The Reality of Letterpress in Publishing

               The letterpress is a process that has grown outdated in comparison to the fast-paced book production that can be done using a copier and an engineered factory. The ebook threatens the printed codex putting the letterpress in even farther distance as far as mass production is concerned. There is, however, a certain aesthetic quality about the letterpress. Many people agree that there is something about having that physical copy of the book that overshadows the ebook. I personally read print book more readily than any attempt to read over electronics. A letterpress adds more to this materiality that gives a book body and beauty if used in a particular manner. However, the question remains as to if the letterpress will stage a place in publishing in the near future.

               I should note first that when I think of letterpress, I have in mind the indention on the page along with the application of ink. However, Adina Segal quotes Eric Gill: “A print is properly a dent made by pressing; the history of letterpress printing has been the history of the abolition of that dent.” Segal further explains that the contemporary movement has a divide in which some pressers argue that the “kiss” is proper, and others argue that the impression is what makes letterpress distinguishable from litho printing. Further, Sara McNally reports that deep impression potentially damages typeset and machinery. While impressions add to the materiality of book and art, there is reason to use it sparingly, and the question indeed arises for the consumer when using a kiss technique, “What is the aesthetic value?”

Pride and Prejudice
Cover Page of Thorwillow Press editon of Pride and Prejudice. Can you really tell that this is letterpress?

               I think the most attraction to the letterpress for artists and publishers is the activity. There is joy in involving body into the process of creation. There simply isn’t as much satisfaction in digitally printing a work or much less electronically publishing your book. Furthermore, the current market of books shows the disconnection between full length letterpress book producers and consumers shows that letterpress will remain a small niche in book publishing. Consider, a letterpress edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost from The Arion Press. It is sold for a whopping $1,200. A more practical example doesn’t support letterpressing to become more mainstream either. Thornwillow Press sells Pride and Prejudice for $125. Remembering that a “kiss” is indistinguishable from litho printing, letterpress will remain a sparingly used technique, and only those who can enjoy the fine details of letterpress will consume it.

Works Cited

Segal, Adina. “Kiss vs thump.” lettica, Sept. 30, 2016. https://www.lettica.co.uk/blog/kiss-thump-letterpress-debate.html. Accessed Oct. 7, 2021

McNally, Sara. “What’s the deal with impression?” Constellation & Co. Jul. 16, 2013. https://www.constellationco.com/blog/blog/2013/07/whats-the-deal-with-impression. Accessed Oct. 7, 2021.

3 thoughts on “The Reality of Letterpress in Publishing”

  1. Nick, I completely agree that it is the act of printing which makes letterpress so unique. Letterpress seems distinct from other forms of printing (especially digital ones) because it involves so many more senses than just sight. It is rhythmic and tangible, which makes it feel all the more real and passes humanity along from author to printer to reader. I think the biggest “letterpress aesthetic” is simply that it is handmade with great attention to detail and the reading experience. That attention seems relatively rare today, creating the “letterpress aesthetic” as a nostalgic yearning for times where such attention and care was more common. I also like how you differentiated letterpress from other forms of physical printing, placing it in conversation with more than just the totally-alien digital form of printing.

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  2. I couldn’t help but notice the satisfaction people got from using a letterpress, too. I also think it’s crazy how letterpressed books are now valuable antiques because people assume we won’t use a letterpress for mass production again, yet small presses have reasonable prices when they use a letterpress. Just goes to show you the steady decline of its use.

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  3. I’ll bet you that Haylee will talk about the kiss vs. the thump this afternoon. And some of what she prints – wedding invitations, business cards, stationary: people pay a pretty penny for the dent that shows it was hand-done on a letterpress. The economics of letterpress are interesting. Yes, collector’s or art editions of books done by letterpress are expensive because, nowadays, it’s just so time-extensive to produce. When we begin reading the Poetics of the Press, we’ll get a more nuanced view of letterpress and its changing role in poetry presses during the mid/late 20th century, and today–from something cheaper and DIY, to something not actually cheaper/feasible in most cases, to something that, arguably, adds a certain value but isn’t necessarily or always cost-saving. But, anyway, you’re right at the heart of the issue here.

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