cover and spine as separate elements, getting them all to line up perfectly was proving challenging. It turns out most people make the spine the same colour as the front cover, so it doesn't matter if the image spills over, it will blend in. Of course, my design wasn't that simple. To add a further complication, Tim and I had had the genius idea of incorporating a wrap-around paper tear effect on the spine and back cover, which had to match up exactly in order to work.

I revised my files and sent them over, but was told they still weren’t quite right. They gave me a couple of options: Either scrap the paper tear element and alter the spine’s shading, or send the entire cover design in one file, as a wrap-around image, already lined up so they wouldn’t have to make it fit together at their end. I wasn’t prepared to give up the paper tear, I’d fallen in love with that part of the design, so I created a full wrap-around cover instead. The printers suggested using a different graphics programme, claiming it would work better than Canva, but I didn’t have the time or inclination to buy new software and learn how to use it. I would create my file in Canva and make it work, come hell or high water!

As I compiled the elements into one file I had to remove the bleed allowance from the edges I was joining up, but leave it on the outer edges of the whole cover. The printers had provided me their required measurements to within a fraction of a mm, and having already sent them two unusable files, the pressure to get it right was a challenge I didn’t relish, despite my perfectionism. Several days had gone by already and the number of weeks to my book launch were starting to look a little thin. Eager to get the print run started ASAP, I also didn’t want to annoy them, or further delay proceedings, by sending another incorrect file.

In the process of digitally supergluing the cover pieces together, I needed to ensure the spine was exactly the right width to match the number of pages it was going to hold. However, it turned out to be the only non-specific measurement in the whole process. There’s no guarantee 280 pages of a specific grade of paper will all be the exact same weight; there’s an element of variance, which meant that even if I got the spine width exactly right, it still wasn’t guaranteed the cover would fold in the perfect place on every copy and match up perfectly with the front cover. That said, the printers gave me their best estimate, and once I’d finished putting the cover together, I double and triple checked all the measurements before attaching the file to a new email and praying to the gods and goddesses of literature that it was right (that’s Hermes and the Muses, by the way).

There have been many moments through my self-publishing journey when I’ve realised why people outsource certain jobs, and cover design was another one to add to my list! In fact, the whole traditional publishing route was looking very appealing at this point! But instead of lamenting the challenges, I like to see each step as one more reason to feel proud of my book.

Thankfully the Muses heard my pleas, and the printers confirmed the wrap-around cover matched their required specs. Soulcat was then in the hands of the experts and I could focus on planning my launch event.

A week later I received my first proof copy of Soulcat in the post. I carefully ripped opened the envelope and let the book slide out into my hands. A real book - a proper, novel-sized paperback with Molly’s face on the front cover! It was an emotional moment, but also one that I couldn’t quite believe was happening, so I felt rather numb. But I quickly got over that, and despite the spine and covers all lining up beautifully, and the paper tear effect looking professional and brilliant, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. The photo on the front cover looked… underwhelming. For years (literally), I’d had the front cover planned out, drafted, and filed away on my computer, waiting for its moment. That moment had finally arrived and it was a huge anticlimax. The colours were all washed out, draining the life from Molly's eyes and doing the photo a huge disservice.

I asked the printers if I could try another version of the image, thinking it would look more like the stunning picture on my computer screen. I updated the cover file and emailed it across, asking for a second proof of the cover. It arrived a few days later, but disappointingly, looked even worse than the first version! The colours were even flatter, and Molly’s face looked slightly out of focus. I realised my computer screen wasn't showing me the true colours of the image, making them bolder and brighter than the printed version. The photo was also a lot smaller on my screen, so the focus issue wasn’t obvious. Out of all the elements I’d worked so hard on, the front cover was the last thing I’d expected to be disappointed by.

I asked Craig, the photographer, if he had a larger resolution version of the image. It had been over fifteen years since he took the photo, so I could only hope he still had the original file tucked away on his computer. He spotted that the camera had focussed on the carpet and sofa rather than Molly, which was only obvious on closer inspection. He found a larger image and sent it over, along with a version he’d edited to enhance the colours. I uploaded the new photos into Canva and played around with them to find the best option. Wary that my computer made the colours look better than the printed version, I over-egged them slightly, to compensate. I sent the new file back to the printers and asked for a second proof of the cover. The inner pages looked great, which was a huge relief after all my tinkering with the font sizes.

The new cover arrived in the post and I opened the envelope with confidence, certain that this version would be perfect and I could give them the green light for printing. I’d already sent the original cover image out for the blog tour promotion, and since updating it I’d put it on my book launch posters, happy that it was going to be the final image. Only it wasn’t. The new proof looked better than the original version - the colours were brighter and bolder, but it looked over-edited. Everybody judges a book by its cover, no matter how much they may deny it, so I was determined for it to be perfect, and the new version definitely wasn't. However, my deadline was getting closer. By this time I’d picked a date for the paperback launch, booked my venue and advertised the event, so I couldn’t afford to delay the print run much longer. I wasn’t prepared to postpone the launch, having publicised it. I was also very conscious of the amount of to-ing and fro-ing I was doing with the printers, revising things and asking them to try again. I got the impression I was being more awkward than their average client and I didn’t want to be one of ‘those’ annoying people. It was Friday afternoon and I was feeling the pressure, so in an attempt to let go of my rigid perfectionism, I told them to go ahead with the print run, with new cover.

Over the weekend I tried to suppress my uneasiness about the photo not being absolutely perfect. I focussed on other things, like setting up my recording equipment to work on the audiobook. Having heard an interview with Lesley Manville, in which she said she narrated Richard Osmond’s books by reading from the paperbacks, I thought I‘d channel my inner Lesley and do the same. As I thumbed through the book, appreciating how awesome it was to see my words on professionally printed pages, I noticed an anomaly. When I’d formatted my manuscript for printing, it hadn’t occurred to me that I might need to leave extra blank pages between chapters. Chapters always begin on the right hand page. It’s something I saw every day, but never really thought about. When one of my chapters finished on the left page, the new chapter started on the right, which is fine. But when it ended on the right hand page, the next chapter started on the other side of that page - on the left, once turned. Which was wrong. It just looked wrong, and it felt wrong reading it. I checked through a few other books on my shelves and they were all the same - blank pages added in to space out the start of each chapter so they always started on the right hand side. I typed out a slightly panicked email to the printers for them to see first thing on Monday… “Hold the press!! Is there any chance I can make changes to the manuscript AND the cover, and still have it printed on time??”

If I could still make alterations, then I could also update the cover again. Hoping the printers would say yes without wanting to strangle me (and grateful I now live a long way from Catford), I set to work, altering the photo to a version somewhere in-between proofs one and two: Edited for colour and sharpened, but also de-focussed a little so it didn’t look over-manipulated. Once again, I was working semi-blind, since I knew my screen was not colour-accurate, but I had confidence that I found a good balance between the two existing proofs.

Thankfully, on the Monday, the printers confirmed that it wasn’t too late to send over new files, have one more proof copy, and still complete the print run before my launch date. What they must have thought of me at that point goodness only knows, but I had to put aside my self consciousness for the good of the book.

I worked my way through the manuscript, spacing things out to match a professional format. In doing so, of course, I was increasing the page count, and that was a problem for two reasons: 1. The printing cost was calculated on page count and I didn’t want my bill to suddenly hike up. And 2. If I altered the number of pages I would also need to alter the width of the spine, and I was determined to avoid crossing that minefield again! So for every page I added in, I needed to take one away.

Despite being happy with my finalised font sizes, I decided I could afford to reduce one a little. As I mentioned earlier, Soulcat is a book of two halves: Part 1 is my story, and Part 2 is Molly’s, and I wanted there to be clear differences between them; visually as well as the change in writing style, giving Molly her own voice. I opted for photos in the first half and illustrations in the second, and used a unique set of quotes to punctuate each chapter. I’d also chosen distinctive fonts, with Molly’s being slightly more playful and youthful. Making it one or two points smaller didn’t effect the reading experience, but allowed more words on each page, thus saving me some paper. Next I reduced the top and bottom margins, fitting a few more lines onto each page. Then followed another thorough scour of the text, checking where the paragraphs started and ended, and making alterations to any over-hangs. I reduced the spacing between sections and even went as far as re-wording a sentence or two, making them more concise in order to reduce the word count, so the text would fit without spilling onto another line or page. Anyone who spots a discrepancy between the kindle version and the paperback can have a prize!

I sent back my new, final final version of Soulcat to the printers, promising I’d be happy with it regardless of any further issues I found. I can’t seem to complete any projects without fixating on things I’d like to change, but there comes a point where I just need to accept I’ve done all I can do, and let it be. Up until a few years ago, I worked in theatre as a Stage Manager. There’s nothing like the atmosphere backstage on a live show, where mistakes have to be quickly rectified and you can’t go back and try again. It was probably good for me, in that I had to put brush past any regrets and focus on the next thing. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is an apt mantra when running a show. Now I have to battle my inner self-critic and force myself to focus on all the brilliant things I’ve achieved rather than the things I’d change if I had the chance.

To the huge credit of Catford Print Centre, despite them having to deal with possibly their most awkward customer ever, they got my books delivered a whole week before my launch date. I was determined that whatever was in the box - however the books had turned out - I was going to love them regardless of any flaws I might spot. But I needn’t have worried. They were perfect. The front cover couldn’t look any better. The spine lines up beautifully and the internal layout is consistent with any other professionally published novel.

I made an unboxing video when the books arrived, which you can find on the ‘Paperbacks’ page of my website, as well as on the Soulcatmemoir Facebook and Instagram pages, and on my SoulcatCreations TikTok account.

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