By Jules Siegel
"The convergence of the Internet
with the instantaneous transmission and retrieval of digital text
is an epochal event, comparable to the impact of movable type
on European civilization half a millennium ago, but with worldwide
--Jason Epstein, "The Digital Future,"
York Review of Books
are works from the earliest days of printing -- "of the cradle."
Today, we're in the cradle era of new forms of publishing that
change the way people are making books and thinking about books.
Although most comment has concentrated on e-books
and other digital paperless texts, I'm more interested in a less-studied
phenomenon, the print-on-demand or one-off book. These are books
that are manufactured on digital printers rather like oversized
versions of the conventional desktop laser printer. For a set-up
charge as little as $100 (and in one case lulu.com,
zero) would-be author-publishers can sell, print and drop-ship
their books in quantities as small as a single copy. Some of the
services offer distribution through the world's largest book distribution
companies. There's even a credit-card operated book vending machine
in development incorporating a digital printer/binder that can
deliver a fully printed and bound paperback book in under twelve
minutes from a database of tens of thousands of texts.
Most of these books have an immediately recognizable
canned look that identifies them as on-demand books. This is a
function of the way in which they rely on programs such as Microsoft
Word to format the text according to templates issued by the printing
Set in Helvetica (or
Arial), Bob Dylan and the Beatles
by Al Aronowitz, (1stBooks), is readable but lacks professional
graphic design polish.
Print-on-demand books can look exactly like
trade paperbacks, however, if the author has a handle on modern
graphic design techniques.
These pages from Mad
Laughter were originally formatted to be printed on a
Xerox color laser printer. I converted them to black and
white for the lulu.com edition.
Click on the image to see
a full-size PDF of some other pages and examine the typographical
finesse that distinguishes this book from the ordinary --
true small caps, ligatures, old style numerals, optically
What is it about some digital books that make
them look rather bogus, while others could easily fit on your
local Borders counter display? How do graphic design values affect
the reader's perception of an author's credibility? Can the on-demand
book successfully challenge the official truth monopoly of the
mainstream press and, to a lesser extent, the small independent
The book industry has its own culture and sub-cultures.
Notice that I am not saying book publishing. That's one of the
sub-industries. The overwhelming majority of books are produced
by people working in groups who take over a project from a solitary
author (a term that can include more than one person, as some
books are collaborations). One almost universal characteristic
is that authors are almost entirely excluded from the production
process once they surrender their manuscripts. I use "almost"
here twice because the field is so large that many variations
Now comes a new technology
that enables individual authors to bypass the production process
and design and print their own books. Mmmm. A. J. Liebling
famously wrote, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those
who own one." A desktop laser printer is a miniature printing
press. Because graphic design is my profession, I can produce
a book on my laser printer that will be so close to a conventional
trade book that most people will be fooled. The tip-off will be
that it looks a bit too good. The type is crisper and the pictures
are richer. The binding uses genuine leather and a papel amate
(an indigenous Mexican bark paper).
It's got class, right?
How Random House would surely do it.
It's a function of the
distribution system. The book has to fit a slot, and the slot
must be instantly recognizable by the cover alone. Since the title
of my book mentions laughter, the cover must be wild and wacky,
even though my humor is so dry it makes Death Valley Melba toast
I don't want my book
to be wild and wacky. I want it to be Mad Laughter. That's
one of the reasons why I am publishing it myself. But I don't
want it to look like some typical iUniverse production either.
That is not a trivial task, believe me.
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