Wednesday 24 November 2010

The Mordida Man by Ross Thomas: From Simon & Schuster First Edition Hardcover to Penguin Paperback

Something slightly unusual for this latest post in Ross Thomas Week. It's unusual in that it's an American first edition of one of Thomas's novels, and ordinarily on Existential Ennui I tend to witter on about British first editions; and it's unusual in that it's a one-of-a-kind copy of that American edition, offering a unique insight into a bygone era of publishing. The novel in question is this:

The Mordida Man, published in hardback by Simon & Schuster in 1981. It's a political caper revolving around the kidnapping of the American President's brother and the efforts of the eponymous Mordida Man, a.k.a. ex-congressman, ex-UN representative, expatriate and expert in the art of bribery – hence the "Mordida", which is Spanish for "bribe" – Chubb Dunjee, to recover him; there's a short overview of the novel here. The dustjacket of this US edition was designed by Janet Halverson, and for once someone else has done my work for me: there's a rather excellent visual guide to her covers right here. Which is all to the good, because it leaves me free to explore this particular copy's other, more peculiar aspects...

I came across this copy of The Mordida Man during the epic internet big game – or rather big book – hunt that resulted in most of the Ross Thomas books I'm showing this week. As with those other books, I was initially searching for a reasonably priced UK first edition. But I saw this US copy listed online, and an element of the listing caught my eye (well, that and the fact it was only three quid). The seller mentioned that a few of the early pages in the book had pencil notes on them. Nothing out of the ordinary there: students, scholars and other assorted loonies often scrawl notes in books, and at least in this case the notes were in pencil, not pen. But the seller went on to state that the notes were made by an editor at the book publisher Penguin.

That got me intrigued. Naturally I bought the book, and once I had it in my hands, I realised what it was: it's the copy of the 1981 US first edition that an editor at Penguin UK used to mark up the changes to be made for the 1983 UK paperback edition. Evidently a file copy of the book was sent by Simon & Schuster US to Penguin UK once Penguin picked up the UK paperback rights, so that Penguin could see what alterations they'd need to make for their edition; an editor at Penguin then physically wrote on the book, and that would have been sent to the typesetter/printer as a guide. Nowadays, of course, digital files would simply have been sent from S&S to Penguin and then to the printer, but this was the early '80s, before email and the internet, and before computers were even in wide use in offices.

So in the first instance, Penguin would obviously need to get rid of any Simon & Schuster logos in the prelims (i.e. preliminary matter – the stuff at the front of every book):

The line through the logo basically means "delete", and the "Take Penguin prelims" is an instruction to drop in the standard Penguin preliminary matter. Penguin also might only wish to list the Ross Thomas books previously published by them, rather than all of Thomas's books, so his complete backlist up to this point would need to be excised:

The title page – or rather title spread in this case – which again has Simon & Schuster's logo and also their name on it, would have to go:

On the next spread, the Simon & Schuster copyright info would be deleted, and then we're into the changes that need to be made to the meat of the book:

On that right hand page, in the top right corner, you can see the instruction for how much space there should be at the top of every page. In publishing, the height of type and vertical spaces is measured in points; a "pica" is the standard unit of typographic measurement, and is equivalent to twelve points. So "33/4 pica head margin to normal text start thr'out" tells the printer/typesetter how much space to leave at the top of each page throughout the book. Next to that is an instruction for "Chapter numbers to be in different typeface thr'out", which is fairly self-explanatory, and then circled is "layout & repro supplied", which means the printer already has the files for the book.

"23/4 pica back margin thr'out" is a similar instruction to the one at the top of the page, except here it tells how much space to leave so that text doesn't disappear into the gutter, i.e. where the pages are glued to the inner spine; in paperbacks in particular you really don't want text running too close to the gutter, otherwise you won't be able to read it without folding the pages back too far and cracking the spine.

At the bottom of the page we have an instruction on how much space to leave between the bottom of the text and the page number, or folio: "8pt" is eight points; the hash sign means insert a space; and "thr'out" means... yeah, you're way ahead of me there. And "refolio" simply means renumber the pages, so that instead of this being page 9, as it is in the Simon & Schuster edition, it will become page 5 instead.

Most of the major changes have been accounted for by this point, but there are still one or two things to fix. On the next spread:

There's another instruction on how much space to leave between the text block and the folio, and there's a curious note on the facing page, which might be somewhat baffling, but is straightforward once you understand publishing lingo. It says, "[squiggle] all r/heads", and points to the "THE MORDIDA MAN" and "ROSS THOMAS" text at the bottom of the pages. What that means is to get rid of that text. The squiggle is the proofing shorthand for "delete", while "r/heads" denotes "running heads" – i.e. the title and author name at the bottom of each page. So it simply means, "delete all running heads".

Finally, later in the book there are a few more notes concerning the chapter numbers:

Clearly Penguin weren't keen on the way the in the Simon & Schuster edition the chapter numbers stacked on top of each other once they reached double figures. And that's pretty much it, apart from noting one thing that hasn't been marked up for changing: the American spelling. Seems that even back in the 1980s, UK publishers had largely given up changing American spelling to English spelling.

So there you have it. Hopefully that wasn't too tedious. I don't know how this copy of The Mordida Man ended up in the hands of a second hand bookseller – presumably Penguin and/or the printer had no more need of it once the Penguin paperback edition had been produced – but it's a little piece of publishing history, so I'm glad it did... even if I have thoroughly bored any hardy readers who've made it this far as a result. Never mind. Next up in Ross Thomas Week it's a double-header of a post, so maybe that'll liven things up a bit.

Then again...


  1. Not boring at all!

    I have one aside question about UK printing techniques. In older British paperbacks, there is often a set of initials at the bottom of the page, every 50 pages or so. The initials are the title of the book. I always imagine that this was some guide for the printers to assemble the cut sheets into the right order, but I wonder if you knew specifically what those were and why they didn't have them in North American paperbacks?

  2. If they are what I think they are, they're probably to denote signatures, which is, as you surmise, how each sheet of paper is cut and folded. Usually you'll find signatures are 16 or 32 pages, although they do also come in 24 and 48 pages. So books used to have those letters to let the printer know in which order the signatures should be bound.

    The ones I've seen in books I own are usually just an 'A', a 'B, 'C', and so on. They're not just in paperbacks either; a lot of hardbacks I own have them too. As to why British books used to have them and American ones did't... you got me there. No idea!

  3. I found your post marginally interesting (pun intended).