Less is more

The tactile, aesthetic needs of book enthusiasts have meant the digital reading experience is largely unfulfilling – as evidenced by the recent proliferation of limited editions in print, says John Stones

The limited edition has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent years, in no small part fuelled by the cult of luxury that was so much part of the ’naughty noughties’. It’s a tactic that has been effectively deployed across the spectrum, from furniture manufacturers such as Established & Sons (which has specialised in the strategy and have issued limited-edition furniture for tens of thousands of pounds) through to mainstream confectionery brands such as Kit Kat, which also found the limited edition an effective marketing strategy.

But the word edition is originally a publishing term, and so perhaps a limited-edition book requires less by way of justification. While it can, of course, simply be a smart way of dressing up a small print run, the recent increase of limited-edition books points to something beyond that. Faced with the threat of the digital realm, the tactile, visual and even fetishistic needs of the bibliophile need to be cultivated.

’We always try to make a unique thing, an object as well as a book,’ says Damon Murray, co-founder of Fuel Design, known for both its own finely crafted publications and its designs for others. ’It is the way the book market is going gradually – the airport paperback can now be read on your iPod or iPhone.’ Typical is Fuel’s most recent limited edition, the Jake Chapman novel Memoirs of My Writer’s Block: there is a standard paperback (for £14) and also a limited edition of 100, in a navy cloth box with gold foil and a numbered and signed etching (for £295).
’It’s the books in the middle that are being squeezed,’ suggests David Pearson, who previously, as Penguin’s design director, had done more than most to return the design of the mainstream paperback to the graphic design-fest that it had once been. Now established on his own, he, too, has set up as a boutique publisher, as well as continuing to design books for others.

’We did need to think long and hard about our motivation. If the book is better and easier to read, and feels nicer in the hand, then it is justified,’ says Pearson. Rather than numbered limited editions, White’s Books (as his publishing company is called) offers classics in ’fine editions’, with marker ribbons, special colours, cloth binding and wrap-around cover illustrations, which retail for £20.

’I can consider tactility and legibility more than I could before, and I can set the type myself and spend a stupid amount of time doing so,’ says Pearson. Each has a print run of one or two thousand, the sales of one paying for the print run of the next.

Specialist indie bookshops, such as To Hell With Books in London, are springing up dedicated to these limited editions and self-published books, which are also finding space in quite different kinds of retail environments. For instance, Browns Editions, the exquisite limited editions produced and published by creative consultancy Browns, frequently linked to the exhibitions of Jonathan Ellery, are available in the stores of Paul Smith and Colette, as well as online from the designers.

These blur the distinction between limited-edition graphic design and the work of art, foregrounding the work of the graphic designer, and are, perhaps, more comparable with photographers’ or artists’ books.

The over-publishing current in the mainstream book market is clearly soon to be a thing of the past, and in the foreseeable future a large proportion of printed books could be special editions of one sort or another. Designers, authors and publishers will have to work even harder to produce something that justifies the resources of the physically printed book.

’People think the limited edition is an easy route, which it is, in fact, not at all – it’s as demanding as selling an ordinary book, and people need to be made to know it is there in the same way,’ warns Murray.

’It needs to be worth buying. People are not fooled – a slipcase and a print on its own is not enough,’ he concludes.

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