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[The book printer - Amman]

Making Portable Poetries
- Introduction

I decided to put together this page because people sometimes ask me how I made their custom booklet (though half an hour later, as I'm still blathering on about stitching, typefaces and laser printers, they've usually come to regret it). Also, while this page might certainly interest some one who already has a "portable poetry", I've also written it with a more general reader in mind, especially one who is interested in the whole area of custom book publishing.

NOTE: In case you've come to this page through a web search, the custom books I make are called "portable poetries" - the "portable" refers to their size (they're designed to fit into a wallet, backpocket, handbag, etc.) and has nothing to do with portable computers, phones, etc. They are in all other respects normal books and just happen to contain poetry (as far as a discussion of custom booklets goes, they might just as well contain short stories, maps, travel guides, cookery recipes etc.).

Custom Books Defined

Before I go any further, a quick definition of the term "custom book" is in order. Note: this is my definition - other people may define it differently for their own greedy and rapacious purposes. So, here goes:

a custom book is a book of pre-defined form but partially customisable either in content or form and produced on demand by a method optimised to ensure that the customisation has little effect on the unit cost

A bit of a mouthful, and by no means a perfect definition but it does the job as far as this discussion is concerned. Generally speaking, only some aspects of the book are customisable, most usually the content, but this could also be the appearance (e.g. the type of cover used).

Custom Books and "On Demand" Printing

A custom book is, by its very nature, printed on demand, as obviously the custom book maker can't produce the book until he knows how his customer would like the book customised. So-called "on-demand" publishing is not by itself the same thing as custom publishing though custom book making is always "on-demand". On-demand printing is a way of producing very short print runs of a book (as little as one) as demand for the work arises (it saves paper and, in theory, any books published this way will never go "out of print").

Custom Books and "Publishing"

You may have noticed that I avoided using the term "publisher" when referring to the person/company making the custom books. Not for the first time on this site, I find myself reaching for my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, this time looking for a definition of "publish" which is given as prepare and issue a book for public sale. Where custom books are concerned, this is an important nuance - each customised book is not destined for public distribution. This is just the nature of the beast - if I was "customising" a book for a large print run, with the aim of selling it, what I'd be doing is producing, not a custom book, but... a book.

The Digital Revolution

To be viable, (because, let's assume the custom book maker wants to make some money in his venture, or at least get back his costs), the process used to produce the book must be one that will not go to pieces when confronted with the task of producing 200 books, one after the other, each with different contents and perhaps even different forms. The "process" will probably involve a computer and a printing device of some sort but it could actually just be a person drawing, cutting, and binding each book manually (I won't consider that case because it's not what I do). A custom book maker could with difficulty use typesetting to get the job done but imagine having to put all those tiny metal blocks of text into the correct order for each book that was printed?

The obvious choice for printing a custom book is a digital printer of some sort and who says "digital" says "computer". If custom books and on-demand printing are a reality today, it's largely because of the computer and the digital revolution. I didn't say "thanks to" above because for many people the arrival of computers have been more of a curse than a blessing (I'm thinking of all those who saw their jobs vanish overnight to be replaced by machines). Call me a Luddite.

Electronic Books

One final point before getting down to the nitty gritty of actually making custom books is the subject of the "e-book" or electronic book. An electronic book is a handheld electronic device specifically designed to display books which are stored in digital form by the device. The interest in these devices is that they can hold a huge number of books in electronic form, far more than you could reasonably expect to carry in the equivalent paper form. Let's say you were taking a long trip around the world - imagine if you could store, inside a little box no bigger than a paperback, travel guides to all the countries you were planning to visit, enough novels and sundry reading material to keep you going for the whole year, maps, reference works, bi-lingual dictionaries and foreign language phrase books and so forth, wouldn't you be interested?

Some companies have already started producing electronic books (the physical hardware) but it's probably true to say that at the time of writing (August 2001), the technology is not yet perfected and it's rare to see anyone reading an electronic book. If electronic books are to become a more common sight a breakthrough will need to come in graphical display technology because today, most people would be reluctant to read text on a computer screen (even a plasma or LCD screen) for an extended period of time. A couple of years ago I read that scientists were working on producing a material that will "mimic" paper but they must be still working on it... The closest thing around today to the electonic book are PDAs (e.g. PalmPilot).

If I mention this at all it's because producing custom books in electronic form would be quite easy. If and when electronic books become commonplace, they would certainly make an excellent support for custom books. I might add this feature one day to Portable Poetry but for the moment, I'm sticking with paper.

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Copyright 2001,
The Portable Poetry Company