As I’ve said before, and as the whole idea of Nova & Vetera editions demonstrates, I love old books. But I love not only the contents of old books — the knowledge they share, the stories they tell — but the physical form of them. The embossed and gilded covers; the marbled endpapers the thick, creamy paper; the slight indentations on the page made by real, old-fashioned letterpress printing. I love the look of vintage, hand-cut type, decorated drop caps, ornamental headpiece and tailpieces and other printer’s ornaments that have fallen out of fashion, as well as illustrations that used to grace the pages of books for readers of all ages. I love the way each era of the Age of Printing has its own distinctive look and flavor. As a reader, I love being able to handle a beautiful old book, and I know others do, too.

I love the readers of old books. Sometimes the design and physical form of a book can take me back to the day when that book was new. I can imagine someone opening it and reading it for the first time, one, two, or even three hundred years ago. How would their perception of the book, their reception of it, have been different from my own? How can I replicate their experience in my own time, and to what extent should I even try?

These are questions that guide some of the decisions I make about my Nova & Vetera editions. I try to design the book to evoke the era in which is was written. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, two technological developments contributed to the concept of Nova & Vetera Editions: public digital libraries of scanned versions of books in the public domain, which allows readers to see actual pages of individual copies of old books, and print-on-demand (POD) printing technology which makes is cheap and easy to publish books.

What Others Offer

About ten years ago, the development of these new technologies converged into a new publishing phenomenon: publishing enterprises whose sole business is to create reprint editions of titles in the public domain. Many of these claim to offer tens of thousands of titles — virtually anything in the Internet Archive or similar treasure troves of digital scans of old books. While there certainly a benefit to readers who otherwise would not be able to lay hands on many of these old books, which are being dumped from library shelves and sold for their pulp value (yes, even Ivy League universities are pulping large portions of their physical book collections), for the most part, these cheap & easy editions are not anything I’d want to spend more than five minutes reading. Here generally are the two varieties of POD reprint editions.

DIGITAL FACSIMILE EDITIONS

Those who got in on the ground floor of the craze for cheap & easy money through reprint technology create photographic facsimiles from PDFs of digitally scanned books. There are a number of companies that do this — you can easily identify them, because they use the same generic covers on all their titles and, if you type the company’s name into the Amazon search bar, you’ll get tens of thousands of hits. Another telltale sign that a book is a reprint of a PDF is the lack of an adequate description on the book’s sales page. Instead you’ll get a message that says, “This is a work in the public domain, which anyone is free to reproduce and distribute.” That’s your signal that the publisher’s aim is to do this and nothing more — expect no bells or whistles.

Thanks to these publishers, for $40-$100, you can purchase a hardbound facsimile of virtually any book ever scanned and uploaded to the Internet Archive. I’ve seen some of them and, if all you want is a physical copy for reference, they are quite serviceable. But most people aren’t going to want to spend a lot of time reading such books, which replicate all the smears, smudges, and flyspecks of their originals. Reading one of these is rather like reading one of those bound sets of photocopies my professors used to provide graduate school, when a book they wanted to assign was no longer in print. It’s better than nothing, but perhaps not much better.

REPRINT EDITIONS

For the sake of clarity and to distinguish from photographic facsimiles, I’ll use the term “reprint” to indicate editions that contain the text of old books but printed using modern digital type technology (digital “fonts”). These come from publishing entrepreneurs who have gone facsimiles one better (or worse, in many cases) by using OCR (optical character recognition)to turn raw page scans into actual, editable text. These publishers can honestly boast that their books are newly typeset, rather than simply being printouts of page scans, but in many cases this is not an improvement. OCR at its best is not perfectly accurate, so typographical errors creep in that wouldn’t have existed in the original.

Another problem, though, is ergonomic rather than technical: many of these books are virtually unreadable, because they are so poorly designed — or, too often, not designed at all. Such books often defy every rule of good design:

  • Lines too long for the eye to scan with ease
  • Type crammed in with little space between lines
  • Misaligned text, such as “ragged right” paragraphs
  • Poorly chosen fonts (boldfaced or sans serif or just plain ugly body text)
  • Unnecessary space between paragraphs
  • No paragraph indentation or indents that are too large or two small

Lest my quibbles seem nitpicky, let me point out that the norms for professionally printed books are based on what has been proven to work best, not simply what looks “nice.” Aesthetics aside, typographers know what length of line works best (approx. 45-75 characters per line), what size (10-12 points) and style (serif) of type make for the easiest sustained reading. Other considerations such as optimal line spacing, text alignment, and margins also come into play in good book design to help guide the reader’s eye and make reading as effortless as possible. None of these things seem to be considered by publishing houses whose main aim is to make as many titles available with the least expenditure of time and effort possible.

As a result, these reprints are often worse than their printed facsimile counterparts because, unlike the latter, they lack any of the character of their originals and show no regard for the ease, much less the pleasure, of reading them. They have been produced by machines and apparently for machines, because few readers will want to spend any time on them. Unfortunately, readers who buy online (which is the only place you’ll see these cheap reprints) won’t know what they are getting until after they’ve shelled out $25 or $40 for their ugly, unreadable book — you see, these publishers almost never provide the kind of visual preview that online shoppers have come to expect. When you buy one of these books, you’ll be buying a pig in a poke.

Nova & Vetera Quasi-Replica Editions

I do not intend for Nova & Vetera editions to be just another source of cheap reprints. I’m not going to try to produce every title in the Internet Archive, but a carefully curated collection of books that have been painstakingly proofread, lovingly designed, and produced with meticulous care to give readers a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience at a very reasonable price.

One of the motives behind the Nova & Vetera project has always been to demonstrate that reprint editions need not be ugly; they can be things that are a pleasure to read, to own, and to share with others. Not only do I want to improve on what is available from the high-volume competitors I described above, I want to do something more: to create printed books that have the benefits of crisp, readable type in eye-pleasing layouts but combine that with a look and feel that reminds readers of the book’s history.

In fact, some N&V editions will be what I call “quasi-replicas,” new digital layouts intended to mimic historic originals. Not every Nova et Vetera edition will be a quasi-replica, but there are some books that, because of their beauty or because of their historical value, I think merit this kind of attention.

Below is a sample of the kind of improvements N&V books will offer over the cheap & easy offerings of other reprint publishers. The images, in order from left to right and top to bottom represent:

  • A digital facsimile from a scanned book
  • A digital reprint
  • A 1899 printed facsimile of an earlier printed edition
  • The Nova & Vetera edition, a quasi-replica of the 1729 first edition

For the purposes of a fair comparison, all are screen captures of similar resolution and indicate side margins accurately (although none captures the full height of the page).

In a later post, I’ll have more to say about this quasi-replica edition of William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, as well as a similar treatment of the 1632 first English edition of St. Peter of Alcántara’s Golden Treatise on Mental Prayer.

I welcome your comments and suggestions. Just leave them in the comment box below.