Recently, my collection of flash fiction, The Paradise Project, was published simultaneously as an ebook and in a book-arts edition using technology that would have been familiar to Johannes Gutenberg: hand-set type impressed on handmade paper with a hand-operated press.
As the two versions progressed, I had a stunning realisation: publishing has circled back to its roots. I, the writer, was expected not only to produce the words, but to collaborate in both the making and the marketing of these past and future books.
To that end, I spent time in the studio with the paper artist commissioned to produce the endpapers, using plants from my gardens. What started out looking like a slurry of wet Kleenex did indeed resemble a sheet of limp paper on a humid day by the time she lifted it from between the blankets of the paper press.
“See that?” she said, pointing to an almost imperceptible indentation surrounded by an infinitesimally thicker ridge. “That’s a papermaker’s tear.”
I found it hard to see that tiny dimple as an imperfection. The entire landscape of the page was a riot of dips and clumps, knots and swirling fibres, as if the paper itself were supple, complex, alive.
A few months later, the papermakers, typesetters, proofreaders, and Hugh Barclay, the irrepressible octogenarian owner of Thee Hellbox Press, gathered to put The Paradise Project to bed. One by one we took our turns at the flywheel of the antique Chandler & Price press.
After this, the metal letters would be dumped into the hellbox, the 294 printed copies would be bound, and there would never again be books that were exactly like this.
I had helped set the type, choose the paper, smear the ink, and now it was my turn at the flywheel. I placed a folded sheet of thick, creamy paper upside down on the tympan as Hugh instructed. I centred the page as best I could, and gave the flywheel a whirl. I felt like a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. 291.292.293.294
I lifted the last page off the press. It looked like all the others we’d printed that afternoon, nothing to declare its ultimate place in those four and a half months of printing. Ironically, the page we’d just pulled 294 copies of—page 48—was the first page of the last story I’d written for that collection. In it, a man complains to a woman he meets in a park that his children and his children’s children have “no sense of history. No sense at all.”
While the others hoisted glasses of single malt to toast the occasion, I read the story, thinking how fine a gathering of words could sound when they were this beautiful on the page. Then I noticed, in one corner, a faint smudge. I peered more closely. The smudge was clearly a fingerprint.
“Oh dear,” I said, showing the page to Hugh. “Should we print another?”
“We should charge extra!” Hugh exclaimed, dismissing my question with a wave of his hand. “That fingerprint—that’s what makes this copy distinct. Human. It says, ‘Somebody printed this.’ Imagine what it would be worth, a book with Gutenberg’s fingerprint!”
There are no fingerprints on the ebook version of The Paradise Project, only the smudges readers leave on their plastic e-ink screens.
That’s not the only difference between publishing in paper and pixels.
While Hugh and I chose hand-made rag paper for the guts of the letterpress book, my ebook-designer son, Erik, and I blithely skipped past considerations of heft, texture, colour, and tooth. Epaper combines ink and paper in one; even typeface is delivered as digital software that a reader can adjust to any size in several different fonts. For hours I toiled in Hugh’s grubby studio, hunting-and-pecking metal letters and sliding them, upside down and backwards, into a chase, but with a few strokes to Erik’s keyboard, my text instantly flowed into an EPUB file.
Does that make a book designer as redundant as the guy inking metal type with a leather pouch? Well, no. My son sent me the pages of Paradise as a file that I say is onscreen, but it wasn’t. The pixelated image of the words were on the screen; the file itself was a knot of coding, an intangible, almost-indecipherable Rosetta stone. The designer’s skill is in making the text accessible across every electronic reading device now existing, and yet to be invented (as they like to say in film contracts).
I played with the EPUB file on my old and new phones, my iPad, my laptop and ancient desktop, shrinking the text, then blowing it up until I could see it across the room. No matter how I manipulated the words, the flow was perfect.
“There’s a certain magic to this, a certain finesse,” Erik said quietly. “Really, really clean code is a beautiful thing. In the same way that a smooth-running press with a perfect skim of ink and a perfect bite of type into the paper, and perfect consistency to the prints—in that same way, there’s beauty and elegance in a well-coded ebook.”
The printed page that Hugh pulled off the press was a material object. It rustled lightly in my hand. I recognized the words that I wrote, the metal letters that I slid into the chase that Hugh set in the press, perfectly inked, to make the words appear on that rectangle of pressed rags.
I looked at the page head-on, as I might look at a painting. Then I held it up to the light, as the paper-maker taught me to do, to look for variations in opacity and how the paper fibres were dispersed. She called this the look-through. Then I held the printed page at a raking angle to the light—the look-down—to check the texture on the surface caused by the felts, the moulds. I watched for papermaker’s tears.
Hugh plucked it out of my hand and offered it to me again, on edge.
“Like this,” he said, holding it perfectly flat, at eye level.
I looked across the terrain of the paper, its landscape of hills and hollows cradling thick, chocolate ink. I could have got lost in there.
“On paper like this,” Hugh said, “words make an impression.”