Practitioners of the dark arts still cast a spell
By Jordan Bassett Thursday, 27 September 2012
Once respected as guardians of the written word, printers today have little or no responsibility for content proofing, but pride in print remains
In an increasingly digital world, it’s easy to feel that a vast number of industries are distinctly lacking in character, with machines having moved in to perform the roles human skills once played. Print, in particular, seems a duller place without the skilled artisans that flamboyantly made their money practicing what they liked to call the ‘dark art’.
And they did not get more flamboyantly romantic than the traditional typesetter between the 15th and 20th centuries. Back then, typesetters enjoyed a nomadic kind of freedom, moving from town to town wherever the work took them. They were reportedly well-read figures and, despite a reputation for hard-drinking, were revered for their skills with the written word. With good reason were they respected: they were universally entrusted with the spelling and grammar of the pages they composed, even rewriting some passages to improve the aesthetics of a piece.
Today, print is much more sedate without this elite group of journeymen, with machines rendering their vocation redundant, yet does any of that old responsibility for the accuracy of the written word still linger in the pressrooms of the 21st century?
That the typesetters were once a powerful force within print is undeniable. They also had some famous names within their ranks, according to Doug Wilson, director of this year’s Linotype: The Film, which celebrated some of the 20th century typesetters working the linotype machines invented by Otto Mergenthaler in 1886. "They were called ‘tramp printers’ or ‘tramp typesetters’," says Wilson. "Mark Twain was, early in his life, a tramp typesetter."
These men were responsible for ensuring that every printed book, newspaper and magazine was spelt correctly and upheld the highest standards of grammar. It was not the editor that gave pages the final once over, it was the printer. The reason is obvious: typesetters manually turned that copy into printed material.
And it was a demanding job, according to The Printing Historical Society’s publications officer Richard Lawrence. "It was a slow business. Until machines came in during the 19th century, it was all done by hand and they would compose 300 words in an hour. If you think people like Charles Dickens were writing 100-odd-page novels, you can see why a printer would need to hire extra people temporarily," he says.
"The nomadic lifestyle was transferred to the linotype operator as well," adds Wilson. "One of the people we interviewed for the film said he never wanted for a job. He and his family moved around a lot. He arrived in a town on Friday and had found a job as a linotype operator by Monday morning."
Traditions of type
Wilson says that the respect afforded to linotype operators, as with typesetters, left them in a position of authority: "If an editor came down to the composing area, they were not allowed to touch the type. They would use a pencil or pen to point to a word if a change was needed. If you touched the type, everyone in the union would walk out of the shop.
"They had that respect because linotype operators were basically the last line of defence in terms of catching an error in the story. They could spot something that had made it through all the editors and copy editors and proofs, and they would bring it up and talk to the editor and say, ‘Hey, did you mean to say this, because I think this is an error.’ That is almost completely lost today."
So it seems that where traditional typesetters may have made changes to copy themselves, depending on the publisher, linotype operators would more often defer to editors or writers. Still, the role of the printer at this point was still one of guardianship of the printed word.
Today, of course, a digital document is ready to print as soon as the printer receives it. There is simply no need for that printer to examine the spelling or grammar on a page. Hence, Doug Gray, managing director of Aberystwyth-based magazine and periodical printer Cambrian Printers, is emphatic about who should take responsibility for the accuracy of copy in 2012.
"I would say most printers nowadays will only be sent print-ready files and would go with what they’re sent – especially on quick turnarounds," he says. "On weeklies, we just go with whatever they send us. Customers need to look carefully at their documents because our presses have very, very quick makeready. The time it takes us to set registration and colour balance is getting quicker because it’s all automated. The machines don’t care what’s on there as long as it’s to the right registration or density. That is the changing face of the industry."
Kevin Sarney, managing director at Somerset-based book printer Butler, Tanner & Dennis (BT&D), says it’s a similar story for books. "We have to make sure there’s a clear definition. The publisher is always liable for the sign-off of proofs. To ask the manufacturer ultimately to pick up those mistakes creates a very difficult situation. With the speed at which we produce stuff, there’s bound to be mistakes that go through.
"If we do spot something, we can’t ignore our responsibility: we’ll highlight that error to the publisher and it’s then their choice whether or not to change it and re-do it. But we’re the manufacturer; we’re not responsible for the content."
It seems, then, that the role of the printer as gatekeeper of language has greatly reduced through the ages. If printers in 2012, working with print-ready files and to super-quick turnaround times, are unlikely to spot errors in a customer’s document, they are even less inclined to correct these errors themselves.
"People face dismissal in my business if they mess with customers’ files," says Gray. "We’ve tried to correct customers’ copy in the past and I’ve banned it, because if you try and help out and it all goes wrong, you get no thanks. In fact, you normally get a massive bill for a reprint."
Looking back to the work of typesetters who preceded linotype, Lawrence explains the perils of printers introducing a mistake into copy was just as much an issue then. He cites the so-called Sinners’ Bible as a famous example of careless typesetters creating a mistake. In 1631, Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, the royal printers in London, published what was supposed to be a reprint of the King James Bible, but made a mess of it, rendering the seventh commandment as: "Thou shalt commit adultery". Barker and Lucas had their printing license revoked and were fined £300 (an eye-watering £35,000 in today’s money).
Last line of defence
Modern-day printers are rarely in a position to make this kind of howler. However, while print-ready files all but absolve print firms from responsibility for spelling and grammar, Gray and Sarney say, that until relatively recently, in-house proof-readers could stop mistakes from slipping through the cracks.
"I used to work at Thanet Press," says Gray, "and because of the nature of the work we did – exam papers and suchlike – we used to have proof-readers. Some of them worked 16-hour days."
For specialist documents, BT&D still employs external proof-readers. "If we’re producing financial reports," he says, "we’ll bring in a professional proof-reader who understands that particular content. We don’t have them on every job – that isn’t required – but there are specific market requests that do require a proof-reader."
Francis Atterbury, managing director of Hurtwood Press, also still uses proof-readers, but rather than just for specialist documents, he gets everything he prints proofed. "We are not in the habit of printing rubbish," he says. "We get everything read as nothing is ever 100% right, and when we tell our clients about the errors they are very grateful, as it is not in their interest to publish mistakes. When people say they don’t have time to read, that the turnaround is too tight, that it’s not their job, I say that means they haven’t got time to be professional printers, to do their job correctly."
Some of that old role does linger, then, in varying degrees, and it also expresses itself in other ways. Magazine printer Stephens & George (S&G) has set up a charitable trust to mark its centenary that, among other things, aims to improve literacy rates in S&G’s hometown of Merthyr Tydfil. Vanessa Jones, the company’s head of corporate development, says that literacy rates in the town are among the lowest in the UK and that a third of adults have no formal qualifications. To help combat that, the trust offers internships, bursaries, mentoring projects and organises volunteer schemes.
So while the days when printers had the last word on language may be largely over, there remains a lingering sense of that responsibility in the modern day industry. Some may lament the days when printers did have more influence, but the role of the printer has changed a great deal since typesetters roamed the country to defend the English language against spelling mistakes. Printers now have speedy turnarounds and the mechanisation and automation of every process to cope with that. There is simply not the time, nor the expectation, say some, to have a printer scanning copy before pressing the green button on the press dashboard. Whether the printed word is worse off or not because of that, or how true that claim is, is one of those debates that no one can really unequivocally answer.
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