Professor Iain Stevenson asks the SHARP listserv whatever happened to the standing film publishers once stored at printing plants. His query reads “When I worked for Longman in the 1970s the company had vast amounts of standing type in various warehouses. When times became hard, it was all mostly broken down largely to save storage costs. I don’t  think the scrap value was high and some was converted to film but it was awkward if a title needed reprinting especially if colour reproduction was involved. The instruction “TDST” (Take down standing type) persisted on stock control  forms well after the end of printing from metal.
PS. what became of all that stored film?  I recall a visit to CUP about 2005 seeing a vast store of printing film, now all gone of course.”   — as is Cambridge University Press printing too, alas.

What is probably not realized nowadays is that stereos made from the type, and type itself, had a finite life. Every time stereo plates or standing type was put onto the press there was a risk of damage. These things were heavy, and it was not unusual for them to get slightly damaged by knocking against some part of the press. Also, the very action of having sheet after sheet of paper pressed against them would tend to wear down the types, dulling and rounding the sharp edges until one got to a point where the book began to look as if it had been set in a bold font, and whole job had to be reset. Bibles were one of the classic places where standing type would be used over and over. I can remember agonized debates within Cambridge University Press as to whether the best-selling Cameo Bible should be reset. It certainly needed to be, but we were saved by the bell from having to take the (expensive) leap by the arrival of offset printing. All we needed to do in the end was find an early crisp printing, shoot it and off to press we went.

The scale of the problem can be seen via Simon Eliot’s SHARP response, providing these data: “In an inventory of Oxford University Bible Press dating from Christmas 1854, the value of stereoplates was estimated at £5,110 while the standing type was valued at £18,652.  An estimate was given against each set of plates or standing type of the number of copies that could be printed from them. In all cases, the standing type was estimated at a much higher rate.  A set of stereos for a New Testament Pica 8vo was considered capable of printing 50,000 copies, although by 1854 only 2,000 had been printed. On the other hand, it was anticipated that the standing type for a New Testament Brevier was capable of producing 1,200,000 copies, and had in fact already printed 1,036,000 of those.”

The replacement of letterpress by offset, which happened in Britain later than in America — in the seventies in Cambridge — solved all our standing type problems. Holding type had required huge amounts of storage space, and type metal, if not gold, wasn’t an insignificant investment when viewed by the warehouseful. We would pull repros (reproduction proofs, which were basically a single-sided printing on a smoothly calendered sheet) from the metal type and have them photographed, developed to negatives, and stored stripped up into flats. This seemed a miraculous space-saving. Half-a-dozen flats making up a book, hung from a sort of coat-hanger-like arrangement took up so much less space than the corresponding amount of type that we thought we were in cloud cuckoo land.

But of course it didn’t take too long for the flat-hanging wardrobe to become full too. I’m not such a technological determinist to claim that the adoption of offset by the book manufacturing community caused the huge increase in numbers of titles published each year — but there’s the germ of a post there. But more and more books were printed, and more and more film was being stored. Initially film tended to be stored free of charge by the printers, who as ever were reluctant to do anything which would upset a customer. The question of ownership was a little tangled — in the end we used to say that the film itself was owned by the printer, and the image on it belonged to the publisher. But first one then another printer started to bill publishers for film storage. Each title would be stored for a small amount, and the bills would be processed with minor grumbling. But of course as time went on, and more and more books were involved — bear in mind this was also the era of tighter inventory control/declining print runs — the number of small amounts added up to some significant sums. One of the production manager’s quarterly tasks was confronting an invoice of at least four digits accompanied by a print-out which would provide more or less information depending on the plant it came from. Some would tell you when the job had last printed, while others would be rather opaque, often abbreviating the title so energetically that you might have difficulty relating it to any book you recognized. Either way you were confronted by several lists from several printers, all carrying vast print-outs. Responsible invoice processing demands that you go through the data seeing whether the charges were justified, i.e. whether the film in question was worth keeping or not. But, hey, life is short, and your main job is getting out the current season’s list of new books, so these storage invoices tended to go though on the nod. All this meant that they would reappear next quarter, even bigger. Obviously the right thing to do was to go through the print-out determining which flats were never going to be used again. Easier said than done of course: how to tell that this book or that one will never print again? You might get into a sort of demand planning mode and figure out demand and current inventories. Just because a book is selling 100 a year and has 600 in stock doesn’t mean it will never be reprinted. In fact killing the flats could be the very thing which made a short reprint impossible — you wouldn’t be able to afford reorigination — so mostly we decided to hold everything. Once a year we might go through and identify those books which had already been declared OP, thus would never reprint, and get those flats destroyed. This did something to moderate the growth rate of the print-out.

But bear in mind this was the era of reduced print runs. In the nineteen nineties say, no production manager could imagine that reprints of 100 or less might some day become routine. We live in a world of continual change, and we have to judge the world we live in by the standards of yesterday. We knew letterpress had given way to offset. And we all “knew” that offset was the way we’d always print books, and that flats were our heritage. Of course now, just like our standing type problem our flats storage problem has miraculously evaporated in a digital storm. Many flats have been trashed. It used to be that when a printer went out of business he’d ask for a disposition of the flats on hand. We’d have to arrange for them to be shipped to another printer. The existence of digital has cancelled this habit, even for books where no digital original exists. Many printers have been digitizing negative flats, but even where that hasn’t happened it is relatively easy and cheap to scan a printed book to create a digital file. Even where the publisher has no copies on hand this can be done. When I was at Oxford University Press I would be buying second-hand books from Amazon constantly so we could digitize them. (This earlier post relates an odd coincidence resulting from this.)