If you’ve been trying to upload a book to IngramSpark, you probably know Total Area Coverage (TAC) can be a pain in the neck. But what does it actually mean? And more importantly, how the heck do you get it under IngramSpark’s recommended 240% ink density maximum?

The Basics: How Color and Ink work
The Intermediate: Where things go wrong with TAC
The Advanced: How to Check for TAC Errors in Adobe Acrobat
How to Fix TAC errors with Adobe Photoshop
How to Fix TAC errors with Adobe Illustrator
Closing Thoughts on Total Area Coverage

The Basics: How Color and Ink work

To know what’s going on with TAC, the first thing to understand is RGB and CMYK colorspaces. In most programs like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign you can specify whether you want to work with RGB or CMYK colors. I’ll talk about why this is important later.

 Simply put RGB stands for Red Green Blue and is the format used to describe colors of digital images in a way that monitors or screens understand. So, this blog post has only RGB images whose colors are created by mixing various levels of red, green, and blue to make other colors.

RGB Colors
CMYK Colors

CMYK stands for Cyan Magenta Yellow Key (“key” means black) and is used to describe colors for print images, like the ones in a book, in a way that printers will understand. Just as with RGB, CMYK uses cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks to create a whole rainbow of other colors.

The Intermediate: Where things go wrong with TAC

As Tom Haverford from Parks and Recreation knows, nearly an infinite number of shades of black (and of every color) exist. CMYK colors are created by mixing different percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

So in CMYK terms, you could create the color black by using 100% K or with 96% C, 96% M, 96% Y, and 96% K. Though the two variations of black would look essentially the same (especially on your monitor), but the first example has a TAC of 100% while the second example has a TAC of 384%, which greatly exceeds IngramSpark’s maximum.

This black is below 240% TAC
This black is above 240% TAC

A high TAC means that more ink than necessary is being used, which can cause blotching and problems with the printed images. If we printed the prior examples the first black would only require one layer of ink, while the second would use four since each color is done individually.

Has your printer ever refused to print a black document when you were out of colored ink, but not black ink? Now you know why!

The Advanced: How to Check for TAC Errors in Adobe Acrobat

Now for the nitty-gritty. We’ll start by finding the images (and even the specific pixels) that are causing a Total Area Coverage error.

To check the Total Area Coverage in Adobe Acrobat:

  • Open the PDF with the image Open the PDF with the image
    • Or insert the Image using Edit PDF > Insert Image.
  • Search Print Production > Select Output Preview
  • Set Simulation Profile to U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) V2  > Check Total Area Coverage > in the Dropdown select 240
The Output Preview panel with TAC set to 240%

Once you’ve done that, the areas that exceed the Total Area Coverage will be shown in green.

Areas above 240% TAC are shown in green

How to Fix TAC errors with Adobe Photoshop

I’ve tried a few different methods to solve this pesky TAC issue, and found that one method works better than the others. However, sometimes it’s helpful to combine methods to achieve the results you’re looking for. I’ve had the most consistent success using the next method.

TAC Reduction Method 1 (Best)

  • In Photoshop go to Edit > Color Settings (Shift + Ctrl + K)
  • Select the CMYK drop down and scroll to Custom
  • Set the Total Ink Limit to 240, select Separation type GCR and Ink Colors SWOP (Coated)
  • Press OK & OK to set
Setting the maximum TAC in Photoshop’s Color Settings
  • Next, open the image you want fix
  • Click the Image tab> select Mode > select RGB
    • If your image is already in RGB, skip this step. In order to make sure your change takes effect, toggle between RGB (or any other color profile) and CMYK. This ensures the new TAC settings will apply to the image.
  • Click the Image tab> select Mode > select CMYK > Save the Image

That’s it! In most cases, it’s genuinely that simple.

The final step is replacing the image in InDesign, Word, or whatever program you’re using to layout the book. The image should look similar only with heavily mixed CMYK colors (greens, purples, oranges, deep reds, browns, etc) looking slightly more muted.

TAC Reduction Method 2 (Ok)

Sometimes Method 1 can cause very dynamic or vivid colors to look a bit wonky. If only one color is causing your image to fail TAC checks, then it’s worth giving Method 2 a try since it can provide more control over the final outcome. Here’s how it works:

  • Open the image > select Image > Adjustments > Channel Mixer
  • Reduce the ink level to 95% (or desired percentage) for Cyan
  • Select Magenta from the drop down and repeat using the same percentage
    • Note: it’s usually best to use the exact same percentage so that you’re just reducing the overall amount of ink but keeping the proportions the same. But you can play around with the colors to make sure the outcome stays true to the original image.
  • Repeat for Yellow
  • Leave back at 100%
The channel Mixer in Photoshop.

Step 2 (optional) :

I suggest using this step if black is the only colorcausing a TAC error.

  • Fill/Adjustment Layer > Threshold
    • Move the slider all the way to the left, then start moving it right until only the darkest areas are selected as shown in the second image below.
The threshold slider in Photoshop
The darkest areas selected using the Threshold layer
  • Use the Magic Wand to select the dark outlines (or select the empty space and invert selection using Shift + Ctrl + I)
  • Select the Layer that contains the original image
  • Click Edit > Fill ( Ctrl + F5)  > Contents Use: Black > Ok
Editing the fill color to black
  • It will fill the black spaces with a pure black CMYK (aka C= 0, M=0, Y=0, K=100)

TAC Reduction Method 3 (Worst)

Honestly, I’m only sharing this method because I tried it and it was awful. I don’t recommend using it, but here it is so you can avoid it in the future.

  • Click the Image tab> Adjustments > Curves
  • Keeping the slider on the centerline move it down until the image is muted enough to reduce TAC
    • You can do it for the total CMYK or evenly for C, M, and Y, leaving K (aka black) as is.

How to Fix TAC errors with Adobe Illustrator

This section only applies to vector images. So if you think that vector is a friendly robot or a form of AI, this probably won’t apply to you. Scoot on down to the fun stuff.

First, ensure the image is saved in a CMYK colorspace. It should say CMYK in the tab next to the image name. If you see RGB there change the colorspace to CMYK.

How to check the colorspace in Illustrator

Change the colorspace to CMYK with these steps:

  • Click File > Document Color Mode > CMYK colorspace

 I can’t tell you how many times I “fixed” an image in illustrator only to find out during preflight that the TAC was too high. It took me a while to realize that the image was set to the RGB colorspace which was causing the problem.

Sometimes it really is the simple solution that works!

If you’re still running into the error, or the image continues to say it’s in the RGB color space, it’s best to start over. Create a new document in the CMYK colorspace and paste the old image into it. Here’s how:

  • On the document setup page select Advanced Options
  • Under Color Mode choose CMYK Color
Setting the Color Mode when creating a document in Illustrator

Once you’re sure the document is set to CMYK you can fix the TAC error using these steps:

  • Select the fill or stroke color that you identified as over the TAC limit using Adobe Acrobat
  • Select one item in that color then choose Select > Same Fill Color or Same Stroke Color
    • That will choose every line or shape using the color you want to change.
  •  Click the color you want to change under Properties and switch to the color mixer

If the color is black make sure C, M, and Y are all set to 0% with K at 100%. IngramSpark also suggests using a “Rich Black” in their file creation guide, which is “60% Cyan / 40% Magenta / 40% Yellow / and 100% Black.” Either option will work, but the designer in me prefers IngramSpark’s rich black color.

For any other colors, you can play around with the percentages as you want, but when adding all four percentages together, they should not exceed 240% or IngramSpark might reject it.

Method 4: Have someone else fix your TAC issues

If you’ve read, or scrolled, this far and you’re still feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath. You don’t have to fix TAC yourself! We have experience fixing even the most annoying TAC issues and would love to help you. Calling Card Books and Z Girls Press offer affordable document prep, design, and layout services in addition to our editing, proofreading, and publishing services.

Closing Thoughts on Total Area Coverage

When I started in publishing Total Area Coverage errors were the bane of my existence, but now I love solving them! It makes me feel like the Veronica Mars of ink issues.

Hopefully, this tutorial helped you feel comfortable taking on TAC issues. They can be quite annoying or intimidating, but when equipped with the right tools and knowledge they’re not so bad.

We’d like to know what your biggest publishing headache is. Our goal is to produce blog posts that serve your needs.

Leave a comment below with your burning writing, design, or publishing questions!

Kate Zarrella

Kate Zarrella is the Creative Director at Calling Card Books & Z Girls Press. She likes bike rides, long walks on the beach, and cuddling her cat Julian when she’s not solving TAC related mysteries.

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