Madeleine Robins

Change is the Only Constant

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In times of change it’s always useful to remember that everything is a time of change. Since the advent of print-on-demand, and then of e-books, there have been approximately 47 trillion articles written on The End of the Book As We Know It, the End of Publishing As We Know It, and so on. It’s easy to believe that the old ways were handed down from Mt. Olympus: a trade book shall require 9 months from the moment it is handed to Production, neither 8 months nor 10, but 9, and 9 shall be the number, forever and ever, hallelujahYea, verily, there is but one way to distribute books. Etc. But that has never been so; it’s a rule of thumb, not an amendment to the Constitution.

We forget that, in Jane Austen’s time, the author shared the expenses of publication. We forget that in many cases books were purchased by subscription: when the new canto of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was announced, you went to the bookseller and reserved your copy. The publisher didn’t create a big advance printing, he (it was pretty much always a he in those days) printed and bound enough for the subscribers, plus a small overage. Which meant that if something really caught on the publisher–and the printers and bookbinders who worked for him–were suddenly in overdrive. Even a hundred years later, when bookshops were more prevalent, this was the case.

I have been doing research on apprenticeships for a project I’m working on, which led me to a book from 1747,  The London Tradesman, a survey of many of the occupations available to the workingman. In the course of discussing bookbinding the book notes that journeymen bookbinders “seldom earn more than ten shillings a week when employed, and are out of business for half the year.”

Wait. Bookbinding is a seasonal trade? Or was? Are the poems not ripe until August? Is there a spawning season for travel journals? Say what?

In the way of research, I started following the question of bookbinding as a seasonal employment down its own dark alley. Finally, in a Report of Arbitration Between The Bookbinding Trade Section of the London Chamber of Commerce and the London Societies of Journeymen Bookbinders (1904), I teased out an answer. It seems that in 1904 here were several big times of the year for publishing: in the fall, when school books were wanted, and just before Christmas, when Christmas gift books were being manufactured. Oh, and if a book was unexpectedly popular the publisher might be caught out and need to get their staff cracking on producing enough books to meet the demand. Publishers, asked if there wasn’t a way to spread to work out more reasonably through out the year, said adamantly that there was not.

“I only wish we could foresee those sorts of things…though we had provided a very large stock, yet we ran short several times, much to our regret….I do not see how anyone could have foreseen those circumstances and been prepared against them.”

It’s not just the unexpected bestsellers that seemed to catch the publishers unaware. Under this system no one appears to have considered that you might start printing and binding the textbooks in March, when things were slow, and the Christmas books in August, when demand for the (already printed) textbooks began. For the publishers–and the binders and printers who worked for them–it seems to have been a very erratic system. And the publishers were absolutely certain that this was the way it was:

“I take it that in addition to that there is a great rush of Christmas books?” “Yes.”

“You feel you are doing everything you possibly can?”

“I believe I am doing everything I possibly can.”

“You do not think you can do more?”

“I do not think I can do more.”

“In spite of all do you find there is a great deal of pressure at Christmas?”

“There always must be. No publisher in the world, I do not care who he is, can guage (sic) the public opinion sufficiently to guage (sic) the number of books wanted.”

Take that. And also: so there. Can’t be done, binders just have to cope with it, and (because this was the heart of the matter) they get overtime pay during the rush seasons, but if for some reason they work overtime during a non-rush season, it’s totally unreasonable for them to get paid extra for that. Because it’s not a rush season, see?

My point is not that publishers were mean in the Olden Days, or that they might have done a better job of organizing their printing and binding schedules. It’s that in 1904 this was the way things were. There are always people who will tell you that green covers don’t sell*, or that it takes nine months to produce a book, or the only way to sell books is by subscription, or in bookstores, or on the internet, because that was true for them. And when the way things were began to change, it may well have seemed cataclysmic, like the end of the world.

So when when someone says “e-text is killing print” with the same conviction as the publishing executive quoted above, I find I’m not listening. It’s always the end of the world as we know it. And it’s always the birth of something new.

*This was an artifact of early paperback printing, when greens in particular turned muddy and unappealing.

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