Archives for the month of: September, 2010

Why do boards and paperback covers warp and curl?  There is a simple answer, true in every case: moisture.  Unfortunately that answer doesn’t really tell us anything: Too much moisture, too little moisture, when, where, and in what?

When board is manufactured certain levels of humidity prevail:  Quite high at the start of the process and becoming progressively less as the board continues its travel along the machine.  There are drying machines involved, and manufacturers seek to extract exactly the right amount of moisture.  The factory may or may not be air-conditioned and humidity controlled, but the warehouse in which the finished product is stored is almost certain not to be.  On humid days board will take up more moisture than it will on dry days.  Even if the warehouse is humidity controlled, the board has to venture out on a truck for a journey to its final destination.  Driving through the Arizona desert will give the board a different life experience than surviving a torrential downpour all the way to Florida.  Of course the skids will have been shrink-wrapped in an attempt to minimize the fluctuation in humidity, but this isn’t totally airtight.  One shipment of board will have had a different humidity experience than another.  And of course this delivery of board will go into a bindery where things are dry, dry, dry, and that delivery will go into a sweltering steam box of a bindery.  Books printed and bound in Asia merely have this problem in more extreme form as they go through many more changes in environment before sitting on the boss’s desk curling away.

One might hope that all the fluctuations would even out, and probably in most cases they do.  But sometimes a batch will have been made humid, stored humid, shipped humid and cut up and bound humid, shipped to a humid warehouse, and bought from a humid bookstore by a sweaty reader.  Or the opposite.  Or a combination.  I’m not aware of research which points to an optimum humidity profile, but I bet someone’s done it.  Even if such a set of conditions were definable, it’s not practically achievable by anything other than random chance: climate variables are just too much for us.

Complaints about warping boards tend to hit New York publishing offices as spring becomes summer, and to be almost non-existent in the winter — though warping can be nicely induced by setting a book overnight on top of a hot radiator, something heedless editors will insist on doing.  If it’s humid in the office and the board is relatively dry, as soon as it’s unpacked the book will start to take up moisture from the air.  A casebound book with a laminated preprinted case has got only one thing to do when its board swells.  The laminated cover prevents moisture penetrating from that side, while the endsheet doesn’t, so the board does what it must to grow.  The side stuck to the laminated casecover will stay the same length while the other side will expand in length: result the cover bows.  At the same time the spine edge of the board is held rigid while the fore edge can grow.  The same thing happens with paperback covers: layflat lamination eases the problem, allowing moisture penetration from the printed side of the cover as well as from the inside, but it can’t get around the fact that the lamination will hold that side of the board tight while the other side can expand a bit.  People have tried laminating the inside of the cover, which just increases the cost, makes the book hard to bind, and doesn’t remove the problem.

Another problem is that it’s almost always the case that warping boards are an issue with the office copies.  You can’t really tell your boss that there’s no problem because all the rest of the books are packed tightly in cartons and are lying in a different humidity environment in the warehouse where they are going to be fine till they are shipped off to the completely different humidity environment that is the bookstore, or indeed the ultimate purchaser’s home.  But that’s the truth, and carries with it the implication that we can’t actually control the situation when the customer takes the book home.  Nevertheless we have to put the bindery though the exercise of explaining why the editor’s copy has warping boards, even if the answer ends up being the single word “moisture”.

There’s a theory out there that this is an acronym, standing for Book Layout And Design but I think that’s just an imaginative post hoc rationalization.  Quite apart from the improbability of coming up with exactly these words to describe the item in question, there was a perfectly decent and appropriate word in existence long before the practice of making blads afflicted the publishing industry.

A blad, described by the Oxford English Dictionary as chiefly Scottish, is 1) a fragment, a portion, or 2) a portfolio, or 3) a pad of paper or blotting paper.  In 1933 Eric Partridge records the word’s usage in something like our sense: “Blad . . . is applied to a sheaf of specimen pages or other illustrative matter liked by the bookseller, especially the bookseller resident abroad”.  The place of residence of this bookseller does seem to confuse things a little: I suppose what he may be implying is that it would be cheaper to send a few pages overseas than the entire book.  By 1960 the word’s meaning was exactly ours: “a sample of a book, made up for the publisher’s traveller to show to the trade.  It usually consists of the first 32 pages, including prelims, bound up in the same cloth as the finished book”.  It was immediately after this that blads enjoyed their heyday. When international co-editions became the way to afford four-color printing, blads became the required way of selling them.


(in days)

Hong Kong FCL Hong Kong LCL UK FCL UK  LCL
Delivery to Dock 7 7 7 7
Port to Port 28 12 19
Port to Port MLB 21 28
Palletizing 2 2
Port to Warehouse 5 5 5 5
Total MLB 35 42
Total MLB Peak 42 49
Total all Water 42 N/A 24 31

FCL = Full Container Load      LCL = Less than Container Load

MLB = Mini land bridge — e.g. ship docks at San Diego and books continue by train to east coast port for clearance.

Port to Port = all water, will be a ship docking in an East coast port.  Palletizing may not be required.

Peak season from China: 15 June – 30 November

FOB = Free on board (named loading port):  The seller pays all costs associated with loading the books on board the vessel nominated by the buyer.  Cost and risk are transferred to the buyer once the books are loaded.  The seller must clear the goods for export.  The buyer makes all decisions on routing and is responsible for clearing the books though U.S. Customs and arranging delivery to the warehouse.

CFR = Cost and Freight (named destination port): The seller pays all costs to ship the books to port of destination, and makes all decisions regarding routing.  Risk is transferred to buyer once the books have been loaded on the vessel.  Buyer clears books through U.S. Customs and coordinates delivery to the warehouse.

CIF = Cost insurance and freight (named destination): Similar to CFR except that the seller is responsible for obtaining a transferrable certificate of insurance on behalf of buyer.  The seller’s responsibility ends when the books are on board the ship.  The buyer remains responsible for clearing through U.S. Customs and delivery to the warehouse.

See International commerce terms (INCOTERMS) in Wikipedia.

Running heads are there to help signpost where you are in the book: so they will carry a page number, maybe a chapter or part title, perhaps a section within a chapter, or in the case of a book by multiple hands, the author’s name.  In an ideal world the recto running head will include a description of what it is that’s being described on the opening you are looking at, making it almost like a running index.  Few are the books which have this sort of running head nowadays.

Designers get bored with designing the same book day in and day out, so they seek to mix things up, and occasionally come up with the bright idea of putting the running heads at the bottom of the page, where they rejoice in the name running feet.  This ploy is almost always a mistake.  A case might be made for running feet in the case of a double column book with lots of different elements, where they might provide a sort of calming base for a chaotic page.  But generally their pitter patter is just an annoying distraction.

The ultimate in idiocy (well idiocy in the running foot department anyway) comes when the designer omits the running foot on a chapter opening page.  Why would they do this?  Why, because you “never” have a running head on a chapter opening page, where it would get in the way of your beautiful chapter number and title layout.  (We seem to have forgotten that old convention of a drop folio in such instances.)  But if you have running feet you will certainly not have a running head on the chapter opener.  As the chapter opening pages are all listed in the contents list they are among the few pages which you are most likely to look up, and this makes taking off the page number from some mistaken sense of convention is really dumb. A running foot on a chapter opener will look no worse than it does on any other page, and will carry the benefit of providing the page number too.  Admittedly if your running foot is carrying chapter title this may lead to a certain redundancy of information, but that’s less annoying than the perverse omission of a repeating element in the design for absolutely no good aesthetic or logical reason.

Even less tolerable is the designerly quirk of putting the running head in the outer margin, reading perpendicular to the text.  Stanley Morison, father of good type design, and of Times Roman, always argued that the reader should never be aware of presence of the designer: making him turn the page at regular intervals is a great way for the designer to demand attention.

The Oxford Companion to the Book, 2 volumes 9780198606536, Edited by Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H. R. Woudhuysen, 2010

This is an important new publication for anyone interested in the history of the book.

To start from the outside: the 2 volumes come in a slipcase which is paper over boards, printed 1 color (maroon) with a nice overall design of typographical ornaments, picked up from the endpapers of the books themselves.  (I learned from these books that these ornaments are named fleurons.)  On the maroon panel in the center of the back cover of the slipcase, the set describes itself as “A History of the Book throughout the Ages”.  The barcode is a sticker applied to the bottom of the box. The slipcase is a tiny bit too tight for the two books: it’s hard to get them out, but maybe the loss of muscle tone we typically experience as we age will make access to the books progressively easier.

The two volumes, the first 720 pages, the second 688 pages, are bound smythe sewn in 16pp signatures in 3-piece cases (a style which I discovered from this work, is properly referred to as quarter binding) with maroon paper-based sides, and a leather-look material on the spine.  There’s one hit of gold foil on the spine, red & black head and tail bands, and a ribbon marker in each volume.  To my mind a ribbon marker is always just a waste of money:  I never use them, but I guess some must.

The books were printed and bound in China on a coated paper, though it is a one-color (K) job.  There are halftones, some of which bleed, but none seem to me to demand the use of a coated sheet, which for my money ends up having the effect of increasing the weight of the set more than it improves its look.  Having said that, I should say that the books are perfectly nicely printed.  The trim size, which may make more sense in millimeters (though given a Hong Kong origin, may not) is 8” x 10-5/8”.

Editorially the volumes are a hybrid.  The first 80% of Volume 1 consist of a series of essays on more or less general topics.  This is followed for the rest of the work by an A-Z reference section, where quite detailed items may be looked up.  I have read one or two of the essays, and they seemed to be quite interesting.  No doubt like all collaborative works these contributions are of varying quality. General topic include Writing systems; The sacred book; The book as symbol; Missionary printing;  Paper; The technologies of print; The economics of print; Printed ephemera; Children’s books; Bookbinding; The electronic book.  Most of these are determinedly historical in approach: for instance The economics of printing is principally a discussion of the 19th century British book trade, and the change from the book as luxury item to the book as mass market fodder. More than half of the essays fall into a series of The history of the book in . . . : Byzantium; Britain; Ireland; France; Low Countries;  Germany; Switzerland; the Nordic Countries; the Iberian Peninsula; Italy; Modern Greece; Austria; Hungary; Czech Republic & Slovakia; Poland; the Baltic States; Russia, Ukraine & Belarus; the Balkans; Sub-Saharan Africa; the Muslim World; the Indian Subcontinent; China; Korea; Japan; Southeast Asia; Australia;New Zealand; Latin America; Canada; America.

There are about 400 contributors. The main focus is the book as culture container, rather than the book as physical object, although there is more than enough of the second strand to make this a book with a slightly schizophrenic attitude to the world.  It’s really two books in one, or more like one and a half books in one.  At $325 it really has to be a book that is referred to in the library rather than looked for in your Christmas stocking.  Maybe one might persuade one’s employer to invest in a set for the office: the A-Z section does provide information on the origin and background of lots of book manufacturing and design issues.

The explanation for this terminology, which most of you no doubt know already, is altogether spatial.

When books (and everything else) were typeset by hand, the compositor would pick each piece of type, in order, and put them into a composing stick.  The individual pieces of metal type would all be cast before composition started and would be stored into a pair of boxes with about 150 compartments in all.  The compartments were of different sizes, the largest being for lower case “e”, the commonest letter in the English language.  No doubt French or German type cases had a different layout.  These type cases were placed one above the other: the one with Capital letters, because they were less frequently required, was placed above and behind the one with the much more common minuscules.  The lower case was easier to reach.  Thus “upper case” and “lower case”.

Some might be tempted to think that upper case had something to do with the fact that on a computer keyboard the Shift key shows an up arrow.  This is however just a happy coincidence.  The layout of the computer keyboard is based on the layout of the typewriter keyboard.  The QWERTY arrangement of the keys was developed in order to slow the typist down, because in early typewriters the letters were carried on long spindly metal arms.  If you typed too fast there was a risk of the arms getting tangled up.  The Linotype typesetting keyboard has ETAOIN SHRDLU all together as the first two columns at the left hand side of the keyboard.  These are the most common letters in the English language.  The Linotype keyboard was designed for speed: the QWERTY keyboard for slowness.

The phrase “mind your ps and qs” may possibly derive from the print shop.  One suggestion as to its origin is that when type was being distributed (broken down after printing and returned to the appropriate section in the type case) close attention had to be paid to the distinction between the lower case version of these two letters.  As the type was of course in reverse, these two could easily be confused.  So perhaps the phase might have been “mind your bs and ds”?

A composing frame from Oxford

Copyright is becoming a bit of a restraint on free speech.

Publishers increasingly regard what they are publishing as “copyrights” not books.  This is not unreasonable of course.  As we move into an ever more electronic world, the book itself ceases to be the central item in publishing, and becomes just one of many ways in which income can be realized from the content which has been bought or rented from the author.  A rational publisher will, indeed must, do whatever he or she can to maximize the income earned from each item in their list.  The rather quaint view of publishing as a sort of handmaiden to literature was probably never really accurate, but surely nobody today still holds it.  Books are there to make money.  If, almost incidentally, they also turn out to be good books, that is a bonus – always hoped for but never really targeted.  Their real value lies in the amount of money they can earn and the length of time over which they can do so.

In the old days if you wanted to quote a line or two from a long poem for criticism or review, this was regarded as fair use, and no permission was required.  The point hinged on substantiality: a little bit was not seen as replacing the original, and damaging its sale.  Now however, almost all publishers require their authors to clear permissions on all quotes regardless of substantiality and significance.  They want to avoid any hassles later on, of course, but there’s an element of self-interested circularity in this.  If all publishers require permissions clearance with some sort of payment, then all publishers will get payments for quotes from their own books as well as paying them to other publishers.  The catch is that it’s the publisher who receives the permissions payments but the author who ends up paying them.  Now of course it’s true that contracts probably allow for a sharing of “sub-rights” income, but over time the universe of authors is going to receive less back in receipts that it disburses in permissions fees.  Expensive permissions fees lead to decisions not to pursue a certain line, as it just costs more than its worth to you.

The period of US copyright was originally (1790) 14 years, renewable for a second 14.  The initial term was increased to 28 years in 1831, and then the renewal term was also increased to 28 years in1909.  There were fairly strict conditions on the renewal, and the vast majority of copyrights were in fact never renewed.  However in the copyright act of 1976, renewal was abolished and was replaced by a single term lasting for the life of the author plus 50 years.  In 1998 the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act extended the term to life plus 70 years.  The Digital Millennium Copyright Act added restrictions designed to shore up the “property” of copyright owners, including making it a crime to circumvent encryption of files even if what is decrypted is in the public domain anyway.

The trend is towards regarding copyright as a property right rather than a license.  The estate of Margaret Mitchell was able to sue Houghton Mifflin and Alice Randall, the author of “The Wind Done Gone” a retelling of “Gone with the Wind” from a slave perspective.  The case was settled out of court, and the book published with some changes and a notice on the front saying it is an unauthorized parody, after Houghton Mifflin agreed to make an undisclosed donation to Morehouse College.  The suit was not based on the use of direct quotation, but on the appropriation of characters and situations.  The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals did find for the author on this point, but the very fact that the suit could be brought on those terms indicates a shift in the attitude toward copyright.  It used to be expression alone that was protected: now the attempt is to include content as well.

Publisher’s production and manufacturing departments spend a lot of energy trying to ensure that the current reprint of a book looks exactly like all the previous printings.  We will special order paper for instance, paying extra to keep things the same as they were the last time the book was printed.  Covers are often rejected because the color doesn’t match the previous printing, and the attempt is often made to force printer to reprint at no cost to the publisher.  People spend time checking that the margins are the same on this printing as they were on the last.

This consistency fad has just about run its course.  We came by it with years of effort.  When books were hand written by scribes each one was different, even the text could be different if one monk made a copying error.  Gutenberg overcame that problem, and suddenly readers could rely on the text to be consistent from one copy to another.  This was obviously a good thing, and became fetishized over the centuries.  If everything looks exactly the same from printing to printing, it’s a reasonable assumption that no textual changes have been made, and thus by the end of the 20th century the superficial appearance had become a sort of synechdoche for the overall accuracy of the book.

This structure is now falling apart.  In the second half of the 20th century books were printed by offset lithography.  Now a book may be printed by offset for the first few printings, then move to digital for a couple of reprints, and them move into a print-on-demand mode.  The digital reprint will have looked different from the original offset version: perhaps not radically different, especially if the covers were still printed by offset.  But, if the digital file used for printing results from a scan of the offset printing of the book, it will probably look markedly different especially if it contains halftones.  When it gets into the POD arena, its trim size may change, the text paper will almost certainly change, and the cover, printed digitally, will look a bit different, having probably been originated from a scan of the offset printed cover.  Having original files available will always minimize the difference, but there will be differences.

The variation ramifies yet more.  Amazon may print their own copies at their own digital print shop: because of the standardization required in any POD digital operation, these books will look different from the books printed in the publisher’s own POD program.  Baker & Taylor would like to print their own POD version.  Barnes & Noble does too.  The same book printed by the publishers own POD supplier will look different if it is printed in England or in America.  But this doesn’t take us to the end of the variety.

Espresso book machines will print you a copy of a book on the floor of a bookshop or library.  Espresso books look different from all the other digital & POD books.  Most impactful in this regard is the cover which is printed on a highly calendared board but cannot be laminated.  But a book printed on the Espresso machine in Cambridge, Mass will look different from a book printed on an Espresso machine in Manhattan, not to mention one located in London, either Ontario or England.  Once they start making custom books on the Espresso machine all publisher control over format has been lost; controlling content will be hard enough.

Now in some circumstances any of these books could be returned to the publisher and end up mixed together in an inventory which makes caring about consistency of appearance in the early stages of a book’s life just a joke.

Well it’s obvious isn’t it?  It costs less to bind a paperback than a hardback.

This is true, but not altogether unambiguous.  What we normally think of in these situations is a combined run, hardback/paperback, where the 500 hardbacks have a stamped case and no jacket, and the 2000 paperbacks have a four-color cover.  Actually, what makes the hardback more expensive in this scenario is the quantity not the specs.  If you did the whole run as unjacketted stamped case hardbacks, your overall cost would be lower than if you did the whole run as a paperback*. 

Now you’ll say that’s ridiculous because we actually need the book to appeal to two distinct markets: the libraries who want a more durable version and will pay more for it, and the public who won’t pay nearly as much.  You want to be able to publish the book at $100 for the few and at $35 for the many.  Being able to show the same “profit” by pricing all 2500 at $48 won’t work: because your knowledge of the market tells you that $35 is as much as the masses will pay and $48 is less than you could get from librarians.

In that paragraph is embedded the truth that we tend always to overlook.  Paperbacks are cheaper because we (expect to) sell more copies of them.

* I’m not going to prove that.  You can run the numbers yourselves.  But do bear in mind that when you do the paperback cover you have to pay the designer, and perhaps a permission fee for an illustration.  For the hardback you can “design” a standard stamping die for next to nothing, say $5.  So it could be $5 against $1500 before you even start on the manufacturing costs.

In print, according to Oxford English Dictionary, means “on sale at the publisher’s, not yet sold out”.  Out of print is defined as “no longer to be bought at the publisher’s, sold out”.

When our modern language was being born these words had a fairly obvious and unambiguous meaning.  You could go along to the publisher’s warehouse (or in those days the bookseller’s) and see if there really were any copies to be bought.  If there were none, and there was no prospect of any in the future, you would be justified in taking that to mean that the book was indeed “out of print”.

When books were printed by letterpress publishers tended to print once only.  Of course there were lots of best-seller exceptions, but the vast majority of books would be printed in a run which, in the publisher’s best judgment, would last for ever, or at least until there was nobody left who wanted to buy the book.  This was because when you print by letterpress you have to have type to print from.  Once the book was printed the type would be “distributed”.  Distributing type meant that the individual letters would be put back each in their own box ready to be used in the next job.  By the twentieth century, when hand setting was just a memory, “dissing” type would be more likely to mean melting it down so that the metal could be reused to cast type for an entirely new job.  Either way it was impracticable to keep the type “standing” for all of your books: there simply wasn’t space to store it (or capital to fund it).  This fact is what led to the bibliophilic habit of collecting different “editions” of books: in the 19th century and earlier a reprint was referred to as an edition.  Because the type would have been dissed off press, the decision to reprint necessitated resetting the entire book — with the wonderful opportunity for a whole set of new errors to creep into the text.

However even in that world publishers tended to put a special spin on the term “out of print”.   Clearly, and justifiably, if the book sold faster than you expected and went out of stock before you had had time to reprint, there would be a period when the book was unavailable for sale – not because it was “out of print” but because it wasn’t back in print yet. ­As the relationship between author and publisher was put onto a more formal legal basis, this sort of problem needed to be addressed.  Over time a convention evolved that the state of being “out of print” was not some empirically testable condition as described in the dictionary definition above, but a stage in a book’s life determined by the publisher, and accompanied by a probable reversion of rights to the author.  In this world, out of print would have been defined as “having reached a point where it has been decided never, under any circumstances, to offer the book for sale again”.  Stops on the way to that condition would be “Reprint under consideration” “Out of stock indefinitely” “Temporarily unavailable” “New edition under consideration” “Paperback under consideration” and other euphemisms for “we have no stock and aren’t doing anything about it, but we’re damned if we’ll revert rights to the author because we really hope to be able to make more money out of this book later on, once we’ve figured out how to do that”.

This meant that many books were never made OP.  And there was also the halfway house of declaring the book out of print but not reverting rights to the author.  Publishers who did this, and that probably means all of them, can now look through their out of print lists and select titles which they can reissue as print-on-demand books, thus generating income from minimal expenditure off books which have been dead for years.

Now of course all of that is out the window too, and we live in the brave new world where books can be available in perpetuity though digital printing and a true print-on-demand program (not to mention on-line distribution and Google Books).  A book in a print-on-demand program is not “in print” in the sense that you could go along to the warehouse and look at the copies available for sale, but it’s certainly not out of print either.  Authors’ agents are not happy, since they used to like to use the reversion of rights when a publisher put the book OP as an opportunity to negotiate a new deal with a different publisher, with a new advance attached to it.  Of course contracts have not usually specified a number of copies to be printed, and it has been really irrelevant to the author whether the print quantity is 10,000 at one time or ten printings of 1000.  In a conventional world the difference in print run is what makes the difference in profit (if all the books are sold) and is at the heart of the publisher’s business judgment.  Now with print-on-demand the print run is one, or three, or whatever, just depending on what the customer’s order may call for.  There is no quantity which the publisher can’t afford to print, so no point at which the book will become unavailable.

Does this mean that publishers are cheating their authors?  I have to say I suspect not.  If a book really has the potential to be resold to a different publisher for a sum of money which is worth fighting over, then the chances of its sale being so low that its publisher decides to put it into a print-on-demand program are slight.  On the plus side, the author’s book continues to be available and to generate royalty income on a level of sales which in the old days would have meant that the annual royalty check would have been for $0, since no reprint that small could have been afforded.