On the beauty of the book and its endurance

October 9, 2015

In Smoke Proofs, Andrew Steeves offers a series of essays to ask critical questions about contemporary printing and publishing practices that most people in the industry take for granted. The essay “Why We Accept Shoddy Books” challenges literary publishers to think about how — and how badly — we deploy our limited financial resources in the making of cultural objects:

Strangely, the giant, profit-driven multinational publishers—those firms which are by their very structure and mandate most likely to become estranged from the literary and cultural values of the books they publish—tend to field more skilfully- and interestingly-made books than many of the grassroots, mission-driven and publicly-subsidized literary publishers. How is it that the multinationals can so easily outmanoeuvre the little presses, not only at the volume game where profit rules, but at the quality game as well?

Obviously, the multinationals have figured out that it’s easier to sell a book that looks nice, even if that beauty is only skin deep and fleeting. They have also figured out that they only need to spend trifling amounts of money on design and production to exceed the consumer’s much deflated expectations. And to that end, they tend to spend it on places where it is immediately visible to the consumer—on flashy covers and jackets—and less frequently on fundamentals like the line-by-line quality of the typesetting, better paper or sewn bindings. In effect, they bedazzle and tart-up their books and this passes for quality.

All the while, many small literary presses feel they must cut their design and production budgets to the bone in order to survive, employing poor papers and poorer binding and reproduction methods. As a result, a literary undertaking, such as the publication of a poetry book, too often shares the same production values as the small-town volunteer fire department’s audited financial statements.

Literary publishers cut corners not so they can maximize profit so much as to minimize loss, but I think this phenomenon results from a misunderstanding of their own role and responsibility as cultural institutions, and from a confusion about the true cost, value and function of good design. This confusion allows publishers to diminish the notion of ‘beauty’ to being a sort of luxury item which is deemed to be simply beyond our means. As we wrestle with questions of profit, quality and technology, we sometimes forget that the long-term survival and success of a text is closely tied to the quality of the physical artefact that will transmit it through time and space. (65–66)

In my work with publishers, and with one literary press in particular, I see this confusion at work regularly.

In the follow-up essay “The Fetish for Picture Jackets,” Steeves interrogates the bureaucratic mechanism of publishing grants and argues that in trying to make literary objects look like commercial (read mass-market) books to please grantors, we are doing a tremendous disservice to our culture and our future. Again, I see this disservice in my work with publishers, but never before have I considered the point as sharply as Steeves does.

Anyone interested in publishing, particularly literary publishing, could do worse than pay attention to this lovely book.

Andrew Steeves, Smoke Proofs (Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2014).