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Publishing used to be an industry in the true operational sense of the word: colossal steam-powered machines fed and tended by armies of skilled artisans whose work allowed an educated sub-class of specialist artists, designers and editors to transform the raw material of literature into a desirable physical product; booksellers originated the art of logistics to distribute that product.

Sean Jennett’s The Making of Books (Faber & Faber 1964) gives the best picture of the book production industry just before small computers became a reality and changed it forever.

Today, it is possible for all that art and skill to be concentrated in very small enterprises — sometimes in a single individual.

At Knocklofty we have observed over recent times how the computer has made possible the emergence of a struggling class of small feral publishers; some of them are quite remarkable people.

Take the case of a one-person operator, known to us, and examine what he has to know and do to scrape a modest and often precarious living from a mixture of publishing and book production for vanity and commercial customers.

He possesses formidable literary and linguistic skills, a prerequisite for his own projects and essential also because the great majority of his vanity and commercial clients are often not much more than semi-literate; that entails diplomatic talents during the transformation of a manuscript into something at least basically readable. Often, he has to help with research as well as with writing.

Sordid haggling

Most clients up to this point can understand the value of the work, even though many refuse to see its full worth. There can be a deal of sordid haggling of the kind they’d never think of trying on with an electrician or a dentist, and in some cases this continues through the life of the project.

This done, he then embarks on what is to most people the invisible part of his work. He designs the book, which requires a deep working knowledge of typography and printing.

As he observes, if you don’t care about printing, you will never produce good book design, quoting Leonard Baskin: “People like me, who care about printing, constitute the tiniest lunatic fringe in the nation.”

At the same time, he negotiates with printers to secure the best result and the best price for his client. Unlike, say, plumbers, one printer is not like another; they have different capacities and specialities and quotations for a given book can vary by more than 50 per cent. To do this, he needs to know almost as much about printing and binding as the printer himself. More diplomacy.

Arcane arts

Preparing the book for the printer entails even more arcane arts. As well as setting and correcting the type, he has to know how to deal with the illustrations, which might include scanning and restoring old and damaged photographs, drawing charts, maps and diagrams and some judicious fakery to improve a badly composed or less than satisfactory image. Some of the photography he may do himself; some may be commissioned from professionals, and he has to know how to brief and occasionally how to direct a photographer. Yet more diplomacy.

Work is needed on every image in the book so that it will reproduce properly on the printed page, requiring further technical knowledge and a degree of skill and judgement. This is especially important as he designs the cover, for instance.

All these tasks require computer skills of a high order; he needs to be able to use at least a dozen pieces of complicated software. And while the book is going through the press and proofs are going back and forth to the printer, he is often designing a website for the author, which requires knowledge of a dozen more programs to create and maintain it.

Further, once the book is off the press, he designs and produces promotional material like posters and order forms, turns PR flack to write press releases and organise a launch, turns carpenter and produces display stands and often has to turn office boy to deal with the book trade, which he says is by far the most depressing part of the job. This has changed his attitude to Napoleon who, as Thomas Campbell pointed out, couldn’t be entirely bad because he once shot a bookseller.

Sullen lurking

Having occasionally encountered him lurking sullenly in a dark corner of a bar near the office gently cursing into his beer about a more than usually blockheaded, egotistical, pompous Babbitt of a client, we wonder why he bothers at all.

His explanation is that, however frustrating and ill-rewarded his work may be, it beats the hell out of working for a big publisher or — worse — journalism for the likes of Murdoch; for one thing, there isn’t much heavy lifting and for another, he doesn’t have to wear a tie.

Note: The photograph of Albert Einstein at a typesetting machine in 1934 was found at the Metal Type website — well worth a visit for anyone nostalgic for the rattle and hum of the dangerous old days of printing.