Few book manufacturers (or their clients) seem to remember that a book is in use when it is open, not when it’s closed.

The publisher’s dilemma

I keep thinking, off and on, about the subject of small-press publishing in the science fiction field. I particularly think about this when I’m confronted by a table full of small-press SF publications in the hucksters’ room at a convention. I pick them up, one at a time, and then I put them back, shaking my head. I spot one that looks like an exception, grab it, and quickly discover some awkwardness of typography or design that spoils the effect.

There is noble work being done, of course, all of it – or almost all of it – a labor of love, but still I’m hard put to think of exceptions. Most of the books published by small-press publishers in the science fiction field are not well made. Some are embarrassing; many are simply flawed. I’m not talking about the writing here, but about the physical book itself.

Too often, the problem is that the publisher has no idea of what a well-made book is.

I was looking at photos in Locus of the covers of two apparently well-made small-press SF collections, and I could see the contradiction that makes such books fail. The covers were clearly cloth, and the cloth looked like it had a pleasing texture. (The photos were black & white, so I have no idea of the colors.) There was a title embossed in the middle of each cover. But instead of title designs and lettering that reflected the traditions of well-made books, I saw title designs that, in their style and their aims, were borrowed from the visual language of mass-market paperbacks.

In a genre field, where the mainstream of publishing is entirely commercial, with a long tradition of lurid covers and cheap production values, it’s no surprise that even a small-press book destined to be sold by mail or in person to specialist readers is graced with a garish dust jacket and punctuated inside with big illustrations. The colorful displays designed to attract a browsing potential customer in a bookstore or supermarket are taken to be the emblems of quality, without which no science fiction book can hope to be taken seriously. And so you get the strange hybrids between the fine edition and the pulp style that litter the hucksters’ tables at cons.

Bored by bricks

Is it possible that the reason people talk so eagerly about the death of paper and the rise of electronic books is that so many of the books they see are badly made? Most paperbacks are impossible to read, and even some of the hardbacks that you pay fancy prices for are so poorly constructed that they’re physically painful to read. You have to hold them open with a brick, or by the constant pressure of your fingers and thumbs. The type curves into the gutters and disappears, so you’re never able to read a line of type on a flat surface. No wonder people look forward to reading off a flat screen that they can control, one page at a time! Who would worship the “tactile feel” of reading a book when that feel consists of sore thumbs and abraded fingers?

The ideal that some publishers seem to be striving for now is the “block o’ book”: a small, solid brick made of paper, easy to store, easy to move, easy to slap a colorful label onto (that is, the cover). A thick brick is better than a thin one, because you can charge more for it; after all, the consumer can see how much value the book has by measuring the thickness of the brick, right?

Few book manufacturers (or their clients) seem to remember that a book is in use when it is open, not when it’s closed.

Printing on demand?

At a recent Orycon in Portland, I found myself in an argument in the hucksters’ room with a bookseller who turned out to be also the publisher of the small-press editions on his table. He was proud of his books, naturally; I was unimpressed. We argued about techniques of design and production, and about how a book ought to be used. His books were laserprinted at low resolution and then reproduced on a photocopier, and he bound the books using a technique called “library binding.” (Library binding is like stapling, only stronger: you sew right through the book from front to back, which holds all the pages tightly together, instead of sewing through the folds in the signatures, as in a traditional sewn book, which attaches the pages to the inside of the spine. A library-bound book may last through innumerable readings, but it’s so tightly bound shut that every reading is an effort.) We had genuine differences of taste, but the most interesting thing came out only late in the encounter: the biggest advantage he saw in his methods was that he could print up only as many copies as he actually needed at one time.

That’s the trick that every publisher has been trying to pull off: printing exactly as many copies as they need, and no more. Who wants a big inventory of unsold copies, especially when the federal government lays a tax on that inventory every year? But who wants to underprint, and end up with not enough copies to meet the demand? Printing takes time, and it’s only economical in large quantities (or if you can charge a high price for each copy).

What if you could print books one or a few at a time, on demand? Even better, what if the printing were done wherever the buyer was, instead of your having to print all the copies in one location and then ship them to your customers? That’s the allure of printing-on-demand: electronic kiosks in every bookstore (or airline terminal, or grocery check-out line, or home) from which any buyer could browse the available titles, pick one, enter their credit code, and have a copy of the book printed out for them right then and there. A commonplace detail in many a science fiction story.

Well, yeah, but how well made is this instant book going to be? As badly as a mass-market paperback? Worse? As badly as an office memo? Can reading it be as painful as trying to read the same book off a computer screen? Maybe those on-line electronic books wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Can an instant book, printed on demand, be well made? The short answer is easy: no. The long answer, though, is wide open, and it requires a marriage of technology and design that draws from the long tradition of book making and the very short tradition of electronic publishing. The answer may still be no, but it’s by no means clear yet.

[Copyright 1993 by John D. Berry. Originally published in Wing Window #12, January 1993]