Archives for the month of: February, 2021

There’s recently been a bit of correspondence at the SHARP listserv about the diseases affecting printers. (See Printer’s gait, and Printer’s paralysis for the sort of things discussed.)

One response quotes a July 31, 1786 letter from Benjamin Franklin to British physician Benjamin Vaughan:

“In 1724, being in London, I went to work in the Printing-House of Mr. Palmer, Bartholomew Close, as a Compositor. I then found a Practice I had never seen before, of drying a Case of Types, (which are wet in Distribution) by placing it sloping before the Fire. I found this had the additional Advantage, when the Types were not only dry’d but heated, of being confortable to the Hands working over them in cold weather. I therefore sometimes heated my Case when the Types did not want drying. But an old Workman observing it, advis’d me not to do so, telling me I might lose the Use of my Hands by it, as two of our Companions had nearly done, one of whom that us’d to earn his Guinea a Week could not then make more than ten Shillings and the other, who had the Dangles, but Seven and sixpence. This, with a kind of obscure Pain that I had sometimes felt as it were in the Bones of my Hand when working over the Types made very hot, induc’d me to omit the Practice. But talking afterwards with Mr. James, a Letterfounder in the same Close, and asking him if his People, who work’d over the little Furnaces of melted Metal, were not subject to that Disorder; he made light of any Danger from the Effluvia, but ascrib’d it to Particles of the Metal swallow’d with their Food by slovenly Workmen, who went to their Meals after handling the Metal, without well-washing their Fingers, so that some of the metalline Particles were taken off by their Bread and eaten with it. This appear’d to have some Reason in it. But the Pain I had experienc’d made me still afraid of those Effluvia.”

This letter is published in Volume 37 of The Franklin Papers, published by Yale University Press.

I assume the wetness of the types after distribution resulted from washing off the ink.

I wondered what “the Dangles” might be. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t tell. Seems there’s some sort of ice-hockey usage according to Urban Dictionary. There’s also a 1980s rock group. I assume Franklin must be talking about hands hanging useless because of the effects of lead poisoning.

A post at The Briar Press reassures us that lead in its metallic form cannot be absorbed through the skin. So Franklin’s warning is a bit off: the type he was handling couldn’t have been raised to a temperature sufficient to allow “Effluvia”. However, if he had sucked his fingers to keep them warm after handling cold types this might well have lead to trouble. This suggests that heating the type was a good idea. I suppose there might have been a risk of some lead particles floating about in the air, which was probably of pretty poor quality in most workshops. His neighbor Mr James, letterfounder, turns out to have been right: it’s not the “Effluvia” that’ll get you, it’s the “Particles of the Metal swallow’d with their Food by slovenly Workmen”.

Life expectancy among print workers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was in any case short: in 1850 the average age at death of members of The International Typographical Union was 28. Of course at that time average life expectancy wasn’t great: 42 overall, or 57 if you survived childhood.

Covid has been a disaster. But its effects on book publishing finances have been surprisingly benign* as this bar chart shows. Benigner for some categories than for others of course.

A balanced and sensible status report has been issued. COVID-19 and Book Publishing: Impacts and Insights for 2021 by Cliff Guren, Thad McIlroy and Steve Sieck has been reviewed by Mike Shatzkin. You can download a PDF or an ebook at the link to the title. Here’s the Contents list.

Everyone concerned with the book business will benefit from reading this state-of-play report. It’s descriptive rather than prescriptive. Striking, if ultimately unsurprising, is the difference between the effects on various types of business. One constant is that trends which were already at work have been accelerated by the pandemic. We might now say that ordering online has taken over from standing on line. Subscription services have been apparently effortlessly successful. Streaming: good. Physical: OK as long as delivered to your door. Just what higher education is going to look like in the future is hard to discern — beyond the almost inevitable “very different”. Will this affect university presses? Sure; but it may not turn out to be too bad an effect.


* Money, yes; people, no. Many, including my friend, colleague, and neighbor Hector Gonzalez, will be missed for ever.

A block book, as its name suggests — they tended to be rather short, so wouldn’t have appeared like blocks of paper — would be printed from a block, most often wood, but potentially metal, which was carved to leave the areas to be printed black (or more often dark brown) at surface level while the background would be recessed. The entire page, pictures and the text would be carved by hand. In the illustration below the white areas will all have been carved away to leave the outlines to print. (The red lettering was most likely added by hand after printing.) At my recent post on Tarot there’s a picture of a wood block used to print cards.

Block books, and block-printed anything —indulgences, playing cards, calendars, etc. — were the way you would duplicate materials prior to the rapid development of letterpress printing which followed from Gutenberg’s invention of movable metal types. As the examples of block books which have survived all date from after Gutenberg’s breakthrough, the “prior to” in the first sentence might appear redundant, but what’s true of books isn’t true of all printed materials. Actually we have very few survivals anyway, and the older a block book was the less likely we are to have it come down to us. Certainly block printing, which has been shown to exist in China before the 2nd century, has a long history though evidence for its arrival in Europe before the mid-fifteenth century is lacking.

Wood block printing certainly co-existed with early hot metal printing — no new technology immediately displaces its predecessors. After metal types became available it was not uncommon for the text of a “block book” to be printed on a press using metal type after the illustrations had first been printed from a wood block. Eventually of course metal type text and illustrations cut into wood blocks would be locked up together in a single forme and printed together in a single pass through the press.

Because the “impression” was usually applied manually, by rubbing or hammering the paper against the inked block, block books would only be printed on one side of the paper. If you turned the sheet over and rubbed it again, you’d smudge the ink! The blank sides were often glued together when the book was assembled.

The first printed image of a bloodletting man in Europe, which appeared in a calendar printed as a block book in 1474. Joannes Regiomontanus (1436-1476), Calendarium, Nuremberg 1474.

This is the earliest diagram we have giving instruction on bloodletting. It comes from a 66 page block book calendar printed in 1474. Link via The Collation, the Folger Library’s blog. Read the Collation post for an interesting discussion of the science of bloodletting. Most importantly apparently it was important “to avoid bloodletting when the moon was in the sign of the zodiac governing the part of the body to be bled.” The block book shown comes from the Library of Congress.


A horse of a different color is the book block.


Jeff Peachey posted this image yesterday.

Although I’ve not met him, Mr Peachey, a bookbinder and restorer (and a fairly close neighbor) doesn’t look from his photo to be at all lank-haired and crooked-backed. (Roger Payne might better fit the mould. And I dare say the printer and publisher had plenty of models close to hand.) Back then, book manufacturing was a tough business, and took its toll on the bodies of its workers: for examples see my posts Printer’s gait, and Printer’s paralysis. This verse makes the poor bookbinder seem a rather undesirable mate — the writer implies that he’ll never get to kiss his “admirer”. In the last line there has to be a typo surely. “Press to pour chops” doesn’t mean anything to me. The damage to the “p” hints at a more logical “y” where “chops” would take on its meaning of face, cheeks, mouth. Might this represent a last-minute on-press correction: just hammer part of the “p” away to make it look a bit like a “y”?

The image comes from a self-help book for the nervous Valentine composer, Everybody’s Valentine Writer (Newcastle-on-Tyne: Printed and Published by W. R. Walker, ca. 1850). (I suppose the poor bookbinder has to count as one of the “comic Valentines”.) Note the show-through on page 24: You almost think you might be able to decipher “To a Gentleman” on the back of this page. Page 23 may in fact be read at Typelark. The book must have been printed on a pretty thin, absorbent sheet, and have been over-inked significantly — though it is show-through, not offsetting* that we see, as confirmed by the Typelark image of the back-up page, so over-inking may be less of a problem.

When was the Valentine invented? PBS tells us the earliest real Valentine’s cards (hand made) date “from the late 18th century, and they already resemble the modern valentine: frilly verses punctuated with cute pet names like ‘Turtle Dove,’ written on folded paper and decorated with pink and red hearts.” According to History Cooperative “The first commercially printed Valentine’s Day card was produced in 1913 by Hallmark, known as Hall Brothers at that time.” The presses have kept on rolling: apparently more than 150 million are sold each year.


* Offsetting in this context refers to the inadvertent transfer of an image from one sheet to its neighbor, usually as a result of sheets having been stacked before the ink has dried.

Not sure why I should care, but Shelf Awareness for Readers brings us a link to this story from the Inverness Press and Journal about a local bookstore’s discovery of a 110-year-old set of Jane Austen amongst their stock. Maybe the most remarkable aspect of this story is that the set is still traveling together after all those years.

Photo: Leakey’s, 02/02/2021

Here, supported by two local rocks is the title page spread for Sense and Sensibility, Volume I — obviously a fairly lavish layout to require more than one volume for Sense and Sensibility! The set is in twelve volumes. The books were published, as you may see, by John Grant in Edinburgh. The article doesn’t reveal the printer.

The article includes a photo showing Leakey’s Bookshop interior with these books in the foreground. It looks like a great place. Missed it on our only visit to Inverness four years ago. (Strangely, and irrelevantly, Inverness was the first place I ever saw a charging station for electric cars.)

But hang on a minute — my own five-volume set of Austen is 119 years old — and I am not feeling any resentment about my local paper’s failure to write this up! I got it from my aunt, who got it from her godmother and first cousin by marriage once removed (is that really a kinship status?). The books were originally given to godmama Agnes M. Jennings on her 21st birthday in 1904.

My books are smaller format, but are also printed in two colors. In my set the red is used for a box around the title etc. and around the frontispiece engraving facing. It was published by Macmillan which at that time could still set its imprint up as “London: Macmillan and Co., Limited” and then on a separate line “New York: The Macmillan Company”. The books were also printed in Edinburgh, at R. & R. Clarke, Limited, a company from which I had the honor of ordering some work in my early days. The binding is half bound leather, as can be seen at my post of that title. Great great cousin Agnes Jennings wrought a cunning chemise for her books: a picture of which may be found here.

The past may look far off, but it’s actually always closer than we’d think.

What’s the shortest paper ever published in a scholarly journal? Several contenders for the title are shown at Paperpile. (Link via The Digital Reader.) There is a surprisingly large collection of impressive contenders.

I quite liked this one:

Well of course a digital record of a book or document may well be better than no record, but by no means can the two be held to be equivalent. The problem instanced at the end of Jill O’Neill’s Revisiting Nicholson Baker and Retention of Print at The Scholarly Kitchen isn’t (ever?) going to go away.

If you are a librarian you are going to be subject to conflicting forces. Yes, part of you wants to keep everything. And yes, part of you recognizes that funds to build ever more shelving and the buildings to hold it, cannot be infinite. Something’s got to give. Obviously it’s easier just to throw out the books after having scanned them.

Librarians buy many digital books from publishers, often on acrimonious terms which are really still to settle.* Many of these ebooks lack some pretty basic editorial functionality. Reading a straightforward ebook on my iPhone is absolutely fine for me, but as soon as you need too refer to an endnote, look at a table, flick back to that item a few pages earlier, or any other simple navigation task which we’ve been conditioned to find so easy in a printed book, well, then all hell breaks loose. If I wasn’t a fan of Steven Pinker I would have abandoned reading the ebook version of The better angels of our nature. As it was I had to leave aside some of the detailed arguments as they were just too hard to follow (and I don’t mean intellectually). Maybe it’s just that we as readers haven’t gotten comfortable with this navigation, and that as publishers we haven’t yet devised conventions for these sorts of maneuvers in an ebook.

But human nature being what we all know it to be, book publishers are probably never going to get their electronic books into a shape which might provide an equivalent of all the functionality which can be performed by a printed book. Going forward the outlook is a little less dire than looking back to books which were produced before we’d ever dreamed of an ebook. The sets of inadequacies Ms O’Neill discovered in Vintage’s ebook version of Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold are inevitable and probably always going to be unavoidable. The grunts who get to do this sort of work can’t ever be paid enough to care. Thinking through how a book might possibly be used by a reader is something we as an industry have over the past five centuries become pretty good at — the copyeditor is our expert in this area — but our solutions are all print and paper based. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were able to engineer a book to allow for all possible future (or even current) technologies? Sorry, I just don’t think we are clever enough. (Nor, be it admitted, is there any immediate financial incentive to do so. Maybe in the long run we will get to a place where customers might be willing to pay more for a well-engineered ebook than for just an ebook.)

Nevertheless I do have to admit that even a hard-to-navigate digital version of a book is much better than no version. And in terms of the history of the ebook (and of course of the computer) it is still early days.


* Now from Publishers Weekly comes news that publishers are being drawn into an ebook price fixing lawsuit initially targeting Amazon only.

This announcement from Printing Impressions caught my eye. Lay-flat has long been a bit of a bugaboo in the book world. Readers are alleged to want it, though most of us have actually failed to hear the voices and wonder how much extra people might be willing to pay to get it. You can see how something like a lab manual might need to lie open without the pages flipping back in the middle of your experiment so you have to dive for it and spill your beaker of acid all over the book and yourself. We used to deal with this demand by spiral binding or plastic comb binding the things.

Ota-Bind provided a methodology for lay-flat binding. Peleman Industries now introduces a machine, the V Twister Lay-Flat Paper Converter, which by bending a double fold back and forth allegedly breaks down the bonds between fibers in the paper at the fold allowing it to relax in the open position. Sounds good — the proof of course will only be known after someone serves up the pudding. It is an extra step, and unless you can integrate it into your binding line, would interrupt the binding process.

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


Expenditure on reading has again declined. Does this matter?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that for 2019 the average expenditure per household for all forms of entertainment reading (i.e. not textbooks, but including newspapers and magazines) was $92. Might we think that half of that $92 was spent on books? If so, I’d have thought that was a pretty decent sum all things being considered. There appear to have been 132,242 consumer units (what we’d call households) in America in 2019, so half of $92 multiplied by households would come to over $6 million.* Don’t know about you, but I’ll settle for that.

Many see the news as a cause for concern and believe that the publishing industry should do something about it. In a piece by David Rothman at TeleRead Thad McIlroy scolds, “The book publishing industry largely sells to the same well-heeled audience, year after year. The audience increases slightly as additional literate graduates enter the reading world — then declines with the deaths of the heavy-reading seniors.” Yes, yes, traditional book publishing is a mature industry. Might be nice if we could look for mass increases in our customer base, but there are certain barriers to entry — you have to want to read a book, and be able to do so ( — which doesn’t just mean being capable of reading. You’ve got to have a bit of peace and quiet and quite a fair serving of spare time, as well as the wish and ability to concentrate on the task at hand. Plus of course it calls for a bit of surplus income. Would that all these things were more widely distributed in our population.) The overall market for books isn’t infinitely expandable — in fact I suspect we’ve gone about as far as we can go. As (and if) education rates increase, new recruits will be constantly available, but don’t look for leaps and bounds. Obviously we always have to be ready for “the deaths of the heavy-reading seniors”.

What isn’t at all clear is whether the $92 cited by the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes sales of self-published and indie-published books — I bet it doesn’t, as I don’t think there’s any real way to discover these numbers. Also the figures have, obviously, got to leave out of account reading of library books, borrowed books, found books, second-hand books, books you’ve owned for years and so on. They are reporting expenditures after all.

It’s always fun to have a go at publishing. It’s something you care about and it looks so inviting. But what is your target? What is publishing? When you address it there’s nobody there to hear. Publishing is made up of lots of individual companies, and each of these companies is made up of lots of different individual people. There’s no collective entity which can agree or disagree with your wish that publishing should do more market outreach, and thus no entity that can do anything about it. Does Mr McIlroy really think that Random House, The University of Chicago Press, The New Press, The American Chemical Society ,and so on should be spending money on outreach to non-readers? Why would they not focus their marketing expenditures on people who they think might e likely to buy their product. Industry associations do do a little outreach: Get Caught Reading still exists, though such initiatives really just end up preaching to the choir.

We’ll have to wait a year or so to get the 2020 numbers, but we all anticipate, don’t we, that expenditure on entertainment reading will have increased during our year of coronavirus?


* Oops. As all too frequently my grasp of large numbers manifests itself as a problem. As David Rothman gently points out in a comment “You need to add some zeros to when you talk about “132,242 consumer units” in the US. The correct number would be 132,242,000. Times $46, that would be $6.07 billion.” A somewhat bigger number! I once had a boss who used to tell me ” Don’t tell me it’s a large number of dollars — give me the number”.

Research needs to be made widely available. The methods we use to make research widely and freely available tend to turn it into dross.

Plagiarism Today weighs in on the paradox of Open Access vs Traditional Publishing. Pick your poison they conclude.

Academic publishing is, as its name implies, part of the academic community. We produce books for students to learn from, and, at the other end of the university pipeline, print the results of research so that frontiers of knowledge can be pushed a little bit further into no-man’s-land. Governments seem to love to chop the sausage up differently, but you can’t (or shouldn’t want to) separate teaching from researching. After all tomorrow’s researchers need to come from somewhere. And research needs to be published, accurately and ideally quickly, otherwise it remains as private musing. Instead of rewarding business initiatives coming out of research labs we ought to be concentrating on maintaining the links between writing up research and publishing it. It all costs money.

The idea of everything just being slapped unedited and unsorted onto a website would certainly solve the economic problem, but it doesn’t take a researcher to see that the resultant mass of words would be very hard to deal with. With so much research being done how is a grad student to know which bits are any good. Used to be you could count on anything coming from University Press A if you were in this subject, and anything fro University Press B if in that one. Gatekeeper has become a pejorative word: but a gatekeeper who lets everything pass in is not doing the job — some items deserve not to be allowed in. If everything is there with no critical discrimination brought to bear, then the entire corpus suffers a repetitional blow. The more you can’t trust in individual papers the less you will be able to trust the entire collection.

So much discussion of these access issues degenerates into bitching about Elsevier’s profits. It is entirely possible isn’t it, that Elsevier might be making excessive profits off the current system (I don’t want to get into whether they are or not) without that having to mean that the current system is no good and has to be replaced?* Subscribing to an academic journal, especially in the sciences, is expensive. This is not because rapacious publishers are rent farming, it’s because providing complex material to a small audience is inherently expensive. You can’t really expect The Journal of Fluid Mechanics to publish articles which might make it appeal to, say, the weekend fisherman, thus perhaps enabling it to print more copies and thus reduce its subscription price. If you need The Journal of Fluid Mechanics, you need it; if you don’t, there’s nothing that’ll make you spend anything to get it. As disciplines split into ever narrower specialisms (a force built into the very structure of academic research) so the number of people interested in any one journal declines. How to publishers cope? The only way they can — by raising prices. You can be fairly sure that the thought of laying off that lone journals assistant has been and is constantly being considered.

Open Access, by seeking to establish a similar system online just takes the problem and turns it on its head. People have to pay too much to buy the journal? Here’s an idea — make the authors pay to have their research published, and the subscription price can become zero. But this just shifts the problem from one place to another. Rather than having libaries pay huge subscriptions, we will now make research funding organizations kick in a bit extra to cover the costs of publication. The total cost to society remains the same — maybe a little more because of unemployment payments for a few publishers — but really nothing much has changed.

Maybe the traditional way of publishing academic research wasn’t the best we might devise, but just changing the paymaster doesn’t affect the system. We need to fund research. We need to make sure researchers write up their research. We need to educate them in the first place. We need to publish their research in a form which makes the information clearly available (this is called editing) and in some way which signals its importance relative to other research reports. Seems like a plan which shouldn’t be beyond the skills of some research group. Personally I think the method we have evolved is actually pretty successful. Instead of tinkering with online ideas, just keep what we have while we see if we can devise anything better. Many Open Access sites have made progress towards such a system: maybe that will end up being the way — but no-one should think that means that it’s free.


* On the subject of rapacious publishers we should bear in mind that many academic journals are published by learned societies. Many of these subsidize the cost of producing their journal, and membership dues, which may include a subscription to the journal, might also be seen as a sort of subsidy.