Archives for category: Book printing

The Mind of the Book is perhaps a strange title for this Oxford University Press book by Alastair Fowler, which was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement on April 6 2018.

In the period when books were sold unbound the title page, often with a picture, performed the promotional job now taken over by the cover or jacket. The page started off blank, merely there as protection during storage prior to sale. Quickly a title was added for easy identification, and then things got more and more elaborate. The TLS review describes Fowler’s analyses of the title pages of Cranmer’s Bible, Hobbes’ Leviathan, and Dickens’ Edwin Drood as “tour-de-force readings, bringing the earlier material alive, showing how a title page might function as a systematic aide-memoire to a work’s contents.” The full listing of the title pages Fowler discusses is:

Geffray Chaucer, Workes (1532)
Great Bible (1539)
John Dee, General and Rare Memorials (1577)
John Harington, Orlando Furioso (1591)
Michael Drayton, Poly-Olbion (1612, 1622)
Ben Jonson, The Workes (1616)
Francis Bacon, Instauratio Magna (1620)
Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648)
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)
Francis Barlow, Aesop’s Fables (1666)
Edward Sherburne, The Sphere of M. Manilius (1673)
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man (1733)
John Baskerville, Virgil’s Works (Birmingham, 1757)
Thackeray, The Rose and the Ring (1855)
Charles Dickens, Edwin Drood (1870)
Geoffrey Chaucer, Works (1896)

Ben Jonson’s poem “The Mind of the Frontispiece to a Book” offers a key to the title page/frontispiece of Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1614) and was printed alongside it.

From death and dark oblivion (near the same)
The mistress of man’s life, grave history,
Raising the world to good or evil fame,
Doth vindicate it to eternity.
Wise providence would so, that nor the good
Might be defrauded, nor the great secured,
But both might know their ways were understood,
When vice alike in time with virtue dured.
Which makes that, lighted by the beamy hand
Of truth, that searcheth the most hidden springs,
And guided by experience, whose straight wand
Doth mete, whose line doth sound the depth of things,
She cheerfully supporteth what she rears,
Assisted by no strengths, but are her own;
Some note of which each varied pillar bears;
By which, as proper titles, she is known
Time’s witness, herald of antiquity,
The light of truth, and life of memory.

New Yorkers will have to wait to look at Alastair Fowler’s book. It’s not due at New York Public Library till 18 Jan 2019. Must be OUP, UK.

At Medium, Glenn Fleishman offers us the introduction to his book London Kerning. The subtitle might make you think this was a sort of walking-tour-guide, but it’s not. The main focus of the book is St Bride’s Printing Library off Fleet Street and The Type Archive, south of the river. Fleishman is a fan of Berthold Wolpe, and there’s discussion of his type designs, primarily Albertus, used for much London signage, and of Edward Johnston, designer of the London Underground’s typeface, and other modern type designers. He takes us to three shops where letterpress is still being carried on.

There are several superficially baffling names for early methods of making a photographic print. The differences between them can mostly be put down to the use of different chemicals to treat the paper or other surface onto which the “photograph” would be exposed. Heliotypes are made by exposing a negative onto a gelatin film and hardening it with chrome alum. Prints would be made thanks to the same water/grease antipathy utilized by lithography.

“Lady Macbeth” print in the original 1803 edition (left) and the 1874 edition “reduced and re-engraved by the heliotype process” (right). Note the pencil at the bottom, for scale. (Folger ART Flat b1-2 v.1 copy 1, and Folger ART Vol. f90 copy 2, respectively). Photo by Erin Blake from The Collation.

Here’s a photo of the heliotrope edition of A collection of prints, from pictures painted for the purpose of illustrating the dramatic works of Shakspeare by the artists of Great-Britain shown on the right next to the original (London: John and Josiah Boydell, 1803). Erin Blake’s piece at The Collation shows a proof as well, and discusses in detail the production of the original print via etching and engraving. The heliotrope reprint would obviously have been made from a photograph of the original, which itself was made from the etched and engraved copper plates. These original plates were subsequently acquired by an American printer who “restored” them and sold prints from 1848 to 1852. He also issued a two volume edition which can apparently be distinguished from the original London edition by the addition of numbering at the bottom left.

Digital printing is made up of two separate approaches. There are toner-based systems, and ink jet systems. The toner side is better established, having been a growing factor in book work for the past 25 years. Ink jet is just beginning to get established as the primary technology for books, though it has been around for about as long.

There’s no doubt now that digital printing is a solid part of the book manufacturing scene. Not only can publishers print fewer and fewer copies — a highly desirable ability in uncertain times — but the quality of digital print is now every bit as good as offset, and in some respects I’d argue, superior. For instance the catalog for The New York Book Industry Guild’s 2015 Annual Book Show was printed digitally (ink jet) for the first time: see the photo below. In an offset world the pale blue tints — made up of tiny dots of blue ink — which appear on almost every page would have been difficult to hold consistent, as their color would be affected by the colors used on the rest of each individual page. Some photos will call for more blue ink, others for more yellow etc. In an offset job, to serve that need more blue, or yellow ink will need to be delivered to that area. This ink can’t instantly disappear when the press revolves on to the next part of the book needing to be printed. If that’s just a page of black text, no problem, but if it’s a color tint, the ink buildup needed for individual halftones would make the background tint vary slightly from one track to another. On a digital press the ink deposited can be exactly right every time. (See Printing methods.)

Here’s a report on a 2016 Ricoh seminar from Book Business Magazine. which projects steady growth in digital printing. Notable in the projections, regardless of whether you think the projections are too high or too low, is the contrast between percentage of production and percentage of sales volume. Avoidance of unsold inventory is going to loom larger and larger in publishers’ planning.

Digital printing first made its appearance in the office environment, and was soon adopted for short-run book manufacturing. Initially this was available only for black and white work — which of course means about 90% of serious books — and this made it initially ideal for academic publishing. I recently discovered a couple of memos I wrote in 1982 in which I advocated for the setting up in our warehouse of a digital print engine plus a small binding line so that we could print one-off books in response to customer orders. This seems to me to be extraordinarily early for such a thing to be possible, but hey, you can call me a dreamer. In fact the first real digital book printer, Integrated Book Technology, wasn’t established till 1991. I’m not sure when the first on-demand setups in publishers’ warehouses were, but I don’t think it happened earlier than about 2005. Here, from Edwards Brothers Malloy, a pioneer in this regard tragically closing their doors this week, is a neat little illustration of why digital printing works.


In the offset scenario 750 copies are manufactured and paid for. Publishers have long been hung up on the unit cost of production, a number which is often used to in calculating the retail price of the book. But of course the unit cost per copy sold is really the important number; you just don’t happen to know it ahead of time. You may claim that the 350 you hadn’t sold by the end of the 20-month period measured in the EBM scenario will eventually be sold: and so they may, but “eventually” might be a long time, and does come with a cost. Your capital is tied up in slow moving inventory, and you have to keep a warehouse going to house it all. If you don’t print the book till after you’ve received an order, you clearly avoid holding unsold copies in stock, even though each individual copy has cost you more.

BIGNY did a meeting in March, reported on at Book Business Magazine. Perhaps the most important message heard at this meeting relates to the economic difficulties presented by ink jet printing today. Paradoxically a technology which is ideal for shorter and shorter print runs really has an economic model which demands longer runs. The equipment costs a lot, and the per page cost is higher than printers are accustomed to. Maybe, as we have become accustomed to in the era of Moore’s law, both machines, and perhaps most importantly, inks will come down in price. Or perhaps we publishers will get used to paying the economic price for such a convenient technology. Still it’s evident that nobody’s junking their last offset machine just yet.

See also Print on demand.


Edwards Brothers Malloy announced on 31 May that they were closing completely. Publishers Lunch was first with the news, closely followed by Publishers Weekly. Only in February this year EBM had decided to cut back offset operations in their Lillington, NC plant, focussing that part of the business in Ann Arbor, MI. This was to have resulted in the loss of 100 jobs by the end of this year. Obviously a total closure affects many more.

The brief note on their website today (1 June) reads:

It is with heavy hearts we announce that Edwards Brothers Malloy will be closing our doors as of June 15. We are working with prospective buyers for our Fulfillment operation and should have information within the next few days. We continue to operate business as usual and will keep you updated as we have information. If the need arises, we will work with you to retrieve your inventory.

As you can imagine, this is a difficult time for our employees as we work through the process of shutting down our facilities while finishing projects for our customers with work in-house. We do, however, want to take this moment to thank you for your support and business through the years. Our employees and customers have been the cornerstone of our 125-year history.

We wish you all the best going forward.

John Edwards and Bill Upton

Clearly John Edwards’ February assessment of the state of the market “We continue to see shrinking demand for offset printing and double-digit growth in digital printing” has become even worse. But double digit growth in a smaller segment of your business cannot necessarily offset shrinkage in the larger part.

Of course one cannot know the full story of the company’s financial position, but it did look like they were making the right moves. They had an established position in short-to-medium-run offset, and were moving steadily into digital printing in response to demand for ever shorter print runs from their university press and other “serious” publishing customers. They even had a proper print-on-demand operation (making one book at a time). For a number of years they offered to set up a POD line in a publisher’s warehouse, so that “out of print” books could be manufactured while the rest of a customer’s order was being fulfilled from stock, and ship out along with that order. Maybe the problem results from their consolidation/expansion in what is surely a shrinking market.

In the meantime, if you work in the manufacturing department of a publishing house, be alert. EBM is/was our 6th largest book manufacturing supplier. Think where all that work which till a couple of days ago was locked up at Edwards Brothers Malloy is going to go. Talk to your suppliers and book time for your books. Don’t leave it till big shouldered competitors have gobbled up all the press time. We’ve become used to being able to get a reprint in a couple of weeks. Now press capacity is being reduced at the same time as the paper market is becoming tighter. Take care.


To help with your vacation planning, here’s a list of letterpress printing museums around the world supplied by the American Amateur Press Association. The Association of European Printing Museums also has a list, this one with an interactive map. Both sites include links to individual museums’ websites.

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

This is a pretty good illustration of the way we print color images. Notice that each piece of acrylic is the result of a color separation process each carrying the information relevant to one color only. In printing these would be film negatives, or nowadays, printing plates imaged directly. The blue one is perhaps clearest example: you can see parts of it are blank, some parts darker, and some parts lighter. This is the same process used to govern the amount of ink deposited by the printing press on different areas of the paper.

Source: Physicsfun, via World and Science tweet.

Photo: The Leslie Company

Color separation is the process of breaking down a color image into its constituent colors — in book printing, usually 4-color process printing — C (cyan = blue), M (magenta = red), Y (yellow), and K (black). Computers take care of this nowadays but prior to digitization, separations were managed through a process camera, a huge camera housed in a remanent darkroom in all offset print works. The original copy would be exposed through different color filters which would eliminate all the colors but one. At the same time a halftone screen would be applied — since in order to preserve the color gradations we have to print photos as a series of various-sized dots, not solid lumps of color. The screen for each color was set at different angle, so that the dots wouldn’t just land one on top of the other, but in rosette patterns. At the bottom of the picture above you can see the green area which is made up of big blue dots on top of lots of yellow dots, so large that you almost can’t see any white between them. The highlight area just above has no dots though there are a few tiny yellow ones just detectable. You can click on the photo to enlarge it. For more information see Halftone screen angles at The Print Guide. See also my earlier post Screens and screen finders.

A process camera. This thing was big: probably about 6 feet tall in my memory.

You used to have to access the process camera room through a narrow double-tube rotating door, so that you didn’t bring ruinous day-light with you. When you came out it would always take a couple of minutes for your eyes to readjust from the low red lighting in the camera room.

Unusual to find a 16th century printed page together with the woodcut responsible for it. This picture of a type of lettuce from Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s Herbal was printed in 1562 and hand colored. Here’s the page, and below it the hand-cut woodblock from which it was printed. The type below would be locked up in the forme along with the woodcut, and the heading type, plus any other pages being printed in the same impression.

These pictures come from the Folger Library’s exhibition Beyond Words: Book Illustration in the Age of Shakespeare, which runs from 24 February to 3 June 2018.

Interpreting the block is one of these duck/rabbit problems. Until you see what’s raised and what’s recessed, your eye insists on seeing it the other way round. Remember the black lines, in order to pick up the ink and transfer it to the paper, have to be higher than the background which has been cut away. Interestingly Folger tells us that after this job was completed the block was reused and has a portrait carved into the other side.

Maybe such woodcut survivals are more common than I had imagined. Here’s another one from an earlier work by Mattioli which appears on his Wikipedia page.

This etching is one of the exhibits in the Folger Library’s exhibition “Beyond Words: Book Illustration in the Age of Shakespeare.” This exhibition goes on until June 3rd, 2018. This illustration comes from a 1745 edition of Abraham Bosse’s manual on intaglio printmaking, first printed 100 years earlier.

Previously printed sheets can be seen hanging from the clothes-line like ropes behind the pressman. In order to facilitate the transfer of the ink from plate to paper, hand press operators would dampen the paper before printing. As may been judged from all the pictures of intaglio presswork, considerable effort was required to create  enough pressure for a clean impression. (Intaglio printing works from an image recessed into a metal plate, not from letterpress’ raised image.)

Here Mr Bosse illustrates the method of pouring aqua fortis (dilute nitric acid) onto the copper plate in order to “bite” it.

Below is the frontispiece of Mr Bosse’s book, which is entitled Traicté des manières de graver en taille douce sur l’airin. A PDF of the entire book can be found at the Biliothèque nationale de France’s website Gallica, though it doesn’t seem to include all the illustrations.

Another of Mr Bosse’s etchings of the press in action, this one from The British Museum, shows plates being prepared for the press too. It also has drying sheets hanging in the background.

See also Printing methodsCopperplate and Starwheel press.