The Brave New World of Publishing: The symbiotic relationship between printing and book publishing

by Manfred H Breede (Chandos Publishing, 2008): 210pp, £42.50 (pbk), ISBN 978 1843344391.

Reviewed by David Penfold

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In his introduction, Manfred Breede discusses the 'remarkable longevity' of the book, starting, of course, with Gutenberg and following production technology through to the present day (or almost, because it is amazing how much has happened in the three to four years since this book was published – I will return to this later). He also touches on the development of thought, and thus of publishing, over that period and notes the important impact of book production technology on publishing.

From the Chinese to digital printing

He then spends the next chapter describing in some detail the development of book publishing processes, starting even further back than Gutenberg, with the Chinese. He discusses the commercial development of letterpress (Peter Schöffer, rather than Gutenberg) and moves on to describe type design, automation of typesetting (although no mention here of Monotype, only the North American Merganthaler/Linotype) and the development of lithographic printing. On the way, he deals with the influence of photography and half-tones and discusses bookbinding, ending with digital printing.

This chapter (about 80 pages and thus not quite half of the book) is an excellent introduction to the processes involved in making books. It is, of course, not as complete as Kippan's comprehensive and weighty Handbook of Print Media and is rather more philosophical than David Bann's The All New Print Production Handbook, which is used by almost all publishing students as an introduction to production methods (and is about half the price of the book under review).

Very North American based

Chapter 2 continues the discussion of processes. It is entitled 'Why conventional and digital printing processes will coexist for some time to come', which is rather a mouthful and perhaps does not do it justice. Essentially it provides a review of both the technologies and the economics of offset litho and digital printing and a detailed comparison of the economics of the two processes. Although it doesn't make a difference to the arguments presented, this is again very North American based.

What perhaps is not taken into account is the rate at which the situation is changing as the technology improves (quite apart from e-books, to which I shall come back). Nevertheless, the arguments here are clear and allow readers to extend them if they so wish. Incidentally, a study has also been carried out in North America about the tipping point between the two technologies. An outline is available, although you will not be able to download the report unless you are a member of NPES, the US print suppliers federation.

The 'long tail'

Chapter 3 considers the 'long tail' in publishing and the changes that digital print on demand and short-run printing are making to the way backlists are run, together, of course, with the effect of online bookstores, essentially Amazon. Although these changes are well known to those within the industry and have been discussed in various articles, it is useful to have the discussion in a book on production.

The penultimate two chapters are about the development of digital printing, together with the related book manufacturing systems, and the 'architectures and genres made possible by digital printing', such as self-publishing. Again, in my view, this is more valuable in terms of the discussions of the technologies than of the business of publishing.

How technologies affect publishing

The final chapter (apart from the conclusion) is about how digital printing and the internet complement one another, with discussion of web-to-print and of Amazon's effect on the supply chain. However, as I indicated above, the 'elephant in the room' is the e-book and the related issues of tablets (mainly the iPad) and e-readers. The Kindle is mentioned, but the changes that have taken place since this book was published in 2008 have made such a difference that, although everything the author says is true and digital printing does allow publishers to take advantage of the long tail, the question now is more whether the long tail will be published solely as e-books.

One other aspect that Breede does not really address is how the technologies affect the different sectors of publishing in different ways. This has always made a difference – for example, academic monographs have been printed as very short digital runs for some years now. In the age of the digitally delivered book, this difference is becoming even more significant.

What kind of printed book?

In his conclusion, Breede notes that education and literacy are important factors and comments on the effects of non-text communication. He ends with the hope that the physical book will continue to play a role for another 2,000 years. I would like to think that this will be the case, but exactly what kind of printed book remains to be seen.

So, would I recommend this book? Yes, as an introduction to production technologies, although I suspect that its price will put it out of the range of many. There is quite a good list of references (although, maybe because it has not had the exposure in North America, not David Bann's excellent book). I feel, however, that the title is a little misleading. It might have been more accurate to say 'The symbiotic relationship between printing and the production of books'. There are a lot of aspects of publishing that are outside this relationship and, indeed, if 'book publishing' includes the publishing of e-books, then I am not sure that the symbiotic relationship will be maintained.

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