Deciphering Physical Books

What can the book Good Omens convey about contemporary book publishing?


The subject of today’s analysis is the 2007 edition of Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Published by Harper Collins, it is a white paperback volume. The book is itself a work of fiction, humorously detailing a narrative about the biblical interpretation of the apocalypse.


Using the books examined in class as a comparison, we observe a history of changes to the book printing process. The fold indicators on the bottoms of specific pages have vanished, as have any trace of folded sections. This implies a significant change in the process used to make books, which we know is the advent of machinery able to manufacture books more effectively than humans can produce them by hand, even with movable type. This is also implied by the lack of uncut pages, although a person dedicated to the task of cutting pages would be similarly thorough. Also notable is the total lack of watermarks on the pages, indicating a shift in the publishing industry such that printers no longer need to prove themselves as the originators of a specific volume. However the most distinct difference between this edition of Good Omens and the books we have observed for this lab is the material of its cover. Not bound in leather or other materials, this volume’s exterior is composed of chemically reinforced paper. This indicates that the book was not intended to stand the test of time, since paper degrades far more rapidly than parchment. Since paper is far cheaper than traditional cover-making materials, this implies a market for book purchasing that makes its money on selling books to many people, made accessible through reduced pricing. Certainly the practice of selling books via subscription has faded away, since there is no indication that it could be sold by that message in the material. All this serves to indicate that bookmaking has changed drastically in the centuries since Guttenberg.


The most revelatory aspect of this process was in the specific shape of the differences between the old and new texts. It is not what was added to the new books- rather, what was taken away. As the new versions of what constitutes books has supplanted the old in the popular consciousness, what once seemed normal becomes strange. So it goes with all things. Jane Austen spoke highly of the octavo as a form for a book- what would she say to Good Omens?