Thursday, 13 February 2014

Apropos Nothing (Or How I Became The UAE's First Self Publisher)

A set of metal types
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When I first got involved in publishing, I was introduced to a strange world of new terminologies and arcane practices that were in the process of being transformed by technology.

You'd write your words and then print 'em out from your PC, 'marking up' the text for the typesetter, showing fonts, point sizes, leading and any special effects or characters you wanted in the text. You'd also give them the column size. They'd send back 'galley' - long rolls of typeset copy that had been output onto bromide (photographic paper). All of this would be designed to fit into a 'page grid'. The make-up artist would use boards ruled with blue lines to show that grid, pasting the 'galley' from the setters into the pages using roller-ed hot wax and, latterly, 3M's obnoxious 'Spray Mount' aerosol glue. Both had the advantage of being re-positionable immediately after application but firmly adhesive shortly after. Spray Mount was horrible stuff, creating clouds of fine gluey mist. You could only imagine how bad it was for anyone not using advanced breathing apparatus. Our makeup guy used to wrap a scarf around his head, which made him look like a New Romantic terrorist.

Images would be sized to fit into the grid and then bunged into envelopes and attached to a copy of the made up pages, which would be 'marked up' again for the printers - this tint here, that colour background there. You had to give 'em the CMYK of any colour you wanted or percentages of tints. And then the whole papery lot would be sealed up in a large packet and dispatched to the printers to be 'camera-d' and made into four huge steel plates. These were affixed to rollers and then coated in printer's ink, pressed onto sheets of paper in four, eight, 16 or even 32 page sections. Really big presses could do more, 64 or even, one Dutch press we used also did Yellow Pages, and they had a massive press that could do 128 pages.

Start to end, the whole process was very analogue, but the Gods of digital were already starting their insidious and increasingly disruptive transformation. Our typesetters were using Linotronics, machines with green screens that automated typesetting, which had previously been a highly skilled job that called for a four-year apprenticeship. A proper 'hot metal' compositor could hand justify text by eye as he hammered the keys to drop the type into place in grids. The phototypesetter cleared these skilled men out of Fleet Street almost overnight, but also did a great deal to 'democratise' publishing. Now smaller, more agile publishers could create publications without having to use the unwieldy, expensive (and unionised) typesetters.

I arrived into publishing just as desk top publishing was becoming viable. Now we could run type into grids on the screen. We could send a whole page, already 'made up', to the setters and get back a full page bromide. We didn't have the technology to scan colour images, the printers still had to do that, but we could make up our own boxes to size and attach our images. Proofing was a pain, watching a tabloid page printing out on a dot matrix printer was like watching the world's slowest kettle boil. We were pioneering users of the technology, as it happens, becoming the first publisher in the UK to go 100% over to desk top publishing. We used Ventura Publisher, running on DR's GEM user interface over MS-DOS. And by golly it was clunky - but it did the job.

I told our typesetter, Phil, what we were doing. He'd have to get machines to output our pages. Rubbish, he said. You haven't got the skills, the understanding of type. You're not compositors. How could you compete with the quality of work a trained comp can output?

I had to take my pages to his competitor, a man I didn't like who had set up a DTP output bureau. Within the year, Phil (with his £30,000 Linotronic machines) had gone bust. It was my first experience of the wonders of disintermediation. I have been boring audiences at conferences for years with this: Quality becomes irrelevant where technology improves access.

And so it was I arrived a few years later in the UAE, back in 1993, with my publishing house in a cardboard box. A PC was all I needed - and a bureau that could output pages from Quark (I had moved on from Ventura by then). When they tried to shut me down, they could not for the lives of them work out how one snotty wee Brit could produce publications all by himself. The Ministry was looking for the massive infrastructure behind me required to produce magazines, the writers, the graphic artists, the makeup guys and so on. I was the best they could come up with and clearly wasn't quite as impressive a catch as they had in mind!

I suppose that was my first experience of self publishing in the UAE. I'd never thought of it like that before...
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