Archives for category: Book manufacturing

Chris Meadows speculates at TeleRead on whether the current pandemic will doom face-to-face retail. Once you start thinking through the facts of the situation (would that facts were actually in readier supply) it does become tempting to believe the worst. Anything is possible, and extremes provide a siren call for analysis. (Mr Meadows is innocent of this implication: his piece admirably balanced, despite the arresting question in his headline.)

However I think it’s important to recognize that the outcome of any disaster is obviously not likely to be the best of all possible worlds, but even more importantly, it’s also likely never to end in the absolute worst possible situation. Even those dinosaurs didn’t all drop down dead from one week to the next. Like all things I suspect the outcome will be more nuanced, landing up somewhere in the middle.

There were quite a few bookstores in precarious condition before all this started. They might be compared to those over-70s with pre-existing health conditions. Some of them may make it, and we’ll rejoice when they do. Others start from a stronger place and will doubtless be able to withstand greater stresses. Mr Daunt appeared to be on the right track with Barnes & Noble, giving store managers more responsibility for inventory selection, but this must be putting the whole operation in danger. Layoffs continue apace — let’s hope that our government can get it together to vote support to laid-off workers and small businesses before too many members of Congress are forced into self-isolation!

When we come out the other side of this, as inevitably we will — it’s in no virus’ interest to kill off all its potential hosts — we’ll probably go about our business in different ways than we did before. I’ve been saying that these are early days, and we haven’t yet figured out how to behave under these conditions. Already we are seeing lines painted on the sidewalk outside the supermarket, which is letting people in in small groups, and is showing the queue outside how it should be spacing itself out. Governor Cuomo, who seems to be having a “good war”, was inveighing against all those New Yorkers in the parks last weekend. I dodge and weave when running through the park, and have observed these groups too. A father kicking a football with his two children is a very different story than a group of unrelated youths playing basketball. The family members live in close quarters anyway: the youths come from all over. We need to take care we don’t forbid the first while trying to stamp out the second.

In the case of bookstores, it does seem to me that people rather like having them. Just as the supermarket has the beginnings of a system, so too in a little while will other retail businesses. People want something to read, and we’re clever enough to work out a way to get it to them. I wrote about kerb-side delivery the other day: better systems will develop.

Available from Books Are Magic; half the proceeds go to Binc (The Book Industry Charitable Foundation), the other half to support store employees during the shutdown.

Good news: Pennsylvania which had last week ordered a shutdown of a long list of businesses, has over the weekend decided that printers are providing an essential service and may now continue in operation. Paper mills are also allowed to operate. Once printing works and distribution services shut down distributing books will become almost impossible. Without bookshops, and with Amazon prioritizing household goods and medications, it’s hard to see how anyone’s going to get physical books in any way other than direct mail. Ingram, which is so much more than a book distributor now, has announced it’s staying open. As Shelf Awareness tells us on 23 March, “Noting that it has book distribution and printing facilities in five U.S. locations, in the U.K. and Australia, Ingram Content Group has affirmed that it is remaining opening despite a range of shelter in place, lockdown and other restrictions put into place because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ingram’s wholesale, distribution, print on demand, and digital services are considered essential, allowing the exemptions, the company said.” Here’s the Publishers Weekly account.

You will note reference in this picture to “boards” or “paper boards”. (It gets a bit bigger if you click on it.) John Carter, in a 1931 piece from The Colophon, from which this picture is taken, sort of clarifies matters when he distinguishes between “boards” and “extra boards”, which, he informs us “in the trade parlance of the time usually denotes ‘all-over’ paper boards, as opposed to board sides backed with some other colored paper.” I’m not altogether clear about what the distinction being made here is, but the point I want to make is that while publishers today (or maybe it was really the day before yesterday) will refer to a book bound in boards when they mean to distinguish it from say a paperback — i.e. “boards” as a descriptor today tends to mean hardback/casebound/ cloth/paper over boards, back then it meant specifically paper over boards, and was thought of as temporary

“During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries books were issued to the public, as students of the subject are aware, in two kinds of dress: either in some variety of leather binding, which was supplied by the bookseller, who might or might not be in some sort the publisher; or in a mere temporary envelope of paper wrappers, which were gradually superseded during the second half of the eighteenth century by the more practical paper-covered boards, for all except the slimmest volumes.” The temporary wrapping was designed merely to protect the pages before the buyer could deliver them to their binder. But in order to ease identification they developed into a cover with labelling so that one would know what was inside without having to take it off the shelf and open it.

“In the early years of the nineteenth century it became the practice to issue part of an edition of certain kinds of books in a more definitely uniform style of leather binding. This was mainly confined to sets of volumes   – The Elegant Extracts, Scott’s Poetical Works, Novels & Tales and such-like – which were published in uniform bindings of straight-grain morocco: and publishers were quite clearly developing a taste for uniformity of exterior in their books which was unknown in previous periods and foreign to the more individual taste of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”

When exactly was the first book offered by a bookseller/publisher in cloth? The answer seems to be 1821. The innovator appears to have been William Pickering who is alleged to have been inspired by the consideration of a red lining to some curtains. The volume in question was one of the Diamond Classics series (shown at the top left of the picture above). The binding was still of course thought of as temporary. It will probably be impossible ever to identify the moment when the “temporary” had shaded into the “permanent”. Mr Pickering seems not to have made much fuss about this innovation. We pay no attention to so many of these little changes in the detail of our world; they seem so trivial to us at the time that contemporary documentation is scant or non-existent. After all, why would Mr Pickering think at the time that what he was doing would become the way books were published a generation down the road?

Mr Carter’s essay “Origins of Cloth Bindings” can be found at

See also Book cloth.

Bertelsmann’s going to be 100% carbon neutral by 2030, and Markus Dohle of Penguin Random House has spoken of their part in the plan. Publishers Weekly reports on the initiative and Publishing Perspectives also has a story. Thomas Rabe, Chairman and CEO of Bertelsmann announces that the entire company will be joining Science Based Targets a program of the World Resources Institute. There are over 800 companies taking part by listing their programs for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

If you don’t see the Science Based Targets video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

This is of course good news: publicly-expressed intentions are important, but book publishing is perhaps not the biggest of greenhouse gas contributors. As Markus Dohle says Penguin Random House already sources 98% of the paper it uses from certified sources. The remaining 2% may be a  result of printing the odd job at a specialist plant which isn’t frequently used, or not frequently enough for PRH to have set up its own paper supply network, and where they are just using paper supplied by the printer. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative in North America and The Forest Stewardship Council internationally, do provide standards governing sustainable forestry — no illegal logging, replacement of cut trees, etc., but inevitably cannot guarantee zero emissions. However PRH is probably generating more greenhouse gasses from its logistics operations, warehouses, trucks, ships etc., than from the materials used in their books. Bertelsmann’s printing plants around the world do probably represent a sizable target for emissions controls, though printers have been active in these areas for years already.

Still, however close to achieving their 2030 target Bertelsmann may already be, it is important that industry leaders around the world announce their commitment to climate control measures. Thank you Bertelsmann.

Can there really be publishers who are still reluctant to set up their books for print-on-demand manufacture? Mike Shatzkin’s latest post suggests there are. He claims none of the Kobe Bryant books was in stock when that helicopter crashed, and none had been set up for POD. Can there really still be publishers who think it’s better to make no sale at all than to make a sale at a margin slightly lower than what they think their profit margin “ought” to be? When, as a sort of evangelist of POD back in the early nineties, I used to talk to publishers about the new concept of print on demand, the biggest hurdle I had to help them over was “But the unit cost is so high”. I used to go through the argument (which seems so obvious that you’d almost think it’s not worth the breath you have to expend to state it) —

  • If you have a copy in your warehouse, you can fill an order.
  • If you don’t you can’t.
  • If your net margin on that sale is $2, not the $6 it once was, are you really better off not selling the book?
  • In other words is $0 better than $2?
  • Are there any books you’ve decided you can’t afford to reprint (i.e. for which demand is insufficient to support a reprint at an “affordable” quantity)?
  • Answer, always and inevitably, “Yes. Lots.” [That’s what publishers used to call “out of print”.]
  • So if there was a way of filling an order for one of these lost books would it not be a good thing to do, as long as you took in more than you spent filling the order?
  • Well, yes — but that’s not possible.
  • What do you think I’m talking to you about?

Before I retired, now surprisingly long ago, we were already setting up lots of books for POD on the just-in-case basis. If we anticipated erratic demand we’d have the POD version to fall back on if we went out of stock in the warehouse for a few days. Who’d think that the world’s second-oldest university press would be in the forefront of modern business practice? (The world’s oldest was right in there too.) University presses have perhaps been readier to adjust to the one-off model because they are used to higher unit costs anyway. They never got to print hundreds of thousands of copies of a book, and so would never get used to tiny unit costs. If you’re used to $4, $7 is not too much of an imaginative leap. But if you live below $2 you may worry that $7 is so wild as to be suicidal. But this means that that $15 book just never gets sold. And of course a publisher always has the opportunity to raise the retail price to meet increased costs — actually it’s more of an obligation than an opportunity.

There are three other obstacles to setting up your books for POD manufacture. It does cost something to set a book up for print on demand. The other two obstacles are related: publishing people, especially manufacturing people, have polished careers on getting books efficiently printed and delivered on time. Giving up this skill for automated resupply looks a bit like a career threat. Secondly: the POD book looks different. It’s printed digitally, not by offset. But I would argue that customers are not trying to buy those Kobe Bryant books because they want a beautifully printed book. They are buying them because they want read them. Let them do so!

Just about the only people who agonize about the look and physical quality of a book are employed by publishing companies.

See also Print-on-demand and POD quality.

Anyone who was around fifty years ago can probably remember the first attempts at laminating book covers. Exactly when this was is one of these things it’s difficult to establish with precision. I remember all the paperback covers in my early days in publishing as being without any kind of finish.

People of my generation will fondly remember the wonderful tendency of early cover lamination to de-laminate, allowing the bored reader to peel large strips of lamination off the cover. They’d come off along with a sort of neat shadow print of the cover as some of the ink came along with the peeled layer. This pastime had the same appeal as the later popping of bubble wrap.

In this picture you can see where the lamination has been stripped up the middle of the spine. Printed by Jarrold and Sons, Norwich in 1963.

And on Rosalind Mitchison’s history, below, you can see from the pitiful remainder of the lamination that all the red ink has come away when the lamination was peeled off. The little bit of lamination remaining with its red ink kind of suggests flames over Stirling Castle: a serendipitous reader contribution to cover design. The book is one of Methuen’s University Paperbacks reprinted in 1974 by Fletcher & Son Ltd. also of Norwich. (I don’t think lamination applied in Norwich was particularly prone to stripping!) Actually one can’t be sure Jarrolds and Fletchers did in fact print these two covers, though I think it’s highly probably they did. They certainly did print and bind the books, but back then, or very shortly later, we were to go through the beginnings of the separation of cover printing into a separate specialist business. Book historians beware: it’s impossible to know who printed a cover, except by examining the publisher’s archives.

The advent of lamination was doubtless a minor sort of event which nobody thought it worthwhile making a note about. I am finding it difficult to establish just when the event took place. I suspect it wasn’t till the sixties? I do have a Livre de Poche edition of La Princesse de Clèves which is laminated and claims to have been printed in 1961. Maybe it started earlier in different countries, though the Thames & Hudson one shown above dates from 1963. Britain has ever been a bit too wedded to tradition — and T & H as international co-edition specialists were especially open to overseas influences. That French cover was printed by letterpress, and you can see the lamination’s urge to become detached where the impression is deep.

The spine, as so often, is the weak point for delamination — all that folding and bending: it wouldn’t take too much to get La Princesse’s peeling going here. Which is also true of Hugh Williamson’s Book Manufacturing in its third edition from Yale University Press: this book reminds us that at one time we’d leave the jacket flaps unlaminated — not sure why; maybe to save the cost of the plastic roll. In the early days laminating covers was a bit like applying Saran Wrap/Cling Foil to a sheet of paper with a hand iron. Mr Williamson’s book shows the wrinkling which imperfect application would cause back then. (A nice Michael Harvey hand-lettered design.) The book was printed in 1983 at The Alden Press in Oxford: which is where Hugh Williamson was Managing Director, retiring that year. Maybe they did the jacket too, though they probably farmed it out locally.

There are two basic ways of putting a shiny (or matte) coating onto a jacket or cover: press varnish and film lamination. They can come in various finishes, gloss, matte and intermediate versions sometimes referred to as satin. Before we had lamination if you wanted to make a cover shiny your option was basically to print on a highly calendered shiny cover board. This can never get as shiny and impactful as lamination. The next best (and cheapest) option was to apply a press varnish. As its name implies this coating of varnish was applied by a specialized press. There’s a tendency for some of the varnish to be absorbed into the paper, and press varnish cannot provide the same pop as lamination. Lamination film comes in various types, with a stout polypropylene film as the topmost grade. For book covers lamination is applied using an adhesive, some pressure and some heat. It’d be hard to strip modern film lamination off a book cover: not sure which of the ingredients has improved since the early days: maybe all of them. Nowadays it has become possible and fashionable to combine press varnish and lamination: spot varnish enables you to highlight selected areas of the cover by printing on top of a film lamination.

Here’s a picture from Bridgeport National Bindery showing the same book with matte and gloss lamination. You pays your money and you makes your choice. Is it slightly amusing that we’ve had to invent a type of lamination which makes it look as if the book didn’t have any lamination? There is of course the protection element, and there is something really sensual about the feel of a matte lam cover.

We really spend the money to laminate a cover for marketing reasons: the impact of the cover is paramount, though it is true that the lamination also adds strength to the cover or jacket. Because the eye is basically seeing reflected light when it distinguishes colors, the brighter and more reflective a shiny surface is the more light it will reflect and so the more  intense any color will appear.

Because ink, unprotected by lamination or varnish, will tend to smudge and rub off, before we developed cover coatings book covers tended to be fairly simple. The shinier, more coated, the paper, the easier it is to wipe off the ink. You would hesitate to print a halftone on a cover for fear of its smudging — if it was printed on a coated paper which holds the ink on the surface more than an uncoated paper (which is what you’d want to do with a halftone), the tendency to rub will be even greater. Typographical layouts and solid blocks of color were the norm. Nowadays we assume trade jackets and covers are going to feature elaborate artwork: they can do this thanks to lamination.

Graphic Arts Magazine had a piece in 2011 comparing both methods.


These silent, mesmerizingly slow videos from Bookbinders Chronicle’s YouTube channel (blog here) show you how to sew a book by hand using cloth tapes or cords to strengthen the binding and hold the book block tight. Of course a book can be sewn by hand without cords or tapes.

If you don’t see two videos here please click on the title of this post in order to view them in your browser.

See also Bookbinding by hand and Fine binding. For the commercial method of doing this task see Smyth sewing.

The guillotine took over the task which was once performed by a plough: trimming the edges of a book. The word “guillotine” came after the French Revolution; a machine for bulk cutting presumably predated it though, and probably sparked Dr Guillotine’s imagination. As commercial binding became more and more mechanized during the nineteenth century the use of the plough became less widespread. However it was until recently quite usual for book binderies to have one or two workers who were skilled in unusual tasks — apprenticeships aimed to make you master of many techniques — and during my working life it was possible to get a book hand bound at many book binderies. I can’t swear that the plough was used on these occasions, but one had heard the term, so I assume it was.

This is how the plough works:

If you don’t see a video here please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Ploughs are still being used by many hand binders. One of them, Jeff Peachey, has a fascinating post about an old plough with commentary by Tom Conroy, a binding tool expert.

Photo: Budnews

Via Book Riot comes this You Tube video, contained in a report from EuroNews on an extraordinarily large-format book which is housed in the Hungarian village of Szinpetri,  a significant proportion of who’s population is required to turn a page.

If you don’t see a video here please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

The Hungarian creator of this giant book, Béla Varga, says “It was impossible to make it larger. That’s why the dimensions of the book are 4.18m x 3.77m”. (13.71 x 12.36 feet) We aren’t told what constraint it was that limited its size. Obviously you could get hold of larger paper. The binding was by hand, so clearly bigger would have been theoretically possible. It took 13 cows to produce the leather for binding: so you could round up 20.

Photo: Encylomedia, via Global Advertisers.

Printing presses exist which can print a larger area: witness those advertising pieces on the sides of buildings — they used to be painted onto the walls, surely one of the world’s most satisfying manual jobs, but now they are printed on some sort of plastic-y substrate. These things appear, rather charmingly, to be referred to as building wraps. I’ve no idea if this one, and even larger examples which you can find, in just a single piece, or several joined together. Certainly the one I studied near here on Broadway in Washington Heights was just a single piece, though it was maybe a third of the size to this one.

The reference to a Guinness Record in the video is a bit surprising since according to a Google search that “honor” belongs to Dubai. The explanation turns out to be timing. Although the EuroNews article was written this year, it was in 2010 that the Szinpetri book was the Guinness-World-Record-holder, but it’s position was taken over by the Dubai volume a couple of years later.

Mental Floss, unsurprisingly, has a round up of bookley superlatives. They tell us about a series of engraved stone slabs at the Kuthodaw Pagoda on the road to Mandalay which has a claim to the title, but allow as how “The Guinness Book of World Records gives a more standard type of book the record — they say the world’s largest book is a 2012 text on the Prophet Muhammad created in Dubai and measuring an impressive 16.40 ft x 26.44 ft.” Poor old Mr Varga’s monster is less than half that size! They also tell us that the world’s longest book is Madame Scudéry’s Artamène,ou le Grand Cyrus, which is 2.1 million words long. War and Peace, for comparison, contains a mere 560,000 words, though they don’t tell us which languages they are using for their word counts. As an ex-worker in academic publishing I cannot believe that there aren’t even longer books lurking out there.

Now what it is that might motivate you to produce a book so large that nobody can read it is not explored in the sources I have found. Is fame really worth it? Is it really fame?

My post on Miniature books shows a couple of large books whose dimensions now appear absolutely trivial in the bigness stakes.

If you really hate p-books this may be a must for you. CZUR are crowdfunding the CZUR Shine Ultra portable scanner on Indegogo. They’re doing pretty well too — they seem to be 52,680% funded already, thanks to 5701 backers who’ve pledged $675,528 with 23 days to go. — When I drafted this post about a week ago, these were the numbers. Since then things have moved on: they’re now 79,702% funded with 8,195 backers. Still 15 days to go. See if you want one:

If you don’t see a video here please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

CZUR’s claim to be able to scan 180 languages sounds odd at first sight: aren’t they just doing an image scan? They say they are scanning at 340 dpi (dots per inch) which certainly suggests that. However, what’s actually going on is that the initial scan (a 340 dpi image scan) can be exported in 4 different formats, a PDF, a TIFF, a searchable PDF, and as an OCR file.

CZUR is a Chinese company, and they already offer a table-top book scanner. It seems that $129 invested at Indegogo will get you one of these machines — but of course you’ve got to want to convert your library to some kind of digital format to make even this reasonable price look worthwhile. Still there could also be business applications.

The brave new world of scanning started in 1984, and since then prices have come crashing down. Reliability has improved too. This machine does actually look tempting: but I still can’t really figure out what I’d need to use it for.

Dard Hunter

Tony Sanfilippo is down in the dumps. A meaningful visit to Dard Hunter’s* home in Chillicothe has gotten him ruminating on the rarity of beauty in today’s book output. He gives us an account of his visit at The Scholarly Kitchen, and enters into a spiral of despair culminating in his wondering if each book his Ohio State University Press produces won’t in fact be the last physical book they ever do.

No question running a university press is a hard row to harrow these days. Unit sales keep on going down; libraries are no longer the guaranteed market they once were; funding is scarce; costs escalate. Eppur se muove. Courage! I really don’t think things are terminal.

There are basically two things at work in Mr Sanfilippo’s piece: the problem of lost beauty, and the problem of lost sales. It was undoubtedly a very satisfying life working for a university press in the days when we could still afford to make books “properly” in the traditional fine-bookmaking manner. Although throughout my university press career I worked sedulously to get costs down and to expedite schedules, I was never thanked for getting a book in early, or below budget. Once or twice though I was lucky enough to get congratulations from on high: such encomia were always related to thanks for making such a handsome book. This always struck me as quaintly out-of-date. I had always been reluctant to submit our books to those shows where the books are judged on physical appearance, aesthetics, and production quality; (for example the shows organized by BIGNY and AUP.) I just didn’t regard that as what we were in business to do.

People who work in publishing are book people. Book people like a well-made book. Even though the bosses of bosses may insist you trash the specs in order to increase the margin, we could never close our hearts to the siren-call of the good. I remember being begged by a publisher to print a particular book on a particular paper, doing which would have involved a special purchase at a specially high price. This I refused to do. The publisher started weeping; and of course I bought the paper. The company didn’t go bankrupt — well it sort of did eventually, but that was for a whole bunch of different reasons.

We all want to be able to be proud of what we have produced. But, in the cool gaze of reality, our pride has to be refocussed onto the content and the sales of our books. Because it is difficult to run a university press these days. Every penny saved is a contribution to the dyke protecting us from the rough seas out there. If our customers are not insisting on beauty, or even a moderately well-made book, then making such a thing for them is just irresponsible.

And just because the university press, or any traditional publisher, is not giving the world a well-made book, this is no reason to despair that the well-made book will vanish from our lives. In hard times, and these are rather hard times for book publishers, lots of people lose their jobs. One or two of these will turn out to be the Dard Hunters of the future. There are indeed people, other than the odd disappointed publisher, who value a well-made book, and are willing to pay for a few. Just because trade publishers (or most book publishers) are unable to give them this does not mean that it can’t be had.

So, bite the bullet, make your POD books, and don’t spend too long examining the product.† If your customers object to the trimming of a few pages, reflect that in order to discover this flaw they have to have bought the book. Books are needed because they convey information: nice to convey it in a handsome physical form, but ultimately irrelevant to the communication process.


* Dard Hunter (1883-1966) was primarily a papermaker, but he mastered and practiced all phases of book manufacturing. The books published by his Mountain House Press are “believed to be the first American ‘one person’ books, meaning one person did everything: made all the paper for the edition; designed, cast, and set all the type; created every illustration and ornament; every punch, plate, die-cut, and embossment; wrote the book; laid out the book . . .”

† And be it noted, production flaws of the sort Mr Sanfilippo instances are no more likely in a print-on-demand book that they are in any book. I suspect we just go looking for them more assiduously.