by | Nov 27, 2010

Have you ever heard of a galley proof? Wikipedia says:

In printing and publishing, proofs are the preliminary versions of publications meant for review by authors, editors, and proofreaders. Galley proofs may be uncut and unbound, or in some cases electronic. They are created for proofreading and copyediting purposes, but may be used for promotional and review purposes also.

Galley proofs are called for when you do mailings to pre-publication reviewers, or for serialization rights buyers, or for book clubs with long lead times.

But now you can hear people call just about any proofs “galleys” as the meanings of words associated with old or dead trade customs naturally drift as time goes by.


But “galleys” originates in letterpress printing and the technology available to book publishers at the time.

Up until the second half of the twentieth century type was set in metal, with letterforms either assembled individually by hand or, when the trade become mechanized, in automatic “casting” machines.

These would produce lines of type, either as individual castings or a casting of a whole line at once.

As the type accumulated, the lines became paragraphs and the metal had to be moved and transported around the print shop. The implement used for holding the metal type were galleys—sturdy metal trays with three sides. One side was left without an edge so type forms, wrapped with string, could be slid on or off the galley.

Some of these galleys were steel, but in earlier days they were made from brass. We had a small proof press in my living room when I was growing up, with two brass galleys polished to a mirror finish. The black iron base and brilliant brass were striking and a natural conversation piece.

The entire galley tray would be stored in cabinets built specifically for the purpose. Imagine how many galleys would fill a cabinet to produce a 400 page book. That’s a lot of metal.

The entire galleys would be rolled on carts to a flatbed proofing press. Laid on the bed of the press and locked into position, they were inked and proofed onto long strips of newsprint.

These strips, gathered together, stapled, and cut into convenient “pages” were the first galley proofs of the type that had just been set.

And that’s why we call them galleys today.

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by heather.sabrina,[email protected]/

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  1. Victoria Mixon

    Yes, I’ve heard that about more reading, too. I’ll be interested in seeing whether or not ereaders succeed in reclaiming people’s imaginations from the televised wasteland they’ve been lost in for an entire generation.

  2. Victoria Mixon

    If you look at the history all the way from prehistoric art on cave walls, in the context of hieroglyphics, illuminated manuscripts, and the use of the Gutenberg press to spread propaganda for the Tudor seizure of the British throne, up to the present day—you can identify the relationship between written storytelling and reading above and beyond the materials used.

    I personally love books. I don’t own an ereader and have never even had one in my hands. I sleep with teetering stacks of books around the head of my bed, and my dream office is a room completely walled by bookshelves (and my office is pretty darn close to that now). But physical books as vehicles of the written word are just one in the series of vehicles humans have used throughout history.

    I’m honestly more worried about sales-fueled publishers as the purveyors of uneducated shlock, in this era following the extraordinary literary accomplishments of the first half of the twentieth century, than I am about writers finding alternate ways to get quality fiction out there into the world.

    The sheer logistics of self-publishing is going to force a deeper understanding of Dylan’s line: “To live outside the law you must be honest.”

    • Joel Friedlander


      I love books too (you probably knew that) and although I own an iPad, I haven’t used it for book reading. It has many uses, but for some reason when I want to read a book, I reach for a book. This oddity in my behavior may well have something to do with my age. Many people tell me that once they start reading on their Kindle/Nook/iPad/whatever, they quickly become converts to the electronic “book” and buy, and read, more than ever. More reading sounds like a good thing. More buying isn’t bad either. But I wonder how long the “book” will survive these developments.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  3. Victoria Mixon

    Oh, Joel, now I really like the house you grew up in. I’m putting your parents’ polished brass galleys on my wish list.

    I went to high school in the 1970s, and we had no printing class even then. But we did take our school newspaper to a local printer, and I worked with printing presses, typesetting, page composition, and process cameras for many years after that before the advent of Desktop Publishing. I do believe all that information about type and how to manage it is, as Michael says, essential for the contemporary self-publisher, so I put a certain amount of it into my own book on writing fiction—not because I expect all writers to self-publish, but because I expect them to understand punctuation, what it is and why it is, and at least some of the history of this industry they want to be a part of.

    There is a grand sense of the whole world of writing for the benefit of readers that’s wrapped up in the history of printing, an implication of the greater world of communication through the written word. Its roots go deep into the psyche of the literate. And if a writer has simply no sense of any of that, no concept of their own place in the history of literature, then they don’t really understand what they’re doing writing.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Victoria, it certainly was the source of a lot of conversations, I can tell you that.

      Until very recently, the intimate embrace of words and printed type has been intrinsic to the writing/reading process. Its roots indeed go very deep into our whole language formation and recognition systems in the brain, and this is one of the reasons some people wonder what will happen when text is freed from the vehicles that have carried it all these years.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful contribution.

  4. Michael N. Marcus

    I hope you can refresh my memory.

    I had a “print shop” course back in eighth grade (1959-60). We did things the old-fashioned way. Type was stored in Califonia Job Cases, assembled into sentences and paragraphs in composing sticks, and transferred to galleys for printing on an ancient platen press.

    I don’t remember how we transferred the type and leading from the stick to the galley. What held all of the little pieces together?

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”

    • Joel Friedlander

      There’s no mechanism for transferring the type from stick to galley, you just slide the lines of type—surrounded by leads to keep all the little pieces of type in place—out of the composing stick and onto the galley, where you then tied it with string. Many a “pi” was born this way.

      • Michael N. Marcus

        Our first classes in September were spent sorting out the type left in the “pied bucket” by students the previous June.

        The task was supposed to help us to learn the layout of the California Job Case, but it actually made us college-bound students even more resentful of being taught to use obsolete technology that would be absolutely useless in adult life.

        In 1959 I never suspected that learning about em quads, ligatures and leading would turn out to be very useful when I started self-pubbing 49 years later.

        I visited my old junior high recently. The print shop is long gone. The school is filled with computers and has pro-level video production studios and even a robotics lab. The food is much better, too, and all of the kids get free lunches.

        However, today’s 13-year-olds don’t learn about ligatures or the difference between an em and an en.

        And they probably don’t learn how to use T-squares, triangles and protractors in mechanical drawing, either.

        • Joel Friedlander

          There’s no chore quite the same as distributing type from a big pile of “pied” type matter. At least when you’re distributing type from a form you know the words and can toss the letters with foresight, but in pied type, you have to look at every piece of metal, quite laborious.

          We should be grateful for the tools we have now, and students are better off learning computerized layout, where em spaces still have their place.

          Thanks for the memory.



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