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Within the discipline of book arts, the term “fine press” is used to refer to limited editions of remarkably beautiful books. A fine press edition may have an extremely small run of fewer than a hundred copies, and the number of books produced rarely exceeds one thousand. People produce this type of edition of a text for a number of reasons, and collectors, along with museums and institutions, often pay a high price for them.
Several characteristics distinguish a fine press book from other books. The first thing is the quality. The book is simply better, made with with higher quality paper, handmade bindings, and other features which set it above mass produced commercial books. It often utilizes hand made or painted features, such as hand binding or individually painted frontispieces or illustrations. The paper is usually archival quality, and often has a rich, creamy texture. In some cases, handmade papers will be used.
Commonly, a fine press book is produced using letterpress techniques, rather than the more common offset printing. The fonts are often highly decorative and beautiful, and a combination of fonts and engravings will be used to make looking at the book a visual feast. The book is really almost more like a work of art than a book, and many are never actually read, although they are greatly admired.
Typography and graphic arts are extremely important to a successful fine press book. The content can vary widely from poetry to short stories to monographs. Anything could in theory be used in such a book, although many are about printing and the book arts community. The book usually represents a collaboration between author, illustrator, and printer, although sometimes one person plays all three roles.
These limited editions keep the art of printing and handmade work alive both by preserving traditional techniques and creating a demand for them. Several organizations such as the Fine Press Book Association keep people within the book arts trade connected, and also sponsor annual events and trade fairs where displays of such books can be seen, purchased, and compared. Fine press is a small but important part of the book producing community and helps connect people to the roots of early printing.
If you are interested in seeing a fine press book, you can check with a local museum to see if they have any in their collections. You can also connect with an association dedicated to the form, or visit a letterpress print shop if there is one in your area. Most printers and members of the book arts community are very enthusiastic about sharing their work with the curious public.