Private press publishing, with respect to books, is an endeavor performed by craft-based expert or aspiring artisans, either amateur or professional, who, among other things, print and build books, typically by hand, with emphasis on design, graphics, layout, fine printing, binding, covers, paper, stitching, and the like.
The term "private press" is not synonymous with "fine press," "small press," or "university press" – though there are similarities. One similarity shared by all is that they need not meet higher commercial thresholds of commercial presses. Private presses, however, often have no profit motive. A similarity shared with fine and small presses, but not university presses, is that for various reasons – namely quality – production quantity is often limited. University presses are typically more automated. A distinguishing quality of private presses is that they enjoy sole discretion over literary, scientific, artistic, and aesthetic merits. Criteria for other types of presses vary. From an aesthetic perspective, critical acclaim and public appreciation of artisans' works from private presses is somewhat analogous to that of luthiers' works of fine string instruments and bows.
The private press movement, and its renowned body of work – relative to the larger world of book arts in Western civilization – is narrow and recent. From one perspective, collections relating to book arts date back to before the High Middle Ages. As an illustration of scope and influence, a 1980 exhibition at Catholic University of America, "The Monastic Imprint," highlighted the influence of book arts and textual scholarship from 1200 to 1980, displaying hundreds of diplomas, manuscript codices, incunabula, printed volumes, and calligraphic and private press ephemera. The displays focused on five areas: (1) Medieval Monasticism, Spirituality, and Scribal Culture, A.D. 1200–1500; (2) Early Printing and the Monastic Scholarly Tradition, ca. 1450–1600; (3) Early modern Monastic Printing and Scholarly Publishing, A.D. 1650–1800; (4) Modern Survivals: Monastic Scriptoria, Private Presses, and Academic Publishing, 1800–1980.
The earliest descriptive references to private presses were by Bernardus A. Mallinckrodt of Mainz, Germany, in De ortu ac progressu artis typographicae dissertatio historica (Cologne, 1639). The earliest in-depth writing about private presses was by Adam Heinrich Lackmann (de) (1694–1754) in Annalium Typographicorum, Selecta Quaedam Capita (Hamburg, 1740).
The term "private press" is often used to refer to a movement in book production which flourished around the turn of the 20th century under the influence of the scholar-artisans William Morris, Sir Emery Walker and their followers. The movement is often considered to have begun with the founding of Morris' Kelmscott Press in 1890, following a lecture on printing given by Walker at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in November 1888. Morris decried that the Industrial Revolution had ruined man's joy in work and that mechanization, to the extent that it has replaced handicraft, had brought ugliness with it. Those involved in the private press movement created books by traditional printing and binding methods, with an emphasis on the book as a work of art and manual skill, as well as a medium for the transmission of information. Morris was greatly influenced by medieval codices and early printed books and the 'Kelmscott style' had a great, and not always positive, influence on later private presses and commercial book-design. The movement was an offshoot of the Arts and Crafts movement, and represented a rejection of the cheap mechanised book-production methods which developed in the Victorian era. The books were made with high-quality materials (handmade paper, traditional inks and, in some cases, specially designed typefaces), and were often bound by hand. Careful consideration was given to format, page design, type, illustration and binding, to produce a unified whole. The movement dwindled during the worldwide depression of the 1930s, as the market for luxury goods evaporated. Since the 1950s, there has been a resurgence of interest, especially among artists, in the experimental use of letterpress printing, paper-making and hand-bookbinding in producing small editions of 'artists' books', and among amateur (and a few professional) enthusiasts for traditional printing methods and for the production 'values' of the private press movement.
In New Zealand university private presses have been significant in the private press movement. Private presses are active at three New Zealand universities: Auckland (Holloway Press), Victoria (Wai-te-ata Press) and Otago (Otakou Press).
A 1982 Newsweek article about the rebirth of the hand press movement asserted that Harry Duncan was "considered the father of the post-World War II private-press movement." Will Ransom has been credited as the father of American private press historiographers.
Beyond aesthetics, private presses, historically, have served other needs. John Hunter (1728–1793), a Scottish surgeon and medical researcher, established a private press in 1786 at his house at 13 Castle Street, Leicester Square, in West End of London, in an attempt to prevent unauthorized publication of cheap and foreign editions of his works. His first book from his private press: A Treatise on the Venereal Disease. One thousand copies of the first edition were printed.
Porter Garnett (1871–1951), of Carnegie Mellon University, was an exponent of the anti-industrial values[vague] of the great private presses – namely those of Kelmscott, Doves, and Ashendene. Following Garnett's inspirational proposal to Carnegie Mellon, Garnett designed and inaugurated on April 7, 1923, the institute's Laboratory Press – for the purpose of teaching printing, which he believed was the first private press devoted solely for that purpose. The press closed in 1935.
William Addison Dwiggins (1880–1956), a commercial artist, is lauded for high quality work, namely with Alfred Knopf. And, in contrast to many first-rate book designers joining private presses, he refused. Historian Paul Shaw explained, "He had no patience with those who insisted on retaining hand processes in printing and publishing in the belief that they were inherently superior to machine processes." Dwiggins's "principle concern ultimately centered on readers and their reading needs, esthetic as well as financial. [His] goal was to make books that were beautiful, functional, and inexpensive."