The Museum of Publishing Past: Examining the Hand Tools of Not-So-Long-Ago

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June 2014
by Peter Goodman

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As a book editor of a certain age, I have license to grouse about the decline of civilization. Many things are worse today than they were when I commuted to work on the wings of a pterodactyl. Yes, electric trains are faster than dinosaurs, and word processors, email, digital scans, and computer-to-plate printing technology have many advantages over the tools we folks in publishing used in the years before anyone had even heard of CP/M and DOS, much less Smashwords, Inkling, and Kindle.

For all we have gained from modern digital publishing tools, there is much we have lost. Not just things forgotten, but lost, gone, because the world they were built for has vanished forever. Just as neuroscientists tell us that our brains are being physically rewired to accommodate how we now retrieve and read material online, our work habits and workspaces have been fundamentally and systematically altered to accommodate the New Humans who now inhabit them. The old ways are not just old; they are relics of the past, ignored and occasionally laughed at by Callow Youth.

So I propose we visit the Museum of Publishing Past to see how things used to be, before all the exhibits are demolished to make way for a new Apple Store. We’ll visit the 1970s wing; no need to travel way back to the Gutenberg Diorama, as things have already changed plenty in just a few decades.

Museum Exhibit A: The typewriter.

TypewriterWhat it was: Noisy desktop machine for impressing one letter at a time indelibly into paper

What’s been lost: The unforgiving nature of the beast forced you to commit to what you wrote. There was correction tape (and black/white ribbons), but fixing mistakes was a pain, so what you usually thought was, “I’ll fix that later,” but maybe you did and maybe you didn’t. The clickety-clack and occasional ding as the keys smacked and the platen turned was a wordsmith’s symphony, acoustic proof that thoughts were exiting into prose. This marvelous experience of being in the groove driving a reluctant jalopy cannot be obtained from today’s spongy and often silent, even nonexistent virtual keyboards.

Museum Exhibit B: Editing on paper with red pencil.

What it was: Method of improving the written work of others so as usually to require retyping (see Exhibit A)

What’s been lost: Physically adding correction lines to black type laid bare the visible structure of the work and made the editors feel they were overlaying a pale red film of improvement, while the skeleton and most of the flesh remained. That is, the author was never absent, so the editor’s responsibility to reveal and not bury the authorial voice was more keenly felt. Today’s Revision Tracking tries to emulate the experience, but it is too easy to excise the original text and show both original and changed at the same level. In the past, editors were less likely (or too lazy) to think they should change everything, just because they could.

Museum Exhibit C: The Postal Service (aka snail mail).

postalserviceWhat it was: Communication with a decent interval between call and response.

What’s been lost: So you’d edit the text with red markups, type up extensive changes and affix them to the manuscript margins with sticky tape, compose a careful diplomatic letter to the author, and then stick the entire mass into a box and send it off by the Postal Service to wherever the author happened to be.

And then you’d wait. Not for the author’s email reply by overnight (what’s taking so long?). No, two weeks, three weeks, maybe a month or more would go by before the author would respond with comments and corrections.

At this pace, it might be a year or more before the text was ready for typesetting. But during that period the editor and the author would have time to reconsider fine points, let new ideas percolate, capture intuitive moments in the shower or before going to bed that would reveal an ingenious structural or design solution.

The time spent not working on the text would be just as valuable as the time spent in close editing. Good food takes time to prepare, the chefs say. And so, once, did good books.

Museum Exhibit D: Written page design specs.

What it was: A list of specifications (words, numbers, codes) that precisely described all the elements of a book’s fonts and page layouts.

What’s been lost: Book designers once had to do a lot more work in their heads than they do today. Or let me at least say this: Good book designers still do, but it’s a lot easier now for unskilled book designers to fake it. The result is a lot more books in Times Roman set with auto-leading and chapter title styles and subheads listed as Heading 1 and Heading 2 (thank you, Bill Gates!).

Before desktop layout programs, graphic designers sat at a board, figured out type areas, sketched in fonts from sample books, basically laboring over every aspect of where every character would sit on every page. Do this for several years and you get really good at visualizing this stuff in your head. Apprentice to a master (as most typographers did), and you’d get an education in points and picas, in size relationships, in grids and proportions, and in type family histories and identities so that after hours of physical and mental labor you could in your head construct a page aptly married to content.

Then you’d write up your specs in a list and hand them to the typesetter (another specialist), who would translate them into page proofs. And then, as someone who cared about type on the page, you’d educate your company’s proofreaders about widows, orphans, bad breaks, rivers, and all the other things that today make a lot of “layout” folks go, “Huh?”

Museum Exhibit E: Old-school color correction.

What it was: Understanding how to specify color adjustments on press for predictable results.

What’s been lost: We know that lemons have a particular yellow and fire engines a particular red. If you’re a Photoshop hack, you just keep pulling one slider or another until it looks good on screen, even as you ignore CMYK color space and printing press and paper profiles at your peril.

With the demise of expert prepress divisions at many printers (often due to the demise of the experts themselves), we indie publishers are now asked to manage all the color work ourselves and “just send in the PDF files.” Color science is still very technical, way too complex to be left in the hands of the likes of us. Yet here we are, getting mostly acceptable results (the industry phrase is “pleasing color”) and hoping for the best.

Phoning in to the printer’s prepress section reveals that staff there are mostly now young button-pushers using preprogrammed machines, highly skilled perhaps in button pushing but not so much in the subtleties of color, and how to richen a blue (more black? more red? and what will be the effect on other images in that signature?). Photoshop, like all the other tools, gives us the mask of competence with none of its hard-won victories; it is a loaded gun in the hands of an amateur, and sometimes it misfires for reasons way beyond our pay grade.

When Ties Don’t Bind

You see the pattern, right? We’ve gained speed and apparent control but lost the inner sense of what we’re doing. On the surface, yeah, maybe the books look OK. Moving in deeper, we see that as the history and whys and wherefores of our processes are forgotten, the close connection that ties us physically to our work is attenuated. We all somehow know this to be true, and have known it for years. But the tradeoff for advanced speed and economy has always been too alluring to resist.

Our brains are indeed rewiring themselves to adapt to online reading. The stuff of words is similarly being rejiggered to accommodate the editing and print technologies of today. Over the generations, as the exhibits in our Museum of Publishing Past gather more layers of dust, will we ever remember that the editor and publisher once had a literally physical bond with their work?


True Sky-Blue

It’s the early 1980s. I was working in Japan at a major publisher. As editor of a big color book on Japanese gardens, I sat in on all the design and proofing sessions. We were going over page proofs for the section on the garden of Shugaku-in. Shugaku-in is an old imperial villa in eastern Kyoto and is famous for its location on a hillside and its large pond ringed with trees that turn a stunning variety of colors in the fall. Photographers love the place and often focus on the pond to pick up the landscape and especially the foliage and broad sky reflected on the surface of its water.

Our printer, Nissha, was a very high-quality shop in Kyoto, and the pressmen who traveled north to Tokyo to go over proofs with us knew Shugaku-in very well. Our art director held up one of the proof pages to them and said the sky over the pond looked a bit “pale.”

The pressmen—wearing their factory jackets, ordinary tradesmen with ink-stained fingers and a lot of experience pulling sheets—then launched into the most extraordinary discussion of the sky, the sky in autumn, the sky over a pond, famous poems about the sky, this shade of blue, that bit of purple and orange, and how it all appeared at this time vs. that time of year, and on and on, all with an eye to figuring out the proper color mix on the press and how they could adjust what color and how much to get their machine to produce exactly the effect this stunning physical landscape required.

No Photoshop, just years and years of hands-on printers’ wisdom.


Peter Goodman is publisher (and editor) of Stone Bridge Press in Berkeley, CA. His first publishing job was in Tokyo in 1976 in an office filled with design boards, typewriters, and telex machines. To reach him: sbpedit@stonebridge.com.

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