Frania Hall, MA Publishing at London College of Communication, reflects on book production and leading a workshop at Reading and Being Read.
I was recently invited to run as session at the Reading and Being Read event, held at the British Library. I am course leader of MA Publishing at the London College of Communication, LCC, part of the University of the Arts London and some of the postgraduates on the programme came along to help. We were interested in building on the day’s events on small literary presses, engaging participants in a dialogue exploring the relationship between readers, writers and publishers.
On the course we teach all aspects of print and digital publishing but one of our specializations is in developments around production as we come from a printing heritage: our course emerged from the old London College of Printing and we have also a strong ethos of making and creativity that is embedded in the University of the Arts culture, as we are a university which teaches and researches all sorts of arts, craft, communication media and design subjects.
With that in mind, we started wondering how far readers and writers think about the production methods chosen for publishing books and what sorts of decisions go into them. We know covers are often a key part of the decision to choose a book – especially when browsing. Challenges arise here in terms of the way beautiful covers can lose out when presented in digital formats; but we also see a lot of terrible covers on self-published digital books which reinforces that taking a professional approach to cover design is important.
We know, as publishers, that we spend time deciding the format and paper as well as details such as laminates, ribbons, end papers etc., but how far do readers respond to these aspects? And do they think of these production elements as part of the publishing process?
Clearly there are constraints that publishers are under to keep costs low, so certain types of books will not be sustainable unless printed on fairly cheap paper without much opportunity to consider production details. However, where books are able to support some higher production costs, how far do choices of paper, ribbons, binding etc. influence readers?
There has been a resurgence in using diverse print techniques. It is noticeable that with the rise of digital editions there has also been an increase in the detail and consideration given to certain sorts of printed books. Indeed some publishers see it as an important selling point for their print books that they have made them into beautiful collectible objects.
Penguin, along with other companies, continue to be innovative about production of covers for particular books – for instance they published a title with a special varnish that would change colour at the heat of the hand – so reflecting the title of the book: ‘Touch’. This sort of experimentation is all very well for selected titles one might say, but it is noticeable that varieties of format have become cheaper to manufacture on a smaller scale – becoming affordable even for some of the shorter run titles. So you may see short run essays or little series appearing in bookshops, maybe with lovely letter press covers and matching branding, reasonably cheaply sold for a short while before a different set is produced reflecting a different theme.
Small presses like Persephone Books have also shown great attention to production style to help develop a brand image for themselves.
So publishers are doing it – but how far do readers respond to these elements? This interested the students and we decided to test this. On the course students undertake a print project – they learn the different techniques that they choose for their print products, from letter press and laser cutting to embossing and foiling.
Each student took one of these books or magazines to present to the participants at the conference – small groups circulated, speed-dating-style, listening to the student talking about the production aspects of the title they were showcasing, showing them what could be done on limited budget and answering questions.
We chose a selection of titles that showed different things from layout to printing methods. We also looked at issues of speed, presenting a print on demand book that had been developed in a week – taking a semi-professional approach. At the other end of the scale one of our students presented a special book she has made to present her poetry, using one sheet of paper which could fold in many ways with a use of different type techniques and materials to produce a beautiful original edition.
We also had nineteenth century short stories presented in pocket sizes with embossed covers, a more graphic anthology of popular culture with inserted poster, and a lifestyle-based magazine. So without thinking too closely about content we explored different things that can be done to the book to make it a beautiful crafted object.
This proved to be a lively session and everyone was soon fascinated by the various projects. What stood out for us was how little people had thought about this aspect, but how instantly they were fascinated by the choices available and the thought that went into it. We had a brief time to summarise their observations of the different projects: the most crafted book, the poetry book, drew the most interest: here content was completely bound up in the format. But there was also a lot comments about the simplicity behind some of the production techniques, the ease with which formats and style could be developed around the content itself and how that played a part in what people liked or didn’t like.
Applying critical approaches to format therefore was interesting – another aspect of the book to debate, just as content was an opportunity for discussion. What I think was also of interest to us was that we were able to present a range of opportunities and immediately everyone started to think creatively about format – how some simple decision around format or paper could make a difference, but also how it did not need to be something very complex or expensive.
Of course what we were presenting were still small scale options more at the DIY /craft end of publishing but we hope it will inspire people to realise some of the work that goes into print and continue the resurgence of the book as a beautiful vessel for wonderful content, illustrating how the two work together.
The interest we had in this session also reflects how much readers are still prepared to invest in the physical book notwithstanding that they may read at times in digital form. There is a lot to be said elsewhere about issues around physical ‘containers’ and ways readers value content in digital form: we do not have space to debate that here.
But this alignment of content and form has a direct link the ethos of small presses of late 19th early 20th century which had a strong design ethic – such as William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, The Golden Cockrell Press or Doves Bindery. Small presses still take the time to consider how the form can enhance the content, and the readers and writers who attended this session showed how far this is appreciated.