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Referencing pages of a multi-page PDF file during data merge… workaround

At the time of writing, there are three multi-page/artboard file formats that Adobe InDesign can import when placing a file via the File/Place function. These formats are:

  • PDF
  • Adobe Illustrator
  • Adobe InDesign

(While it is possible to create many artboards in Adobe Photoshop, it is not possible to import a specific Photoshop artboard into Adobe InDesign… – at the time of writing that is – but that is another article!)

When placing one of these three formats, it is possible to control several import functions using the show import dialog box, such as:

  • Which page (or pages) to import;
  • How the pages should be cropped;
  • Whether or not to place the pages with a transparent background; and
  • What layers to show and their visibility;

However, when importing these file types as variable images during a data merge, these options are unavailable and replaced with the following:

  • Only the first absolute page of the file is imported (not always the page numbered 1 as the first page can also be – for example – in roman numerals or start at a page other than one); and
  • Page cropping, transparency and layer visibility is determined by the same variables as the last file of that type to be placed into the artwork.

For now, there is no workaround to control the latter issues during a data merge, other than to be familiar with this behaviour and plan the merge accordingly. There is a workaround for importing pages beyond the first page of a PDF file… but not an Illustrator or InDesign file.

Workaround: Split the PDF

The term “workaround” is used loosely in this context. Unfortunately, the solution is to break the PDFs into single page records. This can be done within Acrobat using the split button from the organise pages panel.

This feature also allows multiple files to be split at once.

By default, the resulting files will maintain the same filename with the addition of _Partx prior to the filename, with x representing the absolute page number.

Otherwise, I’ve prepared an action that you can download here that will save the PDFs to the Documents folder of the machine running the action.

(Yes, I’m also aware that there are quite literally hundreds of websites out there that will split multi-page PDFs to single PDFs for free. However, the methods outlined above will do so without involving a third party).

The next part of the workaround involves the data itself, and I’ll be using Microsoft Excel to create formulas to make the numbering for the resulting pages. All variable images being referenced will also be in the same folder as the data file, meaning only the filename is required and not the full path and the filename.

For data where the page number is known

Add a column to the database that references the absolute PDF page number that needs to be imported.

Absolute vs Section numbers abridged:

Absolute numbers refers to a page number based on the total count of pages in the document, while section numbers refers to the page number that was applied using page numbering in the application that made the PDF.

For example, take a PDF that contains 20 pages with the first six pages being in roman numerals, and the remainder being in decimal numbers. These two different styles of numbering are section numbers, while absolute page numbers refer to the total count of pages. To reference page iv of the PDF, the absolute page number to reference is 4. To reference page 5 of the PDF, the absolute page number reference is 11.

In this example, the A column represents the PDF to reference, the B column represents the absolute page number, and C represents the result. To obtain this result, the following formula can be used:

=SUBSTITUTE(A2,".PDF","_Part"&B2&".pdf")

This formula will look at filename reference and substitute the .PDF portion of the filename for _Partx.pdf, where x represents the figure in the B column. Using this formula, only filenames with the PDF extension will be affected, while filenames in other formats will be unaffected.

For data where the page reference needs to increment by one more than the row above

The same formula can be used for the naming, but another formula is used to determine if the page reference should increase if the same base file is being referenced in the row directly above.

In this example, the N column represents the PDF to reference, the O column represents the absolute page number, and P represents the result. A 24 page file NS91912 is being merged and needs to have the page reference incremented by one so that the filenames are NS91912_Part1.pdf to NS91912_Part24.pdf. The following formula can be used to change the page reference:

=IF(N2=N1,O1+1,1)

This formula will look at the filename and determine that if the filename is different to the row above, put the number 1 in the cell, BUT if the filename is the same as the row above, take the page value from the cell above and add 1 to it into this cell.

In a perfect world

Again, this is a workaround – it will only work for PDFs and requires some upfront work to prepare. Ideally, if I had my way and could implement some improvements, I’d like to see:

  • Not just the ability to choose a specific page, but choose the correct trim box and layers as well. For example, a file reference such as myFile.pdf;1,trim;Layer1,Layer2 where 1 represents the absolute page number, trim represents what trim box to use, and Layer1,Layer2 represent the layers I would like to appear (or leave the layer bit blank if all layers should be visible).
  • The ability to perform a similar task for incoming INDD, AI or PSD files.
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Droplet like it’s hot

As a prepress operator, a great deal of my time is spent making sure that artwork supplied by clients will print without any prepress issues. Given that most client-supplied files are PDFs, a great deal of my time is spent in Adobe Acrobat checking the files using the print production tools and an invaluable plug-in called Enfocus Pitstop Professional.

While I’ve given the Adobe Acrobat team plenty of grief over my last few blog posts, I do have to sing their praises over a rather massive feature that – for me at least – has gone unnoticed since its inception in Acrobat 7 – preflight droplets.

What is a droplet?

A droplet acts as a “hot folder” that – once a PDF is dragged onto it –  will run a preflight profile on that PDF.

preflight01

This works for one or many PDFs. I first learned of this feature from this Jean-Claude Tremblay’s post to an InDesignSecrets article about using the preflight feature to convert a file to outlines, rather than using InDesign-based methods. That said, the droplets feature has been available since at least 2007!

Making a droplet is simple. While in the print production panel of Adobe Acrobat, click the preflight button, and in the new dialog box, select Create Droplet… from the Options button.

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The next dialog box will ask what preflight profile to use, where success/failed PDFs should be processed to, and if a summary PDF needs to be created of each file.

preflight03

Many of the built-in preflight profiles either force compliance to one of the PDF/X standards, or analyse a PDF and report the errors that were encountered. However, it is the custom fixup portion that may interest readers in a production role. To see where this can be found, click the Edit Profiles… selection from the Options button of the preflight dialog box.

preflight04

Underneath the warnings and standards compliance, there is a section titled custom fixups.

preflight05

In this panel is a plethora of changes that Acrobat can make to an entire document to fix common preflight issues such as:

  • Faux blacks
  • White overprint, or other colours that should knockout instead of overprint
  • Black instead of Registration
  • Remove trim marks and take back to 3mm bleed
  • Make pantone spot color names consistent

In addition, it is possible to make your own custom fixups rather than use the built-in ones. Click the add button to add your own fixup.

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It is also possible to drill down even further in the editing by clicking additional edit buttons.

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This allows for further variables to be made.

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Usually, many of these changes would be done using Enfocus Pitstop Professional’s action lists or global changes, but with the creation of an appropriate preflight droplet, not only can they be done without the Enfocus Pitstop Professional plug-in, they can also be done without opening the PDF.

Wouldn’t use it as a catch-all

It would be great to have one preflight that will catch all scenarios and fix the PDFs so that all that needs to be done is make sure the content is right and that the art is fit for its purpose… but because there are so many edge-cases that I deal with, it is more appropriate to make a “catch-most” preflight for common errors such as the ones mentioned earlier.

It can be confusing

With so many options to choose from, it can also be very confusing and – at times – frustrating, especially when some custom fixups contradict each other with no way of being able to sort out what one should go first.

Some of the commands are also not so intuitive. One instruction that I wanted to use – that was to make any object that wasn’t 100% black to knock out – wasn’t where I thought it would be.

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It took hours of trial and error to realise that the color range to select was Gray Object (black below 96%) is set to overprint… but who would know with the other options that appear to make more sense?

preflight10

It’s not a magic bullet

That’s not to imply that the Enfocus Pitstop Professional plug-in isn’t necessary – it is an absolute must for prepress operators. Preflight droplets complement the Enfocus plug-in, saving hours of time manually scanning a PDF looking for “the usual suspects” and allow PDFs in a workflow to be “normalised” for colour profile, trim/bleed size, appropriate overprints and knockouts as required, etc.

There are some fixups that work better using the Enfocus Pitstop plug-in, such as the generate bleed action. When run as a custom fixup via Acrobat preflight, it only adds bleeds to rendered art, and usually by scaling it. The Enfocus pitstop plug-in is more versatile in that it will apply to both vector and raster images, and bleed off appropriate edges only.

Importantly, the preflight fixups won’t be able to make content-related changes, such as fixing typographical errors or moving artwork away from a trim-edge… these changes have to be made with manual intervention using the Enfocus tools.

Lastly, preflight droplets are not a substitute for a skilled prepress operator examining a file, given that droplets cannot:

  • Ensure that artwork will fold correctly or be suitable for their intended purpose;
  • Confirm that the artwork is the correct version supplied by the client;
  • Understand the context of the content such as spelling, grammar or “design features”.

How NOT to make annotations in a PDF

In early July, I prepared a video for my employer that demonstrated how to mark up a PDF correctly, primarily how to use the commenting tools. This came about as a direct result of the Adobe Acrobat team removing certain icons from the comment panel, meaning that many of my customers had to be re-trained on how to mark-up PDF proofs that they were sent. Since July 12, the Acrobat team has decided to return one of the icons it had removed from the comment panel, but still pushes for the use of the blue arrow tool to make additions, deletions or replacements of text. I’m happy that the icon has returned, but frustrated that it was removed in the first place.

thumbsup

This is important because PDF mark-ups can use the annotations workflow that works like this – simple comments are taken into Acrobat using the comments tool and then imported directly into InDesign using plug-in software available from DTPtools. Here is a link to a video of the workflow in action – it effectively takes the mark-ups that were made in the Acrobat file into the ID file, and these mark-ups can be accepted or rejected in a similar fashion to revisions made in Microsoft Word.

There will be occasions that alterations outside of the scope of the annotations workflow will have to be made, but I would encourage anyone who has been asked to mark-up a PDF for their printer to please read these suggestions:

Use the Adobe Acrobat Reader

Yes it is possible to mark-up a PDF in other software such as Preview (Mac) or in some browser plug-ins, but for the mark-ups to save and be interpreted correctly by the DTPtools annotations plug-in, please use the Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Mark-ups only please

That being said, please do not:

  • attempt to make the changes live in the PDF, but instead use the commenting tools only. This means staying clear of the typewriter tool and only using commenting tools, namely the blue arrow tool to make deletions, additions or replacements (or use the classic icons); highlight or sticky note.
  • open the file in Microsoft Word and save it back as a PDF. This can make it impossible to tell the distinction between the two files and will result in the artwork being set up again from scratch.
  • print the PDF and then mark it up in pen, scan it to a new PDF – this will quite clearly not work with the annotations workflow.
  • add or delete pages from the PDF. If pages need to be deleted, use the mark-ups to indicate this. Likewise, if pages need to be inserted, use the sticky-note tool to inform the operator that pages need to be inserted.

Good instructions

  • Delays and misunderstandings because of unclear instructions = $. This will result in a new proof that will no doubt contain misunderstood edits will need to be corrected, resulting in further proofs, chargeable time, delays and frustration.
  • Make sure your instructions are so clear that edits are easily understandable by anybody. Even if you have had a conversation with someone about the alterations to be made, never assume that the person making the alterations will be the person you had a conversation with.

dogeindd

When working in groups

  • Make a distinction between comments intended for collaborators and authors; and comments intended for a printer. Collaborators generally know what is being referred to, but prepress staff are making changes only, so make sure that the instructions for the printers are easily understandable. Any notes, such as opinions (e.g. I don’t like that font), or topic specific queries (e.g. need to fact-check this statement) really should be between collaborators and authors.
  • “Duelling banjos”. If collaborators can’t agree on specific alterations, don’t take it out on the prepress operator – they are doing what they are told to do in the PDF. If there is a dispute between authors about what does/does not need to appear in the publication, resolve that prior to submitting the PDF to the prepress operator for changes.
  • When collaborating, make sure each collaborator is either looking at the SAME PDF, or the same COPY of the PDF, and that changes are submitted at the same time rather than staggered. There is a great video that specifically deals with collaborating groups here.

Think about the practical application of the mark-ups

  • Have realistic expectations of the edits. For example, supplying a 5 page word file with the instructions “fit on 1 page” is unrealistic.
  • Understand the implications of changes. For example, pages that are designed to work as readers’ spreads will be jeopardised if an instruction to shuffle pages forces the spread to break… a segue to this issue…
  • Shuffling pages… Again this can be quite confusing, especially if LOTS of pages are being shuffled around. Remember that shuffling pages can also break pages that are meant to appear together, such as pages set up as readers spreads. Make sure that the new order of the pages is clear to avoid any confusion.

Ultimately, a well marked-up PDF proof can result in more reliable changes being made faster and on-time.

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