concept to publication

Category: printing

35 handbound books

This great video documents the process of making the books over two months at the Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, NY.

Mailbag: Objections to the claim of Asian influence on European printing

I received the following comments from a reader named Glenn Beard, who presents objections to my suggestion that East Asian printing with movable metal type could have influenced the development of similar printing during the European Renaissance. If you read my article you will see that it does not depend on direct European contact with Korea because the vast Mongol empire connected West Asia and East Asia and provided efficient cultural transmission to from Korea to Turkey, which had abundant contact with Europe. The invention of paper traveled a similar route from China to the West. I discuss this process in some detail. As for the specifics of the manufacture, I think this is a better argument, but we should distinguish between technology as a concept and the specifics of its implementation — besides cast bronze type East Asians also experimented with baked clay type cast in iron forms and with tin type (the latter referenced in a document from 1313). The director of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz has called the possibility of Asian influence on German printing an open question.

Mr. Beard writes:

I read your article on Korean printing, and I would like to point out that evidence strongly points out for an independent development of metal moveable type by Gutenberg. Both the type of metal Gutenberg used and the method of manufacturing the type are vastly different from the Korean method. Had the Korean inspired Gutenberg, then his metal type should have first been made of bronze like Korean type, but that is not the case. There is no evidence that bronze moveable metal type was ever used in Europe.

Also the way the moveable type was made was totally different. Gutenberg used a hard steel punch to form molds in metal plates, while the Korean used wooden punches to form molds in sand. The methods are quite different. Plus, there is the issue of both the distance and short amount of time. Korea, unlike China, was not a country that Europeans had a lot of contact with or trade with at that time. There is no indication that Europeans were traveling around Korea at that time either, or that there were any Europeans who could speak Korean. Also, Gutenberg was a craftsman in the middle of Europe, and was very unlikely to have been in contact with anyone who had contacts with the Far East. There is no evidence that he had any dealings with scholars, merchants who traveled to China, or anyone else who would have been in a position to learn the art from Korea or China. All evidence strongly points to an independent invention by Gutenberg, and the simple fact that Koreans happen to invent a form of metal moveable type slightly earlier is no support for the idea of his having learned about metal type from the Koreans when compared to all the contrary facts.

The four-color process

This photo, which I took at the Snoeck Ducaju & Zoon printing plant in Ghent, Belgium, a few years back, clearly shows the four-color printing process. The workers are cleaning the presses, and they have removed the plates. From back to front you can see the colors of conventional four-color (CMYK) printing: black (the “key,” K), cyan (C), magenta (M), and yellow (Y).

Yellow plates are made not to look quite the color of yellow ink in order to see them better. The yellow is added last, and too much can create a kind of milky fog, so adjusting the yellow is often a place to start in color correcting on press.


Mid 20th century printing

Here’s a great video about how “men and girls” made books sixty or seventy years ago. About ten minutes in length. Highly recommended.

Printing a Book, Old School from Armin Vit on Vimeo.


Via SpeakUp


How have new technologies affected book design and typography?

Caduceus asks that question at MetaFilter, and IndiaInk has started a thread in reply.

There have, of course, been many effects. some good, others not so good. Caduceus is probably asking for practical advice on using new technologies and media, but the question could also be answered in a broader sense. Following are a few consequences of new technologies that come immediately to mind.

  1. Maybe the most significant result of new design and printing technologies is just that publishing has become more affordable. I think it was Ben Franklin who said “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” Through the centuries printing and publishing required a significant investment that kept the industry in the control of an exclusive group of specialists. That has changed and now anyone can easily and cheaply publish a book (although promoting, marketing, and selling it remain difficult).
    Print on demand and short run printing have also made it possible to keep books in print that formerly could not have been reprinted because of the expense of a conventional reprint, which penalizes short runs with very high unit costs. These technologies make self-publishing (or at least self-printing) economically viable.
  2. Word processing has changed the way texts are written and edited. Authors used to resort to elaborate strategies to make revisions. Evan Connell, for example, used to retype passages and then attach the new sheets with windows cut out of the pages where he wanted the original text to remain. Today revising and moving words, passages, and even chapters is so simple that the text is rarely a continuous stream, like that championed by Kerouac, for example, and instead is more like a snowflake, with elaborations being worked on all sides around the core idea.
  3. Regarding typography, rather than working with a limited set of font sizes (in the hot type era, one often had to make do with a very restrictive font set), designers now have a nearly seamless continuum of sizes and widths to work with. It also used to be difficult to set type in anything but a rectangularly block — now limitless effects can be achieved quickly and easily. This gives designers and layout people extraordinary freedom to create spectacular results — or to screw up spectacularly.
  4. New type formats have enormously multiplied the number of typefaces available, at a low cost compared to previous technologies. There was a time when typesetters might spend years working with only one or two typefaces — whose qualities they would come to know intimately — but today people flit from one face to another, in the same work, or page, or even sentence. While the principles of good typography remain largely unchanged, type families and traditions have have become kaleidoscopically confounded.
    Typography was formerly a craft that was highly constrained by tradition — probably master-apprentice lineages of typesetters could be worked out, much as Melissa Rinne has traced lineages of bamboo artists — whereas today relatively few people working with type are educated in the craft’s traditions.
  5. The integrity of the image has been sacrificed for ease of production and the graphic artist’s command of effects. Digital photography and low-cost digital scanning have reduced the cost of photographing and printing in color, and images and texts are more integrated than they used to be and can be moved and modified together. Image manipulation is easy and can produce effects that were previously almost unimaginable. Photographs are no longer authoritative. Images are tweaked and modified at nearly every stage of production and in nearly every instance of use, making image authorship itself problemmatic.

In sum, more flexible and affordable printing and publishing options are available than in the past, with a lower bar to entry. On balance this is good, but it means that a large percentage of work is amateur in nature. Writers rush to print before their work has matured or their texts have been sufficiently edited. Books are produced that are so painful to look at they are effectively unreadable, never mind the text.

Amateurs can, of course, produce first-rate work, but the very ease with which a book can be produced makes it unlikely that many people will educate themselves on the qualities that distinguish well-made books. Probably more excellent works are being created than ever before, but as readers we are drowning in a sea of pabulum, and finding those instances of excellence becomes challenging.


Amazon coercing publishers to use BookSurge?

BookSurge is Amazon’s print-on-demand subsidiary. According to a story in Publishers Weekly, Amazon will not sell books printed with other POD services in the same way they sell other books. An excerpt from the story:

“I feel like the flea between two giant elephants,” said the head of one pod publisher about the upcoming battle between Lightning Source and BookSurge/Amazon. He said although the deal with BookSurge will be more expensive, he has no choice but to make the move since most of his authors expect their titles to be for sale on Amazon.


UPDATE: Amazon defends its policy.


A printer’s rant


via Pieces and Bits


Publishing trends

NPR’s “On the Media” reported some publishing trends recently. Among the interesting facts:

  • Bookstores account for only 40 percent of book sales nationally.
    (The percentage would probably be even lower if book marketing was more sophisticated.)
  • Amazon accounts for 11 percent of all book sales nationally.
    (I would like to see more people shop at Powell’s.)
  • OTM claims that print on demand (POD) will enable independent stores to better compete with the big boxes.
    (I’m not so sure of this. If POD machines catch on they are likely to be installed outside bookstores in all sorts of high-traffic locations.)
  • The membership of the American Booksellers Association has dropped from more than 5000 to around 1700 over the past decade.
    (This is partly because of the decline in independent book selling, but I think it also reflects the changing role of the ABA. Thanks to the internet it is no longer as necessary for bookseller to go to the annual publishing convention, which has become more of a rights fair than a booksellers’ convention.)
  • Reading proficiency is declining across the board.
    (This is good for publishers such as Chronicle Books who focus more on pictures than words.)

Trouble at Quebecor

Quebecor was for years the other big domestic print company, the competition to R. R. Donnelley. But the company appears to have fallen on difficult times. It canceled a $250mm share sale when the reception proved tepid at best. Quebecor shares have recently dropped from $5.10 to $2.80. Now it has to figure out how to manage its sizeable debt. Report on Business observes:

Let’s start with the balance sheet. Long-term debt and preferred shares add up to $2.4-billion against hard assets – that is, not counting goodwill – of about the same. Working capital is negative. By the book, then, the value to shareholders lies in the goodwill on the balance sheet. There’s no goodwill in the printing industry in the digital age. Debt has to come down. …

Quebecor World’s capital expenditures are supposed to drop to between $100- and $150-million next year. Assuming it can generate cash flow of $250-million – a big assumption and more than it will make this year – free cash flow is about $125-million.

On a market capitalization of roughly $279-million, that looks like a lot. But keep in mind that this cash has to go toward righting the balance sheet. Meanwhile, as common shareholders wait for their kick at the coffers, cash flow falls relentlessly.

There’s probably an interesting short-term trade for the aggressive investor here, but long term it looks like a hard way to earn a buck.

Book sales, book publishing economics, and print on demand

bookmobile book printing quality graphic

If you are quixotic enough to wish to engage in literary book publishing, you might want to take a look at the sales figures for the Man Booker Prize finalists:

  • Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach: 99,660 copies
  • Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist: 1,519 copies
  • Lloyd Jones, Mister Pip: 880 copies
  • Anne Enright, The Gathering: 834 copies
  • Nicola Barker, Darkmans: 499 copies
  • Indra Sinha, Animal’s People: 231 copies
  • UPDATE: The Telegraph is showing these figures: McEwan, 110, 615; Hamid, 2918; Jones, 2802; Enright, 1987; Barker, 1259; Sinha, 1189. (Curiously, no book moved up or down in sales ranking.)

Throw out the anomalous McEwan sales, and the five other Booker Prize finalists averaged total sales of 793 copies. That number would not normally increase hugely, because most books have only about a six- or eight-week window in which they are actively sold in stores. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say their sales will about double, and average 1500 units.

Now let’s do some calculations from the publisher’s point of view. (I’ll be making some arbitrary assumptions for the purpose of illustration.) Those books might be priced around $25 each. But they are offered to bookstores at a substantial discount (we’ll say this is a traditional house for which most sales are through stores). The discount might average around 45%, so let’s see what we have so far: 1500 books x $25 retail price x .55 discount = $20,627 total. If you’re an independent publisher, your distributor will take a quarter or more of that figure (if you’re large enough to have your own distribution operation you’ll still pay something like that in internal expenses), so we’ll multiply by .75, which gives us $15,469.

The Booker finalists range in length from 168 pages (McEwan) to 840 pages (Barker), so the cost of printing will vary greatly. With traditional printing you almost have to print 3000 copies, because such a large percentage of print costs is setup (otherwise you would have to raise the $25 retail price considerably). You’re probably looking at more than $15K in print costs (compared to the $15,469 in income as calculated above). Okay, you’ve got within shouting distance of breaking even, right?

Wrong. Some of the other things you have to pay for include:

  • permissions (such things as cover images, quotations from lyrics or other texts, etc.)
  • interior and cover book design
  • copy editing
  • proofreading
  • typesetting
  • your own salary, your staff salaries, and all your overhead
  • bound galleys for reviews
  • book tours, advertising, co-op ads, and other book promotion
  • postage for all of the above
  • write-offs for hurts, costs of returns, and shrinkage
  • warehousing of excess inventory
  • the author’s advance and royalties (perhaps around $3 per book on a $25 retail price)
  • taxes (for which unsold inventory, which is mostly a liability, is likely to be viewed as an asset)

I ask you: is this a viable economic model? In ancient times — say, the first half of the 20th c.– houses such as Knopf were controlled by editors who felt a cultural responsibility to publish uncommercial works such as poetry and translations (McEwan might pay for Hamid, Jones, Enright, Barker, and Sinha, for example). I used to work with an editor who said he felt he knew everyone in the country who purchased poetry books personally — a small exaggeration that makes a point. Publishers covered the losses from these titles with income from profitable books. Sometime around mid century, and accelerating thereafter, the editors began to lose control of the publishing houses, which became controlled by finance people, and the unprofitable titles were largely let go.

Print on demand could offer some relief from the calculations described above. If the books can be expected to sell in the 1500-unit range, why print 3000? Now, I have used the term “print on demand” because it’s the one most people are familiar with, but a distinction should be made between print on demand proper, in which books are printed to fulfill sales as order come in, and short run printing (which is what I am mainly interested in). Short run printing uses the same digital printing technology as POD, but the publisher prints some quantity of books — 500, 1000, or 1500 perhaps — up front. This provides stock for promotion and marketing, and enables some penetration into the store market. It approaches a more traditional publishing model, but relieves the financial burden a bit on the often small and independent press — who don’t have the advantages of scale in printing or control of vehicles of promotion and distribution that large corporate publishers enjoy — that have largely taken up the torch of publishing limited-sales literary titles, such as five of the six Booker finalists.

The new generation of digital printers — companies like BookMobile, whose graphic is shown — are said to produce a good-quality product. I think this is an approach that is likely to grow in popularity and benefit both independent publishers and the larger literary community. I might even give it a try myself one of these days. (Yes, I just might be that dumb.)

Does anyone have thoughts or experiences about digital short run printing to share?

Letterpress printing

Why can’t we produce a computer printer that bites the page?

Espresso at NYPL

espresso on demand book printing

If I understand this press release correctly, the NYPL will give away free books for the asking. They’ve installed an Espresso print-on-demand machine. All you have to do is ask and they’ll print you up (“within minutes”) a copy from a selection of public domain titles. I assume the selection will expand as time goes on.

Will this get book folks into libraries?

Out of Print Out of Date

Print-on-demand publishing has changed the concept of what it means for a book to be “out of print” — and not in favor of authors.

Traditionally, when a book went out of stock, upon the request of the author the publisher had the option of reprinting or reverting the rights of publication to the author. Now, with print on demand, books can in effect stay in print forever, potentially tying up a writer’s work indefinitely. A traditional reprint meant an investment in at least hundreds of copies but print on demand requires essentially no investment on the part of the publisher.

Chris Webb of Wiley’s Technology Division argues that “once a book has reached this point in its life it is a long shot to be successfully placed as an in-print (non-PoD) title elsewhere. As S&S is discovering, there may be life for books as a PoD titles but the same services that make it easy for the Publisher to offer the book as print on demand are also available to the author.”

Technology books, of course, have short life spans, and in most cases it would be a long shot for such books to find a new home. But many books do find reprint editions. At North Point Press and Mercury House we reprinted many previously published titles. One was West with the Night, which became a national bestseller after being neglected in its original publication life. While in many cases remaining with the original publisher in the form of print on demand could be the best option for the title, this should be a separate negotiation and not something that the publisher acquires by default.

Some rights reserved 2021 Right Reading. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons (attribution, noncommercial, no derivs: 3.0) License (US), although some of the work this blog incorporates may be separately licensed. Text and images by Thomas Christensen unless otherwise noted. For print permissions or other inquiries please request via