Letter No. 4 - Why We Letterpress

One key choice that truly differentiates Century Press from most every other publisher out there is our insistence on letterpress printing, rather than commonplace contemporary printing techniques such as digital printing or offset printing.

Why do we use this antiquated technique? Simply, it’s for the unparalleled aesthetic effect.

If you haven’t read a book printed earlier than the 1950s, you may not know that the words you’re reading on the page have the capability to possess a completely different appearance. Specifically, with letterpress printing, the ‘words’ themselves are directly pressed onto the paper, leaving a debossed impression in the paper, which you can both see in the light and feel with your fingers. The effect is the exact opposite of the sterile, flat pages that are churned out of an office printer.

Letterpress Labeled Diagram

You can really see the difference between the letterpressed pages of the Century Press edition of The Great Gatsby vs. my 1973 paperback Penguin Classics edition made with offset printing. 

Letterpress vs Offset Printing in The Great Gatsby Penguin Classics Paperback

Although letterpress printing is rarely used today, it used to be the predominant form of printing starting from the 15th century with Gutenberg until the mid 20th century. When I first told my step-father about Century Press, he began to reminisce about using these behemoth, metal machines in a high-school printing class back in the day. 

However, in 2021, we live in hyper-digital age, where almost any book can be easily put on an e-reader. Despite this, 4 out of 5 books sold today are hard-copy. We undoubtedly enjoy the tactile sensation of holding physical books in our hands. If we’re going through the effort of bringing a novel into the physical realm, shouldn't it be made aesthetically appealing? Certainly ‘the words are the words,’ but would you not enjoy your romantic dinner more by candlelight rather than under the intensity of 5000K fluorescent tubes?

Digital and offset printing today is a largely automated affair using enormous machines that look straight out of those TV programs that infiltrate factories to show you ‘How it’s Made!’ By contrast, at Century Press our books are printed on a 70-year old workhorse machine called a Heidelberg Windmill. This printing press requires a substantial amount of experience to be effectively operated and needs to be empirically and manually adjusted by a trained printer. There is definitely no ‘Print’ button you can hit.

Heidelberg Windmill vs Offset Printer Ryobi 760E 

Forged from metal and lubricated with oil, many of these machines have fallen into disrepair with the advent of the digital age and mass produced plastic printers. The artisan knowledge required to repair and use these machines is in danger of being lost for future generations. Even today, letterpress printers must pass around digital scans of the yellowed and torn manuals in order to understand how to operate and troubleshoot these machines.  

Unlike our home electronics with their planned obsolescence, these Windmills can live and print forever, provided there’s someone out there who has the body of knowledge to do so. That’s why I have so much respect for our printer, Ian, who operates a one-man letterpress shop in Cornwall, Ontario. He’s keeping this knowledge alive, and fortunately starting to pass some of it to me as well.

Ian Bristow We Do Printing Heidelberg Windmill Letterpress Printer

A huge thanks to everyone who's placed a pre-order so far, and for those still on the fence, remember that you can save 10% off the cover price when you pre-order today.



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