For a while I have resisted the temptation to write a post about the print vs. digital sales switch, because trends don’t become trends till they have gone on long enough for a sufficiency of data to have accumulated. I’m not altogether sure we’ve gone long enough yet, but here’s a Bloomberg story which incorporates this graphic.


It may be that the trend line will switch again, but here it is. These trend line tabulations always look misleading of course. We are looking at rates of increase/decrease. If in year one you sell 500 e-books and in year two that goes up to 1,000 that represents an increase of 100%. If at the same time print-book sales move from 60 million to 59.9 million copies, that’s a decrease (which I refuse to spend time trying to calculate) but you know very well which bit of the pie you’d rather be holding. While looking at more or less 0% growth in one format and a 15% or so decline in another does at first glance appear pretty disastrous for the industry, do bear in mind that print sales represent about 75% of overall book sales, so a decline in the 25% portion doesn’t have as much of an effect as the graph might suggest. And those numbers on adults reading print books look amazingly positive to me. So positive I’m beginning to wonder if they can really be true.

I suspect the approaching maturity of the market is illustrated by the arrival of this post from Book Riot about the sorts of books one might prefer to read as e-books. The choice between e-book and p-book was never the naked moral choice presented by the ranting partisans of the new world. Surprise, surprise; the mature reader will find one format better for one purpose and the other format for another. I certainly agree with Ms Stinger about the suitability of the e-book format to the extremely long novels like  A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s just too hard to carry gigantic books around. (A friend recently confessed to knifing a hardback apart to take the unread portion on vacation with her.)

Why should a switch from print to digital incur such fury: after all we never argue about whether it’s better to read War and Peace in hardback or paperback, though maybe they did when paperbacks were first invented. I once had a colleague who wanted books only in paperback (but then he also claimed only to like cylindrical food). I preferred the hardback editions even though they did take up a little more space on the shelf, which was his objection. No Jack Sprat treaty could be worked out though. We both liked different books as well as formats.


Photo: Erik Kwakkel

Photo: Erik Kwakkel

Just as we are familiar with different grades of board (cardboard) for book binding* so apparently there are different grades of wooden board. Wooden boards, usually oak, are what used to be used in bookbinding way back in the benighted Middle Ages, and are of course much superior to our modern substitute. But even then there were shortcuts as the cutting diagram below illustrates.








This illustration shows the difference in cutting pattern of quarter sawn boards and plain sawn boards. The quarter boards maximize the amount of the grain (the growth rings) at right angles to the surface of the board. The Fitzwilliam Museum’s website shows photos of the warping a plain sawn board will undergo as opposed to the almost rigid quarter sawn ones.

In medieval times manuscript books tended to be bound in what’s described as the Gothic style. In this style the wooden boards were tapered at the spine edge so that the sewn sections swelled around them forming a natural round, rather than the forced round which gets bashed into them nowadays (if indeed any attention is now given to that feature). They were secured to the book by cords, or as in this photo, leather strips which were inserted into holes drilled through the edge of the board and were attached to the book block by sewing.


Of course comparison of gothic binding and what we supply today in terms of case binding is somewhat ridiculous, but I did think the board cutting techniques might be of interest. If anyone is thinking of building oak bookshelves from that tree they just cut down, this could be invaluable information.


* Binders board is the standard used for binding (quality) hardback books nowadays. The alternative, basically bits of thin cardboard laminated together, goes by the name pasted board, though in my time I have heard it referred to as chipboard, and strawboard. Binders board is basically a really thick sheet of paper, and as the fibers cohere more tightly it will not delaminate as a pasted board will when bashed on the corner. (The Etherington & Roberts Dictionary at the Print Glossaries tab above, has a clear definition.)

Any large differences between the UK and the US approaches of PRH? These videos give a pretty good idea of what goes on in a publishing house (all except the office politics). One does wonder what the qualifications are for a job as an “expert in word-of-mouth” in PRH New York’s marketing department.

Basically publishing is publishing, wherever it’s done. Of course there are regional differences, but we are all “working in the realm of magic”. Wherever we are, we are all engaged in the same business, making money by bringing authors’ words to as many readers as possible. Penguin Random House is the big dog, and their animal is superbly trained.

The JSTOR White Paper on Reimagining the monograph quotes a report on print collection use at Cornell libraries. They found that by 2010 55% of the books published since 1990 had not circulated. In the years 1990 to 2010 Cornell’s library acquired 1,654,034 print monographs, 55% of them in English (not, one assumes, the same 55%).

The report found that “Most books in circulation on April 19, 2010, were charged to graduate students, who accounted for 34% of the total charges. Faculty had out another 23.6%. Undergraduates had out only 10.7% of the books charged – 16,744 books in total or an average of about one book per undergraduate student in the Cornell population (compared to approximately 8 books, on average, for graduate students and about 13 per faculty member).”

They continued: “The library in the research university has traditionally aspired to build a collection that would satisfy any potential research need; that some portion of the collection would remain indefinitely latent has generally been accepted as the condition for meeting the needs of scholarship. What significance the Library and the University should assign to non-circulating material in today’s academic context is far from clear, however. If half of CUL’s monograph purchases of the past twenty years have circulated, is that a lot or a little? Precious resources are being spent to purchase, house, and preserve these books, but to what extent should this be regarded as misspent funds and to what extent as investment in a strategic reserve? The answer will surely vary by field and by the intended readership for particular segments of the collection. Factors such as language of publication can place distinct limits on the pool of potential users and any meaningful measure of usage must take the size of the user population into account.”

They recommend that the university monitor usage and use the resulting data to guide book purchasing decisions in the future.

Now this may make sense in theory — we can imagine a few purchasing errors, but by and large a universities libraries have to aim at some sort of comprehensiveness. Usage numbers certainly shouldn’t be ignored, but surely the librarians will be missing a vast amount of usage data if they proceed as planned. I cannot think how many more books I have consulted in the library without ever checking them out, than books I have borrowed. Unless the Cornell Library has closed shelves where in order to see a book you have to fill out a slip, as at the main New York Public Library, they will have to be be ignoring all this use. Consulting a book doesn’t have to mean reading it cover to cover. They recognize this problem and even have a name for such in-library usage: “historical browses”, a somewhat trivializing term, data for which they admit they don’t have and have thus decided to ignore. “We recognize that circulation is an imperfect surrogate for use of items in the collection.”

Frankly I think that the main advantage e-books have over print books may amount merely to the fact that their usage is easier to track. I bet many more print books are “used” in libraries than usage can track. Researchers tend to find it easier to collect references via digital files, but following up those references and reading still seems to be preferred in the print product. Not every follow up has to involve checking the book out. Maybe librarians need to invent some “historical browse” detector. One might imagine a chip in the spine which detects and records when the book is opened and when it is put back on the shelf. Or a finger-print detecting cover. Constant video-ing of the shelves might creepily collect behavior better left unseen. If librarians are going to use usage data to inform their purchasing decisions shouldn’t the onus fall on them to ensure that their data are in fact complete? It could be that some of the 55% of books “never circulated” have in fact been consulted many times more than some that were checked out. I can imagine myself heaving a sigh and saying “Oh well, this one’s so badly organized that I can’t find what I’m looking for; I’ll have to take it home and go through it tomorrow”. This would turn up as usage, whereas the better organized books I had consulted might appear never to have been looked at. In so far as these books might fall into any particular class, the purchasing policy informed by such faulty data is going to result in faulty buying decisions.

We should resist the temptation to make our libraries more efficient. They are not involved in a manufacturing process where greater efficiency is an unambiguous good. Libraries contain books and allow people to discover information. This is just inherently messy.

In the olden days a good comp would strive to avoid rivers: those white streams which meander down too many type pages. Here’s one from the Library of America’s Harriet Beecher Stowe volume.



Not that this is a particularly bad case. (There’s a more dramatic example at Wikipedia.) You can make out a river with a side branch in the last paragraph of this page from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’ve outlined it in red — on a photocopy, not in the book! Rivers result from a coincidence of word spaces one below the other carrying on for several lines. They can be got rid of by making a correction in one of the early lines: the reflow resulting from such a change will probably work to eliminate the rest of the river. The word spacing in the first line of the paragraph is quite wide: it’s just easier to space out the line like this than it is retrospectively to tighten things up so that the word “from” can be taken back into line 1. Doing that would rearrange the word spaces all down the paragraph, and while it’s possible that another rivulet might appear, the chances are that taking back that one word would eliminate the whole problem. If there’s not enough room to transfer “from” to the first line, you set about attempting the same cure on the second line; “set” should surely be possible to pull back. Sometimes your move will get you into hyphenation hypertrophy: as you are only allowed to have three hyphenated lines in sequence the solution you select may become dauntingly complicated. A distracted comp could be tempted to edit the copy to get around the difficulty. “Aint sh’a peart young un?” will probably never be noticed! After all the author’s not going to be proofreading. In newspaper and jobbing work this way out was not uncommon. One way or another rivers can be eliminated, but as you can see it can be quite time-consuming, thus expensive, so of course more often than not the river is tolerated.

Unjustified setting (ragged right) like the pages in this blog presents less of a risk of rivers. With the constant word space permitted by the removal of the need to fill every line to the same measure, it becomes less likely, though not I suppose impossible, for a river to evolve.

While this sort of thing used to worry skilled craftsmen, we have to admit that as problems go it’s pretty minor. Still it is a fact that I notice rivers when I’m reading: and they do say that anything which distracts the reader from the author’s message should if possible be avoided.

Flying splice – which always sounded to me a bit like a pizza being thrown at your head, is actually a way of switching on press from one roll of paper about to come to an end to a new one. It is here explained by “As the main feeding roll nears its end, the roll stand is rotated to bring the next full roll of paper into running position. This is done with the press running at full or operating speed. Double-sided tape is applied to the leading edge of the new roll. The new roll is moved into contact with the running roll of paper. The taped edge of the full roll is pressed against and immediately adheres to the running roll.” Obviously this is a lot more efficient than stopping the press every time you get to the end of a roll of paper.

9780393239614_198Mark Kurlansky’s book Paper: Paging through history (W. W. Norton, $27.95) is the sort of book I should love. I’m interested in the subject; it’s a good-looking bit of production; I know a little about paper and should be a sucker for dollops of recondite information about the subject. So why did I find it so hard to read?

This is a busy book in which we learn a little bit about a lot of things. The author tells us too much about a few things and too little about too many. — Scouring around for topics to write about? Here’s one: hanji.* OK, two paragraphs’ll do — now off to China. In a book about paper where the uses for paper other than as “communication paper” get virtually no mention (though to be fair, some such uses do occasionally get mentioned and then mentioned again, just rarely discussed in any depth) we should not perhaps be surprised that something as omnipresent as the toilet roll only gets a single glancing reference. Well one’s better than none, which is what many uses of paper get. We do get several separate references to the paper required for bullets, but we are never told what distinguishes this paper from say, tissue paper (which isn’t mentioned at all) and what characteristics it requires. I suppose origami is relevant in a work about paper: but relevant enough to get more attention that the difference between coated and uncoated papers, or wood-free as against groundwood (which I can’t remember ever being directly referenced here)? Marbled paper is dealt with as if it were a distinct form of paper: surely it’s not — it’s a method of printing on paper, which, surprise surprise, is actually paper. I did learn that those leather-look labels on jeans are in fact made of paper! The irresistible diversion is rarely resisted: we are told much more about the origins of the French national anthem than we are to learn about calender rolls. I have to concede that the mechanics of making paper by hand gets a decent amount of attention, if only cumulatively, here and there.

Now this bittiness may actually be intentional. The trick of following an apparently unimportant item wherever it takes you does of course constitute Mr Kurlansky’s schtick. He did it with Cod, which I remember enjoying, and with Salt. Trouble is, paper is a bit more unfocussed than these basic items. Cellulose might have been a better title for Mr Kurlansky’s bent, except that nobody would have bought such a book. Or Wood. He should probably write about fairly straightforward things with an interesting variety of uses, rather than a complex product, available in a dizzying variety of forms, with correspondingly myriad uses. His tour d’horizon technique breaks down here: he starts his survey historically and then slides into a sort of regional tour of the world.

The main cleverness in quoting Eden Phillpotts’ novel Storm in a Teacup may reside in actually having located a novel about paper making. Surely one could come up with references to labor issues in the paper industry as it transitioned from a hand craft to a machine industry which were not fictional.

There is a book to be written here. Take time to make it clear, with step-by-step description and diagrams and pictures how paper is made and what it’s made of. Then take a variety of products and tell us something meaningful about them. I bet there’s a story, more interesting that Mr Kurlansky’s single mention, behind wallpaper. We could be told more about cartridge paper — I mean paper used in cartridges, not the smooth opaque sheet of paper made in Britain (which isn’t mentioned here at all). Paper in building might be nice to know about. The humble paper bag probably has more to it than meets the eye. The one I’m looking at now, a plain white bag which holds a loaf from our local supermarket, tells me it was made by Novolex in Florence, Kentucky. Why? They have a plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Is there a story here? If so, Mr Kurlansky doesn’t tell it. Certainly paper as used by artists could be an interesting chapter — here it’s dealt with piecemeal, now here, now a few chapters on, and then again near the end of the book.

However one should not review the book the author didn’t write: this is the one he did come up with. Maybe I care too much about the subject. When you notice small errors of fact about something you know, you inevitably begin to suspect error lurking behind every statement. But that’s not even the main problem I had: the book needs to be thoroughly shaken into focus. It has lots of good little bits spread about. It’s organization and editing that are desperately needed. The book has the feel of a suggestion leaped upon by a writer flailing about for an idea for his next project. But Mr Kurlansky has already written 28 books: surely ideas are not what he’s lacking. Sad to say, the book gives the impression it was written as a pile of good ideas each drafted separately on a bunch of 4″ x 6″ index cards which were then dropped on the floor and reassembled in slightly random order. I found it hard to read, and was disappointed.

The publisher manages to get in on the pervasive imprecision, selectiveness and softness of focus in their colophon† — nice that they have one of course. Here they tell us “This book was printed on Sebago paper, an acid-free sheet manufactured by Glatfelter, a prominent American paper maker founded in 1864.” None of this is wrong: it’s just slightly misleadingly put together, and omits certain (to me anyway) important details. What basis weight was the paper, how many ppi, what shade? Sebago is actually a sheet supplied by Lindenmeryr Paper Company, a paper merchant. They do get it made in Spring Grove, but could make it elsewhere — I remember its being made for them in Maine at the S. D. Warren plant. Glatfelter could sell you a sheet which matches it closely, but they couldn’t sell you Sebago; only Lindenmeyr can do that. Not that important, I agree; but too trivial to get wrong surely.

Mark Kurlansky will be addressing the April 11th meeting of The Book Industry Guild of New York.


* Literally “Korean paper. It’s made of the bark of the paper mulberry, or sometimes Broussonetia kazinoki — the same bark as is used for washi. The book is full of facts.

† I used this colophon as an illustration to my recent post on Dante, the typeface in which this book is set, so you can read it there.

Brendan George from Palgrave Macmillan writes at The Bookseller that he regards academic publishing as a vocation rather than just a job.

I have to say I always felt that way too, though there were one or two places where one did have to seek the Lord’s guidance in sustaining one’s vocational enthusiasm. It just always seemed to me that we were all engaged in a noble mission to spread knowledge around the world. And not just any old knowledge; knowledge of the highest type, polished and honed to optimum communicability. This wasn’t something one thought much about, or even thought about at all: it was just there lying silently behind everything we did.

I always assumed that everyone else felt exactly the same about work. Now I wonder just how realistic that was. It’s the same sort of impulse that makes one just know that all one’s colleagues are liberal with a lower case ell. It was so much a part of the wallpaper that one didn’t need to bother asking anyone: it just was. Of course this is stupid of me. When in November 2008 I hand wrote and taped up in the hallway a gigantic poster saying “YES WE CAN” it was taken down immediately because it offended the sensibilities of a certain unnamed, but loomimg unmistakably large, colleague. I still like to believe that’s the only conservative person I’ve ever worked with (while silently having to acknowledge that this can’t really be so.)

Was I a chump to buy in on the noble mission story? I don’t think so. Nobody sold it to me: I grabbed it and paid for it as soon as I started my first job. I remember condescending quite unforgivably to a person I’d been at university with and one of his friends who’d gotten jobs in a more commercial house, berating them on the ideals of a university press from the height of my six-month’s experience. (When the friend became my boss, or actually my boss’s boss, he had the grace never to refer to my sermon — though of course he had no doubt forgotten all about it, having more important matters on his mind.)

I know that presses, even, God, knows university presses, let people go. Of course some people are just lazy and incompetent and no doubt deserve all they get, but I’m thinking here more of those blood-letting sessions designed to bring costs down to compensate for a sales shortfall. Viewed from the shop floor there seems to be little loyalty aimed downwards, so are you a fool to be motivated by loyalty to the company and to its mission? Maybe yes, but I’d still argue that a happy idealistic fool is better than an embittered cynic — so I wouldn’t change a thing. To me, my vocation was entirely satisfying.

They’d gone about as far as they could go with mechanized flat-bed printing by 1849. The weight of the formes of type and the metal bed on which they were locked were so great in the reciprocal machines then in use , that shuttling them back and forth below the impression cylinders created such force, that in order to stop the whole shebang continuing outwards, killing the operators and demolishing the walls of the printing house, the speed at which The Times could operate the equipment had to be dialed back to 5,000 impressions an hour.

Koenig's reciprocating steam press

Koenig’s reciprocating steam press









Already before the end of the 18th century the idea of wrapping the type round a cylinder to eliminate the wasted back and forth motion had been suggested, the method incorporating types bevelled at the bottom so they’d splay outwards to create a curved surface. Gravity and centrifugal force defeated the plan though as the types would persist in falling onto the floor whenever it was their turn to be at the bottom of the cylinder. Stepney born Augustus Applegarth (1788-1871) overcame this difficulty by making his cylinders vertical and bolting four formes around part of the 5 foot 4 inch circumference drum. The surface was thus like the old polygonal thrupenny bit, not a smooth curve, but a series of straight lines each at an angle to its neighbor, mimicking a curve. At The Times there were four of these cylinders and around each were multiple impression cylinders. In the gaps between impressions the inking would be replenished. The Times was able to run this machine at 10,800 impressions an hour. It could have run a bit faster, but loading paper and removing printed sheets became the limiting factor. (Truly curved type plates had to await the development of stereotyping, based upon the use of papier-mâché.)

In the picture below the type formes can be seen in the middle between the two paper delivery (top) and removal (bottom) stations which we can see. There could be up to ten of these. The sheet, printed one side only, can be seen hanging next to the impression cylinder in these stations about to fall forward onto the heap of printed sheets.


A relatively small Applegath Vertical on show at The Great Exhibition

Mr Applegarth’s machine was on show at the Great Exhibition in 1851 at The Illustrated London News’ stand, where souvenirs were printed for the amazed visitors. Ironically Thomas Nelson of Edinburgh also displayed at the Great Exhibition their stereotype-based web-fed perfecting press — the next step up in the speed stakes. Nelson declined to patent this technology: an early believer in open-access.




These illustrations of the Applegath machine come from Paul Fyfe’s paper “Great Exhibition of Printing” in Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens. 84, 2016.

Yesterday evening I attended The National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. This is an interactive performance in a pub setting, and before the start the five actors went around the tables at which we sat asking us if we’d tear up paper napkins into little bits so we could assist them in portraying a snowstorm by throwing the pieces up in the air when called upon.

Naturally everyone got to work eagerly: even adults delight in being allowed to make a mess. I was struck by how many people commented on how hard it was to tear the fluffy tissue in one direction, while the other direction was dead easy. My assumption that people mostly know about grain direction may be exaggerated. I did a post about it a couple of  years ago. It can be found here.

This trailer, which features different actors, some of whom I saw doing the show a couple of years ago, does give a glimpse of our snow blizzard.