There’s no real way round this: from the point of view of the production department slipcases are a pain in the neck. You have to remember to get the thing designed and made in time for it to catch up with the books as they slide off the end of the binding line. The decision to do a slipcase often comes late and a rush becomes a panic. And as they are relatively unusual your colleagues all make heavy weather out of the approval process. (As I’ve often complained, if you ask any publishing person for approval they’ll find something to change. After all, if they didn’t, how would anyone else know they’d really considered the issue?) Slipcases also tend to play havoc with your budget.

Slipcases are made by the same sorts of companies that make boxes, and employ a process not utterly dissimilar to that used for casemaking: bits of board cut to size and glued to a covering material. The covering material can be any material used for binding a book, or more often perhaps, a paper covering specially printed for the slipcase. See the Peter Taylor slipcase below for an example. A cheaper compromise is to make a plain paper slipcase and stick the front of the jacket onto it. The History of Greek Art shown at this post has the front of the jacket for Volume 1 stuck to one face of the slipcase, and the front of the jacket for Volume 2 on the other.

Getting the slipcase made to the correct size is an important issue. Paper bulks are never 100% consistent so your books may turn out a little bit thicker or thinner than anticipated. Making up a dummy of each volume is essential. Since the books ship in the slipcase, you can’t have them rattling around inside, ‘cos they’ll get rubbed and bent. On occasion I’ve resorted to a thin polystyrene insert to hold the books in place for shipping — a lot better than remaking the whole damn thing. On the other hand if your book’s too fat your customers may never be able to get it out of the slipcase. You end up having to tip up the slipcase and hit it on the back to persuade the book/s to vacate. The slipcase for The Oxford Companion to the Book is so tight that getting the two large and heavy volumes in and out has lead to the beginning of a tear along the top edge of the slipcase which will fall apart before too long I fear.

Here’s one where they’ve tried to make it a bit easier to get the book out by putting a thumb-cut on both sides. Unfortunately though, the slipcase has been made a bit too deep anyway, so there’s no way you can get a grip on the book lurking in there without resorting to the tip-it-up-and-bang-it method. Also, the thumb-cut leaves the raw edge of the interior board on view, which rather works against the prestige look the publisher was obviously seeking with this leather-bound edition.

At The Folio Society they make a better fist of this with a gently bowed profile to the front of the slip case, so you can really get ahold of the book and pull it out. This works, but increases the difficulty (thus cost) of making the slip case, as getting the covering material (a stout paper in this instance) to glue around that gentle curve is tricky. I can’t actually work out how they do it: there are no cuts on the inner turnover. It almost looks like they do it with wet paper.

Here’s a compromise from Cambridge University Press using a shallow V-cut with a single cut to the turnover on the inside. This book, On Anniversaries by David Crystal was published in 2009 to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the printing of the first book in Cambridge. A royal charter had been granted fifty years earlier to print “all manner of books”. Cynics have suggested, slightly unfairly, that it takes us almost as long to bring out a book nowadays — especially if there’s a slipcase involved. This is a limited edition: limited to 4,000 copies though. Mine is number 2537.

Now in theory a slipcased edition of a multi-volume set of books is meant to have its own ISBN, while the books inside have their own ISBNs. This can be seen here on the bottom of the slipcase for Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries. The reason for this, apart from logic, and ISBN Central’s instructions, is the practical one of returns. Oftentimes there’s an incentive price on the set, so that if you bought the set and returned the individual volumes separately you’d make a profit on the deal. As it happens individual volumes of Anniversaries are not available for sale separately, so without the slipcase returns will be rejected. When/if the books become available separately they’ll show their own ISBNs and be processed as individual volumes on the way in and out of the warehouse.

I’ve occasionally wondered which way round you are meant to put some slipcased sets onto the shelves. (One used to face the same problem with CD sets, where it never seemed important to make a standard policy decision.) Because lots of book slipcases are just plain, I always shelve them with the book spines outward, but this Library of America set of Peter Taylor’s Complete Stories shows that many of them would look more impressive the other way round. Still I’m not switching.

The Library of America supplies its books two ways: in a jacketed edition supplied through the trade, and as unjacketed books available though their subscription service in a standard unembellished slipcase. I imagine the slipcase costs a bit more than the jacket which it replaces (their jacketed volumes don’t have slipcases unless they are multi-volume sets). But no doubt the difference is made up by the lack of trade discount on their book club sales. The books arrive with a little 4-page essay on the book in question slipped into the slipcase.

The weight (thickness) of the boards used in the slipcase will depend on the size of the books to be contained. For this old Penguin set of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy a thin board, about what you’d expect in a packet of spaghetti, was sufficient. You can see it’s taken a bit of a knock on the corner. On the right this tiny one from the Folio Society, a premium edition of The Lady of Shalott, has been made just like the box for a pack of cards, with one edge chopped off. Keep the flap shut and it behaves like an economical slipcase.

Below you can see an older offering from The Heritage Club (1958) which goes the whole hog. This is a fairly large book: the slipcase measures 8½” x 12″ and comes with a separate chocolate-box-type insert with a cloth tab for easy access. Both are covered in a gold-printed paper, and are made with lighter boards than the dimensions of the book might lead one to expect. The separate box contains loose facsimiles of the programmes from the first nights of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Who really needs a box-full of facsimiles of Victorian playbills? Still, given that the whole Heritage series consisted of facsimiles of Limited Editions Club books (interiors at least), perhaps there’s a world out there to whom facsimiles are just the bee’s knees. I bet the Limited Editions Club version of this book didn’t include a box of original programmes though.

Why a slipcase anyway? A multi-volume set can just be shrink-wrapped together after all. It’s all marketing of course. A slipcase has come to mean prestige. Originally they were just used as protection in shipping and were usually thrown away. For all I know there may be people today who chuck ’em, after the presentation value has dissipated. But they should bear in mind that an ancient slipcase enhances the value of an antiquarian item. In the case of a single volume there’s no practical set-identification reason, so appeal in the marketplace becomes the sole reason.