The Failure of Fine Printing

Bruce's picture

My friend Michael Russem is a printer and book designer in central Massachusetts, proprietor of the Kat Ran Press. He recently wrote an article for the Caxton Club's journal and just emailed me the link. He contrasts the preciousness of materials in fine press books (which remain largely unread) with the lowly paperback (crummy materials, but read with gusto). Interesting stuff, which we've all thought about before, but Michael puts it down in a compelling way.

To download a small PDF (395 KB) of this issue, go here (the article is on pages 1-3):

blank's picture

He's right. Hell, I don't even take my Easton Press stuff off the shelf very often because hefty leatherbound editions are best read on a large table, and the few old delicate books that I own never leave the shelf at all.

Lately I've been wondering how close we are to a final, total demise of the letterpress. Most of what I see done on letterpress is, at best, kitsch; invitations done for the wealthy on paper with a thickness and texture akin to Styrofoam so that an unmissable, ostentatious, and often gaudy impression will overshadow the letters themselves. This does a wonderful job of reminding anyone who actually knows what a letterpress is that the invitation was absurdly expensive, but it's no less kitsch than a shadowbox full of seashells collected on vacation. I'm pretty sure that, as this continues, it will result in the letterpress being looked down on as the Beadazzler of the early 21st century, everything letterpress will go out of style, and the only remaining presses will be in museums.

Maurice Meilleur's picture

Bruce, I'm really glad you posted this, because it's almost the reverse image of a complaint I have against another genre of printing--academic publishing.

As a political theorist, and hence a reader who swims professionally in almost exclusively academic waters, I am constantly disappointed in the quality of academic publishing, and dismayed by the near-complete numbness of the academic world to this problem. The typography in the average academic press book ranges from ho-hum mediocre to downright terrible: bad wordspacing, long measures with tiny font sizes and too little leading, text blocks running to within 3/4 of an inch of the page's edge on all sides, lining figures in running text, and so on--all of this making for a really unenjoyable reading experience, even with the best of content. (And that's not even to mention the copyediting, the quality of which has declined notably over the last 30 years.)

The books are almost always large octavo formats, and so hard to hold in the hand, and the paperback editions are usually badly tape-bound, relying on so much glue that the books are hard to open without snapping the spine. The covers are usually laminated (and often cheaply so), virtually guaranteeing that during the summer high humidity will bow the covers outwards from the page block.

Now, if I were to share these complaints with my colleagues, they would look at me as if I had just stepped off a flying saucer. Books to too many academics are nothing more than vehicles for raw information in a form that tenure committees recognize. There is often little enough pleasure in reading the actual material (a longstanding problem in academe); but even in the case of really fine monographs, there is virtually no pleasure in the physical act of reading itself. That these books are just unpleasant artifacts seems to faze no one--but which came first, the bad book or the insensate reader?

So: we have fine press books that people treat like fragile antiques and never read, and books that are supposed to be the lifeblood of vocations like mine are made badly for a largely insensitive audience. (I think the last academic to make a big stink over how his books were made was Christopher Lasch, he of The Culture of Narcissism fame.)

Maybe we need a new movement: back to fine--god, even just competent--typography and durable and usable bookmaking in trade and academic publishing. And maybe if we could show people who use books for a living that there is a difference between a badly-made book and a well-made book, we could generate more support for the well-made ones--and hence for the kind of skills that are now relegated to the world of the fine press and the book-as-museum-piece.

Ah, but I know: the world is becoming digital, and we are all dinosaurs for wanting it otherwise . . .

Nick Shinn's picture

Maurice, you should revel in your fastidious and unpopular taste, rather than lament that the satanic mill massive is oblivious to the finer things in life.

For your movement, will all research be conducted soley by reference to beautiful, well-written books? That would kind of like Dogme 95!

jason's picture

Yes, of course, the end of letterpress and the futility of fine printing; blah, blah, blah.

Why is it that the result of honest skill and dedication is deemed pointless (even offensive) if it doesn't appeal to a large market and thus turn a large profit?

And, true enough, many a press is embarrassed by its owner through forced-labor trashy invitations, but what does that have to do with those producing well designed & made books?

Stop by Wessel & Lieberman in Seattle and browse their selection of contemporary fine-press books and you'll see that there are many folks out there doing their Vandercooks & C&Ps proud. Such books are, of course, primarily collectors' objects, and I share a certain irritation that such books remain largely unseen due to price, yet they are the sum and result of a desire to create, not a hunger to produce & sell.

Personally my frustration with fine-press books is the quality of the content (normally either reproductions of public-domain "classics" or vanity projects for well-known authors), but there are some addressing this problem by focusing on contemporary writing by emerging writers.

The academic/trade market, on the other hand, suffers from both sides of the fence: for the most part the design & production is mass-market, in-house-bungled crap and the words enclosed aren't of any better quality. It's a sad state all around.

But I prefer to pull aside a small bit of each for my own enjoyment: I run a small press producing limited edition poetry collections, and I freelance for a number of Canadian academic & trade publishers who care enough about their product to invest some time & money in their production. On both fronts I have the opportunity to make decent books, and I know I'm lucky to be in this position. I also know that the vast majority of people couldn't care less about such things, and so I appreciate all the more the position I find myself in.

There is little or no point in bemoaning the sad state of the book in today's culture, because the majority of people will never much care. There is only one reason to toil in these fields, and that's if you enjoy the labor and the fruit it yields.

Dan Gayle's picture

How much of the blame for the decline in letterpress can be put directly on the printer's shoulders? Recently I had a chance to look at some of Robert Bringhurst's newest books. They were absolutely gorgeous. Fantastic. Marvelous.

And yet...

They cost over a $1000 each, so even those of us who CAN appreciate fine presswork never get a chance to actually appreciate the books by that long lost skill called reading. I know I never will. I'll probably never even see them again.

I love the idea of a middle ground. High quality books that don't suck to read AND own.

[EDIT: I just remembered that you, Jason, saw them also. Didn't recognize your new avatar.]

katzenjammer's picture

I agree very much with the article - and yet I can't help wondering if this was always so.

The books that we have from, say, the Renaissance - weren't they just as rare then, as now? Isn't it true that most of the books that people actually read in the past are lost to history? That the books that lasted are those that sat on shelves? Did anyone ever actually curl up with a gorgeous hand-tooled leather book? I imagine that fine books were so expensive that very few people were allowed to touch them, much less scribble in them.

So perhaps "fine books" always got in the way of content???

Personally, I wish we would return to the way that the printing houses in France (at least up until a few years ago) operate: the paperbacks are still the first run; and hardbacks are only run once (and if) a certain market is guaranteed. This works out well because then both the paperbacks & the hardbacks are actually of a very high quality.

Maurice Meilleur's picture

Nick, when I'm king, all academic books will be published by Hyphen, Hartley & Marks, and Princeton Architectural. I'd be glad to forgo cloth editions for their paperbacks. Especially Hyphen's. (Oh, and we'll have a different president down here, too.)

As for the reveling--I'm doing it right now.

I swear--if I had access to the funds and the expertise, I would start my own academic press tomorrow.

Bruce's picture

Yes, Katzenjammer, I think it was always so.

It was certainly true in the fervor of the 1920s. I'm writing a biography of W. A. Dwiggins and wanted to understand the cauldron of artists, printers, impressarios, honest businesspeople, visionaries, and hucksters that he entered as he began to design fine editions (in the later 1920s). I bought Megan Benton's book, Beauty and the Book, to see what I could learn about the period and boy it is wonderful! Very focused on that time, and not just on the personalities of the producers (Grabhorns, Limited Editions Club, Covici-Freide, Bennett Cerf, Knopf, WAD, Bruce Rogers, etc.) but also on the aspirations and habits of the buying public. A very eye-opening read for me, and I strongly recommend it to any of you who may have an interest in this topic.

Completely agree about the garden-variety nrf/Gallimard paperbacks produced in France. Gorgeous stuff. This was very much on Dwiggins's mind when he did the famous booklet about the decline of quality in the book trade, and over many years he tirelessly promoted the idea of paperbacks, since more money could be devoted to quality production materials and design than if the publisher had to pay for a case, stamping, and a jacket.

Jason, I do not get your taking Michael's article and interpreting him as saying that this is all about turning a large profit. He's talking about READING. All of us in this little community make these books as artfully as we can, to be sure, and we celebrate the materials, the letterspacing, the perfect impression that is not like braille, the 300-line duotones, but we also wish for the book to be read. Michael is successful at what he does, and wishing it were yet more, somehow different in potency once it arrives in the houshold of the new owner. Like Jason, I consider myself to be very lucky that I get to be involved with a wide variety of titles and with clients who (in general) really value my thoughts and the use of high-quality materials.

Dan mentions books that cost over $1000. For me the most interesting challenge is in making books that cost a fraction of that: David Godine's list comes to mind as representing an almost obsessive dedication to wringing the highest quality and design out of books that have to compete at the $25 to $60 price point. He has gone along on a shoestring since 1970, and he's still doing it the same way. This focus of activity means books can still reach the informed reading public without being completely out of reach for 99% of them, and yet they represent at least some of the values that we associate with the fine press tradition.

It isn't just fine editions that are unread. I have worked for many years on a personal project that has to do with Provence: Alphonse Daudet's Letters from my Mill illustrated with my black-and-white photographs. (I posted a spread from this a while back.) In doing some background study on Daudet, I found on a set of his complete works (in English translation). They were only $2 apiece, so I bought a dozen volumes. When they arrived, I discovered that they had been published by The Athenaeum Society in 1898, and acquired by the library at California Baptist College (Riverside, California). When I bought the books in 1997 -- just under a hundred years later -- it was like a stab to the heart: every book was uncut. They all had card pockets in the back (cards had been removed) but no one had ever opened them. I can only guess that the other volumes in the set were also uncut.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. Here is a set in a library that was never opened. And yet I am hoping to publish a new edition of one of Daudet's books and want people to discover this author's gentleness, wit and descriptive powers. And I would like for readers to learn about Provence from someone other than Peter Mayle! It is a public-domain "classic" but does that mean it is not worth reading? I think there is room for both classics and modern material, and it's more the quality of that material that we should promote or demand than considering its popularity or age.

What stimulates me about Michael's article -- written for Chicago's Caxton Club of book collectors -- is that he's seeing each side capable of stimulating the other, through cross-fertilization, perhaps through some of the same practitioners doing both kinds of things (just as Jason does, and as I'm sure a number of people here do). Dwiggins worked for LEC and the Overbrook Press on very fancy titles, but he was such a populist, he actually loved best of all doing things for Peter Pauper Press and other publishers who sold the work at affordable prices. For him that was the greatest use: make it gorgeous and readable and affordable; making it gorgeous with no expense spared isn't as much fun.

If we all continue to think about the ways we can influence the "indifferent-design" sectors of the market (e.g. Maurice sending encouraging letters to the academic presses and suggesting it wouldn't cost much more to do it handsomely and the results would even be easier to read) and at the same time really encourage the fine press crowd to be thoughtful about text selection, we can bring the two poles closer together and have them share points of excellence in common.

I hope I haven't droned on for too long.

speter's picture

Maurice, we started our press when we were graduate students because of the horribly-produced books we could barely afford to buy. The clincher was a book (by a publisher I won't name) that had a cover featuring yellow type on a white background.


Maurice Meilleur's picture

Steve, I'm glad to know my idea isn't totally crazy. My personal pet peeve right now--and it breaks my heart--is a book by Ronald Beiner published by Chicago University Press in 1983 titled Political Judgment. At 200 pages, it's not too bad an octavo at 6 x 9; it has a nice full cloth binding, the stock is a lovely cream color and the text is set in Centaur. (Centaur, can you believe it? And in hot lead, too.)

But: you can park a truck in the word spaces.

That's kind of an older example. I will say that the norm now is simply mediocrity; at least CUP swung for the fences with the Beiner book. For the last 10 years, it's been mostly $45 all-paper hardcovers set in 10/12 Sabon with up to 30-pica measures. (But hey, the paper is acid-free, so they'll look bad 100 years from now, too.)

Bruce reminded me of Godine. When I'm king, he cam publish academic texts, too.

Seriously, apropos David's and Bruce's posts: why can't we have trade paperpacks like Hyphen's for everyone, including academics? I suspect for the trade titles it has to do with marketing and art design for the covers, and this is probably increasingly true for academic titles, too; but instead of selling 300 copies of a badly-made book that you have to sell for $50 (or if you're Blackwell or Cambridge, $70) because you're only going to sell 300 copies of it, why not have a well-made book you can sell 7500 copies of for $20?

katzenjammer's picture

Sometimes I hope we'll go towards a dual system:

1. one channel for ephemeral (Moore/Coulter type books, pop magazines, etc) writing, downloaded to various media, (including e-paper, if it ever comes!), and stored on networks for later retrieval.

2. And, then, for works that people actually want to return to often, finer and more specialized books than we currently produce.

>I’m writing a biography of W. A. Dwiggins

@Bruce, I'm so glad to hear this - very much looking forward to it.

DTY's picture

As a political theorist, and hence a reader who swims professionally in almost exclusively academic waters, I am constantly disappointed in the quality of academic publishing, and dismayed by the near-complete numbness of the academic world to this problem.

The physical quality of academic books is something I've struggled with on both sides, as a consumer and as a producer. Some of it there's no excuse for, but much of the problem is unfortunately dictated by the financial realities. Most academic books sell only a few hundred copies. There simply won't be very many people who want to buy the latest work on ancient Roman military brick stamps or whatever. And this isn't very flexible: most of those people will buy it no matter how grotty it looks, and making it look nicer isn't going to sell many more copies. But the price does matter; if the price goes high enough nobody will buy it except research libraries.

And when you work out the costs of labor, printing, transport, and so on, for a print run of typically 500 copies, the total cost is generally higher than the wholesale price that can be realistically charged. Partly this is expected to be made up for by the few books that do sell in quantity, but the suit-wearing people increasingly object to operating this way, and want everything to break even at least. So the publishers cut costs wherever they can, by making narrower margins and using cheap bindings but above all by cutting the labor costs. That results in situations like one I've been part of - I'm an editor, I've never studied graphic design and have no prior experience in it nor any talent for it, but I've ended up doing interior designs of books simply because there was no money in the budget to pay for a real designer, except for the dust jacket. My response was to read Bringhurst, Hochuli & Kinross, etc., on my own time, and try to do a nice job as far as I could, but some other people I know of in that situation simply put together designs that look like Word documents. And yet it could have been worse - some books I know of never even got properly edited - after editorial review of content they went straight to layout without having any real copyediting.

Seriously, apropos David’s and Bruce’s posts: why can’t we have trade paperpacks like Hyphen’s for everyone, including academics? I suspect for the trade titles it has to do with marketing and art design for the covers, and this is probably increasingly true for academic titles, too; but instead of selling 300 copies of a badly-made book that you have to sell for $50 (or if you’re Blackwell or Cambridge, $70) because you’re only going to sell 300 copies of it, why not have a well-made book you can sell 7500 copies of for $20?

That gets at the core of the problem. Hyphen can't get away with that sort of shoddy work because for their market, the presentation is a part of the message. But academic book purchasing is mainly driven by the text itself (or by the author's name, on a cynical day), regardless of its presentation. It's really a choice of selling 300 copies of a badly made book for $70 or selling 100 copies of a well made book for $120. It may be different in political theory - maybe a significant proportion of books in the professional literature there would sell 7500 copies if they were attractive enough - but in the stuff I have some experience with as either a consumer or producer that would never happen.

And to return to the letterpress topic, I did recently work as an editor on a book that is being printed by letterpress. This is solely because the author is wealthy and wanted to make it as nice an object as possible. The topic is only semi-academic, but it's still in that category of books that only a few hundred people in the world are going to want to buy, no matter what it costs or what it looks like. So it's being produced nicely solely because the author is paying for the cost of production personally.

I swear—if I had access to the funds and the expertise, I would start my own academic press tomorrow.

Me too, but I'd need a lot of funds because I'd be losing so much money on it :)

katzenjammer's picture

>making it look nicer isn’t going to sell many more copies.

Thanks archaica. So then I wonder: why not just produce these books as paperbacks, along the lines of a decent quality Gallimard - and put the money into the book itself, and less into the jacket/spine's eye candy?

Bruce's picture

Archaica, my hat is off to you for taking that on with your own time, sweat and blood.

I wonder if someone could simply generate a few templates that these guys could use -- the ones who don't want to take the time to read Bringhurst et al -- and although each book would not sing with a clear and pure voice, the overall appearance would be raised to a better level. And after all, in the end, the goal is for the message of the author to be communicated as well as possible, so if they can be convinced that the books will be easier to read, then wouldn't they do it? (Previous sentence is a paraphrase of Stanley Morison's, of course.) Then again, maybe some of them are completely blind to the issues of readability.

Agreed once more with you, katzenjammer. I almost never buy hardcover books because they are held together only by the endpapers! In my mind a book block with smythsewn construction and a drawn-on paper cover is the way to go. Trouble is, the perceived value of the hardcover/jacketed book is much higher when the potential buyer sees it on the bookseller's shelf, so the publishers can justify charging more for it. Whereas a "mere paperback" has a hard time justifying a high price, even when it has beautiful design, acid-free paper, sewn construction, etc. It seems to be a matter of education, hipping the buyer to what ought to be seen as important. Dover used to do this on the back covers of their paperbacks (even though the subsequent decades have not been kind to many of my Dover books . . .)

DTY's picture

Thanks archaica. So then I wonder: why not just produce these books as paperbacks, along the lines of a decent quality Gallimard - and put the money into the book itself, and less into the jacket/spine’s eye candy?

The difference in production costs between paperback and hardcover isn't as large as the difference between them in price that people are willing to pay, so publishers can often get a higher net return on hardcover, if they're willing to put more investment in up front. The jacket/cover is fairly trivial in terms of the total costs; it probably doesn't make much difference for sales either, but the marketing/distribution people only look at the outside of the book....

There are basically two models for academic publishing now, in my experience. Traditional academic publishers like major university presses generally print the book in hardcover, but then reprint it (from the same plates) in paperback for a lower price if it sells well. The hardcover edition is priced to recoup most of the labor costs, selling at a higher price than would be acceptable for a paperback. They could afford to do a nicer job of it if they wanted to invest the money in it, and many of them used to, but the suit-wearers want them to cut costs as much as possible so that even the titles that don't sell enough for a paperback don't lose much money.

On the other hand, since the advent of desktop publishing, there have also sprung up a lot of small academic publishers that do publish paperback-only books. These small outfits, though, are almost entirely publishing books that won't sell more than a few hundred copies, and they usually have such a small cash flow that the operation consists of literally one or two people, with at least one of those people being an academic or ex-academic who probably doesn't know anything about design. So there's a shortage of both skills and time that precludes nicer work, generally. But I think this is where change could happen.

Maurice Meilleur's picture

Yes, archaica--that's wonderful for you to take the time to do it right.

I don't want to give the impression that I don't care about the economics. Things are pretty tight right now in the publishing industry, and academic presses have to balance their mission to get manuscripts into print in service to scholarship with the realities of a market economy that increasingly refuses to accept quality over profit. They can't afford to decide that they're going to make books like the ones in the Oak Knoll catalog.

But actually, the biggest problem is that libraries have less money to spend on books; their costs for journals have skyrocketed. 40 years ago an academic publisher could depend on libraries across the country picking up title as a matter of course; now institutions have to be a lot more picky.

So yes, a lot of things would have to happen: in academic publishing, I'd like to see journals go digital, to put downward pressure on their costs (though a lot of their price also reflects "what the market will bear"). But why can't we work the other end, too, and make decent-quality paperbacks the norm? At a price point in the $20-25 range, it would be easier for libraries and individuals to justify buying them, which could reinforce that price point, etc.

I have to plead ignorance: even small savings are still savings; why can't presses simply adopt Gallimard's model, as David (katzenjammer) suggests, and stop making hardcovers altogether except in case of those titles that really take off--and why even then? It would be easier to educate librarians about the advantages of this, and that's where most of the money in academic publishing comes from.

How much more cost are we talking about to take the layout and typesetting to someone who knows what they're doing? I'm not talking about having Kat Ran or Easton do it, but someone--like Jason, like lots of folks on these boards--who knows typesetting. I can see one difference: that a well-set book would have larger margins and leading than what we get now, which means I guess more pages, even with tighter wordspacing; what else would change the cost?

Do academic titles simply virtually always lose money, so that it wouldn't matter how they were bound or set? Because if that's the case, then we're in much bigger trouble than I thought.

I agree it would be easier to convince smaller publishers of the wonders of good paperback bindings and quality typesetting, but they face different pressures, for the reasons you mention, and for others, too.

Bruce: I wish I could join you in eschewing hardcovers, but unfortunately, for most of the stuff I buy, that's a bigger step down. And I remember what Dover used to put on their covers: "This is a permanent book." I also remember not liking those covers very much because of how thick the lamination was.

Maurice Meilleur's picture

Bruce, I'm drawn to your idea of charitable typesetting. But what would it take to make publishers pay attention? Would the readability arguments alone suffice?

charles ellertson's picture

I've pretty much stayed out of this one -- I agree with about 50% with what Mr. Meilleur says, but delineating just which parts & why would take a long time. Plus, I've always felt that fine print books were meant to be looked at rather than read, as with other visual works of art. And ever since an Oak Knoll author quoted a portion of an email I sent to someone other than the author, without permission, and out of context (it was a follow-up to a phone call), they're on my ignore list.

Aside from all those grumbles,

>>Do academic titles simply virtually always lose money, so that it wouldn’t matter how they were bound or set? Because if that’s the case, then we’re in much bigger trouble than I thought.>>

Yes of course they always lose money. The original mission of a University Press was to publish books worthy of publication that, due to economic reasons, would not otherwise be published. There has been a lot of pressure by the Universities in recent years for University Presses to do better at cost recovery, and there have been many changes at the presses themselves.

To Mr. Meilleur:

It looks like you are at Illinois. It may interest you to know that you have a press director, Bill Regier, who is both knowledgeable about the issues you discuss, and sympathetic toward some of them; and an Art Director, Cope Cumpston, who feels likewise. Illinois decided to take composition in house sometime during the 1990s. This was a move to save money, not to better control typesetting. Many other presses have made similar decisions.

I’d note that word spacing is a function of how many word spaces are in a line, not a function of the line length. The tendency of academic authors to use jargon makes a goal of “even spacing” difficult (regardless of whether you prefer tight or loose). To use a word like “hegeminization” for example, hurts even word spacing because it replaces three or four smaller words (all of which come, perforce, with spaces). It isn’t the length of the word that hurts so much – it has four hyphenation points, after all – but the lack of word spaces that hurts composition of academic prose.

Something similar with the complaint on tight leading and 3/4 inch margins. First of all, I assume you are bemoaning the foot margin. A 3/4-inch head margin would be too much. It is about right for a gutter margin with a Smyth-sewn book (optically, you loose some of this in the binding); maybe a tad small for a fore-edge margin, and way too small for a foot margin. But if you increase the leading and still want 2,700 characters per page, the foot margin has to suffer. In point of fact, I think the current fashion or 10/15 looks rather silly anyway, but I seem to be one small voice . . .

Charles Ellertson

DTY's picture

I wonder if someone could simply generate a few templates that these guys could use — the ones who don’t want to take the time to read Bringhurst et al — and although each book would not sing with a clear and pure voice, the overall appearance would be raised to a better level.

This is a really interesting idea. For some of the small outfits, I think this sort of help would be quite welcome. The cost of a nice binding may be beyond their means, but for a question of one layout vs. another, it's really a question of raising their awareness of the issue, and making it easy for them to do something about it.

Do academic titles simply virtually always lose money, so that it wouldn’t matter how they were bound or set? Because if that’s the case, then we’re in much bigger trouble than I thought

The books lose money more often than not. The loss on the average book gets made up for in two ways: by occasionally publishing a book that gets widely assigned to students as required reading and by charging very high prices for library subscriptions to journals. The latter, of course, just creates other problems for sales, as you point out. But because most of the books are going to lose money, there's not much incentive to invest a lot of labor in them up front.

Nick Shinn's picture

Trade books, both hard and soft cover, suffer from a general lack of typographic attention to the inside pages too, most of the design money being spent on the cover. That wouldn't be so bad if (a) the defaults were nicer, and (b) there was more variety of faces.

There is some connection between these, as the go-to faces are not only lacking in what are, for book publishing, basic features, but also incredibly prosaic -- whether Times Roman, or ITC Berkeley (e.g., Harry Potter with faux small caps). Even venerable Bembo is oft emaciated.

For the defaults, a typeface with proper small caps, superior figures, and optically scaled font for footnotes would seem to be a minimum requirement for academic publishing.

Maybe an awards program would be a good carrot.

Somebody could also publish a package of templates with fonts (call me...)

There was a woman posted at Typophile recently, re some pages in a commercial work she sets and publishes, a drug compendium if I recall correctly, who showed that it is possible to put all the bits and pieces together properly.

jason's picture

Bruce, I should admit (and I do apologize for this) that my response above was knee-jerk prior to reading Michael's article; it was simply aimed at a strange hostility I sometimes encounter towards well made books -- as though putting such effort into a book is somehow suspect, elitist, offensive, creepy. Yet I have the same reaction towards people who spend $5000 on a set of shiny rims that keep spinning when their Escalades come to a stop.

Regarding providing templates for academic presses, I've done a couple of projects where I was hired to create such a template (from the ground up: branding/identity, stationary, website, book template with stylesheets) and what seemed to inevitably happen is that the application of the template broke down and the projects wound up looking sloppy, which in some ways is worse than just being poorly designed to begin with.

This may, of course, have been my failing in producing a template that was too demanding, but even a modicum of typographic decorum requires a certain level of skill.

To those of us on this forum, the long list of typesetting "rules" is such common knowledge that much of the work is done without much thought, but that is simply a result of experience.

For example, let's say I've created a stylesheet for contributor's biographies, and I've built in a nested style for the bio-name to be set in spaced small caps, which are to end after one en-dash (as a break between name and bio). What happens if the in-house person who has been stuck with implementing the template has no idea what an en-dash is or how to insert one? Now those small caps span the paragraph and the poor sap is left twitching at their desk.

Sure, a detailed list of typesetting specs would help, but such a list quickly becomes so overwhelming that the sap either takes forever to implement the thing (thus running up costs and dragging out deadlines), or they simply collapse at their desk in tears. Under these conditions the template ends up either crippled or discarded as too much trouble.

My point here is that if it were so easy to do this stuff well, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Personally my beef with academic production is that half the bloody design budget goes to the cover, which doesn't make any sense. These books, for the most part, aren't even available in stores, so "impulse buying" has nothing to do with it. As has been said above, academic books are primarily purchased for the text inside, so why not put the design budget between the covers and simply keep to a simple rendition of the titlepage for the wrapper?

But, here I am barking typographic dogma at the wind. "Why won't the world demand better books! Better books for all! And shiny, spinning rims too!"

Maurice Meilleur's picture


And a pony. You forgot to ask for a pony.

Linda Cunningham's picture

And world peace. ;-)

arb's picture

I work in academic publishing, at a press that publishes upwards of 110 books a year (we also have a robust journals division, but I'm addressing books here). Charles_e has already made a good reply to Maurice and others, but I have a few small things to add in reply to several posters:

"And maybe if we could show people who use books for a living that there is a difference between a badly-made book and a well-made book, we could generate more support for the well-made ones"

Our authors and readers seem to know the difference. They comment on it all the time when we take our books to annual academic meetings, which is where our main audience gathers.

"Nick, when I’m king, all academic books will be published by Hyphen, Hartley & Marks, and Princeton Architectural."

Are you kidding? I will always be grateful to H&M for their nice pbk editions of Dowding, Tschichold, Bringhurst, and the like, but you know that's not where they make their money, right? The also put out a line of blank journals called Paperblanks that are sold at Barnes & Noble-type stores across the country. Hyphen puts out how many books a year? A handful? And when PAP starts putting out "all academic books" (yes I know you're just dreaming), well, I am pretty sure they won't look like PAP anymore.

"but instead of selling 300 copies of a badly-made book that you have to sell for $50 (or if you’re Blackwell or Cambridge, $70) because you’re only going to sell 300 copies of it, why not have a well-made book you can sell 7500 copies of for $20?"

Do you truly think that being "well-made" will take a book that would otherwise sell a disappointing 300 copies and turn it into what I can assure you would be considered a raging success for a press our size? I wish you were right, but I just can't imagine it.

"Personally my beef with academic production is that half the bloody design budget goes to the cover, which doesn’t make any sense. These books, for the most part, aren’t even available in stores, so “impulse buying” has nothing to do with it. As has been said above, academic books are primarily purchased for the text inside, so why not put the design budget between the covers and simply keep to a simple rendition of the titlepage for the wrapper?"

Academic press books are indeed available in stores. Covers mean a lot to our authors and our readers (we know because they tell us), and they mean a lot to the bookstore buyers we must pitch the books to each season. As for "half the design budget goes to the cover," yes, that's roughly the case. It's a measure of how much we value the cover as a sales tool and as part of our "brand." But keep in mind that the manufacture of the cover or jacket represents a much smaller fraction of the total manufacturing cost. The bulk of the overall book budget still goes to paper, printing, and binding.

And finally,

"My point here is that if it were so easy to do this stuff well, we wouldn’t be having this discussion."


elizabeth_355's picture

There was a woman posted at Typophile recently, re some pages in a commercial work she sets and publishes, a drug compendium if I recall correctly, who showed that it is possible to put all the bits and pieces together properly.

If my posting was the one you were talking about ... MeDiCaLeSe 2006 is a reference book for medical transcriptionists. Most medical transcription books are notoriously ugly & sell anyway. I sincerely doubt that my attempts at good typography & design have done anything to increase sales of my books. I did them to please myself & if people outside of the transcription biz like them, I'm delighted.

Elizabeth Dearborn

Maurice Meilleur's picture

Amy: My bad for conflating two things, quality and price point. I don't think improving the quality of a book's design and manufacture would increase its sales 25-fold. I do think reducing its price would increase its sales, including especially among libraries, which (as you know) have always been the biggest patrons of academic presses.

And I wondered really how much more it would cost to have books that are well-designed and manufactured, and why academics don't insist on higher quality. I would never presume to argue that presses like yours don't face a lot of problems, or to slight the bargains and compromises they have had to make to stay alive; the question is, what can we do to change it? And I also don't want to give the impression that all academic presses are of equal quality, or that there are never exceptions to the sweeping generalizations I made. They aren't, and there are.

But it still concerns me to see the overall level of quality where it is. And given the point of the article that Bruce posted to start this thread off, we know there are people out there with the skills to make books better whose work is underused and underappreciated.

I am dreaming, maybe, and I don't really think Hyphen could take over from Duke or Penn or Cambridge. But I raised the questions not just to vent, but to invite people who know more about this--like you, like Charles, like David and David--to chime in and tell us what's what.

bieler's picture

When I read Michael's article (before this thread appeared), I dismissed it. Michael's complaint as I recall, was that collector's didn't read his finely produced books. So his conclusion seemed to be that the paperback book was superior because it was read. I have to admit I thought the article self-promotion. If one has faith in the work it can easily be issued in both fine press and trade edition; thus satisfying whatever the needs of the printer/publisher.

The concerns of a fine press publisher should be high quality, both in materials, design, and production. The concern is after all, the book at its finest. But that does not need restrict their offerings.

In regards to Michael's argument, I thought he was confusing technologies with the primarily obligation of a publisher; to produce a book that will be read, and purchased for that reason. As a fine press publisher I am well aware that one does not have to reproduce the classics but rather publish something that folks will want to read. A publisher of merit is going to go by their own instincts (which are not always going to be the same as the buying public), but it really does not matter what technology is considered. One can easily produce a fine press book, trade book or digital book simultaneously. If there is readership, it will be found, if not, well then, not all obviously agree with the publisher's instincts (at least, not at the time).

Like Jason, for many years I published folks I thought had merit, no matter how well known they were or how salable I thought the book would be. A lot of those folks had never been published before. I am quite surprised, that after some 30 years in the business, many of these folks have risen in the ranks. One of my authors was recently appointed US Poet Laureate and Pulizter Price winner. Imagine my surprise when books that had been sitting in storage for over a decade and a half, started selling like they were new again (actually better than that, like they were a best-seller). Eventually the trade version of the book sold out (it was printed in both limited edition and trade paperback edition) and I sold the reprint rights to a University publisher. I like the royalties but my god, they put no effort whatsoever into reproducing the thing. I offered them the letterpress repros. They preferred to scan pages from the trade offset edition (which was quite well done). Their reproduction was more than a bit sloppy and heartbreaking). But, then again, they are getting it out there to folks who want it. And I simply did not have the resources to do that.

There are many ways to produce books, one is not any more better an approach than another. One approaches it from whatever their perspective is. They all have their merits and demerits. Personally, I favor outsider art books. No thought to design, typography, production; just passion.


devils son's picture

"Why academics don’t insist on higher quality?"

Unfortunately, academics in general are no more aware of type and design than the average person. As a professor who tries to generate thoughtfully designed documents for students and for the bureaucratic gristmill, I am constantly amazed by the lack of consciousness on the part of my colleagues regarding the simplest elements of type and design. Their syllabi, class handouts, course proposals, grant proposals, etc., are simply instrumentalities for the delivery of information. Often downright ugly. They rarely see books (even their own!) in a different way.

Significantly, this failure on the part of academics makes their documents, whose purpose is to persuade or impress (grant proposals and curricula vitae, etc.), less effective.

Michael Lieberman's picture

What a great thread. Here was my response to Michael's article that appeared on my blog Book Patrol.

I received an email the other day from Michael Russem the proprietor of the KatRan Press alerting me to an article he wrote that was just published in Caxtonian, the journal for the legendary Chicago book group the Caxton Club. The article is titled "The Failure of Fine Printing: Why the beautiful book isn't so beautiful, and the ugly book isn't so ugly".
An intriguing title that is destined to stir up the book community.

My first thought was to question the timing of the article and the email. Next week marks the First Biennial Book Fair & Symposium of the Codex Foundation in San Francisco. The foundation "exists to preserve and promote the art and craft of the book. [Whose] mission is educational and, in the broadest possible context, to bring to public recognition the artisanship and the rich history of the book." The symposium is titled The Fate of the Art, The Hand Printed Book in the 21st Century. I guess he is weighing in a little early.

The argument Russem puts forth is that basically no one reads the books he and other fine press printers make. His take on the Form vs. Content debate is that Content wins and that is why the "paperback will continue to be the book of our time" and no one will read the fine press book.

There are a couple of issues that the article raises:

The first and most important is the issue of readers vs. collectors.

This is the primary issue that separates the new book community from the non-new and antiquarian book community. One caters to readers the other to collectors and rarely the twain shall meet. This is the biggest hurdle facing the bookselling industry today. Once these communities join forces the prospect of being a successful bookseller and selling fine press books will rise dramatically.

As it stands fine press books are purchased almost exclusively by collectors and libraries. Most collectors can't read all the books they buy and most library special collections won't even allow the book to be checked out so somebody can read it!

The next question one might ask is:
Why are fine press books only sold for the most part by antiquarian booksellers?
This will ensure limited exposure which will only perpetuate the problem.

On the Fine Books blog Scott Brown shares his take on the issue and says the reason people don't read them is "because you can't read them. They are simply too fragile. Despite the quality of the materials, the average trade paperback (not mass market - I'm referring to the larger paperbacks used for quality fiction) is better made, sturdier, and will hold up better over time."

I have to disagree with him here. It might be true that some contemporary artist's books are simply to fragile to read or handle often but a fine press book should stand up to repeated use and is clearly superior to a trade paperback in its composition.

I have been selling fine press and artist books for over 15 years and I don't believe for a minute that fine printing is failing, if anything it is alive and well and prospering.

If there is a failure it is the failure of the retail book community to expose these beautiful creations to readers!

Of course the fine press publishers can also do a better job of marketing but this falls outside the skill set of most fine press publishers.

The other issue raised here, but that will have to wait for a future post, is the hardback vs. paperback battle. It has been going on for years in the publishing industry and I hope to tackle it here soon.

Book Patrol appears here:
and at the Seattle PI website here:

katzenjammer's picture

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your post! The film clip on your blog is hilarious.

It seems to me, though, that the original article was arguing something slightly different. I think he was trying to say - not that "content rules," but that "fine," handmade books can actually be a distraction to the content; they are almost too valued, too cherished, too much loved and honored....actually to be read.

So we (at least I) put them on shelves and gaze at their spines, while we read our ratty old paper backs to shreds. At least that's my experience - as well as my take on his piece.

I imagine the solution is to make handmade books more mainstream - both so that we become more comfortable with them, and also so that they're less "precious," if you know what I mean - more functional/practical, though not less beautiful, of course. Indeed, perhaps more so in a genuine way ; )

Also, I'm looking forward to your next post about hardbacks v. paperback. It seems to me that current hardbacks are merely held together by the endpapers, as Bruce notes above.

Again thanks & cheers!

bieler's picture

Accepting that the fine press book is not read is erroneous. I certainly read fine press books that I buy. And, I think readability and legibility is a major consideration in the construction of fine press books. Concerns such as typography; use of materials that are durable and have a certain known longevity, the impulse and concern for quality production in composition, printing, binding; and the like is paramount. If anything else the fine press book is an homage to the book and it's rich tradition, its history, its value as the primary mode of communication (at least into the last third of the previous century).

Folks make fine press books because they have the passion to do it. Because, as Walter Hamady once proclaimed, "we have to." Just like folks design typefaces because they have the passion to do it. And, because "they have to."

Michael based his statement on the remarks of a collector. Is it really true the majority of the folks who bought the book did not read it? I doubt it.

But I also do agree with the statement that the article is being promoted in regard to CODEX. Michael's is not the only one. Suddenly, folks who were dead silent on any issue are popping out of the woodwork with all kinds of agenda that are of importance and need forum.

CODEX is the first unified gathering of the tribe in decades. I can't wait.


KatRanPress's picture

I'm grateful that my article is being discussed so actively and thoroughly. May I join in for a spell?

My intention for writing the article was not necessarily to ponder the role of the collector/reader or belittle the art and craft of the well-made book. My primary desire was to discuss the role and responsibility of the designer to make something accessible and useful, and to suggest that the fine press printer does neither----if the goal is to make something that is read.

I was making the assumption that books are meant to "convey specific and coherent ideas." As a designer, I asked myself if I was accomplishing this. The answer was clearly no. That the books are bought by collectors who do not plan to read the books is a huge obstacle that I can not overcome---but that does not let me off the hook. I have to take some responsibility for this. My conclusion was that the materials and processes were not accessible.

Let's say a restaurant is opened and no one comes. Is it the fault of the non-existent customers? Or is it the fault of the owner? Is the food no good? Is the atmosphere off-putting? Is the wait-staff incompetent? Is the advertising not working? Something's not working, but the owner's got to figure out what. To blame the public is to pass the buck.

Furthermore, I'm not sure why it's such a crazy assumption that a book is meant to be read. If you want to dress it up with letterpress and handmade paper and leather and make it a thing of obvious beauty, that's fine. But when it's dressed up to the point that it no longer serves its primary function, but is coveted for it's 'thing'-ness, it's not a book. It's a fetish object. Why is this acceptable to the fine printer? A furniture maker wants his chairs to be sat in. A potter wants her plates to be eaten off of. If they're not, they just take up space. These things can be beautifully made with dedication to craft and art and attention to detail, but still used. Why does the fine printer get a pass in this regard?

Ultimately, what I'm trying to discuss is DESIGN, which Charles Eames defined as "A plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose."

My purpose as a designer is to communicate ideas.
My responsibility as a publisher is to make those ideas available.
My hope as a craftsperson is to make something of beauty.

I came to the conclusion that both the fine press book and I were not achieving those goals. They're not mutually exclusive, but in order to achieve all three ideals, a reevaluation of the process and idea of a fine press book is in order.

As I happen to be reading about the Eameses, I'm going to quote Charles Eames again. Bear with me on this one:

"In India, those without and the lowest in caste, eat very often off of a banana leaf. And those a little bit up the scale, eat off of a sort of low, fired ceramic dish. And a little bit higher, why, they have a glaze on a thing they call a "tali." And there get to be some fairly elegant glazed talis, but it graduates to a brass tali, and a bell-brass bronze tali is absolutely marvelous, it has a sort of ring to it. And then things get to be a little questionable. Silver-plated talis, and solid silver talis, and I suppose some nut has had a gold tali, but I've never seen one. But you can go beyond that and the guys that have not only means, but a certain amount of knowledge and understanding, go the next step and they eat off of a banana leaf."

The banana leaf works. And so does the paperback. Why not look to the paperback and modern means of book production, and apply some of their ideas and methods to the fine press book? Yes, in theory, the fine press book encompasses all of the ideals of the ultimate book. In practice, however, the paperback can claim to be a useful book.


The purpose for writing the article was only to share an idea and hopefully instigate a discussion. I don't think it's any more self-promoting than starting an online discussion about photo-polymer plates when one's written a book on the subject. It's just sharing. It's difficult for me to sell books that I don't believe in, and I imagine it's hard to get work when you've stated publicly that the work is a bad idea. Bad idea or no, I've been very fortunate to work exclusively as a designer and printer of fine press books for the last 13 years. I care about this stuff and the dozens of people I work with---and all of my friends and colleagues who make fine books. We are, however, too accustomed to a pat on the back, and rarely a kick in the pants.

In mid November I gave a talk on this subject at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisianna. I sent the talk to Bob McCamant, editor of the Caxtonian. He asked me to turn it into an article. The schedule of the Caxtonian determined the publication the article---not CODEX. And I, for one, hardly feel dead silent. I've designed and printed twenty book in the last two years. Sometimes working is more productive than talking.

Michael Russem

bieler's picture


Who else would bother to put up an online discussion about the photopolymer process than someone who believed in it enough to publish a book about it that was intended to be READ.

If you don't believe in what you do, don't do it.

If you don't want a kick in the pants, don't ask for it. Did you really think everyone was going to agree with you? and pat you on the back for your thoughts. Doesn't work that way.


KatRanPress's picture


And why would someone criticize fine printing if they didn't care about it? Dissent is patriotic.

At any rate, my point was that by starting a polymer list you're not being self-promoting any more than I am. What I was trying to say was that we're both communicating and sharing ideas. Didn't I write that "It's just sharing."? As for me, I don't have anything to gain here other than the promotion of an idea to perhaps change the tide and try to fix what I see as a problem. If you have some suggestions as to how I might benefit, I'd be appreciative for any suggestions.

Furthermore, I didn't mean to suggest that I was derserving of a pat on the back. I think I wrote that FINE PRINTING and it's practioners are accustomed to praise and are never criticized.


bieler's picture


I guess it's just you and me on a Saturday night. That's okay with me.

Actually, I think fine printers are criticized a lot and for the very reasons you bring up. And we have been ever since Morris invented the thing.

We do what we do because we sort of fell into it and believe in it. That's good enough and is more than a lot of folks have. I know the market is just collectors and libraries. But that need not stop one from practicing the craft. There is always the occasional young person making the effort to go the special collections room with eyes wide open. That's enough for me. It's a small pond. So what?

I am slowly moving away, but that has more to do with age and finances. I can't afford the investment any longer, financially or otherwise. I don't agree with you that the books aren't read, but perhaps we can agree that they are admired for their inspiration and passion, their craft and ideals. And it is a noble endeavor. And beats the hell out of selling shoes for a living. Though I have never tried that!!!

Tell you what, you keep at it, and I hope you will, and maybe I'll get a few more out myself.


bieler's picture


Consider this. A young Tschichold stopped in front of a bookstore window display showing the works of William Morris. He could not afford those books but has written that it changed this life and directed his career.

Carry on.


ocular's picture

Hi everyone,

I hope you won't mind me belatedly returning to the problems of academic publishing.

Having been both the reader and the designer/typesetter, I feel that one of the main practical problems is this: despite the (perceived) need to cram as many characters on the page as possible, authors (and perhaps editors) don't want a double-column setting. So you end up with those horribly long lines.

Part of the reason may also be--and I'm sort of repeating what charles_e said already--that the longer the measure and the fewer the line breaks, the less trouble there will be with hyphenation and loose or tight lines (the long and often obscure or coined words do add to such trouble). In other words, it's easier and quicker for the typesetter, and therefore cheaper.


katzenjammer's picture

Gerald & Michael,

I think we can all agree that we're on the same side here, that we love and deeply value letterpress/fine/handmade books. That's why we're here, isn't it?

What I meant by a more "mainstream" finebook: simple, sturdy boards; acid-free basic paper, sewn; kissed letterpress.

This seems very different (and probably less expensive) from many of the far more customized letterpress books I've seen: incredibly gorgeous one-of-a-kind boards, some expensive/obscure/beautiful paper made from a rare Brazilian variety found on the southern slope of...., illustrations/woodcuts, and letterpressed so that the type is smashed into the paper, shouting "this is letterpress!"

I don't think there's anything wrong with these latter books as works of art unto themselves. In fact I think they're gorgeous - that's why I buy them. I don't think anyone should stop making them. In fact, I'd love it if even more were made.

But I do think that the former type book will benefit both the small presses (by providing a wider market - each purchase btw, would also act as a leader for your books made along the latter lines), and the public, who would now have access to beautifully crafted, but not overly ornate, editions of the books they plan to spend their lives with.

I hope this post hasn't angered anyone; I'm just an amateur collector throwing in my 2cents : )

interrobang_lp's picture

Michael, I believe your logic is flawed.

In almost the same breath, you state that people don't read, and yet you cite the mass consumption of the trade paperback. You characterize that 'low caste' mode of dissemintaion as poor design, yet look at what Tschichold did for Penguin.

A problem with many fine press books is certainly that the "lily has been gilded". As a vegetarian who has eaten off banana leaves, I'm not a big fan of quarter, half, full leather bindings. That said, there are plenty of well made books being done on more modest scale that don't rely on the sumptuous materials that seem to characterize the "fine press" book as tax shelter. I think of the time I was at the Bromer's and they had a copy of the Pennyroyal "Alice..." in its clamshel box, blah blah blah. I was just starting out and was literally too intimidated to touch it at $4K, let alone gaze on it's splendor. Too bad, since I had the UCP trade edition. A compare and contrast could have been instructional.

When I was in Minneapolis for the holidays I made my annual stop at Laurie's Booksellers and trolled the basement for books on books. James and I spoke and he showed me some of Philip Gallo's work, and he also spoke of Gerald and their long association. I went through the Fine Press section and saw many examples of modestly well made books. I also saw some of Gerald's very early work. Again, modest productions, and interesting combinations of still hot metal types. Nothing grand there.

Gerald; are you still a fan of King Crimson?. . .

Packaging aside, I also wonder about the adherence by fine press printers to Warde's tenant. The overwhelming use of Centaur in the fine press world of the late 20th seems to fly in the face of Warde's admonition. A beautiful face that demands attention.

in any event, Michael, you had one customer state perhaps cavalierly, and perhaps even more uncouthly, that he doesn't read (your) books. His loss. As Gerald observes, he reads books both great and small, and I believe others do as well. I've been making my way through the new Matrix, though not while lying on the couch, but rather, while sitting at my desk. A fine example of a well made modestly over-the-top production of "readable scholarship". The book opens flat because of a trad binding, the type is set in Mono hot metal so the characters all reproduce as the designer and foundry envisioned and intended (no optimization for letterpress needed).

There is much to be criticized in contemporary letterpress, from shifting standards of quality, to shifting nomenclature (I advocate the adoption of a "platepress" label for relief work produced from plates. Printmakers are even jumping on the bandwagon saying their work is letterpress despite any letters even being present in the work. . . ) to shifting emphasis on what is important about the medium. That is another thread.

Having just done a few days research on just such matters, I can tell you that trade publishers great and small are looking to the eBook as a new revenue stream. However I will put all my money on the fact that the book, in all its' various caste, is not going anywhere.

oh, and big ups to David Godine, for having continued to publish great work on subjsucts we all appreciate, as well as many others, at a reasonable price, for so long. The letterpress productions of the 70s and 80's have passed, but he still produces much work to be admired.

OK that's all I can write. not sure this was cohesive or actually addressed what i see in MRs logical flaw. i have a lingering headache and must make-up a couple forms for press to deliver tomorrow from a cold basement. fussy ink, slow fingers. need food.

interrobang_lp's picture

as a quick addendum as to why many fine press books mightn't be read. Someone I believe touched on this.

many many titles were from the public domain, and hence, the stories are already known. the works were in fact simply vehicles for illustration and fine binding.

no surprises there.

so where are the great manuscripts? That's the trick. find the unpolished gems and as Gerald testifies, perhaps see them shine at some future date.

that's luck and timing and the elusive nature of things.

KatRanPress's picture


I think I've been misunderstood or haven't made myself clear. I meant to point out that the idea that people don't read anymore is contradicted by the fact that millions of books are sold---although I don't assume that those millions are read. I only suggest them as a successful book form.

And I'm not sure where I say the paperback is poor design. I'm pretty sure I started the final section of the article with the idea that the paperback IS successful design. The typography may not always be great and the paper isn't necessarily of a distinguished quality, but the FORM works as a vessel for communicating ideas. It fulfills the specific requirements it is meant to fulfill. It was actually Tschichold and his Penguins that made me realize this.

As for being swayed by one glib customer---it's not that simple. That one comment only instigated a reevaluation on my part. I've got thirteen years of correspondence with collectors and curators. I can count the number of times I've received comments on the content on one hand. I ask my clients to let me know how they're books are received, too. The craft is always discussed to the exclusion of the content. Yes, I've published some questionable material, but I've also published a MacArthur Award winner who is regularly published by Copper Canyon, a woman who's novels are required reading on many campuses, and one of the most celebrated and popular Japanese writers of our time. At any rate, claiming that fine press books aren't read is not a new complaint, but when it's suggested to a fine printer, they tend to get a little defensive. Go to a fair and watch how people interact with the books. They're terrified and afraid to touch the books. That's confirmation that design is not successful. MJB: You mention being afraid to touch Barry's $4000 book. Well, I have people over all the time, and I encourage people to look at books. I don't tell them that I have $25,000 books, I just put the books out. People are afraid to engage them. When people are too afraid to use, engage, or touch a book, it's not well designed. Paperbacks don't have that problem. It's not always an issue of monetary value. What we feel comfortable to interact with is more intuitive. The art of design is to work within the parameters of the user's intuition.

That you and Gerald and I read fine press books is irrelevant. That's like making books for each-other----poets writing poetry for other poets. Fine printers are familiar with the language of fine press books. We don't count. The idea of design (and of making books) is to make something useful and accessible. Yes, too bad for that one guy who told me he didn't read my books, but what about all of the other people that don't read the press books we make? As designers and publishers we need to take responsibility for the fact that our work is inaccessible to the world at large and, thus, borderline irrelevant.

Yes, Gerald (and others) have made modest and accessible press books. I'm not saying it can't be done. In fact, if you know what you're doing, it's easier to make a modest and useful book. The banana leaf does the trick. More often than not, however, the books, to quote the great collector and reader Ken Auchincloss, are "like a peel of trumpets for a game of gin rummy."


interrobang_lp's picture

ok, i'm out of proof, make-up and stonework. . .

When people are too afraid to use, engage, or touch a book, it’s not well designed.

ahh, but that isn't the books' fault due to a shortcoming of the design of the container. that is simply a factor of people being concerned that they will bruise the fruit and render it un-sale-able. I believe that is the core problem, and that is no problem at all if the end user is of the means to afford to bruise a $25,000 book.

I'm not sure about the notion of designing books based on what the end user feels comfortable interacting with, but rather, are they engaged enough by the presentation of the subject and content to examine it further. If you were doing finely produced books of erotic photography, i'd hazard a guess that you'd have a table of dog-eared volumes at day's end no matter how precious the binding appeared.

people read books in the bathtub or the beach. if the pages cockle, is that because the object is flawed, or the setting for the use is out of accord with the material. the user paid US$4.99 for it and the fact that the perfect binding is anything but, they may or may not finish it, pass it off to a friend, or discard it as used up. such is the life cycle of ephemeral works and formats.

with regard to the fine press printer/publisher's work not being picked up and read by a wider audience, that is a factor built into the equation in producing a volume in a limitation. the valuation of your book art/object/product is based on that limited nature as much as the literary worth of the manuscript.

to turn that paradigm on its head, you might be perfectly poised to affect that issue. as you design your work digitally and then dial back to metal for your printing surface, publish your books in PDF format as well as the fine edition and allow a (paid?) download. in that way, the masses can have access to the material contained within. All sorts of issues around this; just writing out loud.

ok, going on press.

interrobang_lp's picture

ok, just had a funny thought.

"trade" and "deluxe edition" PDFs.

trade is a free dl. deluxe is paid/key'd.

think about it.

i'm laughing.

but why not?

Bruce's picture

I have been checking in on this thread over the past couple of days while moving firewood into the barn (yes, I ran out!) and I've thinking about it a lot. In for a break and to warm up, so here are some unorganized comments.

Welcome, Michael, and I hope you stick around and explore many aspects of this wonderful little oasis in the maelstrom.

I may be an aberrant collector here, but I bet not: I'd venture that most of those present follow along the same lines I use for my collecting. I don't have very much money to spend on books. Leaving out titles that I buy for pure interest and enlightenment, such as Rebecca Solnit's amazing River of Shadows, whenever I buy a book to add to my collection, I read it. My three areas of interest are Dwiggins, Neugebauer, and the Anthoensen Press. I cannot afford to buy the very spendy Dwiggins titles now, but in the thirty-five years I've been collecting his work I was lucky to get lots of things at reasonable prices before they went out of reach. (For example, I bought a brand-new copy of WAD to RR off the shelf at Goodspeed's bookstore in 1972 for $15, where it had been sitting every since it got published in 1940.) I have a great many of the Knopf novels that WAD designed, and I have read all of them -- not only because I was interested in his take on how to treat the matter visually, but also curious about AAK's choices for what he wanted to publish. Many of them are wonderful, wonderful stories.

A few books I have not read all the way through -- I own a set of Baskerville Paradise Lost and Paradise Regain'd, 1759 edition, and much as I would love to have read them, I was unable to plow through Milton's style. The Neugebauer books that I have in German I love, but reading them requires frequent consultation of a dictionary, so those are largely unread, although I have skimmed every one to at least get a sense of what's going on in the narrative.

I do not fear breaking these objects. If I were a rare book librarian, perhaps I would have a different attitude about it, but I got these for my own edification and joy, so why not use them? I have old china and a few place settings of silver from my grandparents -- I use them every day, not just for holidays. They are slowly wearing out, acquiring the patina of adoration and memory. I use and love my books in much the same way.

So we contrast this -- occasional buying, very purposeful selection, always in service of a particular interest rather than for investment -- with someone who collects expensive fine editions and doesn't read them. (I am bearing in mind Gerald's comment, and those of others, that plenty of collectors do read their books.) This feels like oafish and insensitive behavior on one level, buying the object and not treating it fully in the way the printer/designer intended.

Like the parent sending a full-grown child out into the world, you let go at a certain point. But during child-rearing, the parent hopes to instill certain values. Sometimes the kid listens, sometimes not. So must the publisher of fine editions do -- design, print and market the books, sell them, try to instill the greatest sense of appreciation for them in the minds of the buyers, and then let go.

Maybe one answer is to do something like what George Macy did for the LEC and Heritage books (perhaps every fine edition is accompanied by these; I don't know because I don't buy 'em!) and write a kind of invitation to the purchaser to come on in and understand the context of the written work, and some of the designer's responses to it. A small amount of this might pique enough interest to get someone engaged on the textual level. Forgive me, please, if this sounds like talking down to the fine editions department, maybe this is already being done.

But I'd like to address another area, that of connoisseurship, which for me has quite a negative aura. My friends and clients over in Maine make very fine recording studio cables. Every year a large number of the Grammy-winning albums are recorded and mastered with their cables. (All 22 Rolling Stones albums were just remastered with them, for example.) Because they have to do a lot of R&D to come up with these designs, they are monstrously expensive. They only sell a few units of them and all the costs have be amortised over the relatively small number sold. Professional people with an extremely fine and critical ear buy these cables and can justify the cost because of their usefulness as a tool: perfection in sound and robust construction. (I'm attaching a photo of an 8-foot speaker cable, even though when you see it you'll think it's an Electrolux vacuum cleaner.)

But in addition to these recording professionals, there is a whole other population of "high-end audio" buffs who buy these. In this group the spectrum runs from people who adore music and happen to be fortunate enough to afford good equipment (analogous to collectors and readers of fine press books) and at the other end, someone who has piles of money and who simply wants the status of a really top-end stereo or home theater system. This may seem incredible to everyone here, but my client's cables have gone into domestic home theater installations that cost over a million dollars! Incomprehensible to me (I have a 25" TV set from 1991 and a used DVD player) but it happens in McMansions all over the place.

Where I'm headed with this is that some of the people who buy these cables don't really even listen to their qualities -- they just get them because they can afford them and they are "supposed to be good", or perhaps even because they want others to see how arrived they are. (Rolex watches, fine editions unread?) And this doesn't include the factor of investment that drives fine press collectors, since all this high-end audio and video gear depreciates!

From the perspective of the person who takes pictures and makes all the packaging and graphic bits for this cable company, I am sad that some of these customers don't fully "get it" musically on the level that I do, but I am very grateful that they buy the cables, because that influx of cash allows me to take my time making really careful decisions about lighting, using very high quality paper and the very best commercial printers for the printed pieces we produce, and so forth. Therefore I may not want to spend a weekend listening to records with these customers, but I am glad they are in the picture. And maybe an hour spent with them sometime, listening to music and talking about what we are both experiencing emotionally in the moment, would expose them to subtleties that they are fully capable of understanding but have simply never considered before. This would expand their pleasure and pride of ownership even more.

Returning to Michael's article, perhaps many collectors read the books and only a small number do not. Of the latter group, some won't care and simply get them because they love the illustrations, the design, and the presswork. Some buy them on the hunch that they will increase in value. We can't really do anything about that. (So there I agree with you, Gerald.) But we certainly can try to get them more inspired to read the content.

What I don't get at all is, if I have a fine edition of Donald Hall and a paperback, isn't my reading the poetry in the "reading copy" paperback akin to drinking a fine wine out of a styrofoam cup while I leave the fine crystal glass on the shelf for fear of breaking it? Why isn't my experience materially enhanced by reading it in the fine edition -- touch, smell, sight, even the sound of pages turning? Maybe there's something in this that I don't get, but I always gravitate toward the best copy I own.

Also, in closing, I have to make a point about the classics. I adore reading Marco Polo and Gulliver (I have WAD and also a Warren Chappel) and Daudet and Balzac and all these cats in the precious and old books. Why must the classics be dismissed as unworthy? Can't they be thought of on an equal footing with an emerging unknown author? I recently re-read the Alexandria Quartets for the third time in forty years. I made the conscious choice that in so doing, I would be giving up time that I might otherwise give to new fiction. My reaction to them at 57 was different from that at 17 and at 30, and I found this both illuminating and valuable. Somehow helps me to see myself and my path through life with an added dimension. I do this every year with several titles. Even if the classics are familiar, why does that make them unworthy of the very best design, materials and craft?

I know that Josef Albers said, "In art, tradition is to create, not to revive." But I have some trouble with the cultivation of the new if it must be at the expense of the old but excellent. My friends in the Portland String Quartet are committed to playing the works of modern composers, because as they see it, the only time that composer, players, and audience are all contemporaneous is right now. The contemporary music is often challenging, but they play something at almost every concert, so deeply do they believe in the importance of this shared experience. But they also play Haydn, Dvorak, Shostakovich, Beethoven, Brahms, Chadwick, and Mozart. Room for all, isn't there?

Okay, back to firewood.

interrobang_lp's picture

hi Bruce,

just clicked your avatar to find it indeed "you".

am about to put a 2nd color on, but look forward to reading the above. scanned and saw Anthoenson Press mentioned. I was thinking about Anthoenson while running the 1st color.

The work of the press that i own or have seen typified fine understated pamphlet-stitched issues, the designs of which operate just as finely in marbled boards. I think of work for the COV in both cases. maybe a bad example as regards edition limitation.

back at it. stay warm.

Bruce's picture

Oops. Forgot to attach the speaker cable picture.

Bruce's picture

Yes Michael/interrobang_lp, much to love in Fred Anthoensen's light touch, restraint, almost (but not quite) recessive design technique. Much closer to Haydn than Mahler!

One thing Fred did that I really admire was to take on certain titles that he knew would never be accepted by publishers -- not just printing them, but marketing them by direct mail, then selling and distributing them.

bieler's picture

Mr Interrobang

King Crimson. Actually I just saw the title somewhere and stole it. I've never even heard the album.

Well, we all have to start somewhere and I was never financially equipped to compete so just did it the best way I could. Just seemed to get better and better so I stuck with it.

That is what you would call a poor career decision. Too late now.

But, wine, women, and song. Not all that bad.


interrobang_lp's picture

Why must the classics be dismissed as unworthy?

I'll take this as a comment on my observation. I don't see them as unworthy, simply that as a marketing decision, a classic was a more saleable item than an unknown author/title. There would be a built-in audience, even if one never read Marco Polo, one had heard of the story, and so, based on at least that level of familiarity, one might feel compelled to examine the work further, which might even mean reading it.

In any event, I don't believe in MR's assertion that his or other fine press works fail due to some design flaw, but rather the failing is with the end-user and their ability to be engaged by a book, any book. That fine press patrons purchase books to simply sit on a shelf in not the publisher's concern, their concern is with producing and selling books. If the title sells out, that is a resounding success, and especially if the price-point is at a level beyond the means of most. so if anything, perhaps the failure is in the ability to price the work in accord with the perceived value of the object.

this is the failure of hot metal type in the 21st century. faced with the decision to pay $29.95 for a digital font of questionable quality that will render in all sizes from 5pt to 5000pt (a paperback), or $299.50 for a 10A 25a 10-1 font of cast type in one size that has been produced to the utmost standards (a fine edition), few see the value in the limitation of cast sorts, despite the value locked in the letters. The cast type itself is not flawed, rather, the perception by the majority of potential end users. Some will buy the type, and shelve it in their collection, others will lay it in cases and use it up, because alas, type will be used up, just as a book can be used up.

so perhaps this then ends up being a question of values rather than some "inherent bad design" of fine press books?

Bruce's picture

Hasty comment: without going back to see exactly what he said, I don't remember Michael saying that the design was bad in the fine editions we've been discussing. Wasn't it that publishers/printers have failed to meet some aspects of the overall goal if the buyers do not read the books? (And I get it that not all printers/publishers have that as a part of their goals.) I'm not sure design has much to do with it, unless it's "marketing program design" as opposed to visual design. Over and out.

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