Discarded Markers

You probably don’t know what this is. I didn’t know what it was when I first saw it. This comes from a coworker of mine, who was cleaning out her desk and decided she could finally part with this register mark dispenser.

In the days before digital publishing, books and magazines were laid out by hand, using lots of tape and glue and X-Acto knives. Blocks of text were meticulously constructed, calculating the character count with monastic dedication, so you would know if a photo that you couldn’t resize without an enormous hassle would fit on the page. When the layout was finalized, you had to place these register marks on the margins of each page. Each of the colors in four-color printing (CMYK) were printed in separate print runs, so these register marks ensured that all the colors would be properly aligned. This was essential, because even slightly misaligned colors produce an unsettling “vibration” effect.

I’ve worked in publishing of one type or another my entire adult life, going all the way back to college. And yet, I’d never seen an item like these stickers. By the time I entered the industry, publishing had already abandoned typesetting by hand. Quark XPress, Pagemaker, and their brethren had made that trade as dead as vaudeville disco. These new layout programs not only removed the tedious algebra of character counts and pica rulers, but they also placed those handy register marks right on the document for you.

At first glance, these register mark stickers struck me as quaint and archaic, in the same category as bygone office equipment such as the intercom and the Dictaphone. But in truth, these stickers were still in heavy rotation much more recently. Thirty years ago, most publishers still needed them by the boatload. A decade later, nearly none of them did. Ten years might seem like a long time in the Internet Age, but in the history of an industry as old as publishing, it’s the blink of an eye.

I tried find out more about the company that made these things, but as you might imagine, there is little trace of them on the web. The only real reference I’ve seen to it is this brief post at The Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies. A legal site indicates that company’s trademark ran out in 1989. I can’t vouch for how accurate that info is, but if true, that would be a precipitous fall from grace. I bet one day the sales department looked like Glengarry Glenn Ross, full of mad dogs who were sure the register mark gravy train would never stop rolling. Listen pal, you think that’s too much for a gross? Fine, have fun when your magazine prints crooked, ya fuckin cheapskate. *slams phone* He’ll come crawling back. And the next day, they were packing up their desks.

My coworker held onto these register marks stickers for all these years because they were a ubiquitous feature of her working life for so long. After the industry switched to computer layouts, I’m sure no one seriously thought the days of laying pages out by hand would ever return. But when you work with something for so long, you don’t discard because you don’t even see it anymore. It is as part of your daily working landscape as your desk or your chair or the sun outside your window.

And then, one day, you see it again, and you realize “I haven’t needed this thing in years.” And so, into the trashcan it goes.

For the first decade-and-change I worked in publishing, some things changed–Quark XPress was supplanted by InDesign, computer-to-plate printing supplanted film–but the industry was in a state of relative stasis, especially in respect to other media. Music and TV/film had been devastated by file sharing, digitization, and the changing attitudes about consumption and compensation that went along with it. But none of that seemed like it would or even could affect publishing.

Then, the emergence of e-readers and their acceptance by the public completely changed the landscape, and no one has a map for the new terrain yet. Though we’re in Year Three of the ebook revolution (give or take), the vast majority of publishers have no damn idea how they’re going to reinvent themselves or their products. An industry with a workforce used to gentlemanly ways and three-martini lunches now has to acquire a skill set closer to web development. Design–such an essential element of book and magazine production–means nothing in the world of ebooks, where users can change fonts at will and the most popular device (the Kindle) is basically a shrunken light table.

That last detail could definitely change, either if the iPad is used more for e-reading than it currently is, or if another more robust device comes along and hits big. (The ebook I’m working on right now is banking on this eventuality, so, fingers crossed.) We’re still in the VHS-vs.-Beta stage, with a plethora of devices and platforms and file formats making publishers’ decisions that much more difficult. Most companies remain paralyzed by choice, developing ebooks in the most basic fashion possible, making feint stabs at enhancements, and hoping a winner emerges to point the way.

What is clear is that ebooks aren’t going away any more than digital register marks are. Which means that there is undoubtedly at least one piece of equipment on my desk, something I use every day without even thinking about it, that will soon go the way of the dodo. It would be foolish to even guess what it might be, but I have my suspicions, and fears.

Once music and movies became digital, the public’s perception of those media changed drastically. Once upon a time, these things were magical because you couldn’t just make them in your house. Now, they’re just 1s and 0s. People still want music and movies and TV shows; there’s ample evidence to suggest they want them now more than ever before. But people now feel entitled to enjoy these things whenever and wherever they want, and for free. Artists will continue to create art because that’s what artists do, but I wonder how many artistic visions won’t be realized simply because the money to make them come alive no longer exists. We now live in a world where consuming art and giving nothing back to the creators–who are in most cases and for all intents and purposes independent contractors–is considered not only a legitimate POV, but has become the prevailing one.

Writing in general has already entered this realm. The most popular sites on the web pay nothing, or close to it, for their content. All attempts to get consumers to pay for online writing have failed miserably. To this point, books have held fast as something people still pay for, even in digital form, but I wonder how long that will last. Because the truth of the matter is, ebooks are extremely easy to make. The process is not as simple or quick as ripping an mp3 or an avi, but it’s still pretty easy, and I can’t imagine it will be too long before someone invents the means to make their creation even easier.

At that point, I think the extinct form of equipment will be writers themselves. We’ll still have writers, of course, but the literary landscape will look like Brazil: An untouchable ruling elite of the super-rich and famous who were fortunate enough to make their fortune before everything went in the crapper (The Grisham Class), removed from the world of favelas and shantytowns where peasants toil on their little essays and Great American Novels and try not to get killed by the roving death squads.

In other words, the next thing at my desk to be tossed into the dustbin of history might be the guy sitting in the chair.