The Bible business is a bundle of paradoxes. It’s vast, but nobody in publishing really wants to know about it. It involves very long runs but at the same time mandates short runs. Although it is all about “the good book” the people involved in it are not noticeably good by and large, nor pious or even specially virtuous.  Although the Bible is regarded by many as the word of God, it is often purchased almost as a fashion accessory.

However you lay it out, the Bible is going to make a lot of pages — at least 2000 or so. So right off the bat you have a problem — it’s a competitive business but you have to keep your costs within reach of the competition. Bibles print on light weight papers, and spoilage tends to be high — I’ve done jobs where the printer wanted a 100% spoilage allowance. So you are almost forced into longer and longer runs in order to amortize the high up-front costs, and to bring your running cost down as much as you can. Typesetting, which you hope never to have to do because with so much copy it just costs too much, has to aim at fitting as many words as possible onto each page but at the same time making the type large and easy to read. These unreconcilable alternatives lead inevitably to a more or less messy compromise. Designs which manage to optimize both the words per page and the readability/clarity issue will tend to be used over and over again.

The Bible has been being printed for centuries. Gutenberg’s Bible is well known as the first book printed with movable types. It is also often recognized as the nearly ideal printing job, which printers have been striving to match in quality ever since. When letterpress printing was done by hand (up till the mid 19th century) three or four formes at most would be set in type, printed, and stored as flat sheets while the type was distributed to be used in setting the next few formes. The amount of metal required for enough type to set the entire Bible would be beyond the capital resources of most master printers. As presses became larger and faster it became more reasonable to hold type, though of course this was always an expensive proceeding. With the invention of moulds in the 19th century it at last became possible to move beyond the limitations imposed by the amount of metal called for for the Bible. Clearly the development of offset printing opened up the reuse of earlier settings, and more or less brought an end to resetting the Bible, except of course in the case of new translations. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that the main Bible images we used when I was doing Bibles in the late 20th century had actually been typeset in the thirties or even earlier and recycled ever since. Now with the development of computer-driven typesetting it has again become possible to contemplate resetting the Bible.

Like most businesses the Bible business has multiple layers. In the evangelical (missionary) market many of the books will be given away, and this and the mass market segment will tend to be in paperback or a cheap hardback binding. A regular church-goer will want to have a leather (or at least bonded-leather bound) Bible. My working involvement in Bibles has been mostly at the de-luxe end of the business. Here the books will be smyth sewn, with whipstitched first and last sigs as reinforcement, printed on ultra light weight paper (24# and below), bound in a good bonded leather or a full leather case, with a light flexible board (or none), with a hollow to keep the sine open, and decorated with foil stamping and imitation raised hubs on the spine. The linings (endpapers in a regular hardback) will probably be bonded leather and the case may well be stamped with gold foil around the inside edge. The page edges will be gilded with rounded corners, and there will be one or two ribbon markers. Bible printing has recently tended to be done by web offset, partly because the runs do tend to be long, but also because sheet-fed printing is now a rare commodity, especially with the light weight paper called for in so many Bibles. I can remember a Bible printing in Cambridge by sheetfed letterpress on a 14# paper. The press had to run quite slowly, as every time the next sheet of paper was advanced over the print bed, it floated and fluttered down into place. The pressmen took pride in their ability to do this sort of work well (indeed at all) but such craftsmanship is no longer economically viable. I have had a Bible printed on French 14# paper in U.S.A. on a web press. When the paper was delivered the customer service rep called me in a panic, saying the rolls were so small that they knew the paper had been short shipped; they described them as toilet paper rolls. When I reminded them that the bulk on the paper was more than 2000 ppi, they calmed down. The book ran very well: good quality Bible paper is relatively stronger than regular book paper, having a higher proportion of long fibers, and the perennial fear of web breaks proved groundless. So in order to amortize your high set up costs, you tend to run as many copies of the Bible as you can. Most of these sheets will be put into storage, and drawn on periodically for binding. De luxe bindings are expensive, and the resulting Bible has to have a high retail price. This means that the sales volume is always going to be low. So you might print 10,000 sets of sheets to get a reasonable unit cost, and bind up 250 in black leather, 150 in burgundy leather, and 100 in white leather, keeping the rest of the sheets in storage for binding up later on. Sometimes you may bind some in a fashion color — there are of course people out there who like to match their Bible to their Easter outfit. But this can be a risky business. Obviously you hope that you are not going to have to hang onto the unbound sheets for too long, but this hope is all too seldom realized.

Bible binderies tend to have an expertise in the leather business. There are leather merchants who specialize in leathers for book binding, and the binderies will form close relationships with them. The publisher may be involved in the selection of the hides for the job, but this involvement will tend to be at the macro level — selecting color and grain say.  The leathers used in book binding are almost always dyed and grained to order. A leather described as pinseal Morocco has nothing to do with seal skin, or pins, nor has it been anywhere near Morocco. Morocco tells you it’s a goat skin, and the pinseal label means that the skins have been stamped with a large die with a tight grain pattern which imitates seal skin. Most tanneries have dies with various grains, suggestive of goats, buffaloes, cows, snakes etc., etc.. French Morocco is an imitation Morocco made on a sheep skin. Leather from cattle is also now used for Bible binding. All the leathers used for binding will have been skived — the inside layer sliced off the make the remaining leather thinner and easier to work. The skived-off inner layer is sometimes refinished and used again for cheaper bindings. Because its surface is artificial, the strength of a skiver leather will be very low. After the type, color and finish of the leather has been selected the bindery will commission the leather merchant to supply enough hides to complete the job. The leather merchant will be responsible for ensuring that the appearance and strength of all the hides is consistent, and as spec’d. Depending on the size of the book you may get between two and four covers out of one hide. A lectern Bible will probably cut only one cover per hide. Covers can only be cut from part of the hide, and the cutter will have to avoid old wounds in the leather, for instance a barbed wire scratch which will have healed up leaving a scar, and parts around the leg joints where the grain of the leather changes radically. The cutter’s skill is to maximize the number of covers per hide, keeping spoilage to a minimum. Cutting is done not by a knife or scissors — a die in the shape of the cover required will be used and when properly aligned will be pressed into the hide chopping out the rectangular cover. These dies are hugely expensive, so you will be likely to design your book to fit the cutting dies out there. So now you have your leather cover. Using a knife the binder will shave off the inside part of the edges all around, so that the leather can be folded over neatly to form the cover. It goes without saying that damaging the surface leather by slicing off too much is a big risk. The case will be made with a pair of light-weight flexible boards, and a liner for the spine. Nowadays cases are formed in a press in which the edges are mechanically turned on the roved corners, but of course at one time this was all done by hand as it still is in some smaller binderies.

The cover will now be stamped — a really expensive Bible may be stamped with real gold foil. The stamping will include creating the raised hubs on the spine. These horizontal raised strips across the width of the spine are a totally ersatz reference to the old style of hand binding in which the sections of the book were sewed onto cords across the spine,  The cords then caused bumps in the outer surface of the spine — and this is the effect which has conventionally been retained in leather bound Bibles.

After the linings (the equivalent of end papers) have been pasted to the case, the case is ready to go onto the book block The video below shows a neat technique of enclosing the liner in the book while it is being gilded, and tipping it in later. Before this the edges of the pages will have been gilded. This too used to be done by hand, but is now done in a gilding machine. After smashing to get the air out of the book block, a lift of book blocks is clamped together and sanded to a fine surface. The gold, or imitation gold, foil is applied using heat and pressure. The book blocks are separated and polished with a soft cloth to remove any excess. Ribbon markers will be inserted at this time, and thumb indexing tabs will be cut. After all these steps the book blocks are then glued and placed into the case. They are then put under pressure till everything is fixed and dry. The finished Bible is inspected, wrapped in a sheet of paper, and placed into a two-piece box ready to be cartoned and shipped to the warehouse.

This is all so much more work than we have to do on our regular books that many people shy away from involvement in it. But for fascination and an insight into the way things used to be in book manufacturing generally Bible manufacture is hard to beat.

This video from Local Church Bible Publishers shows many of the steps mentioned above