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Poets and Printers

        Today almost all printing is done by a photographic process which makes it possible for ordinary typewriting (or even handwriting) to be printed in a book.  With instructions from a printer,  you can prepare your own "camera-ready" copy and not only save some money on composition, but exercise very exact control over what the printed page will look like.

        A typewriter, though, looks like a typewriter.  Much printed prose looks different from typing because the right-hand margin is "justified," or made to come out even with the spacing within the line a process impossible on a typewriter (though this antiquated and expensive practice is no longer used universally even for prose).  Justification of the right-hand margin is of no interest to most poets, but there is another, subtler difference between typewriter print and the print we associate with books.  All typewriter letters and symbols, wide or thin, take up the same amount of width on the line.  A few expensive and cumbersome typewriters (e.g., the IBM Executive) use "proportional spacing," of which this is not true, but corrections on such machines are difficult, usually requiring retyping, because you cannot replace narrow units with wide ones.  Composition for printing with proportional spacing requires machinery which is generally too expensive ($8,000 or more) for the private owner.  If you want your book composed in proportional spacing, you will probably have to pay the printer to do it.  But if you know the approximate number of characters he gets to the line and the number of lines per page, you can set up your book in manuscript on an ordinary typewriter in a very close approximation of what it will finally look like.  [Personal computers have made most of this paragraph obsolete.  PC's can do both proportional spacing and right-hand justification very easily, and laser printers allow you to produce camera-ready pages that look better than professional printing did just 50 years ago.]

        When I started Trunk Press I had dreams of doing my own printing, but the more I investigated the process, the less practical that seemed.  I found that it was quite possible these days to get printing equipment free.  Printers, to keep up with their competition, are continually having to dispose of out-dated but still quite usable machinery.  If you take it, though, you inherit their headaches.  I would still like some day to have an old-fashioned, simple flatbed press primarily to print posters, broadsides, post-cards, which are excellent media for single poems.  But bookprinting by such a process would be a heroic contest like that of John Henry racing the pneumatic hammer.  In my view that would take too much energy away from poetry and other writing.

        So I collected comparative estimates on a number of printing jobs from local printers and mail-order printers.  I found that the small-town printers had less overhead and therefore lower rates then big-city printers, but neither could compete for price with mail-order printers, and the quality was much the same.  What local printers had to offer at a substantial cost included in their bills was personal service; they had office staff, available by visit or telephone, to help the neophyte answer the innumerable questions and make the many choices that arise in the process.  I decided that to save money I should learn enough about that process so that I didn't need so much personal service.

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