/TLDR: Offset printing has aesthetic that I prefer and quality advantages of color and paper quality.
Why would I pursue offset printing when it’s more expensive than digital? The short answer is: offset looks and feels better. I don’t expect to convince everyone, but everyone has different ideals.
- Digital printing has its advantages, but it’s always going to be toner fused to the surface of the paper, rather than ink within the paper… and that just doesn’t look or feel as good. It’s not as archival. So sure, it may be cheaper, but it can sometimes that toner can fuse pages together over time! I’m not knocking digital, it has it’s place, and it’s just not what I want, at least for a first edition.
- Cheaper offset printing options do exist, but they a) get those low prices by outsourcing overseas, and b) still require large orders of 5000 or more. I have met and spent time with both my printers: I met the printers I’m working with in their shops, interviewed them, watched the presses print for Zōsan. While I don’t make any immediate judgements of others, Clare Carpenter and Charles Overbook put their hearts and souls into every proof and print. They’re here in the US. That means something to me. The quality of their work is impeccable.
I don’t reject digital printing entirely. I am already preparing to reprint Zōsan, and already have Tamaishi on Amazon, which is printed on demand, digitally. They look pretty good. But I still prefer to have this offset method for the first edition.
Offset vs. Digital: Whatchoo talkin’ bout?
Offset is a traditional method of printing used for decades. Inked text and images “transferred (or ‘offset’) from a plate … to a printing surface” (1) As with most improvements in printing techniques, it was created to make things cheaper and faster. It’s still widely appreciated that offset printing “produces sharp and clean images and type” (1) better than most alternative printing methods, because of the way the ink permeates the paper.
The downside of offset is that it’s more expensive and labor intensive for smaller print jobs like mine compared to digital. There are plates and rollers and those have to be inked and cleaned. Digital printing was created as a faster, cheaper alternative to offset and the many other printing methods that preceded it.
Without getting into too much detail, full color images are printed by a 4-color process using Cyan (C), Magenta (M), Yellow (Y) and Black (K). These four colors along with a process called “half toning” (printing with tiny patterns of dots) can produce colors outside of the original four. It’s an illusion, actually, just like this picture below:
Digital printing has clear advantages: it doesn’t use plates, is cheaper, less labor intensive, and has faster turnaround times. You can print as little as one print — though most commercial printers have minimum orders on things like books. Most digital methods, however, “forms a thin layer on the surface that may be additional adhered to the substrate by using a fuser fluid” (1) In other words, digital printing uses toner — a fine plastic powder, melted and fused onto the surface of paper with heat. This process dictates the kinds of paper you can use — not all papers can be used on a digital process.
Toner on paper has a kind of dull, flat and lifeless look to it to me. It covers the paper stock so you can no longer see and appreciate it. Ink in the paper bleeds a bit through absorption, has a quality akin to the sound of an analog recording vs. digital. The texture of the paper is retained.
Paper quality. Think of a “pulp fiction” book you may have read. Or maybe you have an old book on yourself where the pages are brown and brittle. If you can, think of newspaper and how the ink smears and the paper is super thin. These are are design choice with a purpose, so they’re not “bad” or “wrong” choices. I want to make something with beautiful paper (I love Mohawk Superfine Eggshell). It has a wonderful tactile quality and warm white color to it.
My illustrations currently don’t have full color — they’re digital pen and ink drawings, so I can use a printing method call spot color printing. Rather than use 4-color process, spot color chooses a single can of ink, not produced with this illusion. This results in a color that can be much more vibrant than one produced by the 4-color process. So on top of the fact that it’s ink, it’s a bit like reaching for exactly the marker you want. It is true that to get this particular can of ink, the printer has to mix other colors together — but those colors can come directly from some pigment, whereas 4-color printing has to rely on CMYK.
The irony of this is that spot color printing used to be the “cheap” option. Before digital color, it was a lot less labor intensive to deal with two color plates — one for the black ink, the other for the color. Some books were even tricky with spot colors, mixing two of them to get a third color, much like 4-color process can produce a wide range of colors. Just as the Gutenberg press was widely regarded as an advantage over hand writing books (yes, monks used to make copies of books by hand writing them) and the vandercook press was a mechanical advantage over the Gutenburg press — speed and price have always been a factor when producing for a broad market.
The drawings are made digitally, though…
All this hype and preference for the offset printing method, but my drawings are done digitally.…you got me, I guess?
Seriously, though, there’s a real reason why I use an iPad for illustration. I admire the artists who can doogle perfect renderings in their moleskin notebooks, and post perfect pointillistic drawings posed next to their pens.
The main reason is that digital is more forgiving: I can make mistakes and undo. I can try things that I’m not sure if they work and revert if I need to — experiment and get it wrong, without having to whiteout, or start over.
If I tried to make some of of my illustrations with micron pens — and I still doodle in copies of my pens this way — they would have taken three times as long. My frustration would have outweighed the enjoyment of the process. Although it’s important to point out that for Cloudia’s Rage, I spent almost 20 hours and made 84,817 pen strokes to finish it. And although tools like “drawing assist” exist to help with perspective line (kind of like a digital ruler) I instead drew all those lines by hand, because I prefer the human imperfection of the lines, rather than perfectly drawn mechanical ones.
The day I realized the Procreate (the software I use) could tell me that, I no longer cared if I was using pens or not. It’s a means to an end. My medium is digital, but I’m using it in an analog manner.
Thankfully, I’m not in in a commercial, pressured environment where I’m expected produce artwork quickly. I’ve found some tools that speed things up — (a halftone shading brush, for example — that I use because it really improves the definition of my surfaces, but I still prefer to draw everything whenever possible. I wish I had that tool, in fact, for Tamaishi, it would have made my spot color channels look better.
Put it all together: a preference for the quality of offset printing quality + the fact that I’m not trying to pursue a professional writing career, the way that I’m approaching this makes sense. Digital printing exists for a purpose: to allow less expensive, shorter run production, but at a compromise I don’t want to accept. My tradeoff is that I end up with far fewer books, but I don’t need 10,000 copies because I’m not trying to make a living from this.
I have been grateful that Kickstarter has allowed me to achieve these ideals, by letting my readers help me bring it to life. It often seems like lofty goals for something that’s a hobby. It also often feels presumptuous: how are my words worth all this trouble? But I’ve left that up to my readers, and they seem to agree.
Making these books is not — and I have no intention of it ever being — purely a business-oriented endeavor. Maybe it means I won’t write a fourth book, I don’t know yet. Writing, illustrating and recording the first three has brought me great joy, joy that isn’t tied to profits. It has never been about how much money I can make from these books, it’s been about how can I make it the thing I want it to be. It has been for the act of creation, the act of doing, and of making a beautiful piece of art.
So while I am printing on demand via amazon a part of me thinks that going that route presumes that somehow I’ll command some broader audience. I’m proud of what I write, but I honestly don’t think that’s going to happen quickly or perhaps ever. I’ve gathered that much of that kind of success relies on your marketing and social media savvy, and currently I don’t have much of either.
So instead I choose to print a book that maintains my aesthetic ideals — and the result has been books I am truly proud of and love to hold, and one that I hope my great-great grandkids will hold as well.
(1) “Offset Printing.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 May 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offset_printing