March 19, 2018
A visit to the printers: Gutenberg, in Tarxien, Malta
I visited Gutenberg lithographic printers in Malta earlier this month to oversee the printing of Intelligent Yoga, a book by renowned yoga teacher Peter Blackaby. This is the second title from my little imprint, Casita Press. Pete had a bad experience with the printing of another book a few years ago, with a UK printer that I won’t name, who managed to print and bind 3,000 books each with two covers (all the books had to be pulped). I had faith that Gutenberg would do a good job, having used them for my first title, Las Chimeneas. But to put Pete’s mind at ease, I suggested flying over there to quality check the printing in real time, which seemed agreeable to him; the stress involved in a print run of 3,000 is substantial for small operators like ourselves.
I also had my own additional motivations for organising a visit to this sunny isle. The seed had been planted in my mind at the London Book Fair last year, when Franco Portelli, Head of International Business at Gutenberg, had mentioned in passing the possibility of a press pass to learn more about the printing process. This was appealing to me as a fledgling publisher, and now seemed like the right time to take him up on the offer. And I’m so glad I did, as it was a really interesting and useful insight into lithographic printing and all the different possibilities available; as with any practical craft, it’s hard to appreciate the complexity and skill involved in the process until you see the machines and printers at work.
Franco was a superb host, showing me every aspect of the offset printing process, from file preparation, plate-making and ISO colour testing with the signatures – the large printed sheets that are folded, normally into 16 or 32 sections/pages, to form the book – to the nipping (pressing) of the signatures, cover lamination and binding of the books. The scale of the whole operation, and the sheer size of the Heidelberg machines needed to turn our digital files into real paper-and-ink books, was really quite humbling. Notwithstanding the many different elements and workers involved, this is a process that has been perfected over hundreds of years by generations of printers, artists and engineers. Digital may now rule the content roost, but the craftsmanship involved in producing books, even by machine, is one of the many reasons I still love them and still have faith in their continued existence.
Gutenberg is fairly unique in being both a printer and a bindery. Lots of UK printers apparently sub-contract the binding – with more scope for mistakes as a result. I was very impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the company, which is still family-run. I also got the opportunity to look through Gutenberg’s library of previous jobs, which has given me some exciting ideas for cover textures, formats, binding styles and end sheets for future books (including some photography books that may be in the wings – watch this space!). My enthusiasm for publishing – which isn’t the easiest industry to be part of – has been given a boost.
The trip also gave me a small but interesting window onto Maltese society. A casual lunch with some of the printers in the factory staff room led to a fascinating conversation about local politics, the recent murder of local journalist/blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia, the still-strong influence of the Catholic church there and the polarised element of Maltese culture that still defines it. The anthropologist in me felt well tended to.
Many thanks to Franco and his team for an enjoyable and informative trip. The first copies of Intelligent Yoga should hopefully arrive on our shores this week (available from Amazon UK).