Archives for category: Book manufacturing

Fine Books and Collections has a story of a bookstore discovery“The Restoration of a 1774 Congressional Pamphlet Found in a Paper Bag”. The writer, William Leslie, bought this item at a second-hand bookstore in an envelope marked “Four Old School Atlases”. In addition to the Atlases he found a 48 page pamphlet, Extracts from the Votes and Proceedings of the American Continental Congress Held At Philadelphia on the 5th of September, 1774 printed in Hartford, Connecticut. This record of the First Continental Congress might be worth $4,000 and although Mr Leslie had paid only $40 for the lot, the bookseller wouldn’t take any extra for the find. Mr Leslie invested $400 in restoration, and now owns a valuable rarity.

He describes the binding as stab sewn. John Carter tells us in ABC for Book Collectors “The gatherings (or sections or quires) of most books are sewn at the centre of the fold. [See Smyth sewing.] But thin (and not so thin) books, pamphlets, magazines or part-issues would sometimes be sewn through side-ways, when they are said to be stabbed, from the holes stabbed through the leaves to receive the thread. Books so treated were marketed as ‘stitched books’. The modern term for the process, whether thread-sewn or stapled, is side-stitched. 

The existence of ‘the original stab-holes’ will sometimes be cited as evidence that a bound or cased copy of a part-issued book was bound from the parts, which were usually stabbed, and was not a copy of the subsequent volume-issue for which the quires would have been stitched in the ordinary way (see part-issued books in volume form).”  

Mr Leslie describes the binding method of his find thus: “Two holes were punched with an awl, and string was threaded through the holes to keep the pages together. This was a common binding method in that era, known as ‘stab-sewn’.” So in modern book manufacturing parlance this would be like a rather simple side sewing, though you’d never meet it these days: a staple or two would take care of the leaflet.

We should not perhaps be misled by the word “stab”. The method would not involve an aggressive binder wielding a dagger. A carefully placed awl, hit by a hammer would be more likely.


In a comment at this blog Harald Johnson, a successful self publisher, says “Because there is no actual reason for trad pubs [traditional publishers] to inflate their ebook prices to absurd levels (like $14.95)—except for greed, I automatically steer away from purchasing those ebooks.” No reason except for greed? If that were true publishers’ margins would be a lot better than they are — if we really were that greedy we’d have to stand indicted of being incompetent about getting there. Of course lots of commentators stand ready to do just that.

Let’s not get into a debate about whether books cost a lot compared to product X, Y, or Z. We all know what books cost, and when it comes to ebooks we all think we know that reproduction costs are to all intents and purposes zero. So books cost too much, don’t they?

The basic problem in this discussion is that there’s really no such general thing as “ebook prices” or the price of a book. Perhaps a couple of million books were published in the USA in 2018; 1.6 million of them self-published, and about 300,000 from traditional publishers. (These numbers are curiously hard to confirm, but ballpark, ballpark!) Each of these two million books is unique, and its price is its price, not the price of any class of books: maybe many of them share a lot of qualities with one another, but the differences are what stand out. They all have different content, some of which may be tortuously complex. Some are intended to advance academic research, some aim to educate, some to entertain, some to make money, some list facts, some try to inspire, and some are written with an eye toward posterity. They all took different levels of skill and lengths of time to write. Many of them required years of education before their authors could even think of putting pen to paper. For instance why would Leucocyte Typing VII cost $1,050, Glassworking in England from the 14th to the 20th Century $120, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England $62.99, and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes $18.95? After all Harald Johnson’s Neander: A Time Travel Adventure costs just $3.99. Why are these virtuous indie authors able to price their books under $10, while traditional, greedy, publishers price their ebooks much higher, at a discount off the paperback edition?

Leucocyte Typing VII is, as Amazon tells us, “the standard reference source for all those working with antibodies recognising marker molecules on white blood cells — immunologists, cell and molecular biologists, haematologists and pathologists working on white cell differentiation.” The problem is that there just aren’t too many of these folks, and the book has 1,054 closely-filled pages of complex material. If you need it, as maybe a hundred others may, then it’s cheap at the price. (Well, maybe good value would be closer.) Glassworking in England is a fairly specialized work, with a potential audience of say 1,000. It no doubt has lots of tables and some technical setting, and the full academic apparatus. Take the total cost of making the book, divide it by 1,000 and you end up forced into a high retail price. This is less of a problem than it might seem, because the audience for these sorts of book expects to have to pay this sort of money. They’d prefer the books to cost less, but they understand why they don’t. The Introduction of Anglo-Saxon England is an undergraduate textbook. No idea how many Anglo-Saxon studies and medieval history students there are each year, but you can look it up, and you’d be printing for a couple of years, so you might end up doing something like 3,000 copies. Same mathematics, and you end up pricing north of $50. The beauty of established textbooks, and this one’s in its third edition, is that students do tend to buy them. This required sale is not true of novels such as Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. Here the book is pretty straightforward, no tables, notes, fancy typesetting, so even though you might be printing a similar quantity to the textbook, your math will take you to around $20. There are price-level expectations among fiction buyers, so you may have to fudge your numbers a bit to get to a “good” price.

Of these books, apart from the born-digital Neander, only one is available as an ebook. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes may be had as a Kindle book for $10.99. Neander costs $3.99, and some Anglo-Saxon bodice-ripper is no doubt available for $1.99 or less. Now, nobody can deny that the cost of selling an ebook of each of these titles is exactly the same: a tiny bit of electricity and time: virtually nothing. But the cost of getting to the point where you could offer it as an ebook — the cost of creating each of these books — is wildly different. And these costs have all got to be recovered from sales. A couple of seconds’ thought will tell you that offering Leucocyte Typing VII as an ebook at $9.99 might make a few of the 100 potential customers happy, but wouldn’t increase the sale by a single copy, nor come anywhere near recovering the costs of creation.

However, I think the complaints about ebook pricing are mainly directed at trade books of which Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is my only example (though it’s a reissue of a 1956 publication). But book publishing of any type is a business. The aim is to make money. Making money off books is a satisfyingly “clean” way of making money, but it’s still making money. Because of the “cleanness” I dare say profit margins are a bit less than they might be, but without profits the business ceases to exist. You can make a million dollars by selling one item priced at $1,000,000, or by selling 1,000,000 items at $1 each. For most commodity items you will sell more and make more money if you set a lower price — Leucocyte Typing VII is an obvious exception — indeed all books are actually exceptions to this rule, at least until you take out the “and make more money” bit. Books look less and less like a commodity the further away you get from online genre fiction. How many copies of Barack Obama’s A Promised Land would have been sold if Crown had priced it at $3.99, like Neander? By December sales had passed 3 million. Their retail price is $45, and $17.99 for the Kindle edition, though of course lots of the hardback sales by Amazon have been heavily discounted and some are in audio or ebook format, but we can still guess that in very approximate terms they’ve taken in about $60 – $65,000,000. To have grossed $65 million at $3.99 retail, they might have had to sell around 30 million copies. Does anyone think there’s any way to have expected to sell a copy of this book to every tenth person in the country? So is $45, or $17.99 for the Kindle, just greed?

Remember that the publisher is essentially the author’s agent in publishing the book. An author’s remuneration is tied to the publisher’s — whether or not you believe royalty rates should be higher, they are still directly tied to sales revenue. So the publisher has a responsibility to aim to maximize sales revenue. Underpricing the product isn’t the obvious route to this end. A self publisher can make a silent mental deal with the author — left brain to right brain — without any risk of consequences worse than self-recrimination. A publisher “defrauding” the author by cheapening the book too much faces a different set of issues.

It’s dead easy to say “books are too expensive” but that’s not a statement that has any analytical force. This or that book may be describable as too expensive, and in different contexts too expensive may mean $10, or $75, or $200, or $1,000. But to call, say, OUP greedy because they priced Leucocyte Typing VII at $1,050 is obviously just a waste of breath. Should it have been $750 do you think? What would be the right price for an ebook version? You need the facts to know — well knowing isn’t even possible — you need the facts just to run the argument.

Publishers live in the real world. They know that cheaper is nicer. It’s the rare book which doesn’t end up priced as low as you can get away with. Publishers have no obligation to favor one format over another: the ebook price is just the price of another format — it’s all about market segmentation.

See also Cost of a book.

Not sure this’ll take over from the hardback or paperback format, but it’s good that someone’s thinking about the “book” as physical object. A Triangle Book comes with its own bookstand built in as part of the cover. The stand consists of three plastic panels which pop into a triangle-shaped structure held in place by embedded magnets.

As they say at their site, “Cookbooks may benefit from the Triangle Book format more than any other book genre.” Hard to deny. And it’d be good for a lab manual too. I guess it’s all a matter of how much extra it’ll cost to license the technology — to get established they are offering to allow an edition of 1,000 copies without any licensing charge. The binding cost, they claim, will be about $1 higher than conventional binding — presumably conventional plastic comb or Wire-O binding. Sounds a little optimistic to me. Maybe their starting comparison spot is a conventional table-tent easel binding, often found in conjunction with Wire-O — think of that calendar on your desk.

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One of the endorsements they show at their site is from a former Church of England bishop, and this puts me in mind of the dwarsligger format, shown in a Bible in a post a couple of years ago — this format also involves laying your text out at 90º to the usual.

Link va Printing Impressions.

Another force pushing us towards a single world market in the book business may be identified in the internationalization of book manufacturing and distribution. Now of course publishers have been ordering printing from overseas for years, especially since World War II. High quality color? Go to Italy. Price problems? Or lots of hand work — add-ons? Hong Kong here we come. When I was first in New York, working for Cambridge University Press, it was quite obvious that the tidal flow of manufacturing was governed by £/$ exchange rate fluctuations: now it would be cheaper in the USA, then it would switch back to favor Britain. Work would follow: publishers are always looking for the cheapest way to make their books. The development of digital printing, primarily of print on demand manufacturing, accelerated these options. One of the incidental implications of print on demand is that you can minimize shipping costs by printing a book as close to the ultimate customer as possible. This cost saving may not look like much when you think of one book, but over a year it mounts up to a significant sum.

Local territorial markets be damned! Ingram‘s Vice President of Content Acquisition, Kelly Gallagher, tells us “Sometimes as much as 30 or 40 percent of a publisher’s Ingram wholesale can be to non-US addresses. That’s also very glass half-empty, half-full, because it’s a pressure point for the local retailers and distributors in those countries who used to have a corner on getting books into their market.” From a Publishing Perspectives interview.

Amazon lies at the heart of all this. Amazon’s distribution system is amazingly slick. They fulfill an order in the most efficient (cost and timing) method possible. There’s a cascade of options, which involves answering a series of questions including:

  • Are there several books in this order?
  • If so, where is each of them best sourced —
  • from our inventory,
  • which warehouse is that inventory in,
  • is it here or overseas,
  • or should it come from Ingram’s inventory,
  • from the publisher’s inventory,
  • from any other wholesaler’s inventory,
  • by using POD,
  • and if POD then POD at our own facilities
  • or at one of Lightning Source (part of Ingram)?

All all these steps the algorithm focusses on optimal proximity to the customer and speed of delivery. Amazon is heavily dependent on (or makes extensive use of) Ingram’s services. In many ways Ingram’s stock can be regarded as an extension of Amazon’s stock, as can all the print-on-demand files that Lightning Source maintains. The cascade, regardless of where the book ends up being shipped from, will always result in the books arriving on your doorstep in a grinning Amazon carton. Your order may be split into two or more separate packages — the cascade will have determined which is optimal.

Now this system is beyond impressive: Amazon can get most books to most people overnight. I sympathize with the old guard bookstores, but is it really right to go after a company for having developed a system that’s so efficient that almost everyone wants to use it? Doesn’t monopoly require a certain amount of unfair advantage: using your market power to destroy the opposition. Amazon is merely guilty of designing such an efficient system that nobody else can match it. Surely that shouldn’t be a crime, should it?

The classic would be McCain side sewing. This became the standard way of binding school books. An essential part of the educational process seems to be constant research by young pupils into new ways to destroy a book. A McCain-sewn book was virtually indestructible — without resorting to tearing the pages out, an approach which the ethics of this international research project seem to have ruled out.

The book block, obviously in need of jogging.

A McCain machine would start with a book block and drill holes vertically all the way through it near the spine folds and parallel to the spine edge. It would then stitch the whole thing together all the way down the spine edge, making it about as strong as it’s possible for a binding to be. Sure, you could get a knife and cut the threads, but anything approaching normal schoolroom wear and tear would fall to destroy the book.

For a thin pamphlet you could just run the thing through a Singer sewing machine, leaving a line of stitching parallel to the spine. Such side stitching might also be done using wire staples: see Binding styles 4.

This announcement from Printing Impressions caught my eye. Lay-flat has long been a bit of a bugaboo in the book world. Readers are alleged to want it, though most of us have actually failed to hear the voices and wonder how much extra people might be willing to pay to get it. You can see how something like a lab manual might need to lie open without the pages flipping back in the middle of your experiment so you have to dive for it and spill your beaker of acid all over the book and yourself. We used to deal with this demand by spiral binding or plastic comb binding the things.

Ota-Bind provided a methodology for lay-flat binding. Peleman Industries now introduces a machine, the V Twister Lay-Flat Paper Converter, which by bending a double fold back and forth allegedly breaks down the bonds between fibers in the paper at the fold allowing it to relax in the open position. Sounds good — the proof of course will only be known after someone serves up the pudding. It is an extra step, and unless you can integrate it into your binding line, would interrupt the binding process.

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A year ago, when coronavirus was just something we’d heard about happening in Wuhan, we were already wondering about capacity issues in book manufacturing. The business has been undergoing radical changes for decades, and the problems were coming to a head with plant closures and paper shortages.

Then on top of this came coronavirus lockdowns, and for a minute it looked like the whole shebang might fall apart: if there were to be no books to manufacture, then there’d be no manufacturers of books left. But not so fast: although publishers initially delayed a lot of books, after a short time we found out that we were actually able to keep on selling books despite all the problems we were facing. There were a few minutes there where States scratched their heads as to whether printing books was in fact “essential” or not, but that went away as we slid by on the basis that printing many things was obviously essential and it was deemed a good idea to allow all printers to keep on going in to work.

The book manufacturing industry could be said to be “suffering” from three interrelated long-term shifts —

  • a sharp reduction in print runs. Over the last five or ten years publishers have finally figured out (and print technology has enabled them) that printing fewer than a life-time’s supply of a book might not be altogether crazy. Demand planning and supply chain management are no longer just topics in books we publish. We are now reading those books.
  • a reduction in paper making capacity for book papers. You can probably make more money off making a less demanding grade of paper than book paper. Investments in paper making are immense, and tend to fall into cycles which lag the business cycle by a year or two. There are many fewer book paper manufacturers nowadays than when I started out in the business.
  • a technological changeover to digital from offset lithography. Just as lithography represents a productivity boost as against letterpress, so digital takes productivity further. But if you have a plant full of offset presses, you do face a difficult set of investment choices. Any technological change will take years to work its way through the industry as people continue to make money using fully-amortized “old” equipment.

I suspect there’s a pretty direct connection between these trends and the problems which have assailed LSC and Quad Graphics. In crude terms you could argue that such mega-companies were predicated on a regular supply of large print orders from big publishers. Obviously books like the Obama volumes still attract long print runs, but more and more books are being printed in shorter runs with more frequent reprints. Add to that the ease with which a publisher can now change printers: with a digital file as the start point for a printing, the up-front work on any printing is much simplified, and can in principle be done by any company. So if printer A who did the first printing can’t give you a good schedule, then off you go printer B. In the olden days, moving flats was a nightmare. Plants set up for the old dispensation of fewer and bigger printings are challenged.

One big change which coronavirus has brought about is a difference in the way a book is scaled out to the trade. Used to be you’d want to have stacks of books in every bookshop in the world on the day when you finally declared the book published. Doesn’t happen any more (at least not to the same degree) — if there aren’t crowds wandering into stores what’s the point of having piles of books there for them? Online ordering falls into a different pattern — perhaps not one we can define too precisely just yet. This must have a knock-on effect on the book manufacturers as demand for the product is extended over a longer timeframe. Further evidence of this change in sales patterns is provided by the frequent expressions of surprise at the greater and greater importance of back list sales.

Now there are those who believe that 2020-1 will represent the death knell of the print book. Such Jeremiahs will always leap to their favored conclusion. However I think what we have seen over the last year is just how  far people are willing to go to get a physical volume despite all the barriers social distancing impose. I hope I’m not guilty of leaping to my favored conclusion when I suggest that this scarcely seems evidence of people finally concluding that ebooks are the only way in which books should be supplied.

Printing Impressions has an article with the thoughts of four book manufacturers.

In 2015 I held forth on this topic.

Trinity College Library has a copy of Lexicon Alchemiae (1612) from Sir Isaac Newton’s collection. Examination of the book revealed some pretty extensive insect damage.

Their blog has a description of the steps taken in making this book look almost new: well, look more like an undamaged old book. Painstakingly cut-out pieces of paper were inserted into the holes left by the beetles. It’s interesting to note that restoration doesn’t go as far as inking in the missing type eaten by the bugs. Please check out the post: it’s a fascinating story.

Books aren’t the only Newtoniana they’e got at Trinity. They have an apple tree too: not the very one, but a graft from the actual Flower of Kent apple tree Newton would have sat under when gravity hit him in the head. Atlas Obscura has a brief piece about it.

The unit cost, the cost of manufacturing a single copy of a book, consists of two elements: the fixed costs and the variable, running costs.

Fixed costs

The fixed costs are those that you incur whether you print one copy or one million. These include typesetting, copyediting, design, permissions fees for quotations and illustrations, drawing interior and cover art, proofreading, making an index, printing ARCs. Printer origination, including file manipulation, platemaking and press makeready, might be included here (it is invariable). However it is often just left as part of the printing cost, which makes up the running cost along with paper, binding, jacketing, cartoning, and, if it is included in unit cost rather than overhead as it usually is, the cost of shipping to the warehouse. Once your book is on press you begin incurring running costs — the cost of presswork, paper, binding etc.

Running costs

Running costs when looked at per copy are relatively small — little quarters and dimes running along to the printer’s bank account — whereas that wad of Benjamins representing the fixed costs always looks pretty significant. The economics of book manufacturing mandate that the longer the machines run the lower the cost per copy, and it is this mechanical and marketing quirk which tempts publishers to run more and more copies in order to bring their unit costs down. This is of course a mathematical illusion. If you run a million copies your running cost will indeed be less per copy than if you print a thousand — but it doesn’t take an Einstein to recognize that you’ll have spent more money. If you never sell those 999,000 additional copies — problem!

The really important numbers in book publishing are

  1. the ideal retail price and
  2. the number of copies you can expect to sell.

The unit cost — the cost of making each single copy, the running cost added to the fixed costs divided by print run — is however the number which has acquired an overwhelming importance in the minds of book publishers. I personally think this is because the really important numbers are very difficult to calculate (maybe impossible to calculate), so publishers indulge in unit cost manipulations as a sort of displacement activity in order to make themselves look like they are being rational and scientific about things — thus disguising the fact that they are ultimately just going on hunches about the really important numbers.

Of course the amount you pay to manufacture your books is an important factor in your business. This is best taken care of by a forceful negotiation with your suppliers over a contract covering an extended period. If your price picture is X, doing endless estimates involving different quantities just wastes time as the answer is always going to be a function of X. Of course, the more copies you print, the lower your unit cost will be. This means that doing endless unit cost calculations, solving for different unit costs will cause unit cost to look vitally important. However, apart from wasting a lot of time, these calculations can only have one result, which is to make you decide to print more and more copies. We all know that printing more copies than you can sell is the high road to Queer Street: tie all of your capital up in unsold inventory, and insolvency is just around the corner. Excessive costing is dangerous to corporate health.

In the U.S. book business when we buy paper we talk about basis weight in referring to text stock but when we move to cover stock we talk about caliper. Caliper is the thickness of a single leaf of paper. Thus a cover measured by a micrometer at 0.010 inches is referred to as 10 point cover stock (or 10pt) — a common caliper for paperback covers. We indicate basis weight by the pound sign: #. Basis weight is always the weight in pounds of a ream of paper of a standard, basis, size. Superficially pretty straightforward.

Cover and text stocks each have both caliper and basis weight, yet we never think of the basis weight of cover stock, and I found myself last week asserting that they were in fact the same. They are not.

There are two variables in that formula for figuring basis weight: the size of a ream, and the size of the standard sheet. The ream is (almost) always 500 sheets, but there are different standard sheet sizes for different types of paper.


What is the reason for these different basic sheet sizes for different print businesses? Tradition/inertia is the simple answer. When paper was made by hand, the sheet size was determined by the dimensions of the mould used by the papermaker. For example, because sheets measuring 17″ x 22″ leant themselves to cutting into four 8 ½” x 11″ sheets, this became the standard for business stationery as the papermakers serving that business made their moulds that size. Strangely we in America have never changed our units from this quaint basis.

Why do we need to know the different basis weight calculation of cover and text stock? It comes to the fore when you venture overseas for your book production. The rest of the world tends to deal in gsm (grams per square meter, sometimes written g/m2 or g/m²) a much simpler and logical, if less picturesque, system of measurement. A book manufacturer in China may well quote you cover stock referred to in basis weight terms which they’ve converted from their gsm data. (To convert from text basis weight to gsm divide the basis weight by 0.67565. For cover stock the magic number is 0.36989. You’ll no doubt need to do a little rounding to make the answer look right.) So be aware: 100# cover stock is not the same as 100# text stock. Because the area of the basis sheet of cover stock is 1806sq.ft. while the area of the basis sheet size of text stock is 3299sq.ft., your 100# cover stock would be more like a 180# text sheet — if such a thing were available. Verso has quite a useful conversion tool.

For caliper calculation, see PPI. See also Basis weight calculation.