Dard Hunter

Tony Sanfilippo is down in the dumps. A meaningful visit to Dard Hunter’s* home in Chillicothe has gotten him ruminating on the rarity of beauty in today’s book output. He gives us an account of his visit at The Scholarly Kitchen, and enters into a spiral of despair culminating in his wondering if each book his Ohio State University Press produces won’t in fact be the last physical book they ever do.

No question running a university press is a hard row to harrow these days. Unit sales keep on going down; libraries are no longer the guaranteed market they once were; funding is scarce; costs escalate. Eppur se muove. Courage! I really don’t think things are terminal.

There are basically two things at work in Mr Sanfilippo’s piece: the problem of lost beauty, and the problem of lost sales. It was undoubtedly a very satisfying life working for a university press in the days when we could still afford to make books “properly” in the traditional fine-bookmaking manner. Although throughout my university press career I worked sedulously to get costs down and to expedite schedules, I was never thanked for getting a book in early, or below budget. Once or twice though I was lucky enough to get congratulations from on high: such encomia were always related to thanks for making such a handsome book. This always struck me as quaintly out-of-date. I had always been reluctant to submit our books to those shows where the books are judged on physical appearance, aesthetics, and production quality; (for example the shows organized by BIGNY and AUP.) I just didn’t regard that as what we were in business to do.

People who work in publishing are book people. Book people like a well-made book. Even though the bosses of bosses may insist you trash the specs in order to increase the margin, we could never close our hearts to the siren-call of the good. I remember being begged by a publisher to print a particular book on a particular paper, doing which would have involved a special purchase at a specially high price. This I refused to do. The publisher started weeping; and of course I bought the paper. The company didn’t go bankrupt — well it sort of did eventually, but that was for a whole bunch of different reasons.

We all want to be able to be proud of what we have produced. But, in the cool gaze of reality, our pride has to be refocussed onto the content and the sales of our books. Because it is difficult to run a university press these days. Every penny saved is a contribution to the dyke protecting us from the rough seas out there. If our customers are not insisting on beauty, or even a moderately well-made book, then making such a thing for them is just irresponsible.

And just because the university press, or any traditional publisher, is not giving the world a well-made book, this is no reason to despair that the well-made book will vanish from our lives. In hard times, and these are rather hard times for book publishers, lots of people lose their jobs. One or two of these will turn out to be the Dard Hunters of the future. There are indeed people, other than the odd disappointed publisher, who value a well-made book, and are willing to pay for a few. Just because trade publishers (or most book publishers) are unable to give them this does not mean that it can’t be had.

So, bite the bullet, make your POD books, and don’t spend too long examining the product.† If your customers object to the trimming of a few pages, reflect that in order to discover this flaw they have to have bought the book. Books are needed because they convey information: nice to convey it in a handsome physical form, but ultimately irrelevant to the communication process.

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* Dard Hunter (1883-1966) was primarily a papermaker, but he mastered and practiced all phases of book manufacturing. The books published by his Mountain House Press are “believed to be the first American ‘one person’ books, meaning one person did everything: made all the paper for the edition; designed, cast, and set all the type; created every illustration and ornament; every punch, plate, die-cut, and embossment; wrote the book; laid out the book . . .”

† And be it noted, production flaws of the sort Mr Sanfilippo instances are no more likely in a print-on-demand book that they are in any book. I suspect we just go looking for them more assiduously.