The process for movies and music is pretty well-known and thoroughly documented on Wikipedia.
You shoot a movie, edit it and then you produce a "master copy" from which all later copies of the movie will be derived, like for example, all the films that will go into theaters, all the DVDs, all the Blu-Rays and stuff like that.
Same thing goes for music: you track an album (or a song), mix it, master it and then all future copies of your work will be made from said master copy.

Now, how does that work for books? Or magazines or any other kind of thing that comes out of a printer and is distributed on a large scale?

I mean, I assume something like this happens and I'm pretty surprised I couldn't find anything about it online (I guess I may be using the wrong wording for this entire thing).

Let's say I'm a publisher and I've got my book ready to be printed.
What's the standard format publishers use to do this? Is it just PDF files or is it something more complex like LaTeX or XML? Or is it just all rastered down to, like, a series of bitmap files? [In that case, what's the kind of file they use BEFORE rastering it all down to simple pictures]

And, perhaps more interestingly, what kind of files are used to STORE such "master copies" in a publisher's digital "repository"? (I'm sorry if my language is not very field-specific but I barely know anything in this field).
Does it make a difference if the book is filled with pictures and illustrations? Are they stored in the same file as the text? And what's the standard resolution at which such pictures are preserved?

Thank you for your time.

  • A book is an example of a "simulacrum" each one is a "copy of an object that has no original", fact fans.
    – One Monkey
    May 21, 2014 at 9:14
  • Don't think that's what a simulacrum is. A simulacrum is the representation or imitation of a person or a thing. Isn't what you describe closer to the concept of a second-order simulacra from Jean Baudrillard. Incidentally, the "copy of an object that has no original" is something that the Ghost in the Shell TV series used, the so-called "stand alone complex". A bit similar to memes, too. Jul 2, 2014 at 9:54
  • There's actually a large part of the academic field called "textual studies" that involves trying to piece together "master copies" from drafts, edits, and the like, and often will even track the history and variance in changes. The resulting product is called a "critical edition."
    – wordsmythe
    Jul 8, 2014 at 21:57

4 Answers 4


Most publishers use InDesign for the text block and Photoshop for the cover, and there are a variety of these files stored on the relevant staff members' computers. The closest you get to the "master copy" would be the most recent version of the work provided by the writer that has been through the editing process and contains the most up-to-date edits (ditto with the covers). This will tend to be stored on a shared drive to which the editorial team will all have access (usually "read only," but with write access when required). Again, this will tend to be in InDesign format, but it's also possible that there are more up-to-date edits somewhere on paper, or in Word, or in an email exchange with the writer/agent/editor that need to be incorporated.

A book is always in an unfinished state, even after publication (when errors, inconsistencies, and things the writer just wants to change, suddenly becoming glaringly obvious) and the file maintenance conventions publishers adopt reflect this. Reprints of books, new editions, different sized editions, editions for different markets, paper/electronic versions (etc.,etc.) will all require differently formatted files that reflect the most current version of the edit, so there's never a real "master copy."

  • Thank you for your answer. After this thread died a while ago I asked a friend who took a publishing class some time ago and she practically told me the same thing. Also, this article explains how InDesign got so popular: arstechnica.com/information-technology/2014/01/…
    – user8740
    Jul 4, 2014 at 11:29

Why do films need master copies?

Because playing a movie, or even copying it, involves the film (i.e. the physical celluloid strip) to be dragged through a machine, and this handling causes abrasion, scratches, and with time destroys the film. So instead of copying the original film a thousand times for all the cinemas out there and in this process destroying the original, a so called "master copy" is made which is copied a handful of times. These first copies are then used to create the thousands of cinema copies, thus preserving an original, from with new first copies can be made in the future.

Copies of celluloid film are of lower quality than the original: less sharp, worse colors, etc. Which is why we cannot use a copy to make copies, but need a "master copy" as close as possible to the original cut.

Do we still need master copies?

No. Playing a digital movie does not abrade the original file. What you need now are backups to avoid losing the data, but any copy can serve as the original, because there is no deterioration of quality involved and each copy has the same quality as the original.

Do books need master copies?

Books are text. Printing a books traditionally, the text was set with lead letters when it was to be printed. After the printing the letters were sorted back into the letter case, to be available for other books. The manuscript of the text was the original from with a new text would be set for a re-printing. This process introduced different typesetter's errors in each re-print.

Later, the text was set digitally and a photographic print of the text (a socalled "film") was used to print books. This was stored, because creating it costs money, but basically this was not necessary, because a new copy could be made from the original digital file, or even the manuscript, and no abrasion was involved in the process of creating it.

In the digital age, we still print directly from a digital file. The only difference is that now even the manuscript is digital. Again, no abrasion is involved, so no "master copies" are made.

Books are printed from different technical systems. Some books (like scientific symposion reports) are printed directly from Word or PDF files from common PCs, others are printed from specialized typesetting file formats created on specialized typesetting workstations running specialized software and operating systems, common only among print professionals. These files are of course stored (digitally) after printing, to avoid typesetting cost when a reprint is made.

In short:

Master copies are necessary where the process of creating copies causes quality loss in the original. This happens with celluloid film, but it does not happen in books, nor in digital movies today.


Do books need master copies? Do we still need master copies?

The answer to both questions is yes. Even though the original copy of a book might be digital, it still needs a master copy.

For one thing, digital degrades. It might not happen as fast as with physical copies, but images degrade as they get copied (one of the downsides of image compression tech). Also, errors (formatting, spelling, and extraneous) are introduced into text as it is copied more and more.

And even if digital didn't suffer from degradation, you should still have a master (or archival) copy. It's not a good idea to assume that you will always be able to find a good quality copy in the future should you need to create a new edition. Chances are it will be a degraded copy with lower quality images and other issues introduced in the conversion process

What should that master copy contain?

In my opinion: Everything.

I would archive everything from the original source documents and images to the intermediate file formats and including whatever preferred archival file format is common at the moment. Don't forget to also include any material discarded from the published book; it could prove useful in a future edition.

  • 2
    Copying does not degrade even images using lossy compression (changing size would force a recompression) and there are several image formats that use lossless compression (e.g., lossless JPEG, PNG, GIF) though a size change would typically force an alteration (pixel doubling is an exception). Yes there is potential for undetected/uncorrectable errors in transmission and storage of digital data, but legacy media and format issues seem to be more troubling. Digital content prefers copying as a means of preservation.
    – user5232
    May 21, 2014 at 15:01
  • Following up on the last sentence of Paul's comment: A digital "master copy" will become unretrievable because of the decay of storage media (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_degradation#Decay_of_storage_media). Re-storing the data, i.e. making a copy of a digital file, is the best method of countering such decay. One of the longest lasting storage media is still simple acid-free paper! A printed book (or handwritten manuscript) will be readable long after a digital file has been permanently corrupted. Which is why state archives print their files and store them in filing cabinets.
    – user5645
    May 22, 2014 at 7:14
  • @Paul I've seen images with degraded color, so I know that it can happen. And BTW, I was assuming that the master copies would be digital. The difference between the master and what is circulated is that the former is only copied as often as needed to preserve it. Who knows how many times a commercially released ebook may be copied and converted in its lifetime.
    – user8743
    May 23, 2014 at 11:04
  • 1
    If by copy you mean open in an image editing application and save, then, yes, degradation will generally occur with lossy compression by "copying". However, "bits are bits" and images are no more subject to corruption (other than by bit count per object) than text. Resizing and other modifications are likely desirable, so having a canonical version (roughly equivalent to a master copy) is useful, but simply copying will not typically degrade an image (no transmission is 100% error free, including reading from storage).
    – user5232
    May 23, 2014 at 11:51

Is there none that can supply some "trade" information regarding the methods, file formats etc - of modern books / manuscripts? I expect, if the graphics was ever available as such - or designed so by the publisher - they would be stored as vector graphics, unrendered or uncompressed original formats. Complex images though, aren't impossible to do by vector - but extremely time consuming.

As have nicely been informed by the other users here - with older, "analog" media (video and audio), the primary function of the "Master" was to branch out a handful of copies, and duplicate further from those - due to physical wear and tear during the copy process. Books were "set" manually, and the letters separated after the print was run. Original manuscripts were usually print or writing on paper, depending on age.

In modern day - the "Master" still serves as an unadulterated original (and this is usually duplicated several times) - but not primarily due to wear and tear during a copy process. A straight 1:1 digital copy does not pose any wear on the original, or detoriation of the new copy. Its all 1s and 0s. Most data transfer processes have data corruption control. The "recieving" end will let the "sender" know what it actually got. If the data don't match the original, the "sender" will send that package again. This will loop util it "gets it right" or a defined limited set of times (whatever occurs first) - this "limit" can be indefinite.

Don't confuse this with the actual manufacturing of "digital media" like CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. The actual transfer process from the "manufacturing master", is physical pressing. Any physical pressing procedure, is actually very much analog - and thus both long-time wear or a foreign object like a speck of dust, can introduce detoriation (resulting in data corruption).

There are 2 other important aspects of "Digital Master Copies" to keep in mind.

First off - most of todays digital storage media, will be detoriate with time. This is mostly down to physical properties of the materials the storage media is manufactured from. Paper and cellulose film will deteriorate too. So will modern polyester film eventually, but its designed to last for hundreds of years given ideal circumstances. But the good thing about digital media, is that its fairly easy and little work - to replicate and migrate to a new "Master Copy". It is also fairly easy to make it automated, if you administer hundreds or thousands of "Masters".

Second: A digital master copy is usually completely without compression. Which means, its VERY, VERY, VERY large. If the format is 24 frames per second - then thats what this copy will be: 24 full uncompressed images per second of "film". A "standard" Blu-Ray disc (double layer) may hold up to 50 Gigabyte of data. Special triple layer discs may hold as much as 128 Gigabytes, although these are rare.

Now consider a modern, HQ shot 3D movie like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug . This was shot in 48fps, 3D 5K resolution. Now lets do the math for the uncompressed, RAW digital video data (without sound). (Some numbers are theoretical likeliness, as I couldn't find those filming details) :

24 (bit color depth) * 5120 (pixels horiz.) * 2700 (pixels vert.) * 48 (frames per second) * 2 (for 3D, stereo (2 images "per frame")). Without ANY compression, that is 31.850.496.00 bits per second of film - or 3,7 Gigabytes. Per second of film. Thats almost 50 Terrabytes for a 3 and a half hour movie.

Now, even a FullHD (1080p), 24 fps movie at this bit depth would be ~142 Megabytes per second, ~1.8 Terrabyte for 3.5 hours. It goes without saying - you can't store that Digital Master spread over a thousand (or 35 in the "1880p/24fps case") Blu-Ray discs - some other storage media must be used. And to squeeze this raw digital movie footage onto a Blu-Ray disc, is actually going to require some very serious compression.

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