Why does the font change?
February 14, 2007 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Why do letters in the same font/typeface vary slightly in a printed book?

I've noticed that when reading some books, especially those printed before the last decade, the weight or shape of each character will suddenly change, very subtly, within a book. (The Signet Classic Shakespeare texts will do this often.) Usually these changes seem to be in units of pages -- that is, uniform within a page, different on the next one. Sometimes it even appears as though the spaces between lines are different. Note that the fonts/typefaces are the same, just with slightly imperceptible changes such as a slightly smaller aperture, et cetera. Why is this so?
posted by provolot to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The different signatures could have ben run on different presses and then combined later.
posted by nathan_teske at 11:39 AM on February 14, 2007

I've seen updated editions of books where the original was either pre-digital or they just reused the film anyway (rather than print from a corrected file). The updated/new pages or paragraphs either use a different version of the font (metal vs. pre-digital phototype vs. PostScript) or they had to change the size or leading to squeeze the new text into the space of the text they were replacing.
posted by D.C. at 12:14 PM on February 14, 2007

Typesetters often change things like paragraph spacing or line spacing slightly from page to page. They try to change these settings on facing pages uniformly, so that it is less visible to the reader. On badly typeset books these changes can be quite noticeable. These typesetting things are done for a couple of reasons.

One is to get the book to the right number of pages. Often a writer will have a set page count they need to reach, and because of technical limitations, books generally need to have page numbers that are multiples of 16. If the book is too short, for example, the typesetter can increase the line spacing in some places to make it longer. This limitation also is frequently the cause of "notes" pages in the back of books.

Also, to improve readability, books are usually set so that a new paragraph doesn't start at the very bottom of the page. In order to push the new paragraph onto the next page or pull it up higher onto the current page, the typesetter can adjust the text on the page to make it take up more or less space. This is to avoid weird gaps at the bottom of the page that would be caused by the blank space where the paragraph would have started.
posted by phoenixy at 12:14 PM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers.

But would this all affect the weight of the text, or even the shape of the letters themselves? On some books I can even distinguish between two same letters. Is it very difficult to have a uniform font, if not uniform spacing?
posted by provolot at 12:23 PM on February 14, 2007

Best answer: You could also be dealing with books that were reprinted from older editions using a method such as photo-offset, where the original page is photographed and turned into a negative for offset lithography. That's long been a cheap way to reprinting older letterpress books without resetting the text, or to produce new editions with emendations: since you're working from images rather than individually-set typefaces, there's room for small variations, especially in mass-produced versions of public domain works.
posted by holgate at 12:25 PM on February 14, 2007

Ditto everything said above. Also, on older presses the distribution/quality of the ink can vary considerably between runs, which often affects the "weight" of the text. When signatures abut, this can be apparent.

What is the meaning of "aperture" in this context?
posted by deadfather at 12:27 PM on February 14, 2007

Is it very difficult to have a uniform font, if not uniform spacing?

If, as D.C. suggested, the copytext is a reproduction of something printed with metal or a pre-digital phototype, absolutely. As Dean Allen discusses, many digital versions of classic faces look and 'feel' different -- generally thinner and 'weedier' -- because you don't have the bleed associated with letterpress.
posted by holgate at 12:30 PM on February 14, 2007

Best answer: What you may be seeing is something called "gain" or "spreading." On a printing press ink goes onto the paper as a very thick liquid. Depending on the press and the pressman, the humidity, the ink manufacturer, or any number of other factors, that ink may be more or less viscous when it's transferred, leading to more or less ink being transferred. When you factor in things like the absorbency of the paper in question, and, hell, even the grain-direction of the paper, it's a miracle that any two printed pieces come out of the press looking the same.

Then you have situations where Pressman A is working on pages 1 through 128 on one press, Pressman B is working on pages 129 through 256 on press B, etc., and you can see where incremental differences can lead to noticeable discrepancies in the final printed page.

Then you have the problems inherent in film versus the problems inherent with set type...

Seriously, I can do this for hours.

Short answer? You're seeing the same font, the same typeface, as distorted by the printing process itself.

In cases like the The Signet Classic Shakespeare, where the publisher is printing their own money a public domin text, there's no author or agent around to get fussy about imperfections in the fianl product so a lot of slop is likely to be allowed that wouldn't be acceptable with, say, the latest Stephen King or Sue Grafton.
posted by lekvar at 12:47 PM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Even within the same technology there are differences between versions of fonts from different vendors. (Book Antiqua & Palatino, Arial & Helvetica, Times New Roman & Times, etc.)

phoenixy wrote: Typesetters often change things like paragraph spacing or line spacing slightly from page to page.

While this does happen, I'd never hire any "designer" who plays leading games to fix copy fitting problems on a regular basis. Such tomfoolery is acceptable only in rare situations where the alternative is worse.
posted by D.C. at 1:11 PM on February 14, 2007

By aperture the OP is probably referring to the counters.
posted by wemayfreeze at 5:20 PM on February 14, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everybody! I had a feeling that it had to do with the reproducing process and the relative cost benefit of printing. I counted some of the more weighty pages, and they do seem to repeat after 32 pages, which makes sense with the multiple-signatures thing -- and the gain/spreading makes even more sense as well, as the paper for most of the texts this happens on is pretty light and porous.
posted by provolot at 1:12 PM on February 15, 2007

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