Illuminating a manuscript meant embellishing it with gold and/or silver.

Gold leaf was made by taking a small lump of gold, putting it between layers of goldbeater’s skin (a membrane derived from the gut lining of cattle) and beating it till it became thin. Wikipedia tells us that 1000 bits of cleaned and processed goldbeater’s skin stacked one on top of the other would only measure an inch thick. The American Institute for Conservation provides fairly gruesome detail on the making of goldbeater’s skin. Apparently malnourished cattle were preferred: less fat to get rid of.

Over a hundred layers of membrane/gold/ membrane could be beaten thin as one operation. Thin meant very thin: 1/250,000 of an inch. If a piece of gold leaf was left unattended by an open window it would fly away on the lightest breeze.

Publishers are notoriously careful, and gold isn’t something they throw around. That gold stamping on the spine of the book you’re reading isn’t gold (metal) it’s just gold (color). The only exception to this is in Bible production, where for a de luxe Bible you will find gold leaf used for the stamping on the leather cover and for the edge gilding of the pages.

This video (click on the title of this blog post if you don’t see a video below this paragraph) shows an Ochsner Edge Gilding machine in operation. You can see the gold leaf in the bottom of the track; it is pressed, with heat, against the thoroughly sanded and smoothed book block.

Bell Type and Rule Company will sell you a kit including sheets of 23 carat gold foil so you can personalize your Bible, and no doubt, those of all your friends.

You can get hold of gold leaf fairly easily. Amazon offers you a pack of 25 5½” square sheets for $7.98 with free same-day delivery for Prime members. The manufacturer does however admit to you that this gold leaf is really only “golden leaf”, being made of 85% copper and 15% zinc. Real gold leaf is available for a higher price but, as they keep emphasizing its edibility, seems to be directed at the cooking/baking/ candy-making market. Fair enough; there probably aren’t a man market of illuminators out there these days.

Because it started off on stones, Senefelder’s new method of printing which he called Steindrückerei (stone printing) garnered the highfalutin Greek name lithography, stone writing. But on its way to commercialization Steindrückerei had to abandon its relationship with stones, and move over to a metal plate.

Although, according to Wikipedia, Senefelder had mentioned zinc as an alternative to limestones in his 1801 British patent application, the first real step on this road was taken in 1860 when Colonel Henry James printed Ordnance Survey maps by transferring his images onto zinc plates. He called this process photzincography, a name which unsurprisingly didn’t stick.

That the world didn’t rush to copy Col. James should not be put down to stubborn ignorance. We have always to bear in mind the inherent conservatism of the print industry. Not that printers were inveterate Tories, probably quite the opposite in many cases — but conservative in business terms. If you have a lot of capital tied up in equipment, you cannot just chuck it all away and follow the latest trend. You have to use the presses you have until the investment has been amortized, and of course until you’ve generated sufficient surplus to invest in new equipment. Letterpress was well established. It was efficient. There was no pressing need to consider any change. Lithography was great for pictures, but that edge wasn’t enough to necessitate a switch. Compromise was available by printing your images separately and binding or tipping them into your letterpress text. This is the origin of the otherwise completely unnecessary habit of publishers to have photo inserts in many of their books: it looks like we care. But for a long time there just wasn’t sufficient incentive to switch your operation over to lithography, and before that switch could became a real option a couple of other developments were necessary.

Photography was the first: invented independently in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot, both systems depended on light-sensitive chemical compounds but differed from there on. Daguerre relied on a single-use positive image created on a silvered copper plate, whereas Talbot produced paper negatives, which could be reused several times. Daguerre’s prints were crisp and detailed, Talbot’s grainier, more impressionistic. Talbot published the first book to be photographically illustrated: The Pencil of Nature‘s illustrations were all original photographic prints on silvered paper, each tipped in to the book. Unfortunately, as well as being uneconomically time-consuming to print and tip in, the photographs had an alarming tendency to fade. This was clearly not going to be the way forward.

In 1852 Talbot patented the “photographic veil” — the original halftone dot system — and was able to use it with his negatives to create an etched plate which could be printed like a copperplate engraving. Improvements, including working from positive not negative originals, resulted by the end of the century in relief halftones becoming the way of reproducing photographs in regular (letterpress) printing.

Offsetting was the second necessary discovery. (In offset lithography the inked plate never comes into direct contact with the paper. The image is transferred to an impression cylinder which then rotates to deposit it onto the paper.) In direct lithography, if the pressman accidentally failed to put a sheet in place on one pass through a rotary lithographic press the next sheet would be spoiled by having a reversed impression on the back too. The ink for the missing sheet had been transferred from the litho stone to the rubber blanket on the roller which was there to press the paper against the stone, and  this ink was, on the next pass, being transferred (offset) onto the back of the next sheet. In 1904 Ira Rubel, a New Jersey printer, noticed that the secondary impression was actually better, crisper than the main one, and encouraged others to act on that discovery. Eventually it was found that not only was the rubber blanket giving a superior image, it was kinder to the metal plates which eventually took the place of stones in commercial lithography, and resulted in longer runs becoming possible.

But it wasn’t till the 1960s in America and a decade or so later in Britain, that offset lithography finally took over from letterpress as the main way to print books. When I left Britain in the mid 1970s we were still printing about ¾ of our books by letterpress (but we were a fairly traditional operation). In America at that time letterpress equipment was still fairly widely available, but was probably used for only about 10% of book work. Now we are witnessing offset lithography gradually beginning to be superseded by ink jet printing.




An orihon is a folding book. It consists on one long sheet of paper (or more than one, glued together) printed on one side then folded concertina-style, and possibly contained between a cover front and back. The style originated in China during the Tang dynasty (618-908 AD) probably starting out as a scroll folded up for storage. Orihons became popular in Japan — indeed the word orihon comes from the Japanese — and in another case of independent invention, became the form in which Mayan codices were “bound”.

Here are a couple of modern examples: Stack by Edwin Frank, published by Ugly Duckling Presse, and Manhattan Unfurled by Matteo Pericoli, published by Random House. Manhattan Unfurled is actually printed on both sides of the paper, showing the East Side on the recto, the West Side on the verso, or vice versa. It is delivered in a slip case together with a little booklet describing the project — a sort of Preface. Stack comes in a little felt envelope.






Most Mayan codices were destroyed by the conquistadores and the priests they brought along with them. These representatives of advanced civilization believed they were doing God’s work by eliminating the error which was self-evidently contained in these writings which they couldn’t understand. Very few survived. As Wikipedia tells us “The folding books are the products of professional scribes working under the patronage of deities such as the Tonsured Maize God and the Howler Monkey Gods.” Rather reminiscent of the basis of scribal culture in Europe.

The Madrid Codex; the longest surviving Mayan codex


Susan Ferber, Executive Editor at Oxford University Press, is quoted by Dr. Syntax: “I think we have taken for granted what an incredible development print on demand has meant for publishers, authors, and readers.  There is no need to declare books out of print anymore; we can literally make work available forever, which is a development on par with the printing press in my mind.  I think the death of the print book has been the most overhyped negative in the publishing world.  This has been augured and feared for so long, and for new generations of readers, it is so heartening to see that they love the print form.  It is enduring and old technology can and does have value.”

As a long-time POD evangelist, I can enthusiastically agree. Susan’s in charge of history, and OUP’s American Office has a rich history in history publishing. One of my regrets about stopping work is that I hadn’t been able to bring all of these old classics back into print. We did manage quite a few though.

The always contrarian French (Le tiers livre ) appear to disagree, reporting via a tweet by Jose Afonso Furtado, that print on demand is dead. But hold on: it’s only dead because it’s become so much a part of the scene that we no longer need a special name for it. Those French: so witty and full of paradox! François Bon tells us that when the annual sale of a book drops to 500, Hachette will switch it over routinely to POD. I don’t know, but I’d bet US trade houses haven’t made such a radical across-the-board decision. University Presses and academic publishers may effectively have done so, but of course for them a sale of 500 a year is nearer the top than the bottom end of the sales range, so the potential switch point will be very different. Mr Bon’s article focuses primarily on the difference POD can make to authors and their relationship to the book emphasizing the POD book as part of a digital continuum. One cannot disagree that the arrival of digital publishing has given authors great freedom in both the ebook and the print book arenas: and good thing too.

Of course the fact that a publisher need never put a book out of print now that it can be printed one-off in response to whatever orders trickle in, does mean that authors’ rights will never revert to them. Thus the freedom authors have gained in being able to print their books on their own (self publish), appears to bring with it a loss of freedom in their relationship with their publisher. While I am sure there are cases where this has resulted in real loss, the problem strikes me as one more of theory than reality. If the author wants their rights back for one of their old books surely just asking for them would result in most cases in success. In the future contracts should (and no doubt in many cases already do) contain a reversion agreement not couched in terms of “out of print” or “unavailable” but in terms of a sales volume or a finite number of years. You don’t chose a publisher in order to have a fight with them: in most cases it’s quite easy not to.

Duodecimo, sometimes voiced twelvemo (and occasionally written in the same way, or as 12mo or 12°), is a small size of book between octavo and sixteenmo or sextodecimo. In Moby-Dick Herman Melville assigned the dolphins and porpoises to his classification of duodecimo whales: a 12mo book was a small relatively narrow object. Its smallness meant that the paper savings sometimes made the extra labor of producing it worthwhile.

  • A folio has been folded once, (resulting in 4 pages on 2 leaves)
  • a quarto twice (4 leaves, 8 pages)
  • an octavo thrice (8 leaves, 16 pages)
  • a sextodecimo four times (16 leaves, 32 pages)
  • there’s even a tricesimo-secundo, 32mo, folded eight times (32 leaves, 64 pages)

Keep you eye on the leaves (each one consisting of two sides, thus two pages) and the system makes sense. A duodecimo will have 12 leaves, 24 pages — something which can’t be achieved by just folding a single sheet of paper. (I’m not talking about a web press here, just sheet-fed.) There’s also a vicesimo-quarto, a 24mo: just think twice the 12mo structure described below. These names, while they may have actually been used by real people in the dim and distant, are now in the exclusive possession of the bibliophilic community. The only interaction we have with them is when we see reference to Shakespearen Folios and Quartos, and in the quaint proclivity of Brits to talk about Demy octavo when they mean what we’d call 5½” x  8½”.

Keith Houston helpfully provides a layout for duodecimo in The Book. His version displays both sides of the sheet shown side by side. The watermark he’s added shows this, as does following the page numbers.

To make your duodecimo book, you’d print up your 24 page sheet (12 to view), cut away the eight pages at the foot, inserting them after folding into the middle of the remaining 16-page section to give you the full 24-page section.

Once upon a time these terms defined trim sizes. You’d combine the name of the sheet size with the number of folds/leaves, to come up with names like Royal octavo, Crown quarto, Demy octavo. Nowadays we’ve thrown in the towel and resorted to inches or millimeters. So although a duodecimo implied a small, narrow book, just how small it would be would depend on the sheet you started with. A Royal duodecimo would end up as a 4⅞” x 8⅛” book while a Crown duodecimo would trim down to 3⅝” x  6⅜”. Actually I don’t think Royal or Crown sheets were much used for duodecimo — think of them as being here merely as examples.

Photo: Slow Industries

Here is a book where format matches content. Picking up on Melville’s whale classification, this duodecimo volume examines the Duodecimo Whales. The publishers, Slow Industries also have larger volumes covering the Folio Whales and the Octavo Whales.


Shelf Awareness alerts us to this Bustle post on 19 books to read based on your drink of choice. Though I have no principled objection to either drinking or reading I’m not sure how good an idea this is. Too many drinks might tend to slow you down rather than enhance your reading experience — unless you’re one of those who read in order to fall asleep. Certainly the idea shouldn’t be used as encouragement to open a bar/bookstore. The risk of spilling coffee on unsold books must haunt owners of bookstores with coffee bars; but spilled liquor would be an almost certain result of encouraging boozy browsing. Rings from the bottoms of beer mugs do not enhance the value of a novel. But could an aroma of mint julep coming from that copy of Absalom, Absalom! perhaps work as a subliminal sales enhancer?

Not sure that this concept is worth much: choosing books appropriate to the drink you are consuming seems like mixing apples and oranges, or maybe grape and grain. A book takes so much longer to read than any drink to consume. If you persist in downing vodka shots while reading War and Peace you will never finish the book, and may possibly die in the attempt. Maybe it’s an insidious plan by the liquor industry to make us all to go on benders.

The Wine Society advises us that Robert Louis Stevenson called wine bottled poetry, which frankly seems a bit naff to me — but it was a long time ago. They provide a few literary wine references. No doubt you can come up with lots more (but some would say these are already too many).

The idea of a book-of-the-month + wine-of-the-month club does seem to have potential. A package of a book plus a bottle of wine related in some way to this month’s book selection would be a welcome sight. I’d sign up for such double serendipity. The problem however is that book publishers are not allowed to ship wines, and wine stores don’t need to bother with such troublesome procedures to sell their wares. If you see Penguin Random House buying a liquor store, keep your eyes open.* Might it be called Random Public House?

The nearest we effectively get to a wine/book club is a book club (in the sense of a reading circle) which meets to discuss the month’s reading over a bottle of wine. I dare say there are some such groups which strive to make a link between the wine served and the book read.

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, then go ahead, drink up while reading away. Just chose something that doesn’t demand your full attention. However well it all starts off, you won’t be able to bestow it for too long. Chose a thriller rather than a philosophical tract perhaps. Maybe short stories would be best: see Pub lit.

See also Writers and the bottle.


* About a week after I drafted this along comes the news, via Publishers Lunch, that Penguin Random House has acquired T-shirt company Out of Print Clothing. The new building-annex will be reporting in to the VP of publishing innovation development. PRH indicates that this signals “its intent to greatly expand its author- and imprint-brand-based merchandising capabilities.” Can that liquor store be far behind? After all brands expand.

In a related (?) story Publishing Perspectives also tells us Bertelsmann (PRH’s parent) Education Group has acquired the Idaho-based WhiteCloud Analytics, which specializes in performance management in healthcare.

Atlas Obscura reveals the existence of The Brautigan Library, where only unpublished works are shelved.

They tell us this library was founded in tribute to Richard Brautigan’s 1971 novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, in which the protagonist works in a library of unpublished manuscripts. In that novel no visitors are allowed into the library, but you can visit the real one in Vancouver, WA (a suburb of Portland, not that Canadian place). You’re not allowed to take the books out, but you can sit there and read them. It would seem a great place to send your old PhD thesis: apparently the only constraint on submissions is that they must be in English.

One might speculate that with self publishing becoming so easy the supply of material for this library might dry up. The curator has boldly expanded the library’s remit to include ebooks.

But what after all does unpublished mean? In the olden days when you got a book published by a publisher there was no doubt on the subject. Lots of copies would printed and you could go and look at them as proof of publication; the book had been made public. But does being available to the public actually suffice to define publication? After all, my translation of Heine’s Das Buch le Grand is “published”  even though nobody (apart from) me has apparently read it!* Has Mr Barber fatally undermined Brautigan’s original conception by allowing readers actually to see, and even worse, read the books, thereby inadvertently publishing them?

As it happens Brautigan’s best-known novel Trout Fishing in America is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary Literary Hub tells us. Masterpiece or naïve relic? they ask. The New York Times review said “His dialogue is supernaturally exact; his descriptive concision is the prefect carrier for his extraordinary comic perceptions. Moreover, the books possess a springtime moral emptiness; essentially works of language, they offer no bromides for living.” Trout Fishing in America is an example of “shameless fictional show boating,” and that’s fine coming from someone “crazy with optimism.” I remember quite liking it.


* Shockingly I’ve just discovered this may no longer be true. One sale was made in May!

How many sheets of foolscap must I have disfigured in the cause of education? Nowadays, when we mostly live in that European-inspired world of boringly logical standardization based upon numbers and fractions thereof (I blame Napoléon), school children in Britain are no longer directed to write their essays on so many sides of foolscap. It’s A4 they’d use. In my schooldays foolscap meant a tall pad of white paper, around 8″ x 13″, ruled in pale blue, perhaps with a red double-lined vertical margin on the left. I suppose the word foolscap is rapidly traveling towards that fatal dictionary designation, Obsolete.

Jester’s cap watermark. National Gallery of Australia

It’s not altogether obvious why a sheet of paper slightly shorter and slightly narrower than legal size paper, should have had such a fanciful name attached to it. One theory is that paper of that size was manufactured with a watermark showing a jester’s cap (a fool’s cap), but there doesn’t seem to be evidence that sheet sizes were ever designated by watermarks. Nonetheless Keith Houston, in The Book, retells the story of the Rump Parliament’s ordering that a jester’s cap be used as a watermark on paper used by Parliament in place of the traditional royal arms. This is a neat historical joke, but does reek of back formation.

The Oxford English Dictionary will have nothing to do with it, stating in a rather lengthy aside “It has been asserted that the fool’s cap mark was introduced by Sir John Spielmann or Spilman, a German who built a paper-mill at Dartford in 1580; but we have failed to find any trustworthy authority for this statement. The Brit. Mus. copy of Rushworth’s Hist. Coll. (1659) is marked with this device. The watermark called by Sotheby ( Princ. III.) a ‘fool’s cap’, and said by him to occur in some copies of Caxton’s Golden Legend, seems not to be correctly so called. The catalogue of the Caxton Exhibition (1877) states that examples of the fool’s cap, dating from 1479, are found in a German collection there exhibited. There is no foundation for the often-repeated story that the Rump Parliament ordered a fool’s cap to be substituted for the royal arms in the watermark of the paper used for the journals of the House.”

The OED‘s earliest source for foolscap in the sense of a paper size dates from 1699, from A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, where it is defined “Fool’s-Cap, a sort of Paper so called.”

So far, so circular. The watermark idea sounds plausible, but that of course doesn’t make it true. The Oxford Companion to the Book opts, rather tepidly, for the watermark origin, adding, to complete the circularity of their argument. “it is the clearest example of a watermark being used to name a sheet size”. (Wouldn’t it actually be the only example?) The German connection hinted at above prompted me to do a bit of German research. I find no hint that they ever referred to any sort of paper in terms having anything to do with jesters’ caps.

Paper wrapper (From Paper in Printing History, Lindenmeyr Paper Corp. 1979)

For what its worth my bet is that the name — which obviously has to come from somewhere* — results from a wrapper put around sheets of paper of this sort of size and merchandised by a medieval papermaker with a jester’s cap on the label. See the wrapper in this picture: the paper it contained could easily have been called “lion”. By their very nature disposables like this very rarely survive, just as word origins for commonplace articles are infrequently recorded.

It  also seems difficult to be absolutely precise about the measurement of foolscap. I suspect that different manufacturers chopped it off at different points depending on convenience. In my size comparison with legal paper not only does the term foolscap appear to be becoming rare; legal sheets of paper seem to be at risk of disappearing. As the site informs us “Nowadays with the proliferation of cheap printers Legal paper is becoming less common as the cost of having two paper trays in a printer is significantly greater than just having one and Letter size paper is winning out when printers only have a single tray.”


* I fear that the history of British (and other) paper names is far too convoluted, extensive (and be it confessed, confusing) to be adequately covered in a blog post. The site, linked to above, makes a stab at it via the tabs in the gray bar at the top. I did have a partial go in the early days of this blog.

“’For one glorious evening, the book and its author are fully alive. And then, the morning after, everyone can get on with their lives . . . The printed book is a democratic object’, they argue, but one being ‘pushed to the margins’ as some publishers are trying to save the book ‘by turning it into a luxury item’; a desirable object prized for its commercial value rather than its contents.”

Such is the justification of Icelandic publishers Dagur Hjartarson and Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson for their policy of printing only on the night of a full moon; printing only 69 copies; and then burning all copies which remain unsold after that one night. The Guardian story doesn’t disclose how many copies they actually do manage to sell on the night, or their pricing policy. Despite their claim that the author on that night is also “fully alive”, we do not see any hint that writers are encouraged to join their unsold volumes on the brandy-fuelled pyre.

Giving the books to the hungry so they could benefit from the calories they contain does not unfortunately seem to be an option. Quora calculates that a 500 page paperback contains a mere 0.53 calories. Clearly not worth the effort of biting into: better to release those calories as heat.(Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers.)

Tunglið, the name they have chosen for their company, actually means moon in Icelandic.

This story seems to be very popular: I suppose it is quaintly odd — one of these stories where I automatically checked the date to make sure it wasn’t 1 April.

I also did a post about Icelandic writer’s itch a few years ago. Getting rid of books like Tunglið do may help alleviate the “over-writing” phenomenon by stimulating more publishing activity as a result of creating space in the marketplace.

We are all aware, aren’t we, that the mind is capable of making sense of a partial view of a line of type? Apparently it’s the bottom half we can do without.

I had never considered the question of whether this trick works in scripts other than our Roman/Italic versions. Israeli designer Liron Levi Turkenich did, and found that with Hebrew letters this works when we can see the bottom half of a word, while in Arabic the opposite is true. So she’s worked up a combo which one might hope would be readable by readers of either script. WNYC’s Shumita Basu had a story about this on 31 May. There’s a subtitled video at that link too.

I wonder about other scripts. What about Cyrillic? To be certain I’d need to be a more fluent reader than my couple of years in night school fifty years ago have left me, but I doubt it. Greek? Probably not. Certainly not Hangul. With Chinese, would a comparable test involve covering up the left half or the right half, rather than top or bottom? Either way I can’t imagine it would work.

Maybe this is a way forward for translations though? Ms Turkenich does suggest using the 638 new characters of her “Aravrit” combo typeface on road signs and government buildings.

Apparently this isn’t the only trick our minds can pull on us:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

From the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge.