Archives for the month of: February, 2021

These two tarot cards, ten swords left, Emperor right, measure 4¾” x 2½”, quite similar to the size of a modern pack of cards. They were found in the binding of a book in the Folger Library collection, a 1673 edition of Vincent Reboul’s Le Pelerinage de S. Maximin. Before bookbinding became standardized as something the publisher did for you it was quite common to use waste paper as binding reinforcement materials. Playing cards were usually printed on a fairly substantial bit of paper and would be ideal for case linings.

The Folger Library blog The Collation, in a post entitled Fortune’s Fools, brings us their story along with a brief run-down of the structure of a tarot pack. The cards were printed from a woodblock — here’s an example from the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s collection. (The bits to print black are left at surface height and the rest is cut away.)

Early cards are assumed to have been made entirely by hand. I wonder. Playing cards reached Europe by way of the Middle East, most likely from Egypt. The first documented packs in Europe date from 1440 and 1450 — but I don’t know how they were manufactured. Printing from carved wooden blocks was well established in Europe before Gutenberg’s development of movable metal types — he merely took over the use of the printing press which was already well established. His Bible was printed in the early 1450s. Maybe playing cards were the vector pushing the popularity of the printing press? I wouldn’t be amazed if playing cards arrived in Europe accompanied by the knowledge of how to print them from woodblocks, maybe even accompanied by a woodblock or two — the technology is known to have existed in Egypt in the tenth century: it appears to have originated in China prior to the second century. In fact Gutenberg is known to have been associated with the Master of the Playing Cards, at whose works he learned about the engraving of copper blocks which were used as the Master’s title implies for cards among other things. I would speculate that the black outlines of early playing cards would have been printed from a block, first wood then metal (you could take an image by rubbing or hammering, not just by pressure in a press) and then colored by hand.

It’s no secret, though I didn’t know it, that tarot cards didn’t start out with the mysterious, fortune-telling aura they rejoice in today. They were originally used to play a game, often called trionfitarot in France. (Trionfi can be detected as the origin of the word trumps.) The games may have started in the fourteenth or fifteenth century but the card pack didn’t acquire its divinatory role till the eighteenth century. The local tarot card design, Tarot de Marseille, has become the standard. St Maximin, the subject of the book referenced at the top was of special significance in Marseille. Indeed as The Collation tells us “The book was printed in Marseille, written by a Marseille author, and focuses on three saints (Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Lazare, and Saint Maximin) with a special connection to a holy grotto (Saint Baume) just outside of the city.”

In a vaguely related coincidence comes this story from Printing Impressions telling us R. R. Donnelley is increasing its capacity to serve the needs of game and trading card publishers. Apparently being locked up at home has prompted many to sort their trading card collections. Have tarot readings increased too? I bet they have.

This news comes at the same time as we are being told that LSC (formerly part of R. R. Donnelley) is closing its Spartanburg,SC catalog plant. Last fall LSC had already announced the closure of its Kendallville IN book plant. Times are tough in the book manufacturing world.


May not be your cup of tea (nor mine) but fan fiction is wildly popular. So popular that Vice’s Motherboard tells us that users crashed one of the main sites, Archive of our own recently. (Link via Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing.) Apparently fan-fic has been becoming more and more popular all through 2020. Will this end up being one of these lockdown trends which turn into a permanent feature of our lives? Like maybe remote working, Zoom meetings, grocery deliveries and mask-wearing?

The Passive Voice shared a link to Self-Publishing Advice Center about choosing typefaces which would be easier for dyslexics to read. Seems a larger sans serif face, well leaded, on cream paper is best: the article’s link to The British Dyslexia Foundation‘s style guide no longer works, as the guide has been revised. It may now be found here.

According to the article 10% of the people in Britain are dyslexic. Presumably the ebook format provides a bit of help, enabling you to select from (a few) typefaces and make your text larger. The author of the article, thriller writer A. A. Abbott, is producing dyslexic-friendly editions of all of her books. It does seem that we have finally accepted the reality of this condition, and are providing appropriate government help to those thus challenged. Should publishers be doing more?

What Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes is all pretty sensible, but at an early corner in this outing she almost drives over the edge and reveals her built-in anti-traditional-publishing bias.

To be fair it is difficult to say much about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing sales. Not all “traditional” publishers report sales to the traditional information-gathering sources, and all anyone has to go on with self-publishing sales tends to be anecdote. Amazon, the biggest retailer remains mum. We all assume (on the basis of anecdote) that the large majority of sales of self-published books is in ebook format. This has always been the case, and it makes sense — it’s obviously easier for self publishers to supply their product in digital form only thus avoiding having to mail out physical objects from a large inventory stored in their spare bedroom. Their customers seem fine with this, and we all think it great that this kind of service exists. We all, I think, assume that total unit sales by self publishers are larger than traditional publishing sales. However beyond the possibility of trolling for new authors, I believe that the traditional book publishing industry pretty much ignores self publishing. It’s really a totally different business. It is interesting, as Ms Rausch points out, that Bertelsmann is including some guesstimate about self-publishing sales in order to make their Simon & Schuster takeover look less of a monopolistic threat.

Ms Rusch’s assertion that the traditional publishing industry “did everything it could to destroy the ebook format” is patent nonsense. A person might think that publishers’ actions are wrong, even stupid, but they would just be “wrong, even stupid” if they concluded from that that there is some sort of conspiracy to stamp out ebooks or even to stunt their growth. Book publishing may not be a business to attract the top financial talents, but we do tend to know that selling another copy of one of our books in any format whatsoever is a “good thing”. If people want an ebook we are delighted to sell them an ebook (on terms which we determine, of course). If people want a hardback; ditto; paperback; again ditto. Ebooks are not the wondrous panacea to the traditional publisher that they represent for self publishers. For us they represent just another format.

In my recent post about ebook downloads from libraries I warned about over-interpretation of the data; a trap Ms Rausch fails to avoid. It does seem likely that our coronavirus experiences will bring about some significant changes in our business environment. Remote working looks like a likely candidate, and there’s a danger that the independent bookstore might also fall victim. The way a trade book is published has changed: less of a day one bump, more of a sustained roll out. If bookstores become less common this trend might become permanent. But any big change from print to ebook format seems unlikely to me. It is true I used to have a colleague who only wanted to own paperback books, regarding hardbacks as cumbersome. (He also expressed a preference for cylindrical food.) I offered myself up as a Jack Sprat partner: happy to have all the hardbacks. Although he was a publisher in an executive position nobody however thought of this preference as a policy to “destroy the hardback format”. I can’t imagine that in twenty years we won’t still have hardbacks, and paperbacks, and ebooks, and audiobooks, and no doubt some format we haven’t dreamed up yet.