Archives for the month of: June, 2011

As happens with so many new things, a precise definition of print-on-demand hasn’t quite settled down yet.

When it first came up, in the early nineties, it meant reprinting a small quantity, more or less equal to the number of backorders you might have on hand. A refined version of it might involve reprinting a standard quantity, maybe 25 copies, and reordering the same quantity when your inventory dropped to say 10. We talked about doing this at that time, but as far as I know nobody actually made the leap until well into this century. This approach to “print-on-demand” is now fairly well established, and is perhaps properly named ultra-short-run printing. At Oxford University Press we call it autoreplenishment, which is quite accurately descriptive. The computer is programmed to send out a reprint order for a predetermined quantity automatically via EDI whenever the inventory level drops below a set level. No human intervention is needed till the books are being put into the carton for shipment to the warehouse.

As may be obvious, this sort of stock replenishment became possible only as a result of the development of digital printing. When digital print engines were first adapted to book manufacturing early in the nineties (IBT of Troy, NY was the pioneer, in conjunction with Bridgeport National Bindery, a library repair bindery) we were working (happily) with a minimum order quantity of 25. The idea that you could print as few as 25 books, hardback or paperback, was revolutionary. Before that we all tended to print at least 500 copies, and keep our fingers crossed that they would eventually sell. You might not bind up all the F&Gs, but almost inevitably much of what we printed ended up as waste, or written down and resident in the warehouse for long years.

The industry has now evolved to its logical conclusion: the ability to print and bind, economically, a single copy of a book, hardback or paperback. What we have to call true print-on-demand means that the book is not printed till after it has been sold. The publisher keeps no inventory. When someone orders the book, the order is sent via EDI to the digital printer, who makes the book and ships it to the customer, with a packing slip or an invoice looking like it comes from the publisher enclosed in the box. This is the ultimate in efficiency for slow-selling titles. The so-called long tail just got infinitely long: MD (manufactured on demand) is the new OP. To be able to manufacture your back list economically one book at a time frees you from these agonizing decisions about the future of a book — reprint what is obviously too many, or declare it out of print and forgo such additional sales as may be out there. Now no book need ever become unavailable.

“Economically” is the key word. If you print 1000 copies of a book at $2.75 a copy, you lay out $2750 before you’ve been paid for any sales. The same book might cost you $5 as a one-off print-on-demand job, but you don’t have to print it till after you have sold it. If in two years you only sell 600 of the books you printed you’ve still invested the $2750. With true print on demand, you will have spent  $3000, but you won’t have any inventory sitting in the warehouse and clogging up your accounts. If you have only sold 500 you will actually have invested $250 less with print on demand. Many publishers are now aiming towards turning their inventory two times a year, which would imply printing for 6 months of sales only. Fixation on unit cost will inevitably lead a publisher into queer street. And traditionally unit cost was what we cared about. Now we just have to forget it. A unit cost of $5 is better than one of $2.75 if you end up wasting the last 400 copies of the run you did to achieve that cost. There are already one or two publishers who only make their books available via print on demand.

One of the hopes around print on demand was that it would lead to an elimination of returns. If we print the book specially for you, we should perhaps be able to assume that you really want it. Although one or two publishers have made their POD books non-returnable, the generality have not been able to make this leap. We just can’t get away from the idea that if we want someone to buy our book, we have to be able to get it into their hands first. So we still supply print on demand books to bookstores, and accept them for return. Now many print on demand books are rather expensive to make — a multi-volume set can have a unit cost of $2000 or more. If we take a return on a print on demand book we have, by definition, no location in the warehouse into which to put it — so it gets wasted. This makes nobody happy, although it is actually better to face that unpleasant cost rather than never be able to supply the set at all because it has had to go out of print (as long as you sell some sets that do stick!). However, a system adjustment can make the POD book returnable. You have to maintain an inventory location for the title, and program the computer to check if there’s any stock on hand before it flicks into it’s automatic process for EDI-ing the order to the digital printer. This is a bit like low-volume autoreplenishment — the book will only be ordered if you are unable to fill the order from such stock on hand as has been accumulated through the returns process.

Here are two examples of the same part of Anna Karenina — Part 4, Chapter 12. If you click on the picture, you will see an enlarged version; hitting the back arrow will bring you back.

The one on the left is the Heritage Club edition, first published in 1952. On the right is the old Modern Library edition.  It doesn’t say when it was printed anywhere in the book, but it does tell me it was printed by Parkway Printing Company and bound by H. Wolff, so it must be from the fifties or earlier I think. The H. Wolff bindery had became part of American Book Stratford Press by the mid sixties. I don’t know who Parkway Printing Company was: Google disclosed one or two printers with this name, but I suspect this company is also gone.

The Heritage Club provides an insert with all their books which tells you quite a bit of detail about the making of their books. This volume was typeset at Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, UK), using Monotype Ehrhardt, a face which sets tight, so is good for long manuscripts. First developed in 1938 it became popular during World War II when saving paper became an imperative. The design is by John Dreyfus, Typographical Advisor to the University Printer, Brooke Crutchley. The page is nicely balanced, with generous margins and decent spacing: both line spacing and word spacing. Monotype, where every character is a separate piece of metal, can be variably letter spaced too. Compare the running heads: The caps in both are letter spaced, but the “color” of the one on the left is consistent — it looks as if the spacing between all the letters is the same.  But that’s actually an illusion: the spacing varies so that there’s more space between the I and the two Ns than there is between the A and the K and R of Karenina. The Modern Library does have equal spacing between all the characters, and looks much whiter at the start of Karenina than at the end. This same evenness of spacing can be seen in the Heritage text too. This doesn’t happen automatically: the compositor achieves it almost subconsciously when making up the line. Monotype is inherently more flexible than Linotype in this regard.  With Linotype, when the keyboard operator nears the end of the line a bell warns him.  He then inserts space bars sufficient to fill the measure and they are distributed evenly between all the words in the line. Look at the seventh line from the bottom of the right hand page where lots of space has been inserted between the words in order to avoid breaking “calmly”, a hard word to break well. The Heritage version doesn’t have lines like that, though if you measured them with a loupe with calibration you’d see that the word space does vary: you can’t force the words all to fit exactly into the same measure. But on this page the comp has achieved this without any word breaks. Of course he did have a 24 pica measure to work with, whereas the Linotype operator was working with 21 picas.

The Modern Library version is set in Linotype Garamond, and is obviously a less elegant job. Random House did (and does) foster good design: their books carried a colophon which would often name the designer and give a little information on the typeface, but the Modern Library line was much more utilitarian and didn’t qualify for this sort of detail. The page isn’t awful, but it is more cramped and squat. Of course the trim size of the Modern Library does determine that the page shall be wide for its length. To me, there’s too little space below the running head. Adding the word Chapter to the chapter heading doesn’t add anything except clutter, and the drop initial is rather intrusive on a page this small. The Heritage page pivots nicely on the running head, the chapter number and the drop folio. The Modern Library version is set with less leading. Look at the end of the 3rd and 4th lines of Chapter XII where the descender of the p almost touches the ascender of the d below. A contrasting situation can be seen in the first and second lines of the same chapter on the left. The Modern Library are fitting 41 lines on a full text page, whereas the Heritage one has only 36. Multiplying this by the measure shows us that they have almost the same amount of real estate available to them per page: The Modern Library edition has only 3 picas less per page. It is no surprise then to learn that the total page count of the two editions is almost the same: 935 as against 950, Heritage/Modern Library. The whole purpose of leading the lines is to facilitate the passage of the eye from the end of one line to the beginning of the next.  This involves type size and measure as well. I don’t think any readers are going to have trouble with either of these pages though.

None of this should be taken as criticism of Modern Library. They were trying to do something completely different, and the result works just fine.  The Heritage Club is (probably) a reprint of the Limited Editions Club edition. Heritage Club books often (maybe always) are, and this one includes color illustrations from the original. That means the book was originally directed at a bibliophile audience, and that the budget was altogether different. Heritage books tend to have beautiful interiors and be let down by rather garish bindings. I keep thinking that when (if ever) I retire, I might rebind them into a decent plain case. The Strand has quite a good collection of Heritage Press books: if you want a nice edition of a classic, that’s a good place to go.

My reason for showing them both side by side is really to explore whether “good design” makes any difference. We can certainly assume that more people have read the Modern Library version. Both use the same translation, by Constance Garnett, though the Heritage edition incorporates some “corrections”. While I am able to come up with reasons why the design of the Heritage edition is “better” than the Modern Library one, I really have difficulty in believing that this makes any difference to the reader. Perhaps a reader like me (i.e. someone who has worked at this stuff for years) may react favorably to the clean-ness, balance and restraint of John Dreyfus’s design, but does that affect their reaction to the novel? I suspect that good text design is something we in the business work for in order to impress our colleagues. It’s akin to speaking in grammatical sentences. You feel good about doing it, but people would understand you just as well if you spoke non-standard English. What people really want is the content of the book. The design shouldn’t erect any barriers — Stanley Morison said good design should be invisible — as distractions will only serve to make the reader’s comprehension and attention drop off. When you look at the text design of many bestsellers you have to acknowledge that good text design has nothing to do with the success of a book. Still we all aspire to the status of craftsmen, and making a well designed book has psychic rewards — even if the great design can’t be proved to translate into increased sales.

Perhaps the best justification of design is the fairly defensive response recently given by a designer — inappropriate design can make the book look “wrong” and therefore less salable.  Within the range of appropriate designs it probably matters less that the design should in itself be “good”, than that it should not be “wrong”. At the other extreme, Sukanta Chaudhuri tells us in The Metaphysics of Text (CUP, 2010) that “font and layout . . . are latent in the text from the moment of conception”. My reaction is total incredulity, but in a way one can see what he means: if the designer channels the author the format given to the book may approach some ideal form. But most enduring books come in various editions. Which of the above corresponds to Tolstoy’s vision? Neither presumably, if only for the trivial reason that he would have envisaged it in a Cyrillic alphabet.

[At the request of Jeremy Mynott]

I love a book that gets out into the world with something wrong. How much more interesting is the Library of America volume which claims on the title page to be by Herman Meville? More run of the mill are the two books I’m correcting at work just now because we printed them without indexes. Or the recent edition of Aristophanes: Peace which we were printing with a duplicate of page 135 in place of page 125: When I supplied a corrected book to the professor at Vassar, he emailed his class with the missing page 125, under the heading “May the whole Peace now be with you”. When I was a teenager I read a Penguin biography which (I now realize) lacked the final signature. I puzzled over why a biography of Charles Dickens would leave him alive, if ailing, but never thought that there might be a section missing, and that I should have returned it to the publisher for replacement. (Well, maybe I wasn’t that naïve; perhaps I just couldn’t be bothered to find out about the last few hours.) I have retained a copy of a book about massage from a previous job, in which one illustration contains, in place of a finger, a Photoshopped penis. It took quite a while for anyone to notice this and complain to us. I also have one of the few surviving copies of a linguistics book which as editor I approved with a laugh and a shrug when the subeditor queried the use of first names only of members of the Kennedy White House in slightly suggestive examples of linguistic usages. The entire stock had to be pulped when the US office determined the book to be libelous. A lesson there about the difference between the legal systems on either side of the ocean — or is it, as I still suspect, a lesson about marketing department pusillanimity?

I just read Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, the whole premiss of which is the quest for a complete copy of a novel, this novel, which the main character, the Reader, starts reading in chapter one, but discovers to be a miscollated copy which contains only the first signature of the book, duplicated throughout.  When he goes to the bookseller he’s told that the publisher has announced the problem had affected the entire run, and that the sig he’d been reading is actually the start of a completely different book by a Polish author. He opts for a copy of the Polish novel, as he’d become hooked on that first sig.  A replacement copy contains, however, entirely different content from what he’d been reading before.  He gets fascinated by this new book though, but comes to a point where the pages start to be blank. He realizes anyway that it probably isn’t the Polish novel anyway, as the names don’t sound Polish. So it goes on in a quest to find the complete text of something, always frustrated by yet another publishing defect.

I liked it immensely, but then I would wouldn’t I?  All these manufacturing errors, missing manuscript pages, inaccurate translations etc. are right up my alley. Some critics talk about it as being too slick, too easy, to contrived. I really don’t like critics who always feel they have to find some fault in a book. I have friends who love, and are extremely knowledgeable about, musical theater. Every show they go to seems to turn out to be lousy because it doesn’t match up to this or that platonic ideal. Same with many opera goers. Just because the soprano didn’t do it as well as Callas really doesn’t matter to me: she did it well enough to make for an enjoyable evening. I really cannot expect to be present at the best performance ever of any show you care to name, and to allow that disappointment  to ruin it for me is a good way of wasting the price of the ticket. I think this all comes from the same impulse that requires an editor to find mistakes in any proof you show them. If they can’t find an error, that shows that they haven’t been looking closely enough. Finding the error shows they are expert at their job, just as finding the inadequacies in the opera production shows that you know a lot about opera.

There’s an exhibition going on now at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, entitled Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop & Turn. Although it’s quite small and rather poorly lit, it is worth a visit. They have a couple of books from the 16th century, one, Euclid’s Elements of geometrie with pop-ups of various solids. Perhaps the best feature of the show however is a video describing the creation process, which you can see by clicking here. (As with all YouTube videos, you can make the picture full screen by clicking the button at the bottom right hand corner; the one with the four arrows pointing outwards.)