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Publishing: Now for the Masses
April 10, 2008 - 2:02am


Of course printed books have been widely available to the masses since the 19th century, when new technologies in paper milling, lithography, power, and printing presses allowed for millions of page imprints in a day. Just because a book is old doesn’t mean it’s special. I learned that little history lesson when Crazy Larry, a compulsive collector of many things, talked me into going in with him on the purchase of some dead man’s personal library. Larry was certain it contained enough rare volumes that we could sell a few for profit and keep the best treasures for ourselves. A truck brought dozens of boxes to his driveway, and we began to pick through them.

Quickly, I realized mass production and Crazy Larry had lost all my money, since the boxes contained only common, worthless, and uninteresting books: Harold Bell Wright’s The Re-Creation of Brian Kent and The Winning of Barbara Worth; Alice Caldwell Hegan’s Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, which was the second bestseller of 1902; Hallie Erminie Rives’ sixth-best seller of 1907, Satan Sanderson. For a while Larry still had hopes that hallucinogenic spores rumored to grow in old books might at least turn him on, but the foxed pages only triggered his allergies. A decade later some of those boxes of books still molder in his basement. His basement.

No, when I say that publishing is now for the masses, I mean that while it once required prohibitive capital and specialized knowledge, new technologies have taken steps toward changing that over the last few decades: Xerography was easier, cleaner, and better-looking than mimeographing, and when the word processor came along, receptionists began to write and produce their companies’ literature.

In the early ‘90s I was running a tiny ad agency and we still paid typesetting companies enormous sums to do what the most basic laptop does now: Put text in readable faces of variable size with proper kerning and leading. One of their type salesmen came by each day and picked up our print orders—typed or scrawled on paper—and later that day, or the next, or the one after that, a salesman drove back across town to deliver the type, now set beautifully on heavy slick paper. Sometimes there were typos, and the process had to be repeated.

We “cut and pasted” sections of the type they gave us with an X-Acto knife, waxed or spray-glued the strips, and assembled final layouts with a t-square on a light table. (Pictures or other graphic elements were mere photocopies or renderings at this stage, “for position only,” to be replaced after color separation had occurred.) The guy called a stripper in the pre-press department made negative films of these boards, which had to be checked carefully for quality against the original, and this was used to make a plate for the press. The almond smell of cyanide hung in the air during its development. All production was extraordinarily slow and expensive, and it felt strange when two years later I was using Quark to do complete electronic page layouts that printed (still) straight to film, and those typesetting companies had gone under.

I learned a lot doing things the old way then converting to the new, and I’ve thought for years about starting a small press. (No, this isn’t some kind of Churm House fiction.) In addition to the processes and things of the printing plant and bindery, I know how to get price quotes, to hire and fire designers, artists, photographers, and freelancers of all stripes, to art-direct photo shoots, to choose papers, and more. Somewhere I have a list of books I’d like to do, starting with one by a professional chef I’ve read who could be something like MFK Fisher, with the editorial hand of Churm.

The main issues that have always held me back were warehousing, distribution, marketing and—oh, right—the grocery sacks of money needed to bet on a print run. But the new technologies that make print-on-demand publishing possible are dissolving many of those restrictions, and any of you can now run your own publishing empire. I’ll get into it a little in the next post.

Does this mean technology is essentially democratic?


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