Archives for category: Book manufacturing

You get them all the time in magazines, and quite often in books.

Here’s an example provided by Neglected Books.* What Simon and Schuster were after was not of course your opinion on the book. What they wanted was your name and address so as to add you to their mailing list.


Library of America tends to have one in each of their volumes. I use them as bookmarks — I can never be bothered with those ribbon markers. The LOA cards are explicitly asking for your name for their mailing list, but they also ask that question about how you heard about the book. I wonder how much attention they pay to the answers: it’s nice to know your readers heard about the book through a book review, but is knowing this going to make you send out more review copies? I suspect the cost of recording the data is more than any value to be gained from it.

Blow-in cards are usually randomly blown into a magazine by a special attachment to the line. Book manufacturing lines tend not to include this facility which is much less commonly required, and thus blow-ins in books will more likely have been inserted by hand at the same time as the jacket is being put on.

More rarely you may find advertisements printed in the back of a book. Usually these are merely ads for other books from the same publisher, but ads for other products were energetically solicited by book publishers in the sixties and seventies of the last century, and during Victorian times. The Digital Reader has an account of the history and new on-line initiatives.

Photo: Toptenz



* Neglected Books is a great site that deserves more attention that this aside. They direct attention onto forgotten books and authors. Nowadays, with the availability short-run techniques and ebook publication making the cost of republishing a book much less than it once was, this site is no doubt being followed by lots of publishers.


Digital printing is made up of two separate approaches. There are toner-based systems, and ink jet systems. The toner side is better established, having been a growing factor in book work for the past 25 years. Ink jet is just beginning to get established as the primary technology for books, though it has been around for about as long.

There’s no doubt now that digital printing is a solid part of the book manufacturing scene. Not only can publishers print fewer and fewer copies — a highly desirable ability in uncertain times — but the quality of digital print is now every bit as good as offset, and in some respects I’d argue, superior. For instance the catalog for The New York Book Industry Guild’s 2015 Annual Book Show was printed digitally (ink jet) for the first time: see the photo below. In an offset world the pale blue tints — made up of tiny dots of blue ink — which appear on almost every page would have been difficult to hold consistent, as their color would be affected by the colors used on the rest of each individual page. Some photos will call for more blue ink, others for more yellow etc. In an offset job, to serve that need more blue, or yellow ink will need to be delivered to that area. This ink can’t instantly disappear when the press revolves on to the next part of the book needing to be printed. If that’s just a page of black text, no problem, but if it’s a color tint, the ink buildup needed for individual halftones would make the background tint vary slightly from one track to another. On a digital press the ink deposited can be exactly right every time. (See Printing methods.)

Here’s a report on a 2016 Ricoh seminar from Book Business Magazine. which projects steady growth in digital printing. Notable in the projections, regardless of whether you think the projections are too high or too low, is the contrast between percentage of production and percentage of sales volume. Avoidance of unsold inventory is going to loom larger and larger in publishers’ planning.

Digital printing first made its appearance in the office environment, and was soon adopted for short-run book manufacturing. Initially this was available only for black and white work — which of course means about 90% of serious books — and this made it initially ideal for academic publishing. I recently discovered a couple of memos I wrote in 1982 in which I advocated for the setting up in our warehouse of a digital print engine plus a small binding line so that we could print one-off books in response to customer orders. This seems to me to be extraordinarily early for such a thing to be possible, but hey, you can call me a dreamer. In fact the first real digital book printer, Integrated Book Technology, wasn’t established till 1991. I’m not sure when the first on-demand setups in publishers’ warehouses were, but I don’t think it happened earlier than about 2005. Here, from Edwards Brothers Malloy, a pioneer in this regard tragically closing their doors this week, is a neat little illustration of why digital printing works.


In the offset scenario 750 copies are manufactured and paid for. Publishers have long been hung up on the unit cost of production, a number which is often used to in calculating the retail price of the book. But of course the unit cost per copy sold is really the important number; you just don’t happen to know it ahead of time. You may claim that the 350 you hadn’t sold by the end of the 20-month period measured in the EBM scenario will eventually be sold: and so they may, but “eventually” might be a long time, and does come with a cost. Your capital is tied up in slow moving inventory, and you have to keep a warehouse going to house it all. If you don’t print the book till after you’ve received an order, you clearly avoid holding unsold copies in stock, even though each individual copy has cost you more.

BIGNY did a meeting in March, reported on at Book Business Magazine. Perhaps the most important message heard at this meeting relates to the economic difficulties presented by ink jet printing today. Paradoxically a technology which is ideal for shorter and shorter print runs really has an economic model which demands longer runs. The equipment costs a lot, and the per page cost is higher than printers are accustomed to. Maybe, as we have become accustomed to in the era of Moore’s law, both machines, and perhaps most importantly, inks will come down in price. Or perhaps we publishers will get used to paying the economic price for such a convenient technology. Still it’s evident that nobody’s junking their last offset machine just yet.

See also Print on demand.


Edwards Brothers Malloy announced on 31 May that they were closing completely. Publishers Lunch was first with the news, closely followed by Publishers Weekly. Only in February this year EBM had decided to cut back offset operations in their Lillington, NC plant, focussing that part of the business in Ann Arbor, MI. This was to have resulted in the loss of 100 jobs by the end of this year. Obviously a total closure affects many more.

The brief note on their website today (1 June) reads:

It is with heavy hearts we announce that Edwards Brothers Malloy will be closing our doors as of June 15. We are working with prospective buyers for our Fulfillment operation and should have information within the next few days. We continue to operate business as usual and will keep you updated as we have information. If the need arises, we will work with you to retrieve your inventory.

As you can imagine, this is a difficult time for our employees as we work through the process of shutting down our facilities while finishing projects for our customers with work in-house. We do, however, want to take this moment to thank you for your support and business through the years. Our employees and customers have been the cornerstone of our 125-year history.

We wish you all the best going forward.

John Edwards and Bill Upton

Clearly John Edwards’ February assessment of the state of the market “We continue to see shrinking demand for offset printing and double-digit growth in digital printing” has become even worse. But double digit growth in a smaller segment of your business cannot necessarily offset shrinkage in the larger part.

Of course one cannot know the full story of the company’s financial position, but it did look like they were making the right moves. They had an established position in short-to-medium-run offset, and were moving steadily into digital printing in response to demand for ever shorter print runs from their university press and other “serious” publishing customers. They even had a proper print-on-demand operation (making one book at a time). For a number of years they offered to set up a POD line in a publisher’s warehouse, so that “out of print” books could be manufactured while the rest of a customer’s order was being fulfilled from stock, and ship out along with that order. Maybe the problem results from their consolidation/expansion in what is surely a shrinking market.

In the meantime, if you work in the manufacturing department of a publishing house, be alert. EBM is/was our 6th largest book manufacturing supplier. Think where all that work which till a couple of days ago was locked up at Edwards Brothers Malloy is going to go. Talk to your suppliers and book time for your books. Don’t leave it till big shouldered competitors have gobbled up all the press time. We’ve become used to being able to get a reprint in a couple of weeks. Now press capacity is being reduced at the same time as the paper market is becoming tighter. Take care.


A film which wanders about a bit but ends up showing you how things used to be.

The amazing thing to me is the number of people in the works. Labour was king in the days of heavy metal.

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Nicholas Wier-Williams sends via the SHARP listerv, this Facebook link to a BBC Archive film showing the manufacturing of the 1951 printing of The Encyclopedia Britannica, which by this time had become an American book. (If you are asked to create an account, and don’t want to, just click “Not now” in the pop-up box.)

It’s hard to believe that this is how we were still making books just 14 years before I got into the publishing business. In 1951 letterpress was still king in British book making, so this sheet-fed offset lithographic run would have been fairly uncommon then I suspect. Truly change has been helter skelter since the sixties.

The Encyclopedia Britannica‘s logo is a thistle, recalling its origins in Edinburgh, the Athens of the North. It was first published as a 3-volume set in 1768-71, by a Society of Gentlemen in Scotland. It was actually owned by the printers, Bell and Macfarquhar. Ownership has dotted around. In 1897 it passed to America, though the Encyclopedia always strove to appear “British”.


The 11th edition was published by Cambridge University Press, though the editorial work was done in America. Apparently this edition lives on as the Project Gutenberg Encyclopedia, access to which can be gained via the Wikipedia entry. The title page is slightly misleading, no doubt intentionally as this copy was the part of the edition meant for sale in the USA: Cambridge had no branch in America till 1949. Since 1890 they had had a sales agency agreement with the Macmillan Company whose offices were presumably at 35 West 32nd Street. Strange perhaps that a British publisher felt the need to reassure American purchasers that a set of books really edited in America was OK for American readers even if it did appear to carry the authority of the ancient university. Still it’s always been about money in the Encyclopedia business. It costs an immense amount to create the thing, but you can change a lot and sell it for years. Doesn’t quite work like this any longer.


A nicely tilted 1947 Encyclopedia Britannica movie showing how it used to be done.

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I can’t really believe the printing plates were made of copper, but that’s what he says. Isn’t copper a rather soft metal?

In contrast:

This is Edwards Brothers in 2012. Naturally things have changed since then too.

Hardly really a binding style: all that needs to be done is drill holes down through a pile of loose pages along the spine edge, so they can be inserted into a ring binder. There are however quite a few publications which are supplied this way. These will mostly be in subject areas in which the data changes frequently, necessitating updates. The drilled pages will tend to be shrink-wrapped and shipped to subscribers who will have had the binder supplied along with the first edition of the pages, and will swap out redundant material. Law publishing is an example of the sort of subject area where this technique may be appropriate.

For other binding styles, please search for “binding styles”

You can do this type of mechanical binding yourself — if you buy the machine. They can be found lurking in forgotten corners of many offices. Holes get punched in the spine edge of the book block (in the office you’d no doubt be starting with a stack of loose sheets; in a bindery the spine fold will have to be cut off), and then the machine opens up the comb and fits it through the holes, allowing it to snap back and make a book.

1. The machine opens the comb

2. The comb ends go through the holes

3. The rings close

4. The finished product











Obviously, if you need an edition running into the thousands, or even hundreds, and it has to lie flat while readers consult it with hands full of the stuff they’re studying, you will want to go to one of the (relatively) few book manufacturers who offer this type of binding. For an additional cost you can get the book title etc. silk-screened on the outside of the comb, so it can be picked out on the shelf.

The pictures are from Wikipedia.

For other styles of binding search “binding styles”.

Wire-O books from Wikipedia

Generically called double-wire binding, because two metal wires go through each of the holes drilled through the book block, Wire-O sounds like a trade name, though I can’t find that it was.

Depending on thickness of book there are two “pitches” of Wire-O, meaning two different numbers of holes per inch. For smaller books 2 holes per inch, and for larger ones 3. Two-pitch wires will be used up to 9/16″ bulk, while 3-pitch can go up to 1¼”. As with all other mechanical binding techniques the folds down the spine will be chopped off and holes drilled through the book block.

Normally the cover is treated in the same way as the other pages: i.e. any cover spine is chopped off. But one of the neat features of Wire-O is that you can, by dint of cunning folding, do a book with a spine left in situ, so that when the book is on the shelf you can identify it, not just see an array of wires. This picture, from Print Finishing Specialities, shows the idea clearly.









For other styles of binding search “binding styles”.

Basically spiral binding just consists of a screwy wire passed though a series of holes up the spine of the book. This picture from MGX Copy in San Diego illustrates it clearly. Of course the inserting will be by machine, not in this handcraft fashion. Spiral is the most common type of mechanical binding.

Mechanical binding. There are four primary types of mechanical binding: spiral binding, metal wire binding, plastic comb binding, and loose-leaf binding. One might argue that side-wire binding should be included under the mechanical rubric, but it’s not. The commonality appears to be the drilling of holes. It’s not clear where the term mechanical binding comes from: paradoxically mechanical binding is in essence the least mechanized method of binding a book. One might hypothesize that in the dim and distant there was a moment when these methods had been developed while most book binding was still hand binding. Not sure that makes any sense though. Maybe the term originates in the office where it might be regarded as more mechanical than just putting a rubber band round a bunch of pages, and the term stuck with the methods when they moved into the bindery. Just like “perfect” as an epithet is applied to the far from perfect perfect binding method, we may regard “mechanical” as unintentionally ironical.

The thickness of book you can bind via spiral binding is governed by the availability of wires, which may be metal, plastic or plastic-coated metal, so the fattest book you can spiral bind is ⅞”. This style of binding will be used for a book which has to lie flat when opened. However when the book is opened the facing pages will not align because the one on the left will be a little bit further up the spiral wire. If this is a problem, look elsewhere.

For other binding styles please search for “binding styles”.