Wednesday, 12:00pm
14 May 2014

The trade that lost its way

UK book printing is in trouble, says Francis Atterbury. The trade makes truly awful books, while the Private Press lacks content.

There’s a wave of technological revolution hitting the printing industry as new technology and new printing methods promise a revolution in the trade, writes Francis Atterbury.

This represents a great opportunity for the industry to embrace new working methods – retaining basic standards but using new technology to improve manufacturing. Unfortunately, the reactionary nature of the Private Press movement has convinced many people, in both the industry and the wider public, that ‘arts and crafts’ production methods trump content, design and progress. Is it really better to have something printed letterpress – with hand-set and often battered type, uneven inking and hand-fed one page at a time – than printed using new technology to generate and produce innovative and vibrant books?

Think I mean now? The situation I’m describing was actually from the 1890s when the likes of William Morris and his Arts and Crafts movement stopped a modernising industry in its tracks. As the trade lost its way it handed leadership to the Private Press, and so began decades of tedious books where the method of production counted for more than content ... and we’re here again.

Against the grain
Look around the trade press in the United Kingdon. Who is making the best books? As one of the judges for the industry quality awards I can tell you that the British printing and binding companies are making truly awful books. Horrible paper, shoddy binding and indifferent design where anything in black seems to equal quality. Go to a Private Press book fair and you’ll find innovative bindings, interesting papers and considered typography. If only the content were worth reading we could just call them the professionals and concentrate on something else.

So, we are losing book production overseas to cheaper production that is no worse made than we’re managing here. How has this situation come about?

There are many possible causes, from an education system that prioritises the academic over the vocational, to the failure of individuals to take pride in their work. There is no demand for quality from our buyers, nor offered from our suppliers.

Book publishers rushed to cheaper overseas producers happy that an ignorant public would pay top price for a hardback edition that was really just a paperback sandwiched between cardboard. Paper merchants reduced inventory by only stocking long grain paper, confident that their customers didn’t even know paper had a grain direction.

Smocks vs pros
To return to my opening point, it is simply unacceptable to have people in smocks making better books in their garage than professional printers and binders. But perhaps the term ‘professional’ is the key here?

The OED definition of ‘professional’ is: worthy of, or appropriate to, a professional person; competent, skillful and assured.

Show me a ‘competent, skilful and assured’ individual in British book production and I’ll show you a pensioner. The trade needs to move away from its focus on sales and cost (and owning a Bentley) and rediscover a pride in quality, a deeper understanding of manufacturing and materials and a sense of history. In so doing, it can wrest the leadership of our industry from the amateur and make British books a byword for quality as well as content.

Francis Atterbury, co-founder of Hurtwood Press, Surrey

Top: satirical drawing by Charles Mozley of Rowley Atterbury (the author’s late father, and owner of Westerham Press) and Berthold Wolpe.

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