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.