Archives for the month of: January, 2018

Lots of books were published by the author him/herself back in the 18th century and earlier. The big difference between this and current self publishing is that in the past only wealthy people, or authors who could gather subscriptions from wealthy patrons could do this. Blake, though he had his backers, differed from most in that he did much of the production work himself. Now of course it costs next to nothing to get your book out there.

The “patron” might be an institution: at school we used German Grammar Notes, locally-printed by Titus Wilson in Kendal, a book arranged for, and written by, our German teacher A. E. Hammer. It was alleged that you could set your clock by Jack Hammer’s advance upon the school every morning alongside the cricket field: a kind of Yorkshire Immanuel Kant (Mr Hammer was a German too). Many years later, long after I’d left the school, a pukka edition of German Grammar Notes* was published by Harraps. We also had a locally produced French vocabulary picture book, compiled by J.H. Bruce Lockhart, an earlier headmaster of the school. I still tend to intone “une barbe de trois jours” when glimpsing myself unshaven in a mirror: B-L’s illustration showed a rather disreputable tramp — in those days you didn’t forget to shave. Apparently Strunk and White: The Elements of Style started out in life in the same way at Cornell. I’ve just been given a newly published illustrated tribute edition, signed by the illustrator, so I live in hope for Jack Hammer’s work. I long to see illustrated the “constellation” — that raucous party of three or four German verbs who at the end of a lengthy sentence, in long-anticipated bibulous song, together their voices may be found to have joined.

Until recently we had vanity publishing — for those who couldn’t collect enough cash from patrons, and were unable to find a publisher to front the cost. Vanity presses collected fees from authors and brought out their books in short-back-and-sides fashion. They were thus named because they’d take on anything regardless of quality — most such things being published to massage authorial vanity. Despite this prejudice, it must be the case that some good books made their way into the world by this route. The books were made available, rather than “published”, and any success would (as so often) depend on the author’s promotional vigor. It may be true to say that the main change this area is a change of nomenclature: surviving vanity presses have transformed themselves into independent publishers or publishing services companies.

Let us not forget that subset of patron-funded books which might be described as club books. One often meets these as cookbooks published by schools, churches, charitable groups. I even have one “Published by the Employees of Oxford University Press”, important as containing the recipe for Joellyn Ausanka’s locally famous Apricot Pecan Bars, which apparently evolved from her mother’s Date Walnut Bars recipe. Club publishing shades into such things as learned societies and academic research groups: one might include the Royal Society’s early publications, and certainly groups like the Roxburghe Club.

Paul Murphy at Huffington Post has some interesting comments about author earnings. Frankly I’m surprised that “almost a third of published authors earn less than $500 (£350) a year.” Does this not have to mean that ⅔ earn more than $500? That’s the bit that really surprises me. I think there must have been massive undercounting especially in the self-published ranks.

A couple of years ago McGill University’s Book History Group held a conference under the title “Self-publishing in 18th-century Europe : a comparative approach” lead by Dr. Marie-Claude Felton. You can listen to her talk on this topic at The Bodleian here. She tells us that in 1731 in London 30% of the pages typeset at one printing house were paid for directly by the author, while 31% of the books published in Paris in 1786-87 were entirely published by the author (financed and distributed). In fact these numbers may well understate the extent of self publishing: Alexander Pope self-published The Dunciad, although the book carries no indication of this. Obviously there might be many other instances where we do not have secondary evidence as we do from Pope’s correspondence.

Selling your book by yourself could be a complicated matter in the days before street numbers. Here’s Dr Felton’s showing of an involved set of “place of publication” directions for people wanting to buy M. Duplessis’ Archives mytho-hérmetiques.

See also Author as publisher.


* Still available, in a sixth edition:











I never really thought about this, and obviously never stopped to read the text, but I discover that the text of most Books of Hours was basically standardized: a collection of prayers and readings from the Bible suitable to particular occasions, primarily the eight “hours” of the day: matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, compline, and vespers. You can see the same words on these pages from two different books. All these Books of Hours look so different with their illumination, illustrations and background patterns that we just assume the text is different too: it’s hard to read after all! Christopher Hamel took the time to look, and has an interesting essay at AbeBooks. He points out that The Book of Hours may have been the only book owned by a lady, and that many children would have been taught to read from such a text.

The Book of Hours developed for lay people who wished to incorporate elements from the Breviary into their devotional life. A typical book of hours contains a calendar of church feasts, an excerpt from each of the four gospels, the Little office of our Lady, 23 of the psalms, the litany of saints, an office for the dead, the hours of the cross, and other prayers. Variations on these contents would exist by region and time as Sandra Hindman in her Primer on Collecting Books of Hours points out, but we are talking minor variations on a well-established theme. Obviously the decoration and illustration would differentiate the books, no doubt corresponding to the owner’s social status, though of course none of these books would be for poor people. You’d need to be able to read to want one, even though the texts would be familiar to most people from their attendance at church.

The trouble with the earliest typesetting machines was always the distribution difficulty (though justification also presented persistent problems). In a letterpress print shop distribution didn’t mean what we think it means today. To distribute type is to take the individual bits of type (sorts) after they’ve been used for printing and put them back into the place they had started out from so that they could be reused for the next pages waiting to be typeset. In a hand setting world this mean distributing the sorts into the type case, putting each individual sort into the appropriate box in the case, minding your ps and qs of course, so that the compositor could start work on the new copy. Distribution would tend to be done first thing in the morning by the apprentice who had to get in early to break up the type pages which had been printed on the previous afternoon and get the individual sorts back to the starting line.

Early inventions tended to founder on this problem rather than on the easier task of getting the right sort to respond to a keystroke and drop into the right position. Type was something a printer valued. It would be obtained, at a cost, from a separate business, the type foundery, and was to that extent a “given”, representing part of the printer’s capital investment. Not until Mergenthaler and Lanston figured out that the problem could just be circumvented by recasting type every time you needed a character, was machine typesetting made truly cost effective. However the Thorne machine came close to solving the problem and was quite successful with between 1,500 and 2,000 machines produced. It traded from 1880 till about the end of World War I under the names of Thorne, Simplex and Unitype.

The Thorne Typesetting and Distribution Machine used that tower to hold all the little bits of type in 90 channels where they could drop down for use in the new setting. The tower consists of two separate parts. The type for distribution would be loaded into the top, rotating part, face out, and sent to the appropriate channel in the lower part by using a series of nicks on the side of the type which distinguished every sort from every other one. Distribution could be continuous with the keyboard operator working away at the same time. After a line was set it had to be justified by a second operator, by the hand insertion of spaces and hyphens. This inefficiency was partially “justified” by suggesting that the justifier served as a sort of extra proofreader.

The Thorne Typesetting and Distribution Machine is covered well at Circuitous Root, which carries many illustrations and much detail, including a link to a promotional booklet available at the Internet Archive. This booklet includes samples of the typefaces available on the Thorne, as well as testimonials from satisfied customers, including this revealing table of output and cost from APA.

The emphasis placed in the Note on the absence of heads and signatures is there to point up the efficiency even more starkly. Obviously setting a head like, say “Chapter I” would give you a quicker, easier line than the full lines of text which would follow.


The statistics we get given tend to focus on “the number of people who have read a book in the last year” which never really means very much to me. There are books and books, and readers and readers. Looking up Akita and Doberman Pinscher in The American Kennel Club’s Complete Dog Book is a bit different from reading War and Peace from cover to cover, but both of course would count as “reading a book”. Robert Gray had a piece in Shelf Awareness last December about Christmas gift books for non readers which may be found at his blog Fresh Eyes Now. I guess that converting a non-reader into a reader would rank as a good deed, however reluctant the non-reader might be to agree that being made to take up a novel was a good thing. Mr Gray reports on the regular seasonal query “I need to find a book for my uncle.” — “What kinds of books does he like?” — “Oh, he doesn’t read.” Still, it must be worth keeping trying: as he says, a Gary Snyder poem at the right moment can be transformative.

“I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” Thus Anthony Powell* in The Valley of Bones, which is the seventh novel in A Dance to the Music of Time; surely the only dodecology in mainstream English literature — though there does also appear to be a series called Dead Song Legend Dodecology by the determinedly prolific Jay Wilburn. However he appears thus far not to have written beyond Number 4.

I guess it is true that you can’t impress a non-book-person by citing bookish evidence. They will either not notice, or, if they do realize you are referencing a book, believe that you are being condescending (which you probably are anyway). At the most trivial level there’s no point in remarking to someone that a person is behaving a bit like Emma Bovary, if your interlocutor has never heard of or read the book. Nick Jenkins, the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time spends a lot of time keeping quiet about his being an author, that being a red rag to the bulls he moves among especially in the wartime army.

The American philosopher Richard Rorty described the novel as “the characteristic genre of democracy, the genre most closely associated with the struggle for freedom and equality”. He believed that reading novels was a primary way of gaining understanding of fellow humans of types we might not encounter in our daily life, and that this consequently enabled us better to deal with them. Hard, to me, to argue with that, but then books are to me a necessity, and (mostly) readily convertible assets.

If hitting people over the head with a book is no way to influence their thinking, how much less must be writing about the making of these unconvertible assets. Of course I never expected there would be a large audience for my lucubrations on the making of books (of which fortunately there is no end: Ecclesiastes 12.12. But do beware: much study is a weariness of the flesh). I am very grateful for the select, but far from insignificant group of readers who follow this blog.


* Pronounced “Pole”, of course. The only other time I’ve known the name pronounced that way was Powell House at school, which we tended perhaps more to pronounce as “Poe-ull”.

Optical character recognition seemed like a great idea when it was first invented in the 1970s. If you had an old book which you wanted to reformat OCR gave you the opportunity to use a computer to scan it so as to get you simply from A to B. Unfortunately it was never as simple as this might sound: OCR came with a guaranteed error rate, so what you’d get was only a step on the way to a reset book: an error-filled digital file. Next you’d have to go through a proof-reading and correction cycle. When ebooks came along demand for “re-origination” of books exploded. With a book published before ebooks had been thought of there was no digital file in existence which could be adapted to create the ebook, so you had to scramble to get one made. OCR should have held out an attractive methodology for creating such a digital file. However, in the end people figured out that it was more accurate, quicker, thus cheaper to have humans (often in the Philippines) re-key the book. Humans are much better than computers at recognizing that that smudge is a Capital “S”, not a “b” or an “o” or whatever the computer might decide it was. Errors like this one are pretty obvious, but others are less predictable: would OCR stutter over that “w” in the previous entry? As so often in the computer world we discovered that garbage in really did mean garbage out.

Now, it could be argued that better inputs will result in better outputs, and to the extent that you might argue that a QR code was being processed by a sort of optical character recognition this is obviously true. Publishers, in the early days of ISBNs, before (and immediately after) barcodes and barcode readers had become available would typeset their ISBNs in OCR-A a typeface which was alleged to be infallibly readable. Who knows whether anyone could or did machine-read such ISBNs?

I’m betting that we printed them like that just because we were told to, and that nobody ever utilized the theoretical function. Barcodes quickly came along to make OCR-A redundant, although, belts and braces believers all, we kept on using both for years.


The Folger blog, The Collation, brings a nice little study of how shading has been introduced into line art over the centuries.

Detail from page 1 of C. Walter Hodges, The Globe Restored: A Study of the Elizabethan Theatre. Second edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Folger PR2920 .H6 1968.

They use as their example this drawing of the Globe by C. Walter Hodges for an OUP book. Not sure I don’t prefer it without the tint as shown below.

C. Walter Hodges (1909-2004). The Second Globe Under Snow. Pen and ink drawing, circa 1968. Folger ART Box H688 no.3.5.

Still it does unquestionably make for a greater contrast between snow and non-snow areas.

The Folger, inveterate collectors, not only have the book, they have the artwork prepared for the book. Here’s a detail of the tint overlay.

We used to make these sorts of things all the time, using an Xacto knife to cut away the bits of a Letraset sheet of tint dots in order to create highlight and shadow, or often different shades of flat colors. You can see the feint cut marks in the backing sheet which remained after Mr Hodges had tweezered off the little bits of tint he wanted to remove.

If like me you start getting crazy trying to figure out exactly where on the printed version these cut-out highlights appear, you’ll finally figure out that The Collation have photographed the overlay from the back. In other words the tint image is flopped with regard to the line drawing.

The Ladies’ Book Society, Clitheroe, of which Antiquates reports in their sale catalog that they could “find no information, was evidently a well organised and relatively affluent concern, with printed distribution lists, specific rules for the length of time allocated for reading (generally a week per volume), and meetings ‘the second Thursday in April and October’. Books were distributed in a certain order – apparently passed on between the members – although manuscript annotations to the printed lists suggest occasional variation was acceptable. The distribution lists suggest a largely bourgeois membership; however it should be noted that social order was clearly upheld, with one ‘Lady Ribblesdale’ (presumably Adelaide Lister, d. 1838) appearing at the head of the only list design that contains her name.”

Books at the time (1824-29) were usually sold in unbound form with their purchasers arranging for binding in leather in their own style. Here however we see in the photo at the bottom of this page, books bound in boards, presumably by the publisher, for use in provincial society in a reading group setting. One assumes that Miss Garnett, at the end of the list, was the lady organizing the whole thing, and that the books would end up with her. It’s actually a bit hard to see who got this book first: if it was really Mrs Carr, then it would seem it took exactly one year for the book to go around the whole Society. Maybe it actually began with Miss Helen Aspinall.

I suppose it’s possible that part of Miss Garnett’s duties would be arranging with a local bookbinder the cheaper binding up of the sheets. I imagine her driving the whole thing; calling on ladies in turn in order to pick up volumes and pass them on to the next lady on the list over tea. After all most of the script on the borrowing list appears to be from the same hand. I wonder if such reading club activity was ever described in a 19th century novel — surely it must have been.

Clitheroe is a smallish town on the Ribble,  35 miles northwest of Manchester, and no doubt the ladies in the Book Society were mostly supported by agriculture, cotton mills and the professions. Clitheroe Castle is reputed to be one of the smallest Norman keeps in England: a backhanded sort of distinction. I notice there’s a Miss Whalley on the list, while Miss Taylor lower down appears to live in Whalley, which is a village four miles south of the town. That Antiquates describes Clitheroe as being part of Georgian Yorkshire can surely not be right: the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire did jump about a bit in the Forest of Bowland, but surely Clitheroe must always have been well on the red-rose side of the line.

Link via Jeff Peachey.

Coincidence is strange enough. Mathematics is stranger.

Video via David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen. If you don’t see it, click on the title of this blog post so you can view it in your browser. This Shakespeare trick only works if you omit the “Selah” at the end of the Psalm. As nobody seems to know what the word means, maybe omitting it is OK by the bard.

They always do things better elsewhere. In his 2011 Gresham College Lecture John Barrow takes a swipe at us Americans because “There are only three countries in the world that do not use the paper size aspect ratios I have talking about so far, the so-called International Standard, the USA, Canada and Mexico. They use a curious collection of historically somewhat ad hoc paper sizes.”

Here’s a diagram showing the “logical”  International Standard folding down of an A0 sheet (which measures 1 square meter  — but only approximately, as you’ll find if you do the math. But when you stray from the theoretical world of mathematics clunky reality tends to get in the way, like the thickness of the blade making a cut, or the tick mark on a ruler, and the inability of people to hit exactly the same number every time they do a measurement). Superimposed in red in the diagram are American Legal and Letter sizes. But it is true that if you start with an A0 sheet and fold away, you should be able to end up with a tiny 52mm x 74mm A8 bit of paper — in theory you can go on till you reach A10. For those of you who remember being told paper could only be folded six or seven times, think rather of cuts than folds, and view this video of a 13th fold being successfully completed. (Video via Mental Floss.)

(If you don’t see a video here, click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser,)

Now American cut paper sizes are of course not just an ad hoc choice. They are based upon ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standard ANSI/ASME Y14.1, which used Letter size, 8½” x 11″ as its basis. Contrary to what Professor Barrow implies in his lecture God did not include a paper aspect ratio of 1:√2 in his briefing to Moses on Mount Sinai. It may well be neat and nice that A3 and A4 etc. all enjoy a relationship between length and breadth which is based on √2 and can each be derived by cutting their predecessors in half maintaining the same proportional relationship between the long side and the width. But neat and nice is just neat and nice. As Barrow tells us about √2, “This number, famously, is an irrational number, and that fact was discovered by the Ancient Greeks. It was known, supposedly, to the Pythagoreans, and there are stories and legends that the first person to discover it was regarded as an enemy of the people and thrown into the sea because he had unveiled something that was indeed irrational and therefore dangerous to the world of thought.” Clearly we in America have taken care to protect ourselves against that irrationally (if only by adopting a completely different basis of irrationality), and while it may be annoying to the purist that the margins of a document printed on legal paper will change if reduced and printed out on a letter size sheet, it really doesn’t matter in any practical and meaningful sense, does it?

Paper sizes were only standardized in the last quarter of the 20th century. Prior to that they were maintained by custom and convention. Britain’s participation in the International Standard no doubt has something to do with its membership of the EU: maybe they’ll want to get back to good old foolscap again. The reason a sheet of paper is of a certain size originally resulted not from far-sighted papermakers conferring as to what they should do in accordance with some Platonic ideal. The aspect ration, which may or may not have had something to do with the Golden Ratio, was decided upon by each vatman who would make his mould as best suited him. He’d no doubt try to get the biggest sheet out at any one time, and the width would be governed by the extent of his reach with arms stretched wide. The breadth would then follow with considerations of weight and balance coming into the picture. Make it too big and you won’t be able to dip the mould and lift it: make it too small and you’ll get exhausted making handkerchief-sized paper. Who’s to say that the idea of what shape a page should be may not have been influenced by the size of a sheep or a calf, as early papermakers were of course competing with parchment and vellum?

Long before the late 20th century paper sizes for book work had been fixed by the sizes of printing presses. Of course printing press sizes would initially have been influenced by the sizes of paper available. Mutual reinforcement continued until it would became insane to produce paper measuring 26″ x 39″ or a multiple thereof for the American market, where a standard of 25″ x 38″ had evolved.

The Collection is a nice little movie about a collection of 60,000 cuts/blocks for newspaper movie adverts. The story about it appears at Atlas Obscura. You can watch the film here — it’s only 11 minutes long.

(If you don’t see the Vimeo video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.)

I guess it’s good that there are lots of people who are movie enthusiasts: there’d be no market for a collection of old blocks from say Mackays of Chatham or The Cambridge Evening News. In the olden days all printed illustrations used to require this sort of physical object in order for them to be printed — with a raised area to pick up the ink, and recessed areas to “print” white. Most would naturally be rather uncollectible, even if printers had gone to the bother of saving them.

I’m not sure why these would all have ended up at the storage room of their originator, KB Typesetting of Omaha, Nebraska. After all, in order to print from them, the local newspapers around the country would have needed to have the blocks on hand. I guess the blocks would have been mailed out to all the printers from this central address: very few letterpress printers had their own engraving set-up. Can they have been required to return the block after completing printing? I doubt it. I assume that the ones held in inventory were there for the odd late rush order.

If you want to see how such a block was made, please look at the amazing videos at my earlier post, Engraving a halftone block. The functions carried out in the first of these videos would almost certainly have taken place at the movie studio. KB’s involvement would have started at the beginning of the second video with receipt of finished art or negatives from the studio.