Monday, January 09, 2012

Presses, printers, and publishers

I have encountered a lot of confusion of late, particularly in some discussions on LinkedIn, among people who have gotten their books “accepted” by a “publisher” as well as among people who had their books printed by a “press.” Let me try to untangle this mess a little bit.

When the word press is used in the context of producing books, it can mean a machine on which books are printed; it can mean the printing company that owns the machine; it can mean the company that publishes the book; or it can mean the newspaper and magazine industry taken as a whole. This can lead to some confusion.

Historically, many publishers owned their own printing and binding facilities. Another way to look at this is that many printers published books. Before 1500, it was pretty much a given that the printer who printed a book also published it.

Today, many publishers use the word press in their names. Think of all the university presses, for example. But virtually none of these publishers would consider owning a printing plant (I’ll posit that there are exceptions, even if I can’t think of any offhand). Instead, they pay book manufacturers to produce the books for them.

A number of book manufacturers, as well as other kinds of printers, have the word press in their business names, with no intention of deceiving anyone into thinking they are publishers.

Other companies, called subsidy publishers or vanity presses, also use the word press in their names. They are not publishers or printers; they’re companies that enrich themselves on the ignorance of authors, trying to give the impression that they both print and publish.

But what about the referent of this popular metonym? What’s the synecdoche about? When books were generally printed from raised metal types, those types were literally pressed into the paper. When offset photolithography became economically feasible, it was natural to call the machines that laid ink on paper offset presses, even though the image sat on the surface of the paper rather than being pressed in. And today, with the “photo” part replaced by direct-to-plate electronic imaging, the printing is still done on offset presses, where the paper does get squeezed pretty tight (pressed, as in pressing a sheet with an iron), so the word makes some sense if only as a metaphor. Digital printing, which is just a more sophisticated implementation of the basic technology your desktop laser printer uses, is even further afield from the letterpress of yore, but we still sometimes call the machines that do the printing presses.

Where am I going with this? Well, I’m asking you to be clear in your mind that printing is not the same as publishing, that the “press” that published your book is a publisher, the “press” that printed your book is a printer, and that a vanity press is neither. If I’ve helped you understand the difference, then I count this as a good day.

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