The Point I Was Trying to Make...

This is a coda to last week’s mess of a blog about limited edition books by (or “by”) musicians. I was aware while writing the post that it was failing to address the fundamental questions, So what and Who cares? My task of casing the Collector’s edition of Aurora Teardrops seems to stretch on to oblivion (that's a stack of cases waiting for textblocks, above), so I had a lot of time while standing at the bench since last Monday to ponder exactly what point I was trying to make. It boils down to the concept of the limited edition book.

The editions published by HM are constrained by time and resources. The calculus for balancing edition size and issue price is determined by a number of factors, some quantitative (cost of materials & labor) and some qualitative (how eagerly, or not, the market is anticipated to welcome the publication). The best case is when you bet low and the edition gets snapped up. Too many presses moan about lost profits when this happens, & if only they’d priced the book higher. These people are fools. Too many bet high, & also moan; they too are fools. At HM, production (i.e. printing) is broken into day-sized chunks: each run must be completed in a day. To get an edition of 50 I probably would print 70; allowing for set-up and makeready, 70 impressions of hand-inked type, printed on a handpress, dealing with damp paper, takes me eight to ten hours. If a run takes more than a day, you may as well let it take up all of the second day; that would mean an edition of 100 copies. Now you have 100 copies to sell, instead of just 50. That means more up-front costs, more time, more sales work, more shipping, and a lower issue price because then it’s a larger edition.

(This matter of printing damp is not inconsequential to the production flow: when working off a sheet over four days instead of two, it’s much trickier to sustain the paper’s dampness. It already goes to three days when adding a second color, and by then the sheets are noticeably drier than the day before. A handpress can only accomplish so much in a day.)

By letting production be limited to how many impressions can be pulled in a day, HM’s editions fall into some natural number. The more complicated the printing, the smaller the edition. Aurora Teardrops, which totalled 100 impressions per day (to yield 26 Deluxe and 50 Collector’s copies) pushed things to a limit; there were some long days. The constraints are different for people using mechanized presses (Vandercooks, Heidelbergs, etc etc) because so much of the work is being done by the press - that’s the point of a machine. And this is how most letterpress publishers print these days - they can burn off hundreds of impressions in the time is takes me to get my 70. But they still have material costs, and that tricky calculus of the optimum number to produce. Just because you can easily print more copies doesn’t mean you should.

But none of the books mentioned last week were letter/private press-type books. They were all commercially-produced books printed by off-set litho, some of them from publishers for whom production costs are not a primary concern (ahem Simon & Schuster). The limiting of these editions really comes down to market demand. Except maybe the Dylan lyrics book: 50 signatures is maybe all the time & attention they could get out of Bob.

That book is a good example of my complaint about many of the publications: aside from a mostly arbitrary production limitation and a signature, the publisher doesn’t put any effort into making the book distinct from the usual trade books. There is no interest in making the book itself special or luxe, beyond the famous person’s signature. At its most egregious, it’s blatant profiteering, jacking the price for what essentially is the exact same book as the trade edition, but for the signature. Herb Yellin, the proprietor of Lord John Press, played around with this a bit in the '90s, arranging to buy a few hundred copies of a new trade book in sheets from the publisher, inserting a limitation sheet signed by the author at the front signed, putting it in a slightly better cloth case, and selling it for five or ten times the price of the trade issue (which often where the true firsts). He told me he got bored doing that pretty fast, like shooting fish in a barrel I think he maybe said.

(Yellin produced the greatest of all books that exist only to present the signatures of famous people. It literally is just a collection of original signatures by famous [mostly American] people. That was the last LJP book. I’ll let you ponder whether that’s cautionary or laudatory…)

I haven’t seen it, but that Dylan book looks like all people got for the extra $4,800 was his signature on one of the preliminary pages. Same binding (a flat-back case for a book that is much too big & heavy) and contents as the other 2,950 copies produced. People who’d pay $5,000 would have paid $7,500, and then they could have had their copy in a beautiful, rounded & backed leather binding, something suitable for the size and weight of the textblock (and that premium is way more than needed per copy for such a binding…).


Returning to last week’s examples, Kevin Haskins’ Bauhaus book at least is physically different than the cheaper trade edition, and seems to be doing creative things with graphics and format. Please just make sure the slipcase is big enough. You don’t even really need one: cloth-bound books get worn from the slipcase. If the book is really so precious, it should be in a box. Slipcases are best suited for something like books in limp vellum. No cloth-bound hardcover really needs one. Put the money into a kool jacket instead.

I shaded Genesis Publications a bit last week, but at least they are doing what I’m asking for here: creating books with special, unique content, only part of which is the famous person’s signature. And it looks like they care about things like printing & binding. There may be a little reverse engineering happening - working back from access to the signature to book conception - but they have produced some books that look like fun.

So that’s my point: contemporary commercial publishers should explore opportunities to issue some books in a special, “limited” and luxe format, when the content warrants and the market is interested. I like signed books, especially commercially published ones because it may be the only time a human touched the thing. But don’t be lazy: don’t just stick in a signature. Get a designer with some thoughts - and preferably some knowledge about book binding - involved. Make it worthy of the limitation (however arbitrary that may be) and the signature.


Books of Note

That title is clever because this post is about recent books by musicians, specifically "limited edition" publications. Bit of a follow on from this post of last summer. At a time when recorded music seems to be free, this could be group for whom the printed book offers a more financially remunerative outlet.

Maybe the most widely promoted recent book is Bruce Springsteen's autobio, Born To Run. A signed edition was available for pre-order. The book's site states it's numbered, but not what the edition is; limited to the number of orders they get? Not sure what the US issue price was; in Canada it was C$450, in the UK it was £250; that makes it about US$300. Needless to say, it sold out before publication. A few copies are available from resellers, including one on eBay (US$1,725) that reports the edition to be 1,500 copies. Whether it's worth 4x the issue price, at least the publishers put some effort into making it more than just a signed copy of the trade edition.

Simon & Schuster gave special treatment to recent Nobel Prize winner (& maybe rejecter) Bob Dylan's collected lyrics, in 2014. That book was limited to 3,000 copies, including 50 signed by Bob, issued at $5,000. Not a peep of one online now.

Ex-New Order bassist Peter Hook has just published another memoir. The last volume focused on the few years that Joy Division existed, and took it's title from the band's first album, Unknown Pleasures. The new volume, Substance, focuses on his much longer tenure in New Order. Both are published by Simon & Schuster UK. A signed edition of Unknown Pleasures was issued (£40), limited to 1,000 copies. It's basically just the hardcover in a slipcase that is too small, and will assuredly ruin the dust jacket. Despite this flaw, no copies can be found online. The publisher doesn't seem to have given the new book the same attention. Hook's books are entertaining for readers interested in the band & the time, if only for the vitriol he sprays.

Shortly after Unknown Pleasures was published, Hook's New Order nemesis Bernard Sumner issued his own memoir, Chapter & Verse. Sumner managed to cover in one volume all the history that Hook's dragging out across three. It was published by St Martin's, no limited edition, and the hardcover isn't even sewn. Yawn.

Faber did a nice job publishing lyrics by JD's Ian Curtis, titled So This is Permanence. The regular trade hardcover is well produced. The limited edition of 200 copies sold out before publication & cannot be found. The real pearl may be a copy of the facsimile lyric sheet, issued with the limited edition: a handful of extras were issued, in a printed sleeve, after publication.

It's not surprising that Nick Cave has a few interesting books to his name. He seems to have collaborated most extensively with Black Spring Press. His 2007 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel was issued in at least  two states; see here. He also contributed to Bunny, a collection of photographs by Polly Borland. It doesn't look terribly engaging, as a book. Not sure if there's any connection to Cave's novel The Death of Bunny Monro.

The Cave search happened to turn up a sort-of photo memoir by Genesis P-Orridge that looks worthwhile, if you're a fan of theirs. Appears well designed & printed, and issued with kool stuff like the vinyl, all for a very reasonable price.

Kevin Haskins is poised to release a monster of a book chronicling the relatively short life & long tail/tale of Bauhaus. Titled Undead (which is rich for a band that supposedly rejected the Goth label), it will be limited to 500 signed copies ($195), each weighing over 13 pounds. A smaller version ("for those of you with smaller coffee tables") is also being issued. Based on the site's pictures, the signed edition probably is worth the price, if you have a bookshelf with enough height to accommodate it.

(I could swear his brother, David J, had a book of his photographs published in Japan a few years ago, but can't find any mention of it...)

I thought I'd heard Charnel House was doing a book with Iggy Pop, but there's no mention on the Web site. There is mention of a letterpress "archival print" (i.e. broadside) printing the lyrics to Whiter Shade of Pale, with a grainy photo of the thing. Charnel publisher Joe Stefco has never been shy about confessing his fondness for Procol Harem, but how can that coexist with Iggy? I guess we all contain multitudes. Anyway, it looks like whoever was behind this hadn't seen a lot of broadsides. It's one color, kind of small (looks like 12-pt type), no imprint of any kind, seems to have been printed with lots of impression on soft, thick paper. Not very special, especially for $600.

Finally, for people whose nostalgia works back from around 1975 (ugh), check out all titles at Genesis Publications. The books look like attention is paid to design and production, but really, aren't they just wrapping around a rock star's signature?

Interesting that Brian Eno hasn't really ever done a limited edition book. There was More Dark Than Shark, previously posted, but that was more Russell Mills' book than Eno's.
Signed & numbered (500?) copies of David Sylvian's Hypergraphia were issued, but I think the books were the same as the unsigned issue. Good luck finding one of the signed copies.


Profiteering in Books ?!

The well for blog post topics remains dry, but last night I encountered something (book related) that got the blood up. It has to do with drop shipping.

I've joked with friends about Abebooks searches that turn up dozens of copies of a book, all priced within the market's prevailing range, except for one seller who is charging a ridiculous amount, like by a factor of 10 or 20 times more. At first I thought this was a clueless amateur. But it isn't: it's always a drop shipper.

Last night I was doing some digging into specialists in modern photography, and this listing from Book Deals showed up. I collect books about printing, and probably know all of the 20th century titles that would be considered uncommon (i.e. expensive). I've never heard of this book or the author. At that price, this must be a pretty kool book. (To add intrigue, this is the only copy that shows up on Abebooks, but you'll see why in a minute...) An original copy of Lewis Allen's Printing With the Handpress lists around $2,000, and it may be the most desirable 20th century book about letterpress, so this First Steps... must be seven times more desirable!

I searched the author and found him in the UK, a semi-retired commercial printer. He wrote First Steps... with the goal of keeping letterpress alive & vital. You can buy a copy of the book from him for $15.

Again: you can buy a copy of the book for $15. The callous heels at Book Deals know that it only takes one person who's too busy or ditsy to shop around, for their $14,111 listing to make a killing. Especially when they apply the model to hundreds of titles (thousands? I couldn't stomach looking long enough to count...): this links to a list of their offered books in descending price. That first title - Stevens' How to Prepare a Feasibility Study - can be had (ex-library) for $179. The next copy online seems to be offered by another drop shipper, but they're only asking $1,700. Gold, Ghost Towns & Grizzlies can be quickly found for $45. And it goes on.

 The worst part is, Book Deals isn't even sitting on a stock of books. That's how drop shipping works: they get your order & then go purchase the cheapest copy they can find & send it to you, pocketing the difference ($15,027 in the case of Ghost Towns...). NPR's podcast Planet Money did an excellent episode on all this. Note the part where the selling platforms wash their hands of the whole question.

SO, if you're shopping for books online, beware of sellers who have multiple results with the same (usually brief) product description. Do a quick search of the bookseller: if nothing (besides Abebooks) comes up, they may well be a drop shipper. Deal with real booksellers who actually have books on shelves, even if it costs a few dollars more. We need book stores, the service will always be better, and you'll be fighting against evil.


On Land

About eight years ago I was invited by the proprietors of a new, small press to contribute a text for a series of broadsides they wanted to print. The subject was Your connection to the land. They were (are) sweet people and I was flattered to be asked, but the topic is exactly the kind of thing that does not resonate with me. The other contributors wrote earnest odes to dirt etc etc; above is what I came up with. It is, if nothing else, entirely honest & genuine. Dug out recently because someone around here is studying gravity & related forces.


I read this line in a recent magazine article about a guy who has begun picking up abandoned books from New York City sidewalks: "They no longer had any exchange value..." It's not news, but it is jarring to have it stated so clinically.