ANAStaff's Blog

18 Apr 2014

Stepping up to offset press printing for your numismatic publication

ANA Clubs Exchange | ANAStaff

Written by: Eric Holcomb


Need hundreds of copies of your publication for a special event like a convention? If so, web offset press printing could offer a very economical alternative to photocopying, especially if you're using color.

Web offset press printing is the same high-speed process used by almost all newspapers and magazines. "Web" refers to the continuous web of paper fed into the printing press, not to the World Wide Web. For a typical magazine, printing is done with eight-page printing plates, so eight pages are printed at a time. Magazine size can be in multiples of eight pages, and each eight-page plate or set of plates can be either black (grayscale), two-color (say, black and green), or the full four-color process (cyan, magenta, yellow and black, or CMYK for short). Thanks to modern technology and the economies of scale, it could cost you as little as $150 extra to include eight color pages in your magazine, with 750 copies. The total cost for the Pacific Northwest Numismatic Association to print 750 copies of its 16-page convention special edition shown above will be a little more than $500.

PNNA_Cover _2014Q2_lowres

Two-page cover spread for PNNA's convention special edition of The Nor'wester. Designed by Tim Garcia, the independent graphic artist contracted by ANACS.

Requirements and Software

The requirements for offset printing are a bit technical, and may seem intimidating at first, but it's not really that difficult to get started. Most likely you will need one of Adobe's professional software products; the one I recommend is Acrobat Professional, currently in Version 11. The cost is about $450, or $19.95 per month on a subscription basis. With Acrobat Professional, you can generate PDF files meeting the PDF/X standard for Standard Web Offset Press (SWOP) printing even if you design your publication using inexpensive desktop publishing software such as Microsoft Word, Publisher or PowerPoint. The PDF capabilities in the Microsoft products are not adequate; for example, they will typically generate black text that specifies all four process colors rather than only black ink.


Astrophotograph of the Swan Nebula. Top: CMY colors only. Bottom: Full CMYK colors (black added). Credit: University of Oregon Pine Mountain Observatory.

Colors / Photo Editing

Having good photo editing software is also important. Ideally, you should use the full version of Adobe Photoshop, which can convert photos from the RGB color system (used for screen viewing and the World Wide Web) to the CMYK system needed for printing. However, as long as you have Acrobat Professional, you can generate PDF/X files with the correct CMYK color separations even if you use RGB photos in your publishing software. Acrobat Professional includes tools to view the color separations and ensure full PDF/X compliance.

As an extreme example of the importance of color separations, consider the astrophotograph at the bottom of this page, taken by the author in one of his other capacities as an observatory volunteer. With correct color separation, the CMY color ink channels pick up the color in the nebula, but little of the black background. The point is that even in color photos, dark areas should print using mostly black ink, not a combination of color inks. If Acrobat reveals high ink densities on all four channels, there's a problem, with the possible result being a muddy or too-dark appearance, and unreadable text (if applicable).

Also, photos and artwork should be adjusted for dot gain, the spreading of ink dots on the paper, which can be 20% to 25%. If you don't have the full version of Photoshop, you can still make adjustments in the less expensive Photoshop Elements to prevent your photos from printing too dark. For example, you can use the histogram feature to change the output brightness range (on a scale of 0 to 255) so it starts, say, at 16 or 20 instead of 0. That will lighten all the areas of your photos, especially the dark areas. Starting at an even higher output brightness (say, 160 or higher) will generate a "washed out" image suitable as a background for text or other design elements. The Enhance -> Adjust Lighting -> Shadows/Highlights tool in Photoshop Elements is also very useful if your photo has dark areas. I use this tool frequently even for photos intended for the Internet or for MintMark.

PNNAnews 2014_Q2_sample _ad

Local dealer ad in The Nor'wester using a "washed-out" background image of a Norse American gold medal. Colors will often appear darker in print than on a screen.


Per the PDF/X standard, all fonts used in a publication should be embedded in the PDF file to prevent font substitutions, which could change the intended appearance of text. Normally font embedding happens automatically when you create a PDF/X compatible file, but it could be an issue if you receive copy from someone else who has a font you don't have. Be aware of this issue, and suggest that advertisers avoid using unusual fonts. Using too many fonts on a page (or in a publication) is usually a poor design practice.

Paper Selection

Newspapers and magazines can be printed on a variety of paper types, ranging from simple newsprint to heavy cover stock. For The Nor'wester job, I specified a paper called Electrabrite, which is a step up from newsprint. Although not glossy, it's inexpensive, satisfactory for many jobs and keeps the weight at about one ounce for each 16 magazine pages. Your publishing company may have other suggestions.

Trim Size

Another important issue is the final trim size of your publication, which typically will be a little smaller than 8.5x11 inches. If you're using the 8.5x11 size in your layout, you should allow adequate margins (at least 1/2 inch on all sides), and then crop the final PDF to the correct size in Acrobat Professional. If desired, you can use the technique of bleed - having colors or background designs that extend beyond the final trim size of your publication, but be careful not to have text or important designs too close to the trimmed edges.

Printer Marks

You've undoubtedly seen them from time to time special marks or color bars in the margins of a printed item to specify trim, color plate registration, or for color adjustment. Most likely your publishing company uses imposition software that adds these marks to the printing plate as needed, but if not, Acrobat can also add the marks.

Publishing Company

Selecting a publishing company is also important. You should plan weeks in advance, as it could easily take a week or two to print your publication. Prices are likely to vary considerably, and it's probably best to avoid companies that primarily cater to very large commercial print jobs. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I can recommend Snohomish Publishing Company, website http://www.snopub.com/. You can download their customer handbook, which explains a lot more of the technical details and "do's and don'ts" of offset printing.


Most publications depend heavily on advertising revenue to keep subscription costs low; this is of course even more important for any booklet or program handed out at a numismatic convention.

Working with major companies such as ANACS is relatively simple, but everyone's busy, so allow adequate lead time, and be prepared to give all the necessary specifications, such as paper type and trim size, to the artist working on the ad. As in the case of The Nor'wester, you might be able to have your cover professionally designed at nominal additional cost!

Local dealers may present more of a challenge. They're less likely to have professionally-designed ads, and may require your assistance as editor. Fortunately, as already discussed, ordinary photos can be used (including as a background) with some adjustments. But once again, everyone's busy, so start early.

If an advertiser supplies a non-compatible PDF file, you may need to save the file as a high-quality image (TIFF at 300 dpi, for example) and insert the image into your publication. If any image scaling is needed, do it in Photoshop first, not in your desktop publishing software.

For more information

You're also welcome to contact me (Eric Holcomb, eric@holcomb.com) if you have questions about the editing or printing process.

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