03 November 2011

Self-publishing tips: Offset printing (pt 1)

Comic authors today benefit from increased choice in terms of how to publish. Digital publishing, aka the way of webcomics, are the obvious nearly-universal choice for both those who wish to print at some point an those who don't intend to. Print-on-demand (PoD) similarly makes it possible for everyone to make their work available as a book; despite its many limitations it's better than no possibility. Digital printing and various means offered by copy centers also present opportunities for enterprising artists to print small runs of books at a relatively modest cost, with more control over the final product than PoD allows. But the most exciting development, as far as I'm concerned, is that today sites like Kickstarter give everyone a chance to access good old offset printing, which this post is dedicated to. Here I list a number of things to know, do and avoid in order to make the most out of offset printing, based on my personal training and experience printing comics and other books with various printers (with a lot of trial and error.)

Why bother with offset in the first place, given its cost and the fact you'll have to stock the books? Because nothing out there matches the possibilities and quality it offers. You get to pick the paper type, weight, color, size and to control the quality of the result. If you fancy it, you can include inserts, die-cuts or special inks. It also is far superior printing to anything else out there for books. It all depends on how much you see your final product as a beautiful object to be kept. It is also necessary if you have a mind to get your book into bookshops (but that's a matter I won't go into right now).

If there's even the remote chance you might go the offset route when your comic is completed, it is best to work for offset from the very beginning.


Never work under 300 dpi. That is the lower limit of what is acceptable for a good printed result, despite the fact PoD accepts resolutions as low as 150 dpi (which tells you something about the relative quality of PoD!) Many recommend working at 600 dpi, which is a good idea for a black and white comic, but unnecessary for color (the printer will just convert it down), especially if it's more than your computer can handle. My printer, for instance, recommends I give him 350dpi files, and the result is incredibly sharp, much sharper even than I can preview on my screen.

Never ever work at a low resolution and size it up before printing. That's an absurdity, it completely misses the point and you'll end up with ugly artifacts as if you'd taken a jpeg from the net and sized it up. If you decide to print a comic you've created at low-res you will have to redo it for it to be suitable (as I had to do with my senior year project – the lesson sticks!) So don't get into that bad habit. Always work in high-res.

Color space:

We probably all know this, but in a nutshell: light-based color is worked in an RGB space (Red, Green, Blue), while pigment-based color requires a CMYK space (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black). This means that a comic made to be seen on a screen is in RGB, but to be printed, it needs to be in CMYK.
What to do about this? There are 2 possible approaches:

• Work in CMYK from the beginning. This is fine if you're not publishing online; you'll notice some Photoshop features and filters are disabled in this mode, but this should not be a problem because you'll be working with paper in mind. However, if like me you want to have your pages available online and they need to look as good on a screen as they will on paper, this is not ideal: CMYK pages tend to look duller on-screen, even after the automatic conversion to RGB when saved as .jpg or whatnot.

• Work in RGB, so you get all the benefits of that, and convert before printing. This can work, but don't, seriously DON'T convert your pages to CMYK yourself. You will have no idea what you've done to your work until the printed book arrives. Such a conversion will add black to all your colors. In the best case scenario it'll mean the colors are not what you intended, but if your work is dark to begin with, this can be disastrous. Since you're working with a printer, there is no need whatsoever for you to do this yourself. Send the printer your flattened RGB files as .psd* and let their professionals convert them as needed. They will apply the necessary profile and make the needed adjustments so that the printed page is as close as the one on your screen as it possible can be. By the way, you're getting charged for "color correction" even if you try to do this job yourself, because they always have to do something to your files before sending to print.

* Leave the text on a separate layer. If it's black on white, they'll want to strip it from all channels other than black, so that it prints solely as K. Otherwise, it'll print as 4 colors and the slightest registration error will make it fuzzy.

If you really want to do this yourself and have managed to convince the printer not to bill for color correction, at the very least you need to ask them for a color profile. You will have to convert your pages to that color profile, not to plain CMYK, for the conversion to happen with the least possible loss.
This profile (something.icc) should be saved where you won't misplace it. To apply it, open the file you wish to convert and go Edit>Convert to Profile. Select your profile and you'll be asked whether to flatten the document. I recommend flattening so that any blend modes you have don't go all funky on you. Save as a copy, and review the page for anything that may need re-saturating (that will usually be light effects, as they suffer the most from losing the white of a light source for the white of paper).

Finally, whichever way you went, I highly recommend requesting hi-res color proofs for a few key pages. This is the only way to see, on paper, the exact colors as they will come out, and so to catch any problem before it's too late. Printers may or may not charge for these, but this is not something I would try to economize on. You may not need more than 3 or 4 pages: the cover, the darkest and lightest pages in the book, and maybe a random one or one from a sequence where color scheme is particularly important.

Page size:

As a rule, comic artists who work on paper always draw at a much larger size than will be printed. This is only logical, as there's a limit to how fine one can draw and ink, and the scaling down process is very favorable to any kind of line work: small defects disappear and the whole is tightened. This also applies to artists who work digitally, despite the zooming function that makes it possible to work at a very small scale.* Working at 150% or 200% of your final printed size can really sharpen your result – if that is what you desire, of course. Another distinct advantage is that you never know when you're going to want a larger version of a page, either to sell as a poster, or to exhibit, or other unexpected things. I've had to exhibit pages on a number of occasions by now, and I was really glad to have applied this policy from the beginning.

* This can actually cause real problems. Technically, you may end up drawing too finely for your chosen printing method. Visually, we're not supposed to see small details clearly: as objects shrink or become more distant, so the amount of details in them drops for the human eye, and it looks very odd when that is not observed. On paper it happens naturally due to the limits of drawing at a tiny size – on a digital canvas, one must be careful to keep the overall balance in sight at all times.

Page position:

This is where the publishing platform influences the very writing of the comic (and only one of the ways in which is can.) As this is not applicable online, it tends to become a lost art, but the importance of page position returns to the fore when a webcomic makes it to print and lacks this consideration. In a book, a page is never isolated, but is either on the right or the left side of a spread. A story is enhanced by proper planning of this, and weakened by its neglect. A basic rule is to keep cliffhangers at the bottom of the right-hand page (recto, or odd-numbered page), so that the reader doesn't discover what happens before they turn the page. All surprises and, if possible, changes of location, should go on the left-hand pages (verso, or even-numbered). The turning of the page acts as a cut, which is why in a similar vein some things are best kept within a spread, which works as a unified time and space – especially if those moments take up just 2 pages. Splash pages are particular instances where you have no choice at all, you have to work it so the previous page is odd-numbered. This planning takes place at the writing and sequencing stage, and I often find myself having to condense a sequence or expand one because certain pages absolutely need to be odd or even. Commercial comic just insert ads where needed, if they even take that into account. If you're taking your webcomic to print and find yourself with some awkward page positioning and nothing you can do about it now, consider inserting a pinup or some other nondisruptive full-page art (more creative solutions are possible!) – just make sure to insert it somewhere the pause makes sense, such as at the moment of a change of location.

In part 2 we'll continue with number of pages, margins and bleeds, and choice of paper!