ABDVol.33 No.3

Printing Industry in Iran
Hamid Reza Shahabadi Farahani


  A printing house is quite a noisy place. If you are used to enjoying your time in a quiet, or silent setting like your office or a library, you probably won't appreciate being in a printing house. You will certainly be irritated by the noise, the paper dust, the smell of the printing ink, glue and alcohol, and you will soon decide to leave the place anyway. Only those who are used to working in a printing house can possibly stay there. No. Let's say, only those who find the utmost pleasure in printing a book may be able to tolerate a printing house.
  When I see a book getting published, I feel extremely delighted. To me, the printing of every book is a phenomenon. In my view, every book is like a bird. It stretches its wings, flaps them to fly and nestle in the thoughts and minds of the people. The noise of the printing machine is like birds fluttering, which I enjoy.

A Brief History of Modern Printing Industry

 We don't know exactly when printing started in Iran but the most ancient examples date back to the 5th century B.C., when wooden types and nuts were applied to print certain patterns. The modern printing industry, however, was imported to Iran during the first few decades of the 18th century. Mirza Saleh Shirazi, one of the very first Iranians sent to Great Britain to study was among those who imported the printing industry to Iran. He had learned engraving, carving, and type-setting in London, so when he returned to Iran, he introduced typography, and published the first Iranian newspaper in Tehran. Simultaneously, Mirza Asadollah in Tabriz, who had gotten acquainted with the printing industry in Russia, printed the holy Quran typographically. It is also said that a group of Armenian clergymen had established a printing house with wooden type in Isfahan and had published the Bible previously. A similar event has been reported from other cities such as Uremia.
  A little while after the importation of typography, lithography was brought to Iran through India in the last years of the 18th century and was soon widespread. Numerous books and newspapers were eventually published, and the printing industry brought about public awareness. A constitutional revolution took place in Iran and the first parliament was established. So the number of books and newspapers highly increased, especially those which dealt with revolutionary subjects, and the printing industry brought about discussions and debates. Modern schools were established in Iran one by one, and textbooks were published with high circulations. Printing facilitated public education. Children's literature began to flourish, and illustrated books were subsequently published. Next came colourful pictures in the books, and simple printing was accompanied by beauty and aesthetics.
  Today there are about 5,000 printing houses working in Iran, some with old-fashioned printing machines and some equipped with the most modern printing facilities, mostly made in Germany. However, there are some machines made in Japan, India, Czech Republic and Slovakia. For a short while, a few Russian machines were also used, but they were not satisfying, thus printers stopped using them. The most common machines nowadays are the two-color machines, two-colour rotary machines, and four-colour and five-colour machines in different sizes. Along with them, we should consider intaglio printing machines, bookbinding machines, rotary board cutters, etc.

A Day at a Printing House

 I've come to work early in the morning. I take off my coat and get ready to work after a cup of coffee.
  Immediately there's a call from the printing house. The head printer says that they need 100g paper to print a new book, and there's none in the stock. There are only 70g and 80g paper, made in Indonesia. I tell him that we have lately purchased boxes of 100g paper, made in South Korea. He warns that the Ministry of Commerce, which is responsible for the import of paper, has announced that 100g paper orders have not yet arrived, and we can only use 80g paper. I suggest providing 100g paper from the market. (I know it's very difficult since the government sells paper cheaper than its real price to the publishers, and paper is much more expensive in the free market.) But, he replies that there is no 100g paper in the market, either. Finally, he asks, "What should we do now?" Honestly, what should we do? There's no choice. We shouldn't delay printing the book. I tell them to print it on 80g paper. I feel the cold sweat on my forehead. I know printing a book which has been prepared so painstakingly, on 80g paper, will lose in quality, but I have no choice. What can we do, indeed? A lower quality is better than no book at all.


 The lithography of Iranian books is completely done by computers nowadays. Image setters can be found in almost every composing room. Every book's text, images and pages are first recorded on a CD which will be sent to lithography to prepare its film. Then, a film is provided for each colour, and a zinc (punch tape) is made from the film. However, there has recently been a new method, plate setter, in Iran, in which the zinc is prepared directly from the CD without changing it to films.
  The biggest problem in lithography in Iran is currently the rapid development of its technology. When the manager of a composing room or a lithography workshop purchases the latest lithographic machinery from foreign countries and installs them in his workshop at immeasurable expense, it won't be long before more modern and precise machines of higher quality are being imported and installed in other workshops. It's quite natural that customers prefer workshops equipped with the most modern machinery and the most advanced technology. Hence, other machines are old-fashioned and outdated, and their owners cannot even recover their capital outlay by selling them. This drawback is the main reason nowadays that nobody dares to invest in buying new lithographic machinery.
  Lithography workshops are either inside the printing houses or outside and far away. Large printing houses usually include lithography sections as well, but smaller houses publish the books after preparing the zinc outside. The same is true about bookbinding and case-making. Sometimes they are done inside the printing houses and sometimes outside. In the latter case, the printed papers are sent to the bookbinding workshops after cutting and folding.


 On the monitor screen, I have a view of the cover image of our latest book. It's beautiful. I congratulate the graphic designer who is standing next to me. He smiles and exclaims, "I hope it stays the same in print."
  I tell him I don't understand. He explains, "The last cover image I worked on had changed so much after the printing that I couldn't recognize it. The colours were not what I had designed. The shadings had changed, and in short, it was not what I had painted, totally a different thing. "I hope it doesn't happen again. Since we computerized our lithography system, such things have sometimes occurred because the printing machine operator has never seen the original image. They have made zinc from the film in the lithography section, he installs the zinc in the machine, and since he has not seen the original image, he switches all the colors on normal and starts the machine. It's obvious that the product will be something different.
  It has been my pleasure to be able to solve the problem recently. An upgraded PC and a precise monitor settled the problem. Now the printing supervisor first observes the CD of the book on the monitor carefully, measures the color percentages and reports to the printing machine operator. Since then, we haven't had any problems to manage the colours.


 About 10 years ago, there were very few active printing houses in Iran. There was a limited number of old printing machines working, so that the majority of books, magazines, and other publications had to wait a long time to get printed. As a result, the printing business was very profitable. The printing houses worked around the clock and their owners earned considerable income. But the government contributed to the import of lots of printing machines, and since then, lots of people have established printing houses hoping to make an incredible profit. This trend is still going on. According to the latest news, tens of modern printing machines are being imported. This has made the printing houses less crowded. Customers now try to choose the best printing houses with the most modern machinery and the lowest costs. Consequently, the print tariff is gradually decreasing day by day, and the printing business is not as profitable as it used to be. The printing business somehow suffers from the same problem as lithography: the modern printing machines are outdated a short time after they have been installed, and they cannot compete with the more advanced ones. In such a competition between the advancing technology and money making, the investors are usually the losers.

 At the end of a hard working day, I am ready to go home when the printing supervisor calls on. Two of the major components of the Heidelberg GTO machine are out of order, and the whole process has stopped. Nothing worse could have happened to a book which is ready, than for its case-making machine to break down. I ask the supervisor if they can repair the parts. He says, "No, we have to replace them." I tell him to call the Heidelberg representatives in Iran and buy the parts. He replies, "We have already called them. But unfortunately, they don't have spare parts." Since there are only a few machines like that in Iran, it's not profitable for anyone to import the spare parts; therefore, we have to order them through Heidelberg representatives in Iran. We have done that a few times before. I know that we have to wait for about two months to go through all the bureaucracy of ordering, custom processing, etc. I know that the GTO will be out of action for the next two months.

Digital Technology in Printing

 Digital printing technology has recently emerged in Iran. Presently there are three digital printing houses in operation, and there are others popping up. It's obvious that the importing of digital machines will be accompanied by special changes in the publishing process. New methods such as print-on-demand (POD) and desktop publishing (DTP) will be at work along with digital printing, and there will be a fundamental revolution in the printing industry. Yet, digital printing has not prevailed in Iran. A forecast of this technology has raised lots of hopes and fears in the printing business community. The prevalence of digital technology might present a lot of new possibility to the print industry while it may well mean bankruptcy for many printing houses. Anyway, there have always been two sides of a coin.

 I enter the printing house. I'm welcome by the noise of the machines, the smell of glue, paper, and ink. I greet some workers and visit all the machines. The rotary board cutter, the printing machine, the bookbinding machine and others are preparing a book with a beautifully designed blue cover. I know this book quite well. I step forward and pick one up, it's Meet My Friends! translated from Persian into Dari, the latest ACP Publication which has been released for the Afghan children. I turn the pages eagerly to see the colourful and delightful images. Then, I imagine the lovely faces of Afghan children who will read this book in the refugee camps or in the half-destroyed schools. That is the sweetest picture I can imagine. And how much I love my profession! And how good the books are!
(translated by Lili Hayeri Yazdi)

Hamid Reza Shahabadi Farahani
Born in 1967. Graduated in history, Mr. Shahabadi has worked as writer and editor.
Director of the Publication Department, Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, 24 Khalid Eslamboli St., 15116, Tehran. phone: (98) 21 8729284, fax: (98) 21 8821121, e-mail: kanoon@jamejam.net