Archives for the month of: May, 2017

A pendant to my post on black letter.

The key to this 1901 map, in case you can’t make it out in the German, is:

  • Blue: German alphabet (Fraktur)
  • Pink: Latin alphabet (Antiqua)
  • Pink with blue spots: Limited use of Fraktur alongside dominant Antiqua
  • Pink with yellow spots: Irish script alongside dominant Antiqua
  • Green: Cyrillic alphabet
  • Brown: Greek alphabet
  • Yellow: Arabic alphabet
  • White/grey: Kalmyk-Mongolian script

I’m not sure just where, if at all, that last one is to be found, but you’d expect it in the east and in the north Caucasus; but Turkey and North Africa are white too.

You can click on the map to enlarge it. It comes from Wikimedia Commons, via Backchannel, via The Digital Reader.

There are five, maybe six, different methods of printing.

1. Relief printing, where a raised image is covered with ink and pressed against a bit of paper. Letterpress is the main occupant of this space, but it was preceded by woodblock printing (see The Diamond Sutra), and, even earlier, printing from seals. Originally used to impress an image into a yielding medium like clay (or sealing wax) seals were already by about 300BC being used by Chinese officials to stamp silk or paper documents with an inked “imprimatur”. Indeed the word for “to print” in Chinese, yin, originally meant “to authenticate a document with a seal”.

Linocuts, potato prints, and those old John Bull printing outfits, where little rubber letters are inserted into a holder and inked on an ink pad then stamped onto something your parents aren’t going to object to, are familiar relief printing methods for children. Those office date stampers make us all relief printers.


2. Intaglio printing. The opposite of relief printing: a recessed image rather than a raised one. An intaglio plate prints from an image incised into a metal plate, filled with ink, cleaned off, and then yielding up its ink to a sheet of paper pressed into it. Gravure, or Rotogravure, is the commercial application: it costs so much to prepare the image-bearing roller that the process is now used only for extremely long runs where great color fidelity is required, e.g. labels for cans of baked beans. On a more intimate scale, here’s a video showing dry point and etched prints being made. (Click on the title of this post if you can’t see the video here.)

While a signet ring doesn’t print intaglio when it is making its mark in that red wax blob on your envelope, it could. Imagine smearing the ring’s surface with Nutella®, polishing it carefully and pressing it firmly onto the envelope for a delicious impression.

3. Planographic printing. Neither raised nor recessed — the image sits on a flat plate, working by the magical incompatibility between oil (the greasy ink) and water. Commercially planographic printing effectively means offset lithography, but of course it started off as direct offset; discovered by the footloose, carefree (and smart) Alois Senefelder at the very end of the 18th century. Find a flat stone; draw a picture on it using a wax crayon, douse it in water, put ink on it (it will flee the wetted areas), and put a bit of paper on top, and Bob’s your uncle. The following video, from the same MoMA series as the one above, shows the process is actually a little harder than that.

Unsurprisingly commercial offset lithography is quite different but the principles, oil/water antipathy, remain the same. It took almost 150 years for it to knock letterpress off its perch. (You can see the whole series of seven videos on Printmaking at Khan Academy.)

4. Ink jet printing. Not a raised image; not a recessed image; not a flat surface with an image: no image, except for the digitized information about an image carried in a computer which directs the printer to squirt or not squirt. More and more commercial and book printing is going this way. This short video shows how it works inside your home ink-jet printer.

Although it’s not fundamentally different in terms of my surface analysis, being a sort of analog analogy of the digital-driven ink jet system, I include electrostatic printing as a fifth variety.

5. Electrostatic printing. Think office copier. You expose the image onto a selenium-coated rotating belt using a bright light (light, which can be regarded as a fast form of electricity, is able via a photoconductor to create static electricity on the belt); the belt rotates the charged image to a drum with toner powder; static electricity causes toner to stick to the bits which form the image; and the belt moves on to meet up with a sheet of paper which has been given its own electrical charge, which makes the toner jump from belt to paper; the image is fused via a pair of heated rollers; and out pops the still warm copy.

It was the adaptation of this process to book work (and the clever dodge of getting binding done by library-repair binders, who are used to binding single copies), which gave birth to the print-on-demand business. The original workhorse here was the Xerox DocuTech.

6. Recessed impression. The sixth method, the earliest, might not really count, as there’s no ink being transferred, but cuneiform characters incised into clay tablets have been found dating back to Sumerian times, about 8,000BC, and certainly played a role similar to that of printed documents. The technique could be used with positive or negative images: i.e. resulting in a raised image or a recessed image.


Of course, at a trivial level, I should probably note that we use the word “print” to distinguish a line of upper case letters from a cursive script hand. In the same spirit we might mention finger prints (relief printing), foot prints (recessed impression), photographic prints (planographic printing). We occasionally use the word to refer to an illustration, and to a design on cotton goods. Apparently a butter print is a lump of butter which has been shaped in a mould.

I’m not sure we can go any further: we’ve tried printing from a raised surface, a recessed surface, a flat surface, no surface, an indented surface. There’s nowhere else to go, up or down. Future developments will probably be tweaks improving on what we’ve already established.


“It’s inevitable. Technology. There will come a day when there’s no print. I know that that’s coming; and that’s — I think it’s the way it is.”

These words of resignation come from one of the workers who speaks in the video at The Boston Globe‘s website. This 7½ minute video is well worth seeing: it gives a good impression of the late industrial print industry with its economical use of space, its heavy metal, and its oily filth.

The Boston Globe has closed its printing plant in Dorchester and is moving to a new plant in Taunton. They’ll be leaving behind them the grime of almost 60 years. The photo below of the Taunton plant, from a Facebook post, shows some of the new presses: they look sparkling clean, but give them time.

Half way through the video you can see the pressman checking a copy of the New York Times. Despite all the Red Sox caps these workers clearly print under subcontract too.

I rather think the worker quoted at the top is being a bit too pessimistic. You can already see it’ll be different: but there are a lot of newspapers still to be printed. Maybe in shorter and shorter runs; maybe with different titles; maybe with fewer employees; maybe less profitably — but that’s a lot of plant to build for something that’s already over. I’ll bet it has been built with quicker makereadies in mind, so that a greater variety of jobs can be printed economically.

Amazon’s new bricks and mortar store in Manhattan is on the third floor of the Time Warner Center. A few years ago we had a large Borders bookshop in this building, but of course that went the way of all flesh. Here’s a C-net story with a brief video which gives a good impression of the store.

I looked in on Thursday, the day it opened, but couldn’t stay, ‘cos I had to be elsewhere. I went back the next day, and had to stand on line to get in the front door! In this picture you can see the security guard at the door, allowing us in in proportion to shoppers who’d leave. It didn’t last too long: maybe 5 minutes, less if anything. I suspect this must be the first time I’ve ever had to get on line to get into a bookshop — heck, any shop — though I suppose I may have had to queue up at Titus Wilson’s in Sedbergh to buy my schoolbooks at the start of term. I doubt if this Amazon queue at 4.30 on a Friday afternoon indicates an accelerated love of books among my fellow citizens. Most people were there, like me, out of curiosity.

And it is curious. All the books are displayed face out: which results in there not being that many of them. I didn’t attempt a count, but I wonder if it’s the 3,000 CNN Tech says it is, though several do get duplicate locations under different category headings. They’ve used sales data to govern the inventory selection, so I suppose I shouldn’t really have expected to find anything I wanted (my bag being the off-beat rather than the popular). However I was surprised to discover they did stock the book I was reading while on line, Keith Houston’s The Book — luckily I had shown it to the security guard, so didn’t have to panic about being forced to buy it again! Not, I have to confess, that I saw anyone actually doing anything as vulgar as buying a book. One of the many employees in evidence told me I could make a purchase through an Amazon app, though unfortunately that’s not an Amazon-Go-type of sale: i.e. buy it on the iPhone and just walk out of the store. The CNN Tech link above shows a sale being made. (I declined to download the app till I had found a book I’d want to buy.) If you are an Amazon Prime member you get the discounted price shown at, if not it’s full price for you. Around the store there are scan stations which will read the barcode and tell you what you’ll pay. Non-Primers can of course just read that information off the back of the book as in any shop: it’s not like they are obscuring the prices so that you’d have to go on-line.

Slightly less than a quarter of the store, half of the front area, is devoted to electronics: various Kindles, Alexas etc. I guess it’s the sort of bookstore you might go to if you wanted to get a last-minute gift, or are looking for a discount on a current bestseller. It just doesn’t feel like a real bookstore — but maybe that was because of the crowd and the large staff.

Business Insider has a photo gallery.

“What happens when the amount of books available to read exceeds the market’s ability to read them?” Martyn Daniels asked at Brave New World a couple of years ago. He seems to see the arrival of the ebook as a threat to our ability to cope.

I’m not sure why that would be a worry. In so far as it means anything, wasn’t that point reached long ago anyway? More books are available than any one person could ever dream of reading. However if we lined up all the readers in the world and set them, in a organized way, to read every book available, dividing the books up between the readers, I guess we could get the job done quite quickly. Is Mr Daniels worrying about a situation where there’d be too many books for us to be able to do even that? We are told there are a billion illiterate people in the world, which leaves about 6⅓ billion who are literate to some extent. Let’s assume half of those are children, and about a billion are only functionally literate: that might leave about 2 billion readers standing ready at our starting gate able to cope with a book. Apparently Google has calculated that 130 million books have been published in modern history. Let’s double that to cover the time before “the modern era” and we can see our available readers outnumber the supply of books by almost ten to one. This hardly seems a problem worth losing any sleep over.

Is he worried that publishers will go out of business when we have published more books than can be purchased? We are already in that situation and always have been: publish books which nobody wants and you will end up bankrupt. But the fact is books are not like washing machines. If you have one, you are quite likely to want another. If you publish good books, lots of people will want more of them. How many books would we need to bring out for our world of readers, and the libraries serving them, to find there were just too many for them to want another? “I’ve got fifty thousand books I’ve got to read in the next few years. I can’t possibly be expected to buy another — just go away.” Come on Brave New World, it doesn’t work like that: just because you can’t find time to read it yourself doesn’t mean that you don’t want a book to exist. Or can’t con yourself into thinking you’ll find time for it.

I suspect that oversupply is simply impossible when it comes to books. Even if there is a book which nobody (apart perhaps from the author) is ever going to read from start to finish, what’s wrong with that? If someone just looks inside it and looks up one thing, it may have performed a valuable function. And even if that never happens: what’s the harm?

This is a rather bogus word which, perhaps because of its rarity, has managed to survive. It originated as a description, in Latin, for books originating from the new-born art of printing, incunabula (neuter plural the Oxford English Dictionary points out — the putative singular form “incunabulum” is not found in Latin) meaning swaddling clothes; cunae apparently being cradle. Converted into the back-formed noun “incunabulum”, plural “incunabula”, its definition has narrowed down to indicate only books printed before 1501. The OED‘s earliest quote from J. M. Neale in 1861 attributes the usage to the Germans. English-ing it to incunable [in-queue-nable] is pretty well established now, though the OED credits that word to the French. The vagueness surrounding the word may encourage many to resort to “incunabula” as a singular, which at least protects you against the aural ugliness of incunable. In a world of total confusion, nobody can tell you you’re wrong whichever form you chose to use when talking about books printed before 1501. Maybe just saying “books printed before 1501” would be a safe and euphonious choice.

Teasingly the OED tells us incunabula also means “the breeding-places of a species of bird”. They support this with no quotes, and leave unclear whether they mean any species or one special species of bird.

from Just My Type by Simon Garfield

What is it about the news that makes the use the use of black letter/ Old English/ Gothic type such a favorite for news-paper titles? No doubt once upon a time there was an element of reaching for an authoritative image when the earliest newspapers first proliferated, but nowadays it’s probably no more than a nod to tradition. Typo Face gives a number of international examples.

ABC for book collectors tells us that there were three forms of the “Gothic” typeface which was initially developed in imitation of northern European manuscript bookhands. The first, textura, pointed type, was used in the earliest printings of Gutenberg’s Bible, early liturgical printing, and the first printing of the King James Bible. It was called black letter in England. The second variety, rotunda, was more common in Italy and Spain. The third version, bastarda, an imitation of earlier versions, was used for example by Caxton, and survived longest, becoming the basis for German Fraktur which survived into the post-WWII period in Germany, and can still occasionally be encountered despite contamination by its enthusiastic use by the Nazis. When I first learned German, we were taught to read Fraktur: I guess that a decade after the end of the war a large proportion of German texts were still thus printed.

Fraktur and other “Gothic” fonts have no italic form. In order to indicate emphasis where in regular typesetting you would use italic, German typesetters evolved  the practice of indicating emphasis by letterspacing. I have seen this letterspacing emphasis carried over into German texts set in roman (non-Fraktur) types. They may have taken over this trick from setting in Greek, where emphasis is similarly signaled.

This illustration showing the three types, plus a fourth, Schwabacher, comes from Retinart and shows the evolution described above.

Gothic can still refer to these Germanic typefaces, but in the 19th and 20th centuries it became the term for sans-serif types. The reasons for this are not altogether obvious but it seems to have had something to do with the fact that early sans-serif designs were seen as a glance back to handwritten forms from the manuscript tradition. Nowadays the term is still to be found in the names of some typefaces where the name Grotesque/Grotesk also lives as a quasi-synonym. Wikipedia‘s article on Sans-serif gives a (possibly post hoc ergo propter hoc) explanation for the use of the terms. It all proved too much even for an enthusiast like me!







See also Serif.

We habitually refer to anything appearing at the top of the page, other than the folio, as a running head. Properly speaking, though, a running head is one that changes as we go through the book, giving a description of the material appearing on that page, or spread. Usually a running head will appear only on the recto, with the verso carrying the Part title, the Chapter title, or at a pinch the book’s title. This unchanging head should properly be termed a page head or headline.

We rarely use real running heads nowadays: they cost extra, since you can’t decide what they should say until the book has been paged, so they lead to an extra step in the proofing process. As a compromise we occasionally use the section titles as a sort of running head. Dictionaries usually have proper running heads, telling you the range of words covered on that page. Bibles also tend to have truly descriptive running heads, providing a sort of commentary on what appears on the page. A careful publisher will give you a running head in the endnotes section, providing the text page range for which notes can be found on each page of notes. This makes the endnotes much easier to use, and I wish it was always done.

As Judith Butcher points out in Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for editors, authors and publishers “Running heads are unnecessary unless they help the reader to find a particular part of the book”. Thus most novels will not have anything at the top of the page unless the publisher has wanted to waste space to make a short book seem more substantial. A page head giving you the book’s title only doesn’t provide you with any information — we can assume, I think, that the readers are aware what book it is they are reading! If that’s all you can think of to put up there, keep quiet. Innocent publishing novices may assume that a book needs to have running heads in order to look like a book: wrong — it will only need running heads if it needs running heads to provide navigational help to the reader. But try telling that to some enthusiasts.

See also my raised nose on the subject of running feet.

Amazon is taking over — and why not? They seem to be taking over everything. They obviously know more about what books sell than anyone else, though they have always been reluctant to provide details. Maybe you got this email (pictured above) from them the other day. Their site gives a bit more information.

Publishing Perspectives has a piece about Amazon Charts as they are calling it. I see no reason why Amazon’s lists shouldn’t turn out to be more “authoritative” than the Times‘s. Heck, they even know the names and addresses of the people who bought the books, and in the case of ebooks, know how many pages each of their customers have read. (This forms the basis for their Most Read category, I assume.)

The New York Times lists have been showing their age. The fact that they are not really measures of sales but more of sales velocity makes them a bit fickle, but the belief persists that they sell books.

“Many people determine what book to buy based upon seeing the phrase, ‘New York Times Bestseller’.” says Rob Eagar in his piece How to Kill a New York Times Bestseller at BookBusiness. While I might doubt the validity of his bald statement, (I just don’t agree that 5% of responses in one small survey represents a lot) I have to agree that a publisher who fails to mention Bestseller status in their promotion is missing an obvious marketing opportunity.

But some of Mr Eagar’s criticism is just over-eagerness. Amazon and Barnes and Noble are responsible for their websites. Publisher uploads may form the basis of their copy, but these uploads happen well before the book is lucky enough to become a bestseller. Amazon certainly have a tab which takes you to “The New York Times® Best Sellers” and they naturally have no reason to hide any book’s light under any bushel. I suspect that much of the problem Mr Eagar identifies results from timing. You just have to get the change in the on-line copy made. It doesn’t happen by magic. And of course if the book hits the bestseller list only briefly, the on-line claim may end up being outdated as soon as it has been got up there; though of course that’s not a reason to suppress the historically interesting fact.

Mr Eager, rather innocently, states “Simply adding ‘New York Times Bestseller’ to the book cover art isn’t enough in most cases.” It isn’t even possible in most cases! The books on hand are the books on hand. If the publishers expected the book to be a bestseller they will have printed thousands of copies, and till these copies are sold there’s no opportunity to update the jacket. I bet that publishers do get a “Bestseller” note up on their own website pretty quickly, and create a cover image including the words, but it takes a reprint of the book to get the notice onto the jacket. Yes, they could of course print up a sticker — but who’s going to stick them on the books? Don’t think B&N is going to divert staff to do the job.

But whether there really are people who buy books solely based upon their being in a bestseller list — one has a fond, if outdated, image of Auntie Muriel wondering “What exciting book shall I get for young Billy’s birthday” — these listings clearly are a help in sustaining sales. Circularly of course a book only gets to be a bestseller by being a bestseller. For some, hitting the list coincides with the peaking of sales. In an earlier post I mentioned the Times‘s adding 12 new lists. Now they have reduced their lists by 10. Reaction as shown in Tolulope Edionwe’s piece at The Outline suggests the end of the world is at hand.

I expect that we will rather quickly transfer our loyalties from “New York Times bestseller” to “An Amazon bestseller”. Amazon’s ability to tell you more about the sales, (e.g.”More readers listened to Astrophysics for People in a Hurry on Audible than read the book on Kindle this week.”) adds significantly to the bare listings we’ve become used to. Could this reduce tensions between self-publishing aficionados and the traditional industry? One assumes that Amazon isn’t excluding self-published and indie-published books from consideration.

Atlas Obscura reports on a book tower designed by Matej Kren.

The Czechs seem to go in for this sort of thing: here’s their pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover, also designed by Kren.

“Gravity mixer”

Meanwhile donations of books are being solicited for the reconstruction of the Parthenon of Books in Kassel to commemorate the burning of some 2,000 books by the Nazis on May 19, 1933. See Universe in Universe for details.

El Partenón de libros was first created in Buenos Aires in 1983, using books which had been banned by the recently collapsed Argentinian military dictatorship.

Open Culture has a story with this Economist video of the artist talking about the structure.