Archives for category: Why is that?

One of the first posts on this blog was entitled “Why do paperbacks cost less than hardbacks? It answered the question thus—

Well it’s obvious isn’t it?  It costs less to bind a paperback than a hardback.

This is true, but not altogether unambiguous.  What we normally think of in these situations is a combined run, hardback/paperback, where the 500 hardbacks have a stamped case and no jacket, and the 2000 paperbacks have a four-color cover.  Actually, what makes the hardback more expensive in this scenario is the quantity not the specs.  If you did the whole run as unjacketted stamped case hardbacks, your overall cost would be lower than if you did the whole run as a paperback*.

Now you’ll say that’s ridiculous because we actually need the book to appeal to two distinct markets: the libraries who want a more durable version and will pay more for it, and the public who won’t pay nearly as much.  You want to be able to publish the book at $100 for the few and at $35 for the many.  Being able to show the same “profit” by pricing all 2500 at $48 won’t work: because your knowledge of the market tells you that $35 is as much as the masses will pay and $48 is less than you could get from librarians.

In that paragraph is embedded the truth that we tend always to overlook.  Paperbacks are cheaper because we (expect to) sell more copies of them.

Still true, but it’s beginning to be historically true rather than absolutely true. As we move more and more over to digital printing the economics behind book manufacturing shift under our feet. Part of the reason why longer runs were always “cheaper”† for publishers is the fact that with offset or letterpress there’s a lot of cost incurred just getting the machine ready before a single copy is printed. This is called makeready, and is an essential part of book manufacturing cost structures until is ceases to be with the development of push-button manufacturing processes.

Today (or maybe next week) I might be inclined to answer the question by saying hardbacks cost more than paperbacks for just two reasons:

  • 1. the small materials difference, and, more significantly,
  • 2. because that’s how we’ve always priced them.

Nowadays many traditionally published books never get a hardback edition at all, and are published only in paperback. This goes even more strongly for self-published books, where of course many don’t even have a paperback, just being ebooks. For years you’ve been able to find paperbacks in your local public library: used to be we (academic publishers at least) would publish a hardback edition for the libraries and a paperback for the rest. The trick of subsidizing the paperback price by overstating the hardback price probably doesn’t work any more. I expect the hardback’s days may be numbered, though there remains one important reason for its survival — many (most?) authors get a higher rate of royalty on sales in hardback as against paperback, and given that the hardback’s price is also going to be higher, authors will initially do better off hardback than paperback sales — at least until the volume of paperback sales ramps up. But no doubt such clauses in author contracts will wither if/when the hardback does.

† I should perhaps add that the link between price and expected sales quantity hasn’t gone away. No matter what format, the more you sell the lower you can set the retail price, as your overhead costs (the other fixed cost element in book pricing) are gently amortized. For book pricing, see Costing.

Where did this word come from, and why is it the same word as we use to talk about the amount of stuff that a container will hold?

It came as a bit of a surprise to me, but The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the earliest meaning of “volume” is the booky one. It all goes back before the invention of the codex. “Volvere” is the Latin verb meaning roll, twist, and thus “volumen” meant a coil, a wreath or a roll — which obviously lands us with a scroll on our hands. Now in those days Latin had great authority, as the lingua franca across Europe which English has now become (in succession to French). It may thus seem a bit paradoxical that the earliest recorded use of the word “volume” in English (by a year or two only) refers actually to a codex, not a scroll — but the paradox is only apparent: by 1380 the scroll had of course long been superseded by the codex.

So how did the word get to be used to describe the amount of material that’ll fit in a container? Apparently, rather unexpectedly, via the book: it was apparently first used in its quantity sense to describe the amount of stuff in a book, as in “The Alcoran or Bible . . . is in volume twice so big as the Psalmes of David..” It was only in the eighteenth century that “volume” began to appear in the sense I’d assumed was primary: “The prodigious volumes of water which have from the beginning of the world been falling into [the ocean].”

I guess it’s fairly clear how it’d move over, around the same time, to mean the loudness of music. Who’d have guessed that it also meant a bend in a stream, as in: “Where Thames’s fruitful Tides, Slow thro’ the Vale in silver Volumes play”?

Oddly perhaps, we’d buy paper by the carload, which masquerades as a volume measurement. Carload was “defined” as the amount that would fit in a railroad car — but that was always figured to be 40,000lbs, so we were really buying by weight not volume.

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.

We have long lived in a book world where there’s an apparent fiction at work over the ownership of the books as they sit about between publisher and ultimate customer. Bookstores send publishers orders, and the publishers (if the bookstore’s credit record is clear) will ship the books to them accompanied by an invoice, billing the cost of books, less discount, to the bookseller’s account. All seems pretty straight-forward: the bookstore has bought the books. Bookstores tend to get fairly generous credit terms from publishers, and may not face having to pay anything for two or three months. From an insurance perspective the books do now indeed belong to the bookstore: if the shop burns down, the bookseller’s insurance company is the one on the hook. But essentially the bookstore has those books there on a sale-or-return basis. If nobody comes into their shop to buy the books they will pack them up and return them to the publisher for full credit. The publisher will even pick up the freight cost. Thus in a way the bookstore doesn’t finally “own” the books till they sell them. This is formally termed a guaranteed sale arrangement.

Taking the logic of returns further, we now effectively live in a world of consignment buying, as reported in Shelf Awareness of February 18th 2014. Consignment is also called sale-or-return, although consignment selling might in its purest manifestation involve payment of a commission on the sale, rather than conversion to a discount sale as is done with books.

The reason the book trade came up with the idea of offering full returnability, is basically a marketing issue. You want to have books available in bookstores at publication date, preferably in profusion, so that anyone who reacts to the marketing hullabaloo by impulsively deciding to part with their money is able to do so without having to wait for a special order to arrive, by which time second thoughts may well have supervened, or the impulse to buy something else preempted the funds. To achieve this hyper-stocked position your sales representatives will seek to persuade bookstores to order more stock than they’d ever need under any circumstances other than the wildest bestsellerdom. It’s in the publishers’ interest for bookstores to over-order: it’s in booksellers’ interest to order cautiously. To overcome this dilemma the publisher moves the financial risk from the bookstore to their own accounting department by guaranteeing to take back unsold copies. “See safe” terms was what we often called such consignment deals in the days before they became the norm. This terminology was invented in Britain in the thirties when suddenly no-one could afford to buy anything. Better to have some books in front of the retail customer than to insist on the niceties of normal trade terms, so we’d see the bookseller safe so that we could make a sale.

The wheeze of guaranteed sale/sale-or-return, which now governs trade publishing, originated in the USA. When I worked in book sales in Britain in the sixties, the idea of returns hadn’t been invented — in the UK at least. I might occasionally get a phone call (actually, in those days it would almost certainly not have been a phone call, but a letter) from a bookshop that had made an ordering error, and of course we’d agree to take the books back for credit. But this was a very rare happening. We did however occasionally make arrangements for a consignment or see safe sale. Perhaps there was a special event, and the publisher would arrange for books to be supplied to the local bookstore on a see safe basis — after all who could know how many attendees there’d be and what proportion of them would want to buy a copy. Publishers are by nature optimists, but in many instances the reason for offering books for sale was mainly to appease a demanding author. Not fair to impose the cost of such promotion of the bookstore. These see-safe books would go out with a pro-forma invoice, recorded on the bookstore’s account but not billed to them. After the event, the books sold would be billed and unsold copies would be returned, though if there weren’t too many, they would often just be put into stock by the bookshop and paid for too. These sorts of book promotion events occur regularly to this day.

Europeans are more down-to-earth here: Germans call it fett, fat; the French say gras, also fat. The Italians have neretto (black) or grassetto, and Spaniards go for letra negra or just negrilla. The Oxford English Dictionary gives c.1871 as its earliest quotation for bold in the sense of boldface type. (The use of boldfaced as describing an impudent person goes back to 1692, not really all that much earlier.) What did we call boldface type before that? No trace.

The fact is that prior to the nineteenth century we didn’t call bold type anything because it simply didn’t exist. Paul Luna in Anniversary Essays on Johnson’s Dictionary edited by Jack Lynch and Anne McDermott (CUP, 2005) informs us “The use of bold type for headwords in English dictionaries seems not to have come about until the 1870s, some thirty years after the introduction of the first boldface types, called Clarendon, by a London type-foundry [Robert Thorne’s Fann Street Foundry]. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, black-letter had provided a color contrast analogous to the use of boldface with roman.” Originally bold types were cast in larger sizes since they were really intended for advertising and posters.

But why did we English speakers opt for a word meaning courageous rather than the more obvious fat, heavy or black?  Well, recall that as time passes the meaning of simple words can migrate. In earlier times bold also meant big, plump, well-filled. One example quoted by the OED from 1787 is “Being a bolder and better grain, weighed heavier”. Thorne’s original faces do seem to have been referred to as fat at the time. Maybe Victorian prudery took over and demanded a less physical term.

Nowadays we have semi-bold and bold, extra bold, heavy, grotesque, and yes, fat. There’s no reason why you can’t call that typeface you just designed whatever you want, and there are no hard and fast boundaries between these terms, but I list them roughly in ascending order of fatness. Fonts in use has a nice survey of fat faces, with lots of graphic examples.

Publishers like to use French flaps to give a paperback a de-luxe look, and justify a higher price. They are quite fashionable these days as are all sorts of embellishments to our books. (Once upon a time there was a more general consensus that the content was what would sell the book, though I guess even back then we did try to make our jackets pretty.)

French flaps are just like the front and back flaps on a book jacket transferred onto a paperback cover. They do increase your costs, partly because they use more cover board, but mainly because they split the trimming process into two steps. The fore-edge of the book block has to be trimmed before the cover goes on — if it wasn’t you’d end up with handy bookmarks in the front and back of the book when the guillotine chopped off the edges. Then after the cover has been applied to the spine, the book gets trimmed again to chop off the top and bottom margins. Not every book manufacturer is set up to provide this option, so price and scheduling can be issues. There’s always a risk of over-trimming the fore-edge so that the cover overlaps a bit too much. The opposite effect, leaving the white pages sticking out beyond the cover is so awful that the safety margin is moved inwards. Be it said, the manufacturer of the Very Short Introductions series does a pretty good job in this regard.

Originally typecases would all be locally designed. Each printer would bang up a typecase out of bits of wood to suit his own preferences. A different case would be made for different type sizes and different typefaces. Their layout would of course be the same. As time went by layouts would doubtless tend to converge: here’s an 18th century English layout from John Smith: The Printer’s Grammar (1755).

The two cases would be arranged one above and behind the other. The upper case contained Caps and Small Caps and other less frequently used sorts, and this arrangement gave rise of course to our common parlance distinction between upper and lower case letters. Whether the layout of this double frame of typecases from Oxford is the same as Mr Smith’s example or not, we cannot tell.

A composing frame from Oxford

The point of the two part arrangement was to cut down on arm movement in order to increase the speed of typesetting. The size of the space allowed for each sort was determined by the letter’s frequency of use. The most commonly used letters would be placed together in the middle, for the same reason. The upper case tended to be left in alphabetical order. But, lovers of tradition as printers must ever be, Cap J and Cap U followed Z, because in the earliest days of printing J and U were not used by English printers, and were only added on later!

The California job case, which originated in San Francisco, swept America in the mid nineteenth century and got rid of the upper/lower arrangement, putting caps on the right. It was alleged that it cut down ½ mile’s worth of arm travel a day as compared to its predecessor the Italic case layout. I guess experienced compositors had gotten used to having their Js and Us next to Z by then.

Note the spaces, Quad, Em quad and En quad almost next to the Caps, and the 3-em space nearer the middle of the lower case sorts, as it would be what was most frequently used as word space. A 3-em space is, confusingly, not 3 ems wide: three of them together will make up one em.

A visit to the Mackenzie & Harris typefoundery, from which this layout is a keepsake is highly recommended. It is housed in the same building in The Presidio in San Francisco as Arion Press, whose future, consequent upon the retirement of Andrew Hoyem, is we all hope in the safe hands of the Grabhorn Institute.

Squares are what we call those little bits of cloth showing (in a hardback) around the edges of the endpaper where the endpaper is glued into the case holding the book in the binding. In the picture below, the squares are the blue bits showing around the green endpaper. In an ideal world the squares will be an even all around, about 1/8″ in a 6″ x 9″ book. As a book comes off the binding line the glue is still wet and the book block can be squished around to even up the squares, but because this costs it’s not much done now.

In this photo you can see that the squares are not exactly even, which is a little embarrassing because this is Volume 2 of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The printing press as an agent of change. Still, not too bad, and let’s assume all the others were perfect. Book loving production people will also make sure that a slightly faulty book doesn’t get into stock. This they do by selflessly taking the “faulty” book home to read. I am embarrassed to confess that I have indeed heard a colleague offer to hurt a book for me. (I’d usually say I’ll take it uninjured!)

You can also make out by the shadows the edges of the cloth where it’s folded over the board forming the case. Along the spine you can also discern by its shadow the mull liner which adds strength to this binding — it is glued to the spine of the book block and held between case and the endpapers at front and back. There’s a useful diagram at my earlier post Hardcover parts.

Very rarely you’ll see a big fat book bound with almost no square at the bottom, so that the bookblock isn’t hanging within the case, tempting it to tip forward towards the fore-edge, weakening the bond at the top of the spine. Not sure whether there’s a mechanical reason why we don’t do this, or whether it’s just habit (or more darkly a desire that the book should fall apart, necessitating replacement with a new copy).

Like so many things we used to spend our working days caring about evenness of squares is hardly a matter of concern these days. The book market, certainly the trade book market, is price sensitive, so little quality touches tend to fall away in an attempt to preserve margins.

A crusher panel is what we called the die used for blind stamping. Blind stamping is a stamping hit made without any gold or colored foil between the die and the cloth. Foil stamping involves the application of heat and pressure, transferring the foil from its carrier onto the case. A crusher panel might be used to create a sort of pseudo-three-color effect. You can see the effect of the crusher panel behind the title, Novels 1959-1965, of this Library of America book. In a toothy cloth like the Brillianta LOA use, a crusher panel will smooth out the surface of the cloth a bit, so that detail in the stamping will look clearer.

Behind the author’s name you can see that there’s a foil panel of dark blue. After that panel has been stamped onto the cloth, the rules + author + title is stamped in gold foil. Three dies (brasses or Chemacs in UK) may have been used, one for the crusher panel, one for the dark blue foil panel, and one for the gold foil. I say “may” have been used because it would be possible to make ready the stamping machine to do both flat panels, the dark blue one and the crusher panel, at the same time. The dark blue foil would be fed in from left to right on a thin strip, aligned so that it didn’t overlap the blind panel. A little bit fiddly to make ready, but probably worth while in a run as long as this one no doubt was. In that case the foil panel and the crusher panel could be carried on a single metal die, made with a little space between the two panels.

Here’s a picture showing how we used to manage to get our dies to fit the spine width. These two volumes are dummies, produced to check on the width of the stamping dies, as well as the fit of the slip case. Normally dummies would be made from blank sheets of the same paper you were going to use to print the book. These dummies were made later: they contain the printed text and illustrations. Dummies are expensive: you are binding a single copy, by hand, after all. So why waste your money?

Bear in mind that paper is sold by weight. Weight here means basically how much fiber there is per square inch. Nowadays paper machines are sufficiently well monitored that we can be confident that a 50# paper advertised as having 384ppi (pages per inch) will hit 384 pretty closely over the run. To go to the other extreme, imagine a hand papermaker’ vatman trying to keep his basis weight steady and maintain a consistent thickness just by dipping the mold into a bath of pulp and water: the better you are at it, the better you’ll get at approaching the target. But it has to be a wide target; total consistent is obviously unattainable. (The fascinating video at Paper making by hand 4 is well worth looking at to see the craft involved.) In the 1960s and 70s we lived somewhere between these extremes: thickness was fairly consistent, but not sufficiently accurate to hang your hat on. Thus we’d produce a dummy book on most projects where the width was critical. The majority of these were blank paper dummies and lived on to contain the artwork of many a little scion of the production department tree. I use the one from Alastair Fowler’s Triumphal Forms as a commonplace book.

The two-volume set illustrated, of Martin Robertson’s A History of Greek Art, was printed by letterpress and bound at The University Press Cambridge, with six 32-page signatures of plates printed offset by Westerham Press, Kent, in volume 2. It’s perhaps odd that despite the mixture of two papers in Volume 2 that’s the one we managed to guess right when we had dies made for the spine stamping. I suppose the dies made for volume one would just have been thrown away — many a production worker had nice brass as a paper weight on their desk — and new ones produced for the run. Presumably we managed to delete VOL before 1 before the final run. The books are in excellent condition, but the slipcase has endured some of life’s knocks, which is of course it’s function. I wouldn’t be utterly amazed to be told that the cloth used on this set was also the Dutch-made Brillianta, like the backcloth used on the Library of America volumes.

Codex is the word used to indicate that form of content holder which we think of as a book: a bunch of folded pages held together on one side and conventionally, but not necessarily, protected by some sort of cover. It can also be used to indicate a manuscript volume: The Codex Sinaiticus is a famous example. Indeed The Oxford English Dictionary gives this as its single bookish definition, ignoring the folded book/not-scroll definition, which meaning has presumably evolved in the last century or so, maybe as a result of the growth of book history as an academic subject: this OED entry is one of those not revised since 1891. They cite a listing of recipes for medicines as their only other non-obsolete meaning for codex. My school Latin dictionary (published by Cassell & Co. in 1927) gives “codex, codicis, m, = caudex, trunk of a tree; a book, composed of wooden tablets, covered with wax; a book, document.” This all seems a bit more definite than other sources suggest: but maybe there really are Latin documents which use codex in the sense of wax writing tablet. The editor, Professor Thomas, is obviously plumping at least for the derivation of the bound book from wax tablets. But if we are starting off with caudex, a tree trunk, log, block of wood, ending up with “book” may a bit of a stretch, but there are theories. Perhaps we’ll have to await the OED editors’ adjudication when they get around to updating this entry.

The development of the codex is often held to be associated with the Christians in 2nd century Rome. The earliest known reference however is from Martial in the 1st century who encouraged his readers to buy his poems in this new format. “You who long for my little books to be with you everywhere and want to have companions for a long journey, buy these ones which parchment confines within small pages: give your scroll-cases to the great authors – one hand can hold me.” Sounds a bit like paperbacks for railway journeys, doesn’t it? I still like my suggestion that the preponderance of early codex volumes from Christian sources is not a result of there being more of them in the first place. Rather I suspect it was a result of differential survival rates. Monks would no doubt go to considerable trouble to hide their codices — they well knew how laborious they were to create — and would clearly be more motivated to save the devotional literature on which their life was grounded rather than those bulky pagan classics, while reading laymen, thin on the ground anyway, might be less heedful about their books when the Vikings were landing. Thus more “Christian” codexes would survive the times of trouble, no matter whether there were more or fewer of them at the start. It’s dangerous to draw conclusions from the absence of evidence, but we shouldn’t altogether ignore it in making our guesses.

To come up with the idea of the codex we did first have to “invent” the page. Scrolls, the functional predecessors of the codex, weren’t of course written in mile-long lines; their text was indeed divided up into blocks which could be said to resemble pages. They were only written on on one side though. Some papyrus pages were first found at Oxhyrynchus in Egypt, written on both sides and thus presumptively from things we’d call books rather than scrolls. The presence of page numbers is also diagnostic — they were obviously not needed if you were just unrolling a scroll as you read. But papyrus was liable to break when folded, and was in any case more suited to the hot dry climate of Egypt than to Europe’s more humid environment. We can say with some confidence that the codex format couldn’t really take off till there was a regular supply of parchment. Exactly when parchment was invented, or more importantly was perfected is not know. Herodotus says that writing on skins was common in his time, the 5th century BC, but what’d be needed would be a regular supply of good quality, and we can only speculate rather circularly that such conditions began to appear in 1st century Rome, as attested to by Martial.

Keith Houston’s The Book has just been published, and is, as I’ve said in my review, an invaluable resource on many topics including this one. Here’s a piece of his for about the origins of the codex.