What is a Colophon?
“A Finishing Touch”
The “Colophon” was so obvious and persistent in its presence as I looked at thousands of book spines over my lifetime. Yet, its meaning, history and significance were unknown to me. Also unknown was its relationship to “imprints,” another term I learned in my Intro to Publishing course. It’s not that I didn’t notice the different symbols at the bottom of book spines. I just never gave them much consideration, nor did I know what they were called, or what information this emblem offered about the publisher.
I recall the moment in zoom class when our teacher Kate mentioned this word amidst other information as we discussed major publishing houses and their many imprints (smaller houses within the larger ones). As the word colophon slipped past my ear I didn’t know if I heard it right. What did she say? “Colo…,” something or other? What was she talking about? What did I miss? Once our class was over, I followed up with a bit of research. There in the Oxford dictionary I discovered its meaning. “Colophon: a publisher’s emblem or imprint, especially one on the title page or spine of a book.” I jumped up from my desk and ran over to the small bookcase in our bedroom. With curiosity and enthusiasm, my finger moved from book to book, stopping at each colophon. I was amazed at the variety! Some colophons were rather predictable, others were works of art!
Searching for more information, I clicked links on the internet and learned much more about colophon and how it came into being centuries ago. Encyclopedia Britannica offered an interesting history. “Colophon, an inscription placed at the end of a book or manuscript and giving details of its publication—e.g., the name of the printer and the date of printing…. In medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, a colophon was occasionally added by the scribe and provided facts such as his name and the date and place of his completion of the work…With the invention of printing in the 15th century, printers gradually added a blank piece of paper at the front of a book to protect the first page from soiling, and they also added an identifying monogram, emblem, or a brief sentence at the rear of the book… In most countries, the colophon now appears on the page opposite the title page and consists of a one-sentence statement that the book was printed by a given printer at a given location.” Eventually the Colophon found its way to the lower spine of a book, but I have not discovered when this first happened.
So now I will tell you what I love about the Colophon. I love the way it is spelled and sounds. It is an artistic word with a hint of musical flair; the o’s are like notes. It inspires curiosity, adding a bit of romance for book lovers. I love the art work in some colophons and how they hint at the personality of the publisher; sometimes even reflecting their mission statement. The colophon also adds a bit of something special to the appearance of the spine. And if it could talk I imagine it telling a story about how the manuscript came to be acquired by the publisher.
Here in Napa Valley I don’t have many books. The majority of my books are in Massachusetts where over the decades they have found their home. When we return there I have an imposing task ahead of me. I have to empty out my writing room because we are having new carpeting installed. This means moving out all my things including my many books; a process that already seemed daunting. Now it is going to take even longer than anticipated because as I pick up each book, instead of just placing it into a box, my eyes will be drawn to the spine and to the design of each colophon. And I will pause for a moment and smile.