Print-run numbers on backs of books
August 16, 2004 2:22 PM   Subscribe

I have seen numbers on the back of books that puzzle me; they look like this: 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13. What do these mean?
posted by msacheson to Media & Arts (10 answers total)
If these same numbers appear on the copyright page, they're an indication of the book's printing. The last/lowest number indicates this. The higher ones are there as a bit of tradition from older days, when they'd just remove the lowest number from the plate when they'd do the next printing. That way, they wouldn't have to make a whole new plate to change the printing number.

I'm not familiar with such numbers being on the back of books, though, so they may mean something different altogether.
posted by zsazsa at 2:28 PM on August 16, 2004

Those are print runs--it's just a very convenient (if old-fashioned) way for printers and publishers to keep track of which run a book came from, usually in case there's a problem with how the printing came out, like badly printed pages, etc.

It comes from the days of when plates were made from film...the original plate would have all the numbers on it, and then every time the printers ran a new run, they would just erase one more number, counting up. Taking something something like that off a piece of film or a plate is always much easier than changing a number, or adding one, so that's how the system for counting runs evolved many, many years ago.
posted by LairBob at 2:31 PM on August 16, 2004

(Dang...I feel like the guy who buzzed in a half-second late on "Jeopardy".)
posted by LairBob at 2:32 PM on August 16, 2004

That's fine, your answer was more detailed!
posted by zsazsa at 2:45 PM on August 16, 2004

Response by poster: So why start with 20? What if it's in it's 21st edition?

And would the first print have 20 all the way down to 1 printed on the book?

(Thanks for your answers, BTW!)
posted by msacheson at 2:48 PM on August 16, 2004

The first print would have 20 all the way down to 1.

Some of them also do it this way:

... 14 16 18 20 19 17 15 13 ...

for some reason.
posted by kenko at 2:50 PM on August 16, 2004

Yeah, the first run has all 20 numbers on it, and if it goes into 21 runs, then the publisher will gladly pay for the little bit of extra work to add a bunch of new numbers to the film/plate.

It's actually not even really a money thing--it's more just that taking off a number is something that a guy at the press can just do with any little Dremel-type tool. (Remember that the text image on a plate is raised, so you just have to grind down the little numbers.)

Doing anything else would involve going back to film and burning a new plate, and while a publisher will gladly re-do a plate if they need to for technical reasons, it's not something you want to bother with every new run.
posted by LairBob at 2:58 PM on August 16, 2004

(And kenko, that's just so the numbers can stay centered as you erase them from alternating sides. It's the layout that you use if you're centering all the info on that page.)
posted by LairBob at 3:02 PM on August 16, 2004

As an aside, this is how edition marks on newspapers work. Most papers use stars, and you'll find them beside the price or the barcode. It always used to count down. First edition would have **** or whatever, and the final would have *.

However, since the advent of computer to plate, some titles have switched to counting up. Which means you have just no way of telling whether you have first or last editions (other than by the number of mistakes) unless you know what way your paper counts. Grr!
posted by bonaldi at 6:31 PM on August 16, 2004

I love AxMe. I've always wondered what those numbers are, but never got around to looking into it.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:10 AM on August 17, 2004

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