Demanding Vendor Specifications

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


A short while ago, I visited a potential client. I was impressed with their editorial and production teams because they had given serious thought to the durability of their publications. They had a strict style list, a unified method to produce books, and a clear vision to archive their materials in ways that facilitated future use. They were conscious of the need to communicate their standards among themselves and to work to develop consistent, identifiable publications.

Then we started talking about their vendors and their relationships with them. Interestingly, they did not demand the same standards from their vendors, to whom two-thirds of their books were transmitted. Although they recognized the need to produce well-formed documents and the internal value of doing so, they did not insist that their vendors conform to their high standards. Thus on 66 percent of their list, their effort was for naught.

In every industry, vendors are expected to adhere to strict specifications and produce goods according to the demands of the customer. Publishers must comply with fairly strict standards for distribution; however, when it comes to our relationship with production houses and vendors, we allow them to produce work in the manner of their choosing. Sure, we have editorial guides and demand certain designs, but we fail to insist that our product is developed according to strict specifications. Imagine a child’s toy, an airplane or automobile part, or military equipment being built according to the way it looked instead of adhering to strict manufacturing code. Vendors work for you and should do so according to your specifications.

I suggest that the following minimal standards be required:

  • Develop a common nomenclature for the elements in your books. Make sure that every like type is called by the same name. You are welcome to use Scribe Markup Language (ScML), available free of charge at, if you wish. Insist that your vendors use your style names, and do so consistently.
  • Develop design specifications that go beyond the visual appearance of your books. The design specifications should include how files are to be set up, how styles are to be used, how images are to be handled, what rules govern the use of sidebars, and the like. Ideally, you would also insist that no extra content or information is contained in your files (e.g., typesetter notes in space outside the margin).
  • If you are using a desktop publishing system such as InDesign or QuarkXPress, then develop templates for everything you publish. A template doesn’t have to dictate how elements in your books appear, but it should dictate how your books are structured. In other words, templates do not restrict the appearance or creative process; they only create consistency in your publications.
  • Do not limit your quality control checks to a mere visual examination of the PDFs. Make sure you are also scrolling through the application files to ensure they adhere to your specifications. It’s important to invest in the software in which your books are built. Learn to examine the files and make sure they are constructed correctly and follow best practices.
  • When a project is approved, be certain that you receive all the files used in the construction process. Insist that the deliverables include the mechanics files. You are careful to insist on your copyrights, so be sure to obtain the copy to which you hold the rights.

It’s important to develop internal systems, but it’s equally important to insist that your vendors produce books according to your specifications. Internal skills and time are also essential to develop to ensure that you are performing quality control checks on your vendors’ work.

For some industries, the importance of standards is obvious and critical. If a company builds a toy or a car part incorrectly, then the result can be deadly. If a doctor fails to follow procedure, that too can be catastrophic. In most trades, including publishing, the effects are not as clear or immediate. An inconsistent restaurant may lose its customers over time. Other service providers may lose their defining characteristics, leaving their customers unable to distinguish them from the competition. Cost overruns due to mistakes or problems may drive some out of business. These things may be harder to identify. But specifications make our products better, lead to consistency of expectation, help us be efficient, and improve the books we publish. Insisting that the people who work for us follow our specifications is a critical part of publishing great books.