Archives for the month of: April, 2017

Tomorrow — though don’t let that stop you buying one today too.

I suspect many of us are inclined to regard the whole idea of BISAC* subject headings and keywords as a bit of a bother, even rather a waste of time. Unfortunately for our self-regard this is nonsense. In the olden days when the system was just getting going the allocation of subject codes perhaps did have merely marginal value — maybe you’d manage to get a couple more books sold to libraries — but since we became internet slaves, these categorization tools have become very important; in fact the correct word is — key.

If your book contains information on the Portinari Altarpiece you need to get these words out there, so that anyone searching for this term will find your book near the top of the search results page(s).  Hugo van der Goes and the Procedures of Art and Salvation is a title which gets part of the way there in that it does give the artist’s name, but as the book is actually about the Altarpiece itself “Portinari” and “Altarpiece” as well, no doubt, as “Portinari Altarpiece” would be essential keywords here. The publisher, Brepols, doesn’t appear to have done their keyword homework, though there’s a limit to the number of pages of results I’m willing to scan in order to check this.

Digital Book World provides solid practical advice with its piece Generate More Book Sales with a Keyword-Powered Blurb by Beth Bacon.


* Book Industry Standards and Communications. It is a subcommittee of the Book Industry Study Group which was founded in 1975 at the Book Manufacturers Institute annual meeting. Their subject codes can be inspected at their website, here. You could go crazy trying to apply these accurately and comprehensively. Maybe publishers should ask authors to do the job for them! Penguin Random Houses’s News for Authors site has a good description of the system.

This is a slippery concept. The straight answer to the question “Can printing ever match the color of a painting exactly?” is a simple “No”. The trouble is not so much the “match exactly” as “the color of the painting”. Because of the way vision works the same painting will look different in different lighting conditions. If there’s any daylight involved, it’ll look different under different weather conditions and at different times of the day. This is because the color is not inherent in the object; it’s a consequence of the reflected light hitting your eye. So there’s no “exact color” of anything that you might try to match. The best printing can do is pick one state and match that: and using the little dots of the halftone process* it can do that amazingly well.

Here are four pictures of the right hand panel of the Portinari Altarpiece, by Hugo van der Goes.












These are of course digitized photographs which adds another layer of distortion. Well actually the first three are photos and the fourth is a photo of a Giclée** print.

The first one has a sky which looks like a storm is brewing while the others all make it look like we are enjoying a nice sunny day (except the third where the blue sky has been cropped off, though, in compensation almost, that band of white just above the horizon has become a sickly light blue.) The background landscape in the second one is notably brighter than the others. The red of the dresses is different in each one of them and the Giclée print reveals that the little kneeling figure on the right is wearing a green dress, not a black one like her big sister. The standing figure on the right either has a white dress or a yellow one, though the print kind of goes for beige.

So what’s a pressman to do? The best a printer can do is to match the original copy supplied by the publisher. Nobody gets to fly off to Florence while the job’s on press. Who knows which of these pictures best represents the original. If you go to the Uffizi, it’ll depend on the lighting which of the originals you’ll pick, and someone else who goes on another day will no doubt see something slightly different.

MORAL: make sure your author provides good photos, ideally all taken under similar lighting conditions, then proof carefully in order to have your halftone reproduction match the original photo, again under controlled lighting conditions. You’ll end up having to trust your author, ‘cos you’re not going to get to fly off to Florence either to see if the originals really do match the painting.

See also Color matching


* This picture illustrates halftone dots rather well. See also Screens and screen finders.

Halftone dots, from SBCC School of Media Arts


** Giclée is a neologism coined in 1991 by printmaker Jack Duganne for fine art digital prints made on inkjet printers, as Wikipedia tells us.

Tom Phillips says of his work “I do it, you know; you can’t really be interested in what you do” which I find to ring true. If I do it, then it’s just something people do. What on earth can be interesting in such ordinary activity?

What Tom Phillips does is obsessively edit the pages of an old book by painting over much of it and leaving a few selected words connected by little rivers, establishing a new text. Some of the pages are starkly geometric and abstract in their treatment, and others, like page 50, illustrated above, are impressively realistic. He’s been at it for 50 years, so he clearly enjoys it, and in one way that is enough. Obviously others want to enjoy it too, and Thames & Hudson has just come out with a sixth recension.

As his website puts itA Humument has been a work in progress since 1966 when Tom Phillips set himself a task: to find a second-hand book for threepence and alter every page by painting, collage and cut-up techniques to create an entirely new version. He found his threepenny novel in a junk shop on Peckham Rye, South London. This was an 1892 Victorian obscurity titled A Human Document by W.H. Mallock whose title was altered to A Humument [by folding the title page to exclude the letters in the middle] for the remade book. The earliest printed version took the form of sets of boxed pages issued by the Tetrad Press between 1971 and 1976. The first trade edition was published by Thames & Hudson in association with Hansjorg Mayer in 1980 and this was followed by revised editions in 1987, 1998, 2004 and 2012 before the sixth and final edition was published in 2016. Each edition contains at least 50 new pages which replace their earlier selves in a process whose goal is acheived in the final edition in which no page of the earliest version survives.”

I can see it would be fun to do, but I’m not sure that the resulting text has much to say to us really. It’s art, no doubt, but it mostly comes across to me as a bit obsessive — but I guess that’s art, isn’t it? Mr Phillips’ website includes a 2½ hour reading of the sixth version of the work. There’s also a generous selection of page images there too — I think it may be the complete book.

Jonathan Safran Foer has done an analogous, if non-graphic, job on Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. His version is called Tree of Codes and is printed as originally laid out with the excised words die-cut away (or omitted) so that you end up reading a layered text which must have been a nightmare to print and die-cut, as well as “write”. The publisher’s website shows some other sample pages, though this picture tells the story pretty well. They also have a brief video showing the printing and die-cutting process. No wonder the book is currently out of stock: it’s not an item you can reprint on demand. The book was perfect bound: trying to fold and gather die-cut sheets like that would have been almost impossible.

The Times Literary Supplement of 31 March reviews the latest iteration of A Humument. You’ll need a subscription to read more than the first few lines though. One reflection that strikes me is whether these books are “written” by Phillips and Foer, or by Mallock and Schultz? If I cut up The Heart of Darkness into single words and drop them at random around the streets of New York, is a text resulting from your happening along later and picking up a number of bits of paper a text by you, me, Joseph Conrad, the west wind, or nobody?


This is one of the saddest movies I’ve seen.

(If you get this post via email and don’t see a video here, please click on the title of the post to view in your browser.)

It is a re-training film made in the mid-sixties by the International Typographical Union. It is amazing how quickly the process moved on from this early response to technological change. None of what you see here survives in today’s print industry (including the union itself. Founded in 1852, with a membership of about 100,000 at the time this film was made, the ITU finally withered away in 1986 and merged in 1987 with the Communications Workers of America.)

The tone of the film is optimistically up-beat, showing the way forward into the new world. In fact these guys were facing the elimination of most of their jobs. The union had an interest is portraying a labor-heavy process: see the guy carry one plate into the pressroom, turn around and walk back. Despite its optimistic front, the union was clearly aware of the writing on the wall. The stiff-upper-lip dodging and weaving in the face of the inevitable make for an almost tragic tale. Manning levels have plummeted since then, and while a few senior workers can remember the old ways, the number who successfully retrained was not immense. What workers do today has little connection with either the old, old ways shown at the start of the video or the initial responses to the new technology which follow.

The commentator proudly proclaims: “Printing in its many forms is the handmaiden of civilization and of progress . . . Since the days of Gutenberg the typesetter, in a real sense, has been the engineer of civilization . . . The printer has led mankind by the hand, so to speak, into the light of modern society.” Printing isn’t the only trade that has lost its pride. When it was a matter of coaxing huge piles of metal into doing ridiculously detailed things, the manual workers who accomplished this could bask in the romance of the struggle successfully won. Now there’s not too much pride to be taken in watching a computerized control system turn your lathe, grind your lens, cast your ingot, weave your cloth and so on. No wonder unhappy workers (or ex-workers) have become a troubled political force. We have moved our economics beyond manual work, but need still to come up with a psychological story transforming idle hands into — what? Proud consumers? Jolly vacationers? Self-improvement mavens? Life-time students? What about avid readers?

If we’d never had “these dark Satanic Mills” I think we wouldn’t have developed this stultifying hang-up about the nobility of work. We have bought this bill of goods, pushed at us as a means of distracting us from the realization that working in a mill was a nightmare, but a nightmare rather better than starvation. There’s no inherent nobility in being a wage-slave. Wake up guys — you’ve nothing to lose but your chains! Let’s divorce income from work by getting a universal basic income scheme going so that nobody has to be seen as “redundant” or “unemployed” — the village stocks of the modern day. People who wanted to keep working could do so. The underlying problem of automation is that robots are not workers, they are capital goods, and their arrival has accompanied and will only accelerate a switch from the proportion of the work product moving from labor to capital. Those who choose to work should become shareholders rather than salaried staff. If you don’t have to feel exploited, who knows how many people would choose to keep working.

Vimeo has lots of films generated as part of the process of putting together Linotype: The Film.

Twitter (who else) has told us the exciting news that our president has actually enjoyed a book. The man who claims to be too smart to need to read books has tweeted his appreciation of one — Reasons to Vote Democrat by Michael J. Knowles. The joke of course is that this is a blank book. Ha, ha, ha; or as he puts it “Ho! Ho! Ho!”, perhaps trying to elbow in on Santa-Clausian ratings. As The Guardian says in its “review” of this and other examples of the satirical-wannabe genre, “These blank books make the Ladybird parodies, and the Blyton-spoof Five on Brexit Island, look like Jonathan Swift.”

The fact that we are able to persuade people to hand over cash for this sort of thing (a remark which might of course apply to much of trade publishing) is a tribute to the publishing industry’s ability to make money out of moonshine. Of course a blank book does give you something in which to draw pictures, write a diary or commonplace book, take lecture notes, or in the case of my own crazy Dynasts project,* write out a fair-copy of a classic text.

Publishers used to make up dummy copies of many (maybe most) of their books so that they could make sure the jacket would fit. These dummies consisted of blank pages, in the paper and number required for by the book waiting to be printed, bound in a case using some bit of cloth left over in the bindery. Usually you wouldn’t waste time stamping the spine, so it would only be a hand-written annotation in the front that would tell what book this dummy was representing. Many of them were rather nice objects, and I have over the years accumulated quite a collection of them, many of which were passed on to granddaughters as pastime projects. (I fear they showed signs of inhibition when faced with a leather-bound volume stamped Holy Bible on the spine.) Unfortunately publishers have now managed to figure out that measuring carefully works just as well as making a full dummy and costs a lot less.

Blank books have been a staple of the marketplace since the later years of last century. Moleskine appeals to the top end of this market, where customers seem to think that writing in a Moleskine will make them write like Hemingway. But buying one of these “satirical” books with a jokey title on its spine is perhaps a less than ideal way to acquire a notebook. It often seems that people have money to burn.


* For any who care I can now report I am about half way through, on page 359. We are up to 1809 (Part 2, Act II, Scene IV), and are now having to recognize that there may not be enough pages in my dummy OED volume to take us to the end of the drama. It’ll be a close run thing. The problem will have to be dealt with when we eventually get there. I’m having to resist the urge to use less and less illustration. Just drafted the bayonet charge of the English down the hill at Talavera. The pencil sketch is made from the camera lucida app, and then inked over, which has been half done here.

Here’s another video. The first half of the almost seven minute film is given over to inking the type and the second half to pulling two impressions to print one side of a two-page spread. You can see how dreams of automation would have played in the minds of workers who’d have had plenty of time to think of relief.

See also Gutenberg Fry-up.

Publishing Perspectives tells us of 10 lucky “fellows” to visit Scotland for a week in August. The story even includes a link to a PDF of the New Books Scotland Spring/Summer 2017 catalog.

Perhaps not quite as exciting as going to the Frankfurt Book Fair, but still an opportunity to apply for next year . . .

Hurry. If you know any young(er) publishing people who can spend the first two weeks of October touring the Frankfurt Book Fair and book trade businesses in two other German cities, get them to apply for this fellowship. Expenses are paid, though the winner would have to pay for travel to and from Germany. Notice comes via Publishing Perspectives, and application can be made here at the Book Fair site. The deadline is 30 April.

An electrotype has a thin copper shell deposited by electrolysis onto the letterpress type. The copper coating is more durable than the original type metal and the thin covering makes for a sharper and more accurate printing surface than a stereotype with its intermediate step of a mould. Invented in Russia in 1838 by Moritz von Jacobi (according to most sources) electrotyping was used for over a century in printing longer, high quality runs.

The basic chemistry of the process can be seen in this Met video of a Tiffany vase being duplicated by electrolysis.