Books are for use. I can’t imagine that the readers of The Scholarly Kitchen don’t immediately recognize that mantra as one of Ranganathan’s Five Laws. Perhaps “mantra” isn’t how the rest of you might characterize it, but the sentence has been resonating in my head as I work on downsizing in my home. Books are for use. Use consists of a spectrum of tasks and actions – reading, checking a reference, annotating, etc. Practically speaking, books should be produced and housed in such fashion as will support maximal use. It is undoubtedly what sensible readers expect.
A report was released in September by the Book Manufacturing Institute (BMI), 2022 Trends in Book Manufacturing. Cognizant of supply chain issues as well as some of the recommended advice for countering those issues as offered by Ken Brooks of Publishing Technology Partners, I read the report with interest. Not surprisingly, the major challenges noted by the BMI were on-shore vs offshore printing capacity in North America, inflation, paper supply and the cost of labor. The report also noted that different sectors (trade, professional, juvenile, religious publishing) have specific manufacturing needs for printing, binding and finishing. None of this will surprise Scholarly Kitchen readers.
Readers have their own thoughts about how books should look and feel in the hand. Leigh Hunt in his essay “My Books” writes:
But I confess my weakness in liking to see some of my favourite purchases neatly bound…For most of these I like a plain, good, old binding, never mind how old, provided it wears well, but my Arabian Nights may be bound in as fine and flowery a style as possible, and I should love an engraving to every dozen pages.”
In listings from rare book sellers, collectors brood over descriptions like this: Green pictorial publishers cloth hardbound, gilt title/white title stamped/embossed on spine cover/front board, color and black/white lithograph illustrated text,
In looking for visuals on current book manufacturing processes, I came across a series of video assessments of printed Bibles and the associated production values. Bibles occupy a unique market niche in the context of physical printing and binding. As one name-brand Bible publisher’s marketing materials put it, their output should be viewed as “distant cousins to books produced in a purely mechanized fashion”. The same promotional package included a card showing flags of the countries that supply the materials used in producing the physical Bible. The paper originates from France, the calfskin from Germany, the ribbon bookmarks from the UK, etc. Specialty printing houses, such as Royal Jongbloed and 2K Denmark, cater to very particular requirements. There’s an excellent case study written up on the 2K Denmark site. These printing houses work with other publishers as well, but their websites frequently stress their capabilities in this particular niche due to the precise demands.
Members of the Bible publishing community were early innovators in coping with the transition to digital, recognizing the role of the platform, mobile apps, and more. Simultaneously, faced with the expansion of formats, Bible publishers were dealing with an equally competitive marketplace with product offerings ranging from free, web-based Bible portals to limited editions, such as those from Cambridge University Press. A recently launched Society for Bible Craftsmanship plans to offer annual awards for excellence in Bible design, typography, and production as a further means of heightening awareness of the attention paid to the physical elements.
So why bring this up here in The Scholarly Kitchen? In part because so much attention in recent months has been given over to the concerns associated with digital information environments rather than with how our relationship with print is changing. Print is still part of the landscape in scholarly publishing but there are limitations. There’s the basic question of necessity, given that readers learned to live with digital editions throughout the course of a global pandemic. Is paper-based output either environmentally sound or sustainable? Even as they continue to purchase some print, libraries are repurposing their available space, gradually shifting print stacks to off-site storage, and developing a collective model of shared print. Perhaps one of its most damning characteristics, printed text presents a barrier to those with a variety of disabilities.
Publishers have to weigh the viability of continuing support for print. Who will be the buyer and will there be sufficient numbers to keep print affordable? It’s not surprising that academic libraries and the vendors who serve them quietly emphasize digital as the preferable option. Books are for use. Digital will serve the needs of those who follow a linear path through longform content as well as those who merely need to do a quick look-up. It’s an economical solution, where print may truly not be.
But the cost of producing a book is not transparent to the user community and publishers can be cagey in discussing the factors that influence pricing of their print product. Conventional discussions may mention well-known elements like page count or half-tones, but there’s very little practical information shared with consumers regarding shifts in the supply chain or production workflows. Users just know that print is increasingly expensive.
I casually drew three printed titles from university presses from my stack. Two are in hardcover and one is in paperback. All three are collections of essays – one in history, one in literature and one in library and information science. The titles in literature and library science have no illustrations of any sort; the history essays include no half-tones and have only a minimal number of tables and black and white illustrations. (Certainly, nothing like Hunt’s request for engravings every ten pages.) The range in page counts is not dramatic (less than a hundred pages difference across the three) but in no instance was any publisher using coated stock.
Production values for these print titles reflect some attention to anticipated durability. The hardcovers have attractive dust jackets but underneath, the binding materials and the lettering on spines are basic and utilitarian. The pages in the paperback are glued. The materials may withstand active use if not abused, but use always takes its toll. Unlike a leather-bound Bible preserved as an heirloom, these printed volumes are not perceived as sacred but as reproducible at point of need and pricing reflects that. Pricing ranged from $70 for the hardcovers down to $37 for the paperback. (If it makes any difference, all three titles were purchased via Amazon and thus were available to the general consumer at a moderate discount. Not all three had a Kindle edition at the time of purchase.)
Publishers and libraries have unspoken assumptions as to what degree of reader access is sufficient, but when I attended a recent industry webinar, numerous voices in the chat muttered about lack of access to books. There are many prospective users precluded from use of digital resources on or off campus, due to licensing restrictions. Those restrictions keep costs down for institutions, but are less satisfactory for readers whose use is legitimate – adjunct faculty, alumni, freelancers, contractors, even local residents who find themselves poorly served by weakened public libraries. Seventy dollars for a hardcover is not realistically affordable for the individual, but without access to the digital, where do we expect such users to go?
The economics are harsh. Initial print runs continue to shrink and across the board, the supply chain needs to invest and innovate. Meanwhile, we expect patrons at all levels to cope with a variety of work-around solutions. In this environment, as business models are driven for scale and budgetary axes trim to the bone, a percentage of worthwhile titles will never achieve full usage.
Moving forward, how do we live up to that law that books are for use? Who are the readers that we push to the fringe? Do the solutions that work on a cost basis for libraries and publishers actually serve the best interests of readers? We need to communicate our realities to readers. Because they USE our books.