Saturday, April 5, 2008


I just watched the documentary film Helvetica and highly recommend it.

Yes, it's a documentary about a font (which, let's face it, you could have expected of me). But it's also about visual design and art culture history more generally. And I guarantee it will make you look at type differently--type on your computer, type in a TV ad, type on the spines of your books as you walk by your bookshelf. You'll start seeing things as if for the first time, which is one of my favorite hallmarks of a good film.

I've always turned my nose up at Helvetica as the most defaulty of default fonts. The film convinced me that it can and indeed should be considered in all thoughtful visual design, as it has been historically. I'm not sure that its argument that you could do absolutely anything with Helvetica was quite as successful. It's not just that the display version carries with it the baggage of the 1960s modernist aesthetic, I think; it's that I don't buy the idea that a font can be completely devoid of all inherent expression. Can it?

I also liked the final question posed--whether there is something about Helvetica that makes it universally, unrelativistically a good font: whether it's reached some sort of Platonic ideal of sans serifness. I think the answer is no (the lowercase a and g are too interesting for that). But it means something that the question is asked in the first place.

There were some shots of fonts which the film suggested were Helvetica but which I thought weren't. Anyone else notice them too? Or am I wrong?

Friday, April 4, 2008

HarperCollins's New Imprint

Yesterday HarperCollins announced that they are launching a new imprint (no name yet) with an experimental bent. For one, the imprint will offer little or no author royalties; instead, the author will be involved in a profit-share with the publisher. Furthermore the imprint will refuse returns from overstocked booksellers.

The pros and cons of this move are being debated all over publishing circles and in the mainstream media: in Publisher's Weekly, in the Wall Street Journal, and in two separate articles in the NYT. And rightly so. Author royalties and returns are two archaic parts of the standard publishing model that are pecuniarily punishing for publishers. But doing away with them is fraught with risk--will the new imprint be able to sign big authors without the enticement of an advance? Will booksellers wave off the imprint rather than try to figure out more efficient ways to work with their inventory?

But what interests me here is *why* HC is trying these new models. The ideas have been batted around before, but I have a hunch that it's the proliferation of online content (free content in particular) that has made New Corp. bold enough to take this step.

Obviously money is one important consideration. Traditional print publishers are losing revenue because of online content. This is only going to get worse, and publishers need to figure out new ways of cutting major expenses. If these methods work well, we could see other publishers following suit down the road (though it will take a while).

But not drowning is only one part of swimming. This new model isn't just about cutting expenses; it's about new ways of looking at publishing.

For one, it suggests that authors and publishers are partners. This sounds like the flat-worldy internet influence to me. If authors can self-publish, or put all their work on blogs and make all the money they want from AdSense, then it seems that publishers do have to offer them something new to stick with traditional print publishing. I wonder if the fact that profits are shared tells only part of the tale--will authors and publishers work more like a partnership throughout the process too?

And the predominance of online book sales (over 2/3 of our books, for instance, are sold online) is just begging for the more POD-like no-returns model. It'll be harder for a bricks-and-mortar store than for Amazon, but it's time for Amazon to start setting the rules, and not B&N.

Apocalyptic predictions of doom aside, what other changes will the digital movement have on print publishing models?