Current Challenges to Fine Printing and Book Design (Grolier Club panel)

This is a draft of an article I’m preparing.  I believe Godine had prepared remarks which the Grolier Club may print in its Gazette. -pwr

Current Challenges to Fine Printing and Book Design
The Grolier Club, 47 East 6t0th Street, New York
Wednesday January 13, 2010

The Grolier Club sponsored a thought-provoking panel discussion on challenges to fine printing and book design on January 13, 2010. The event, which was standing room only, featured the publisher David R. Godine, printer-publisher Luke Ives Pontifell (Thornwillow Press), bookbinder Jamie Kamph (Stonehouse Bindery), designer Ronald Gordon (Oliphant Press) and designer-calligrapher Jerry Kelly (Jerry Kelly LLC/Kelly-Winterton Press). David S. Rose, president of the Typophiles (and technology start-up executive), moderated the panel.

David Rose spoke briefly about Gutenberg and how we needed to think about the separation of information from the form in which it appeared—whether printed on paper or downloaded to a screen. Rose mentioned the Kindle and how much information people now received through the internet. He frequently challenged the panel.

David Godine wryly alluded to the Kindle reader by noting that in his 40 years as a publisher, he had never received any calls about “how to operate a book.” He felt that technological obsolescence would save the book—who, he asked, can operate the first version of the Macintosh computer? He quoted Leonard Baskin, that “the first 25 years of any technology are its best” and cited letterpress, lithography, wood cutting, although offset printing is an exception. Godine noted that the industry has changed dramatically. Years ago, 25,000 titles a year was typical. Around the year 2000, that number was 50,000, but last year 160,000 titles were published. He attributed this mushrooming to the new ease of manufacture and self-publishing. The statistics don’t bear out the claim of the expected demise of the book. However, the publisher as gatekeeper is disappearing—people can publish themselves as never before.

Luke Ives Pontifell noted that Gutenberg did go broke, and observed that he believed that the book was dead as a commodity, but not so with the finely made book. He compared books as an object that stands between an author’s words and an audience, just as a violin was between the notes of a composer and its audience. Pontifell asked if certain types of printing still qualified as “fine.” Does craftsmanship matter? He felt that it did.

Jamie Kamph was asked about the role of the craftsman to the book. She said that her craft bindings were usually commissioned for books that deserved to be specially bound. She suggested that her work “added a layer of value and ‘lovability’” to books that were sentimental objects or objects of beauty. She argued that designers should “straighten out the competition between them (typography, illustration and binding). Make design the purpose of beautifully made books.

Ron Gordon talked about his experience that afternoon in meeting with a potential client at St. Thomas Church, who wanted to speak to him about a New Testament bound in silver, which was used in ceremony. It was obvious, both from the loving attention given to the book by this church and the rector’s veneration towards it, that this volume had deep and abiding significance for this “customer.” [was there more?]

Jerry Kelly felt that there were two questions, first the future of the book, and second the future of fine printing. On the first question, he didn’t think it should be regarded as an either/or question. As someone who used to regularly work on cars, he noted how manufacturers’ car reference manuals were constantly changing—these should have been available as electronic media. Kelly felt that reference manuals should be delegated to electronic-only form. But fiction and non-fiction made more sense on paper. He doesn’t see Kindles much on the subway, but wondered why he saw so many iPods. [This NYC-based reporter has noticed that Kindles tend to cluster in better-off neighborhoods in which people have longer and less crowded rides to midtown; however a friend reports that nearly every tourist on the beach in Honolulu had a Kindle—which raises questions of availability related to cost and economic class.] Kelly also suggested that movies didn’t supplant the book, although they certainly impacted live theater. On the second question, books as fine art, if books were to die out, they would still exist in some form as a physical object to carry-out their function.

WHAT CHANGES WERE THEY NOTICING WITH THEIR DESIGNS AND THEIR CUSTOMERS? Gordon said that the printed product was noticeably more of an ‘object’: papers in the sixties and seventies were thinner; recent customers wanted heavier papers of 110 pounds or even 300 pounds that would be too heavy for the old offset presses. He showed an elaborate holiday keepsake from Cambridge University Press, where the customer wanted very heavy paper and heavy gold foil stamping. Design customers were getting away from Kindle, and wanted heavy, embossed, multilayered objects. He sees it everyday with ephemera.

Pontifell said that he called it “object quality” and said that people seemed to see the object as lasting, permanent and preserving ideas. He also mentioned having a physical presence, like having an object touched in the past by another person, rather than touching a facsimile. There was a direct [tactile?] connection to the past. The physical object also celebrate moments or particular texts, etc.

IS THE QUALITY OF AN OBJECT CHANGED BY THE VERY FACT OF HUMAN INVOLVEMENT IN ITS PRODUCTION? [My notes say that DSR asked “is it quality of the object or the fact of human involvement”?]

Kamph said that she constantly had Princeton graduate students coming to her to have special books like dissertations or books of great personal significance to them bound by hand. Kelly interjected, it’s not either/or; you can have both.

Godine said “less” and added that nothing in his experience had become more degraded in quality than publishers’ bindings. Ten years ago books had changed from cloth bindings to bindings with paper spines [did DRG mean paper spines or paper-covered boards?-pwr]. Now, the binding was entirely paper and ‘perfect-bound’—the most ironic name for such a process. He compared the dismal state of contemporary binding to the late 19th century, when bindings were works of art, with stamping in gold and in multiple colors. Now publishers seemed to think that the binding was their last chance to save money on a book on which they had spent too much. He also contrasted the Grolier Club’s membership, which twenty years ago had the heads of a number of major publishing houses like Doubleday. Now, there were none, as marketing and sales-types took over the heads of houses—not that this would be unexpected in the current publishing climate. Has design inside the book been affected? Not necessarily.

Kelly agreed that people were much less attuned to design and agreed with Godine on binding quality. But Kelly added that the quality of printing is definitely better, and that inking is unquestionably better. That said, design was definitely worse. Why was design worse? Kelly said that publishers won’t pay—they don’t see design as selling books.

Pontifell noted that design was under-appreciated because people thought that Microsoft Word layouts worked fine. He found himself having to educate potential customers, and he implied that that education sometimes did not work. But he added that things were not uniformly bad: some digital versions of typefaces are better than metal, like Adobe Garamond, but no one takes time to learn how to use types.

Gordon said that he found problems of knowledge and education. He constantly encountered professional designers who didn’t know anything [about….?]. He preferred to hire graduates with a liberal arts background, who would know history and literature, who had read Shakespeare. They could be educated about the history of design and books. The students from art and design schools didn’t even know the importance of punctuation! The other problem of knowledge was ignorant customers who through they knew how to design. He was constantly dealing with customers who thought they were expert and tried to “correct” his use of old-style figures (numbers) in a book he had designed for them. There was general agreement on this.

Godine quoted Cambridge University Press printer Brooke Crutchley on the Rampant Lions Press, “‘Fine Printing’ has two purposes: to satisfy the craftsman’s aspirations and to please connoisseurs and collectors. But, it has an incidental usefulness: to provide a standard by which those responsible for ordinary commercial printing can measure their own performance.” Fine printing was done for the trade, to raise the standard and make sure all printers would be aware of higher standards. But the commercial world has diverged and fine press printing has changed. Fine printing usually was original work, not reprints of Daphnis and Chloe. He cited Kim Merker as an example of this sort of printing.

WHAT DO YOU CHOOSE TO PRINT? Pontifell said that while he prints what he likes, he also hopes that someone will agree that what he prints is worth paying money. His fine printing is a commercial enterprise and while he does see his business growing, he noted that business does drive what texts are selected.

WHAT CAN WE DO? Kelly thinks that the lead should come from publishers. Once upon a time publishers took the lead in getting great designers. But not just the big publishing houses needed to take the lead—institutions, museums, and galleries were trying to save money, but you needed to look to the heads of institutions to support better work.

Gordon agreed with Kelly and felt that there was still hope. He saw much of this as co-existing technologies. But Gordon also saw the need for more education. Each of his five assistants have told him that working for him changed their lives by the way he brought them an appreciation for the history of printing. We need to educate; we need to change more lives. [RG didn’t say that, but we need a peroration here. –pwr]

Kamph said she was torn. If commercial binding improves, it will involve improvement in every level, from editorial through design, to the end. It should be seamless: all parts of publishing should seek for the highest quality from writing, editing, design and production to sales and distribution. [JK you didn’t say this last sentence, but it seemed like her point needed rounding out. Please edit. -pwr]

WHAT’S THE FUTURE OF THE FUTURE? [I can’t remember the question-pwr]
Pontifell insisted that there’s every reason for hope. His own business is growing.

Godine, alluding to his previous remarks about figures like Knopf and Cerf, remarked “we look by comparison” to current publishers. He insisted that for things to improve, the history of the book needs to be taught at more colleges and universities. Books are sequestered. We need to teach it to undergraduates. He had started with Ray Nash at Amherst, and Nash’s influence had stretched throughout New England with printers, instructors, librarians and publishers like himself. But he then identified librarians as “a weak link.” He would receive letters from booksellers about a design or binding which they didn’t like, but nowadays he never received letters from librarians. They don’t know about good quality, or they don’t care. Of all his constituencies as a publisher, this was the most disheartening. He concluded that “we are a lunatic fringe here” but we can influence and we can uphold standards.

Among the evenings more memorable moments and interesting points: Gordon’s quipping that “printing pathetic poetry is a mainstay of fine printing.” Pontifell’s story of being introduced by the Rev. Peter Gomes to Hustler publisher to Larry Flint, “I’d like you to meet Luke Pontifell. He’s also a publisher.” (This brought the house down.) Rose noting that Amazon lists book availability in three ways: books shipping in 1-2 days were in their warehouse; books shipping in 2-3 weeks came from publishers; but books listed as 2-3 days were printed as ordered from digital copies kept by Amazon on its servers. [Reporter’s gripe: no wonder those cookbooks were printed so horribly! pwr]

Paul Romaine

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Published by Paul Romaine

Paul Romaine is a grant writer and independent curator in New York City.

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