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Recently, I saw an interview of a french lawyer, also Panellist Professor from the Collège de France, about the democratic role and position to adopt in economic development, and he took as example the case of a publisher. He argued that a publisher should do good books, as realization of a common work, intended meaning here is in a common interest, as profitable for the ones who do as for the ones who get the result of what have been done.
What is a usually a good book?
Good book(as a result)=Good content+good materials.
[long and boring introduction below]
You can skip this introduction and scroll down to the core argument, it start at the subtitle “Three physical arguments” below.
As a publisher but also curator, i think about making books with criteria based on a human role first: to choose artists and series bringing a new vision of the photographic and social fields, to select artists which are young, emerging, or unknown for now.
These are my selection keys, right now, nothing written in stone.
But helping the new talents is not all, you have to give matter to the photographic edifice.
It cames to me a memory back in years when i started publications. In a chat with photographers and publishers, it was said that my books were not “good quality” books. Interrogating more about it, I was answered “it’s not good paper” and “it’s not good print”.
So, for a “good book” talk, let’s put aside the topic about choice of artist and content and speak about the straight physical matter.
I have to admit the challenge of being an unknown publisher, promoting unknown talents, in a very specialized niche market was not so easy.
And my first try results in cutting budget for production.
I couldn’t rid myself of doing my business eco-friendly, so my first printed matter was made with soy-based ink in a special economic zone, far from my home. Also, i wanted three type of papers in the same book to show a progression in the narrative, with colors going more vivid and the low-key tones getting darker as the reader go forward. Constraints were high, because of the art paper being very different in touch when you want to reach this result in changing tones. The available solution was a middle-range art paper. And now, i have no regrets about it, not only because i tried, but also because of something more important: the design and materials were adapted to the content.
Some of the flaws at this time were obvious for experts: the white of the first paper was very UV reactive at the beginning and less then, making second and third papers appearing a bit yellowish because of the alcali coating. Also, the quality of paper looks very common, like standards and not touch-feel enough (flat, no grains) but the print was good to me.
So what are these “bad print” others were speaking about?
I have done several books now, and hearing about “bad quality” is still really
pissing me off disappointing me nowadays.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big defender of low cost publications AS LONG AS IT SERVES WELL THE PROJECT. I am just as pained when i see a good project badly printed as when i see a bad project overdone in quality of printing and materials. I can enjoy a newspaper print for an appropriate topic or a cheap/thin/shiny paper magazine style, I could even be pleased with a Xerox copy publication.
When i documented my detractors’ sources, i just had to dive in my own shelves (full of their references) to counter-argue their opinions.
My personal opinion is “you see what you want to see”, so here are some (detractors) references peeled and studied.
I don’t drop names right here, but to be credible, I need to put sources. You can find them at the end of this post.
Three physical arguments.
First, by checking the year and country of production I can state now without doubts that time have shown a growth of quality over every countries, but I can also state that China has acquired the knowledge and quality control for the best printed matters as supplier.
Second, the printed publication itself as an accurate (as possible) reproduction of photographs can only be judged by the ones who have in their hands both original photoprint and reproductions.
Third, the criteria of validation for quality control at an invisible level for human eye, the ones you can’t see without any extra help, are to consider. (Details too small to be seen, exact weight of paper, ingredients of materials, and inherent other details requiring devices or documentations )
Paper quality (sources, weight, fabrication process, composition), Ink quality (durability, composition), binding (know-how and craftsmanship) and binding materials (origin, composition, manufacturing process)
Print process details to check with special equipment: ink density, roundness of dots, precise overlay of colors, depth of halftones (definition), appropriate choice of halftone versus stochastic screening process.
Criticizing if the appropriate design is matching with the book topic is inappropriate. I don’t say it’s not important, it’s not the relevant point to focus here.
Based on these key points, here are the results.
The printing details
Let’s focus on the choices about the print itself: The choice of stochastic screening is not often used, but when used for color pictures it’s correctly done. the stochastic screening, also called FM screening is a way to get random small dots on the master printing plate instead of geometric pattern of bigger dots, called Halftone screening or AM screening.
Two examples of AM (left) and FM (right) screening comparisons.
Maybe you haven’t notice before how nice the rendering of this printing process is similar to the aspect of a real photoprints (close-up below).
The choice of getting an “art” halftone pattern resolution for print is also not the rule, and that is more disturbing. Not all photobook publishers/printers are using the appropriate resolution for printing, offering a coarse halftone to viewers.
Info: the DPI -dot per inch- equivalent for printing are LPI -Lines per inch- (converted)
Also the use of CMYK for black and white pictures is always done improperly (the neutral tone is rarely correct, even if it could be accepted that some inclinations toward yellow/brown sliding could be seen as a “sépia” replica).
And to conclude with resolution and separation, let’s say the dualtone or tritone treatments of black and white pictures show a big lack in precision printing. For this process printers often ask for a black frame around pictures or a full spread to the designers of photobooks, making the flaws of bad overlay easier to hide. Not every photographer enjoy black frames or full spread, too bad…
The magic trick other printers use with black and white pictures, and much more with pictures printed with only black ink, is to overlay the full size of the picture with a water-based glossy varnish (sometimes a clear yellow varnish). You get then a look-alike photo print. But this don’t increase the print quality, and more, this technique needs a fine resolution and a a very clean environment because of the risk of paper dust getting glued to the varnish or the possibility of duplicate a ghost of the picture on the facing page. It’s not always obvious but visible on many books using water-based varnish coating, preferably on dark pictures.
We used often fine resolutions and also stochastic screening one time, with none of these flaws, even with close-up look.
On this book, we shared with the artist the will to get as closed as possible to the photo print quality. We use then a hyperfine stochastic screening with quadritone (black and three different shades of grey). No magic trick, no snake oil or eye fooler, just the appropriate printing method to get the best quality print. The result is a print where you cannot humanly see the dots. Super crisp details, high contrast but soft tones, no reflections or moiré perturbating the view. We haven’t find a better black and white print in the world right now.
Also, several times we used art resolution for our books. But on the printing process we checked the tones accuracy, that overlay is correctly done, dots are round, etc. It should be a standard, but our archives of competitor publications shows it’s not.
What a joy to see that almost nobody use the “old style” glued binding anymore, this soft or hardcover binding style where the pages are singles and not folded & sewn page blocks, but some crazy ones are entering the danger zone of longevity versus fragility and are still using this binding!
For the rest of possible comparisons, the covers are strong and nicely made …or designed to look different, dust jacket often hides a non-existent cover design and are, then, questionable. But nothing to complain about.
As a conclusion
The facts are here, nobody’s perfect. And there’s no real answer to what is a good book -physically speaking-. A good book is a sum of things, material and immaterial, which are not to be torn apart and analyzed under a rational thinking. And much more, shouldn’t be categorized, dissected and labeled in the drawers of arrogant self-proclaimed experts.
I have to say that my devotion to photographs and photography books made my documentation on flaws easy. But i understand the human error and admit that i’m not safe from possible future mistakes. I also need to add that I don’t have anything against the publishers who served as the “bad print” data source.
It was just more easy to find flaws under the names of photographers or publishers who pop-up as references in every chats about quality photobooks.
The publishers who serve for illustrations in this post are:
Wide Shuppan Co. Ltd
Kawade Shoba Shinsha
Thames & Hudson
But, again, names are just listed for purpose of credited trusted sources.
All these publishers are doing good stuff!