Flexible Printing in the Digital Age

I’ve recently come across three books that do something really interesting that I’m calling “flexible printing” because I don’t know if there’s already a name for it. Readers, please provide more examples of this phenomenon and a name if it’s out there.

Ali Smith, How to Be Both (2014). This lovely novel (well, I’m only a bit more than halfway through, so I can’t provide a final report) is in two parts. Half is from the perspective of the ghost of an Italian Renaissance painter, and the other half is from the perspective of the present-day child the ghost is hovering around. Here’s the cool thing: when you buy the book, you don’t know which of the two stories will come first. It seems that half are printed in one order, half in the other.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014). This remarkable genre-bending book differs from printing to printing on page 134, which includes a list of black men killed by police that grows in real time: as each printing comes out, the names of new deaths are listed. I won’t go into depth, as this post on Slate explains it well.

Nanni, Balestrini, Tristano (2014). This new edition of a 1966 novel carries out the concept that the original novel only imagined: that every copy of the book would rearrange the book’s chapters and paragraphs in a different order (explanation may be found in this piece). Browsing in Books a Million in Waynesboro, VA, of all places, I saw a stack of this novel and bought two copies. Each has a number prominently on its cover, showing which of the 4,000 versions printed by Verso you have just purchased.

I’ve always been intrigued by the decision of publishers to sell books with variant covers, a phenomenon that has become more and more popular in recent decades. A couple examples that come to mind from my years as a bookstore browser are the American edition of  Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2001) and  Miranda July’s Nobody Belongs Here More Than You (2007). A few years ago I stumbled upon the fact that this is not a new phenomenon at all: the popular novelist Joseph Hergesheimer’s 1922 novel Cytherea was published in at least three different colors: burnt orange, red, and blue, of which the orange appears to be the most common.

While the multiple-cover gimmick is interesting as part of the history of book marketing, the variant content of the three examples I’ve given above is much more compelling as it has a profound impact on the reader’s experience–as does the fact of whether the reader is even aware that they are reading only one version of a variant text. Of the three books, only Tristano states its variant nature to the reader.

With that, I’m off to finish How to Be Both, before my book club meets to discuss it next week. There, I’m hoping one of my fellow readers will be willing to give up her copy that is in the opposite order from mine so I can donate the pair to the Small Library, as I did two book-club copies of Citizen several weeks ago–I’ve got a ways to go in building us a full collection of variant printings. Thanks, book clubbers, for alerting me to both of these fascinating cases.


Edit: An example provided by a friend offline: Milorad Pavic’s novel Dictionary of the Khazars (1984) is published in two versions: male and female. The cover states which one you are purchasing, but provides no information about the distinction. Turns out one paragraph is different.