Looking through the Internet the other day, I came upon this (via Printeresting):

It’s the first post on the new “artists’ books” column on the Art:21 Blog. The intent here is not to critique the book or the post, but to use a brief part of it to talk about something else—the idea of the limited edition.

The Art:21 post mentions that the book "was printed as a limited edition of 1000” My first thought, when reading that, was well, that’s not really a limited edition. 1000 copies seems like mass production, compared to the scale that NewLights and many other book artists and small presses are working at. But 1000 is a limit (assuming they don’t reprint), however high it may seem. So one could, theoretically, have a limited edition of 10,000 or even 1,000,000. Is there a cut-off point on the number that takes a book from a “limited edition” to a “mass-produced object that only happened to go through one printing?” Are mass-market books that only go through one or two printings, by default, a “limited edition?” What is the purpose of a limited edition anyway?

To begin, we’ll start with this excerpt from an interview contained in Hanging Quotes: Talking Book Arts, Typography & Poetry, by Alastair Johnston. The interview is listed in the book as being with Sandra Kirshenbaum, but is, actually, her interviewing the author of the book, Alastair Johnston. Anyway, here are Alastair’s thoughts, circa 1991:
Alastair Johnston: […] I hate the term “fine limited edition” book.
Sandra Kirshenbaum: Oh, you hate it. Then why did you produce one? [laughs]
AMJ: Uh…
SK: It’s a joke, it isn’t really fine?
AMJ: No, it is a fine, limited edition book. I produced it because, in order to use the best possible materials in the book and because of the nature of the binding, which takes forty minutes a copy, I could only produce, realistically, a hundred to a hundred twenty-five copies. If I manage to sell out the edition, I will reprint it. But to me, the notion of a limited edition is anathema. I believe in unlimited editions because that’s what publishing is—getting a text out into the world. Having something so expensive or so exclusive that only a few people have it appeals to the worst kind of snobbery and the commodification of the book. It takes it out of the realm of information, which is what a book is, and puts it into the realm of collectability, which renders it as useless as a 1937 Edsel.
SK: So what you’re saying is that limitation per se is not a desirable trait in a book, only the natural limitation by a factor such as the amount of handwork or even the restriction of available funds.
AMJ: Right.
SK: But if you carry that idea to the logical extension, then isn’t it sort of antithetical for you to deliberately choose methods and materials that will result in limitation and exclusivity, snobbery and all the rest?
AMJ: Well, I’ve actually had a change of heart in recent years. Initially, when I started publishing, I would use cheap materials, of which the main single cost is paper and binding. And I would do books on the cheapest decent paper and do big editions, and try to get them out in the marketplace for under ten dollars. And people would ignore them. Generally, at that level, you’re trying to compete with the trade publishers. You also have distribution problems. And I began to realize that there was no point in putting up all that money and doing a thousand copies of the book if I only sold two hundred. So, therefore, why not spend the same amount of money and do fewer copies and charge a more realistic price for it. I’m still trying to make it affordable […] [1]

So that’s somewhere to start. To be continued.

1. Alastair Johnston, Hanging Quotes: Talking Book Arts, Typography & Poetry, (Austin: Cuneiform Press, 2011), 143-4.

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