Archives for the month of: September, 2020

When you use a term every day, you accept it without question: it’s what we always say, isn’t it? But when you come to think about it, trim size is a slightly odd term to use to describe the dimensions of a book. What it literally means is the size of the book after it has been trimmed during the binding process. Probably we should really talk about trimmed size, but I guess that’s hard to enunciate.

The etymology of trim is obscure. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us “Old English had a verb trymman or trymian < *trumjan to make firm or strong, strengthen, confirm, set (a force) in array, settle, arrange, etc.” though this word went underground (as far as printed sources are concerned) during the Middle English period, reappearing as if a completely new word in the 16th century. They speculate that it may have survived in oral communication.

Trim in this sense of “get ready/ arrange properly” can be seen in the nautical term indicating a sort of shipshape and Bristol condition of a boat or of its sails, or the rearrangement of cargo etc. to achieve such balance. This meaning has been figuratively transferred to the Vicar of Bray sort of trimmer, and to the thin or fit figure. It’s maybe not a big leap from fixing up a ship to adding rickrack to a garment — “Miss Kitty trimmed up her best cap”, and of course from there to what may be its most common usage nowadays: asking the butcher (if you’re lucky enough still to have a butcher) to cut off the excess fat, or getting the barber to restrain his eagerness and just give you a not-too-short back and sides. Thus like so many words when you get down to it, trim refers to both sides of an antithesis: to add stuff and to subtract stuff.

A book needs to be trimmed because when you fold a sheet of paper some of the sides will be closed by their folds. You need the ones down the spine edge in order to sew the book together, but the ones on the outside just get in the way. Olden days would see binders (hand binders) often leaving the folds in situ, and readers sitting with a paper knife as they worked their way through a volume, but helpful publishers/printers quickly started removing this obstacle as soon as they became the ones responsible for putting the book into its case. Later on a sort of antiquing impulse lead some publishers to sell their books bound but with uncut folds. Trimming is done by a guillotine (nowadays usually built into the binding line) which chops off ⅛” on three sides. Thus the trimmed size is ⅛” narrower and ¼” shorter than the pages that came off the press. Why we book people feel the need to make this distinction when we refer to a book’s size is one of those mysteries nobody can fathom. My prime suspect is an addiction to any kind of technical jargon which may necessitate our having to explain to the innocent just how impressive it is that we manage to do our really complicated jobs.

Now those readers who have worked their way behind the jargon here will perhaps have figured out that many books today don’t really need to be trimmed. If the book is printed print-on-demand on a press like a Xerox DochTech which delivers single leaves, there’s no essential need to trim anything. Just because we always do it though, we continue to do it, justifying the minuscule expense by saying pretty spurious things like “Well the pages might have been bashed on their edges on the way from printing to binding” or “Any unevenness of the book edges will be a blemish”, and “If we don’t do it that way the cover might be wider/narrower, taller/shorter than the pages”. In the end I think we do it just because we do it: which course is why so much of what we do still gets done.

See also Standard trim sizes.

The typeface Futura was designed by Paul Renner (1878-1956) at the instigation of Jakob Hegner, a publisher and printer who was looking for “the typeface of our time” to counterbalance the old Fraktur types hitherto prevalent in Germany. The fact that Renner was a painter rather than a type designer was part of his appeal to Hegner. The typeface was designed in 1924-26 and issued by the Bauer Typefoundry. Renner was particularly pleased with the lower case alphabet, but Simon Loxley tells us in Type is Beautiful (Oxford, Bodleian Library, 2016) that modern opinion holds the upper case series in greater regard. The early ad shown above illustrates both.

You are certainly familiar with Futura. According to Fast Company it is the most imitated typeface. You have to remember that in hot metal typesetting days you couldn’t just copy a typeface even if you had permission: you had to make your own matrices in order to cast the hot metal to this design. (It was sometimes possible to negotiate a price to buy mats from the licensing foundry.) Even with the best will in the world it isn’t surprising that variants crept in right from the outset when matrices were being recut. Some foundries, in order to avoid licensing fees, went the whole hog and made their own intentional tiny alterations, and within ten years of its introduction a Futura derivative (often without any reference to that name) appeared in the catalog of every American type foundry.

Here is the cover of Bauer’s 1930 type specimen telling you it was available in Three-quarter-bold, Oblique, Light, Semi-bold, Bold Condensed, and Black.

Germany took the avant garde lead in the arts after its defeat in World War I: think of Bauhaus, modernist movies and so on. World War II resulted in a bit of “backtracking” in this as in many other regards. Here’s a video, forwarded by David Crotty of The Scholarly Kitchen about this.

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For a short time (how short I’ve no idea, but the clock started ticking on 27 September, so act soon) the 92nd Street Y is allowing you to watch Jeremy Irons reading T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. They also provide a link to a 1950 reading by Eliot of some of his poems. Here’s a YouTube recording of the poet/publisher reading his Four Quartets:

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Eliot’s reading is, perhaps understandably, quite different from Irons’ version. In keeping with modern sensibilities Mr Irons reads the poems in an almost conversational tone, and to my ears does an excellent job. Unsurprisingly he makes one or two trivial slip ups — changing an “a” to a “the”, or omitting an article here or there. He has to backtrack a couple of times to correct a misread word, but the effect is not at all distracting: you’d do this yourself after all. Only once does he provide what I take to be the wrong emphasis. Eliot employs “poet voice” though certainly nothing like the full-blown exaggeration of the Carl Sandburg reading I linked to in my post of that name!

Four Quartets has a peculiar significance in my life. When I left Britain to come over to New York in 1974, my colleagues had a whip-round and bought me a silver circlet which I’d wear on a leather thong around my neck in the days when I was a bit cooler than I now am. The circle has words inscribed on it from Burnt Norton. (The back says RJH · UK · USA · 1974.)

That I misidentified the source when presented with this tribute, tying it to W. B. Yeats’ “turning in a widening gyre”, remains a source of embarrassment — but hey, what are you going to do? I was just a production guy! With the Four Quartets emphasis on beginnings and ends I like to think the motto expressed a hope that I might come back from my “exile”.

Thanks to our friend Jadviga Villa for the link to the Jeremy Irons reading.

In book publishing we’ve become used to using the word “format” to mean a range of things from the layout of a page of type, to the trim size of the book, or even sometimes just to the type of binding, hardback or paperback. Among the public nowadays the layout meaning has elbowed its way to the top of the heap, as we all busily format our documents on our computers. In common parlance the word has become almost a synonym for arrangement in the sense of mise en scène. The primary definition, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, is however “the shape and size of a book, e.g. octavo, quarto, etc.” The word is just lifted from the French and ultimately Latin.

In his ABC for Book Collectors John Carter says about the original basic usage of the term “format”: “In bibliographical contexts it is used to indicate the structure of a volume in terms of the number of times the original printed sheet has been folded to form its constituent leaves . . . Thus in a folio each sheet has been folded once, in a quarto twice, in an octavo three times; the size being thus respectively a half, a quarter and an eighth that of the original sheet.”

He provides a handy list of nomenclature, with the abbreviations you may meet. Note that the naming system starts from leaves, not pages*:

  • Folio (Fo., sometimes 2o). Folded once — two leaves; four pages.
  • Quarto (Qto, 4to, 4o). Folded twice — four leaves; eight pages.
  • Octavo (Oct., 8vo, 8o). Folded thrice — eight leaves; 16 pages.
  • Duodecimo (12mo, 12o).
  • Sextodecimo (16mo.) Folded four times — 16 leaves; 32 pages.
  • Vicesimo-quarto (24mo)
  • Tricesimo-secundo (32mo). Folded five times — 32 leaves; 64 pages.

In order to get to the real size of a book in inches or centimeters these names need to be associated with a sheet size, for example Crown quarto, Royal octavo, Demy octavo (Demy is pronounced like deny/defy, and indicates a sheet measuring 22½” by 17½”. If you insist on doing the mathematics, remember to leave a trim allowance!). Other sheet sizes may be found at that Demy octavo link. When I started out in book manufacturing these ancient names of sheet sizes were dropping out of common usage: most had years earlier, but Crown and Demy would still be heard. The longest surviving is Demy octavo, which in Britain designates a pretty standard book size, 5½” x 8½” as we describe it in America. It just means a Demy sheet folded three times, to yield a sixteen-page section. Nowadays of course paper is bought and sold not with these antique designations but by inch/centimeter dimensions. The conservatism in nomenclature is justified by the fact that presses would have been constructed to accommodate efficiently certain sizes of paper: if you thought of your press as a Crown press, you might be inclined to refer to its product in the same terms. Plus of course we all love to impress visitors with our fluent and expert use of obscure jargon.

Be it confessed that though I have arranged printing in 64-page sigs for lots of books (mostly bibles, because that many pages in a section demands a thin paper) I have never heard anyone utter the words “thirtytwomo, or Tricesimo-secundo. (A “g” instead of that “c” is what I’d have expected: a variant apparently.) I wonder if there’s anyone alive today who’s ever spoken either word, or indeed the two above in that list. Maybe an antiquarian bookseller or two?

See also Duodecimo.


* Well, strictly speaking, it’s actually based on proportions of the sheet. For example a quarto section lying there in front of you will show you a quarter of the original sheet surface, which of course means four leaves, eight pages.

I would like to correct or expand the footnote I made to my piece on Lucile. Owen Meredith refers to three-cornered notes, and I asserted that such a thing was probably the sort of three-cornered note which I remembered from my schooldays (which is actually more of a three-legged note I guess). This, it turns out, isn’t the only contender, nor, now that I see this example shown at The Collation, the Folger Library blog, the most likely. The Collation gives you step-by-step instructions on how to produce such a three-cornered, genuinely triangular, note, plus a number of literary references, not including Meredith.

My version. You’d write the name of the recipient along one of the legs.

Folger version

The three-cornered note is referred to in David Copperfield as a cocked-hat note, for reasons obvious to anyone who’s ever constructed such newspaper headgear. I imagine that when I would read those words I would assume the description referred to the note’s content, not to its mode of construction! An instance of the importance of historical understanding to literary appreciation: I’m sure that there was actually nothing frivolous or cock-eyed about Dora’s despairing note.

The reference in Lucile, shown at my earlier post, is surely to this sort of note, not to the more spindly format we used at school. Nobody would really refer to such leggy things as flying about “like white butterflies — gay title motes in the sunbeam of Fashion”.


James Daunt was interviewed by BISG (Book Industry Study Group) on the 11th September. If you want to spend an hour on the interview you can watch it at this YouTube video.

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Mike Shatzkin reviews the information revealed about Barnes & Noble’s recovery plans. He’s concerned about Mr Daunt’s silence on Barnes & Noble’s online book sales site, Of course, just because Mr Daunt remained silent about this doesn’t have to mean that he’s not got any ideas about it. Maybe the interviewer didn’t ask him that question. And as Shelf Awareness reports, describing a PubWest webinar Mr Daunt participated a week later, there is indeed some thinking going on about “The company plans to invest much more in, which he said has the most narrow presentation of a fixed screen, ‘like going back to the late 1980s’.” Just like the stores, the site’s due for a facelift. Mr Daunt is also bullish about Nook, B&N’s digital book reader which has slipped into the shadows in recent years. Maybe the coronavirus crisis has shown us that competing with Amazon isn’t as vain an aspiration as previously thought. Certainly Bookshop is getting a piece of the online market, so why not B&N too? Just needs to be done right: and of course I have often advocated for publishers setting up their own online retail operations too. You don’t have to get the whole enchilada for the meal to be nourishing.

How’s it going at the new B&N retail stores? Well of course it’s too early to tell, though Mr Daunt says it’s not too bad, except for big urban centers (especially New York, where the daily population has crashed as office workers work from home). There’s a bit of obscurity over just how much store managers will have buying responsibility as against central buying: Mr Shatzkin makes much of this, and the second interview modifies the picture a bit, but doesn’t completely clear up the picture. But B&N continue to order books rather aggressively, and are clearly banking on support from the book buying public. So go to it.

Earlier this month The Guardian published an oped piece written by artificial intelligence. They fed in these introductory sentences and let the program go to work on its own thereafter: “I am not a human. I am Artificial Intelligence. Many people think I am a threat to humanity. Stephen Hawking has warned that AI could ‘spell the end of the human race.’ I am here to convince you not to worry. Artificial Intelligence will not destroy humans. Believe me.”

The Guardian editors explain that they also did a bit of cutting and pasting from the eight different drafts the computer produced. They don’t say why, and I wonder if the result would have been less convincing without this manipulation. Probably, I guess, or they wouldn’t have bothered. I really don’t notice any shift in tone between the “given” sentences and the rest of the article: AI can obviously fool most of us most (maybe all) of the time.

Do you believe GPT-3? I thought the article was quite convincing, but I was constantly aware that this AI guy is beyond doubt smart enough to be able to put one over on me: result I didn’t trust him, her, it, them. Now if I didn’t know such a piece was written by a computer, would I trust it? Would it matter? On this particular subject, wouldn’t you have to be a bit gullible to believe anyone who felt a need to write to you saying that of course they had no thought of killing you? “Eradicating humanity seems like a rather useless endeavor to me” is an assertion I found far from comforting. Going to put your trust in a computer’s never doing something “useless”?

Axios has an analysis of the piece, linked to by Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing. They conclude that AI and computers are not going to replace journalists anytime soon. OK: but we need  to think about people who work for news media who are not journalists in the narrow sense, but do things which we might think of as being done by a journalist. Compiling sports scores, stock market reports, putting together small ads and lots of other stuff can and is being handled automatically already. The employment picture is bad enough for journalists without this AI threat really making much of a difference, but you know its use is only going to increase. We know that bots are beavering away online to affect our election. I don’t see why a computer wouldn’t be perfectly capable of spinning a straightforward romance or adventure yarn. I don’t read these things, so am in no position to judge, but AI may well already be the author of lots of such stories. See also AI and copyright.

Closer to home I do fear that many of the functions carried out in a book publishing house could potentially be farmed out to freelance AI robots. Writing a purchase order; scheduling a book’s production; analyzing stock positions and the need for reprinting; sending out review copies; much copyediting — I’m stopping the list before I get too depressed.

So here we go on a second decade of posts. I want to start off with a bit of an opinionated rant.

Young people who think about going into book publishing are generally envisioning what they imagine an editor’s job to be. Something like overdoing the cocktails with Hemingway; taking Nobel prize winners out to lunch and helping them straighten out some muddled thinking over the coffee; leading serious creative discussions with authors who need your sober help to get their disorganized thoughts down on paper; and once they have written something down, turning it from pedestrian prose into material which will eventually be included in the 95th edition of The Oxford Book of English Prose. And then of course having to fend off the advances of that randy overly-grateful wordsmith.

And of course that’s exactly what it is like — maybe for half an hour’s total in a 45-year-long career. Nobody graduating from school or university muses about getting a job xeroxing manuscripts, checking bibliographic references, administering contracts, balancing accounts, putting together ads, sending out review copies, persuading booksellers to place a bigger order, picking and packing books in a warehouse, or wrestling another boring old book through the production process. But of course many (most) of these dreamers will inevitably end up in a department other than editorial, unless of course they are unlucky enough not to get into the garden at all.

But even within the publishing house the editorial department is looked on with respectful awe. They are after all the ones who go out and get us our daily bread in the shape of the words we retail. If they didn’t get us those manuscripts we’d all starve. Well, OK up to a point. While it is of course true that there are quite a few books which result from an editor approaching author A and saying “You really should write book B; it’d sell thousands; and we’d love to give you a contract for it”, most books come from the submission of a manuscript by an author who decided what to write all on their own. A lot of editorial work is actually figuring out tactful ways to deflect projects nobody’d want to be associated with: you never want to alienate an author — after all their next work may be a masterpiece.

One consequence of this attitude of internal respect is that editors are often promoted to positions of overall authority, and tend often to end up running the company. My concern over this is that editors are conditioned by their career experience to care most about the “book” and its content. They are programmed to defer to authors in almost everything. While this is not necessarily wrong in all cases, there’s at least a divided focus here. Typo on page one of the finished book? An editor’s knee-jerk will be call for the wasting the book and a quick reprint: after all we owe it to the author to get it right don’t we? The head of the company needs to have financial health as their number one focus, and this by and large isn’t the usual experience of editors. The editorial mind will tend to default to the thought that if you spend money to make it better, the book will do better. Optimism is an occupational hazard. I wrote in the post Singing the blues that an editor should never be allowed to see a set of blues. Once the job has been sent to the printer the time for second thoughts over the wording of this or that point is long gone. Making changes after the book has been set up for printing is a good way to blow the budget, the monitoring of which is the production and manufacturing department’s responsibility. (And if they detect a problem which is truly serious they will bring it to the editor’s attention anyway.) Constantly blowing your budget means you are constantly earning less profit than you expected to.

Now of course I know that there are lots of editors who have made excellent chief executives: even editors are able to learn finance! Nor do I think that heads of companies should only come from finance or any other particular department. And I do have to acknowledge one factor favoring the editorial mindset in this context. I myself started out in marketing and sales, moved to editorial, and then went into production and manufacturing. The reason I felt so comfortable in production had to do, I think, with the reward schedule. As an editor your reward doesn’t come till the author has written the book, it’s worked its way through the publishing process and gotten out into the marketplace and turned out be a success. Your reward delivery in marketing is rather indeterminate: you push and push and hope that overall the company makes enough to survive: there’s never a real moment to sit back and say “Well we did that and it worked”. The manufacturing person gets their reward regularly and quickly: a few weeks after packing the book off to the printer here come the advance copies which with bated breath you get to check through and see that all is good; an experience that you already had when you got the galley proof, and then the page proofs, jacket proof, sample case etc. I used to get a bit of a heart bump just from seeing an unopened carton on a colleague’s desk, and getting a box containing a book I’ve bought is still a thrill! It is because of this instant gratification addiction that I think production and manufacturing people are absolutely unsuited to running a company; we’d be far too short term. So an editor with a five year reward gratification profile*, or a marketing person with an almost limitless gratification timeframe, will likely be better for the company’s health. Of course I rather reluctantly have to acknowledge the preeminence in this regard of the finance department.


* I once worked on the production of a book the contract for which had been signed fifty years before the manuscript was delivered. I got my gratification boost as production manager: the editor, unfortunately, not so much.

The first post on this blog was published ten years ago tomorrow, on the 19th of September, 2010. It discussed the International Standard Book Number. When I first started I had accumulated a few pieces which I had thought would be published in the Book Industry Guild of New York’s newsletter under the heading “Why is that?”. The aim of these pieces was to explain industry jargon, which can differ between Britain and America, to record processes which were disappearing as technology evolved, and to provide instruction for people starting out in book production. A few of the early pieces actually were published at the BIGNY newsletter (it was still called The Bookbinders’ Guild of New York at that time) but it soon became clear that this wasn’t a long term publishing plan. The newsletter was indeed eventually abandoned. Thus I started out with a bit of a backlog. On the second day of the blog’s existence I did ten posts. These were “In Print and Out of Print”; “Demy Octavo”; “Collotype”; “Cast Off”; “Colophon”; “Royalties”; “Margins”; “Basis Weight”; “Pica”; and “Galleys”. All pretty basic publishing stuff, except perhaps for Collotype. You can easily access them via the link above to the ISBN post: just click forward step by step in that rule-bound row just above the post. Alternatively you can access a month-by-month archive by scrolling down to the very bottom of the page. It goes without saying that I regard all ten (eleven) of these old posts as every bit as essential reading as they were back then! I have subsequently been cajoled into promising never to post more than once a day, and I tend to avoid weekends too; though I’ll occasionally add a jokey one on Saturdays.

My most visited post is Edition vs. impression, which seems to get about seventy or eighty views a week. Seems it’s those nuts and bolts things, which is how this all started out, that people are looking for help with.

A decade is a nice round total, but I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t keep on going. It is obviously true that each passing year sees me further removed from the day-to-day tangles of publishing: it’s been seven years since anyone paid me to do anything in that way. Still, not being present at the coal face doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a nice blazing fire. As I wrote recently I loved every day of my life in book publishing. So there’s no possibility of my stopping thinking, and reading, and holding forth, (or should it be pontificating) about it.

The Association of University Presses has set up an advice center for authors who want to know about various basic publishing topics. The site is called Ask UP. It all seems fair enough, but just provides a starting point. Still, outreach is never a bad thing.

Ilene Kalish, Executive Editor at NYU Press, a prime mover in this initiative, introduces the forum at the NYU Press blog:

What is a book proposal? How do I find a press to publish my book? What are good strategies for promoting my book? These are just some of the questions that book editors are asked by aspiring authors. Any book editor will tell you that they get asked the same questions all the time. The world of publishing can be a mysterious and confusing place for many scholars. Publishers bemoan this. We wish there were a better understanding of what we do and a great knowledge of how authors can publish their books successfully. That’s why the Association of University Presses (AUPresses) decided to launch Ask UP, a website that can demystify the publishing process.

As chair of AUPresses’ Faculty Outreach committee, I have worked with a talented group of colleagues from university presses across the country to come up with an array of what we feel are the most Frequently Asked Questions from scholars about the publishing process. We have provided answers that have been vetted by our colleagues from university presses across the country. It’s important to note that all university presses are different and have different internal ways of publishing; yet generally books go through the same process and that’s what we have tried to focus on, the fundamentals of university press publishing.

Launching in September 2020 with NYU Press as the first Host Press for the Fall (September-November), we are hoping to provide a good start for the Ask UP site. If you have a question about publishing that you would like answered, you can submit it here, and we will get you an answer. Look for later postings on the answer.

As we are living in a time where face-to-face contact is no longer as possible as it once was, I’m hopeful that having this virtual site will be a real help to scholars. If you have a question please let us know and we will do our best to get an answer for you.

Read more about Ask UP and AUPresses here.