When I originally did this post in November 2010 I didn’t make it crystal clear that this was actually a genuine letter written to a persistent complainer. Almost everywhere I have worked the odd-ball letters always seem to have ended up in my in-box: I guess people quickly find out my love of the odd-ball. I never heard back from this correspondent.

Dear Customer:

I am sorry that you have not had any response to your previous complaints about unsewn binding.

Unfortunately, nowadays it is only a minority of books which do actually get a sewn binding: and here I am referring to the entire universe of book publishing, not just our part of it.  In fact almost all the books which are sewn now are university press publications, and we do still make a few sewn bindings.  This change to unsewn binding is partly of course motivated by a need to economize, but it does also result from improvements in the quality of unsewn binding.  The adhesives used today are much stronger than those used years ago when unsewn bindings were first being used.  Paradoxically page-pull and flex tests show a sewn binding as the weakest type of binding, but this is only because the center two pages will tend to rip free of the sewing at values below those at which a glued book will fail.  Of course the rest of the pages are stronger, and the glued book only “wins” because the strength of every page is pretty much the same as every other.  But in the same sense as “the strength of the chain is the strength of the weakest link”, sewn bindings do test weaker than unsewn!

That is of course not to suggest that you are wrong to prefer that type of binding.  It is the way books were bound for centuries, and we should not abandon tradition lightly.  But there is also a technological reason driving us in this direction: in order to sew a book it has to be a book which has been printed in sections which can be folded to make a “signature” through the folded back of which sewing can be applied.  As the demand for books goes down, we cannot print sufficient quantities to be able to make books this way every time.  On many books the demand is so low that the only way they can be kept available is by digital printing.  With this technology we can actually print as few as one copy only: if you order a copy of the book you are considering, it will in fact printed in response to your order.  We keep no copies in stock and whenever someone orders the book a copy will be printed for them, “on demand”.  Digital print engines deliver the book as two-page sheets, and the only practical way to bind these pages is in fact to glue them.  The book you are enquiring about would actually be manufactured by a company which specializes, among other things, in library repair binding.  When the binding is worn on a library book, the library will send it to this company. They chop off the spine, glue the pages, and rebind the book in exactly the way your book would be bound.  I do think that testifies to the durability of the binding, at least to some extent.

Thus in effect the trade off is: either digital printing (and thus unsewn binding) or the book will have to be declared out of print.  We believe it is preferable to keep the book available than to insist on any specific product specification.  I hope that, however reluctantly, you can agree.

I hope and trust that your experience with the book will reassure you, but one has to admit that to some extent our attitude (the world’s in general) has turned towards replacement as the new durability!

Yours sincerely

Advertisements