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A Literary Love Affair

 

 

Digital Incunabula

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 implications."

--Jason Epstein, "The Digital Future," New York Review of Books

Author unknown Danse macabre (Dance of Death) Troyes, after 1500, leaves a ii/b, a iii/a Paper (14)Incunabula 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 companies.

 
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 compensated type.

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 presses?

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 do occur.

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 look squishy.

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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