Coach House Press as a digital pioneer

Last evening Laraine Coates and I went to see John Maxwell give a talk to the Alcuin Society about Coach House Press as a digital pioneer.

Coach House is known as a literary house and a design and printing house. But, John says, a research project he’s undertaken over the past several years reveals that Coach House has a fascinating history of digital innovations in publishing, which shows that innovation doesn’t necessarily require massive amounts of capital, trained technical professionals, or corporate secrecy. Coach House’s innovation was more down to earth—a product of a love of learning and willingness to tinker.

Coach House’s beginnings are legendary: at the height of the Great Canadian Flag Debate of 1964, Stan Bevington sold screen-printed Canadian flags in Toronto and eventually made enough money to buy his first printing press, which he set up in a coach house. Coach House Press started printing posters, then moved into books. Initially the books were hand set; then Coach House acquired a Linotype machine. In the late 1960s, as Coach House began to print the books of emerging young writers and poets, it found itself becoming a cultural hub.

In the early 1970s, phototypesetting became an accessible technology, and Coach House pursued it rather than seeing it as antithetical to the tradition of hand setting. In 1974 Stan Bevington bought a Mergenthaler VIP (variable input phototypesetter) machine, which took paper tape as its input. The tape encoded not only the text but also the design and formatting. It didn’t take long before the team at Coach House began modifying the tape to create new typefaces for the VIP; they essentially “hacked” the tape to drive new typography. Coach House was adept at tinkering with new technology to wring the maximum functionality out of it.

Coach House also recognized the potential of using a computer to create the tape. In 1974 Bevington bought a Datapoint 2200 computer for that purpose; the Datapoint 2200 was the earliest microcomputer—the forefather of all of our personal computers. At a conference, the Coach House team saw a computer hooked up directly to a phototypesetter and decided to try it for themselves. Ed Hale built a circuit board that took output from the Datapoint 2200 and fed it to the VIP—no more need for paper tape. By doing this themselves, Coach House made the technology their own.

At this point, the software became key in the process. David Slocombe at Coach House tinkered with the software and got it to the point where it was usable by the editors themselves. At the same time, Coach House actively collaborated with Ron Baecker’s computer science lab at the University of Toronto—one of the first places in the world to have UNIX installed. Bevington consulted the lab about onscreen typography and in exchange had access to UNIX. In 1983, Coach House proposed a peer-to-peer network with two other Ontario-based publishers, the Porcupine’s Quill and Penumbra Press, and established an uncanny parallel to what universities were setting up in California and what would evolve into the Internet.

Coach House became known for its computer typesetting. In 1984 some of its staff members branched off to form SoftQuad, a developer of software to edit, view, and publish structured (generalized markup language—or GML) content. It was ahead of its time—at first SoftQuad struggled to find a market, but in 1986 it found its feet when the U.S. Department of Defense made GML—now SGML—a mandatory requirement. Of course, SGML is the direct precursor to the ubiquitous HTML and XML.

Coach House acquired Macintosh computers when they were first released in 1984, initially using them as terminals to the UNIX systems. They then discovered that the PostScript paradigm was the way of the future and quickly adopted QuarkXPress on the Macintosh and even developed a way to translate SGML markup into formatting in Quark. Interestingly, now with the rise of ebooks, publishers care about markup once again.

The 1990s were rough for Coach House; in 1996, the publishing arm of the company failed, but Bevington later relaunched it as Coach House Books, which put its entire frontlist on the web for free. The press then made sales of the beautifully printed books as fetishized objects.

If you visit Coach House Books, John tells us, you’ll discover that all of the technological history is there on site; it’s a living, breathing museum. Coach House has always demonstrated a willingness to adopt new technologies and has had a tradition of research, insightful decision making, and a love of tinkering. Unlike many other players in the publishing industry, Coach House isn’t bothered by technical innovation—a fact that still holds today; for instance, when Facebook was first rising, Coach House became the first Canadian publisher to reach a thousand followers, and it has proven itself to be a pioneer of direct sales and e-commerce. The press’s home-grown innovation hasn’t made Bevington rich, but, in hindsight, it is remarkable to consider that Coach House was always five to ten years ahead of the curve.

John’s talk was followed by the presentation of the Alcuin Society’s Robert R. Reid Award and Medal to Stan Bevington, in recognition of lifetime achievement in the book arts in Canada.

We each came away with a lovely souvenir of the evening: a tabloid-sized print of Canadian typefaces used at Coach House, including Amethyst and Stern by Jim Rimmer, Goodchild and Figgins Sans by Nick Shinn, and Gibson and Slate by Rod McDonald.

My synopsis here doesn’t really do justice to the astounding volume of research that John Maxwell has done for this project. I would encourage anyone interesting in learning more about Coach House’s technological history to visit John’s website on the topic.

2 Responses to Coach House Press as a digital pioneer

  1. Wow, Iva… great coverage. I was going to put my notes online, but I hardly need to! This is great!

    A couple of historical clarifications… not about your post so much as the way I sped through the complexities the other night:

    The 1983 allusion to the Internet in California is a little more specific (I was being grandiose). Around 1983, UC Berkeley UNIX introduced a TCP/IP stack that became a kind of de-facto standard implementation — this was the merging point of the Unix and ARPAnet traditions, and can be considered the birth of the modern Internet. In truth, there were lots of peer-to-peer Unix networks going on in those days, via the old UUCP network (which is where Usenet newsgroups came from). But to have this in a publishers’ proposal in 1983 shows how close they were to the cutting edge.

    The other bit was the relationship between SGML and the US Department of Defense; the Pentagon had a document-management program called “Continuous Acquisition and Lifecycle Support” (CALS) that adopted the newly minted SGML in about 1988; that gave a huge push to its adoption. A little of that history here: http://xml.coverpages.org/sgmlhist0.html (interestingly, there is a reference there to a parallel AAP project that seems to have gone nowhere).

  2. Thanks for the clarifications, John. Your talk was so packed I was afraid I’d glossed over some important stuff. I’m very glad I attended—it was eye opening. I can only hope that Coach House inspires other publishers to push past their technophobia!

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