Archives for category: Book manufacturing

A recent Bookseller headline shouts “Booksellers report more customers switching to paperbacks as household budgets tighten” (only accessible to subscribers though).

Used to be a book would be published in hardback, and if it did at all well, a paperback edition would be follow a year later. Have you noticed a recent fashion of just walking past that first bit, and publishing initially in paperback (and ebook)? It’s by no means a majority of traditionally published books which are coming out just as paperbacks, but a growing number of publishers are playing around with this idea.

We may not be about to see the demise of the printed book, but it does seem quite possible that the hardback will drop by the wayside. Let’s face it, the reason we have hardbacks (beyond the grip of tradition) is that publishers can charge much more for them while spending little more to make them. Sure there’s a bit of token rhetoric around strength and survivability, but given that a hardback is nowadays really nothing but a paperback stuck between board covers with a jacket wrapped around it, the strength argument hardly stands much scrutiny. (The earliest paperbacks were presented by the book trade as disposable items, but when it comes down to it a modern trade paperback is almost identical to the hardback in terms of quality of manufacture and durability.)

Once upon a time people might have felt that when they were buying a book as a gift it would look a bit cheesy if they bought a paperback rather than the hardback edition, but this attitude now looks decidedly old-fashioned.

For years we have been encountering paperbacks in libraries.

The world and the business have moved on. There was once a time when it would have been crazy for a librarian to think “If I buy the paperback for $5, rather than spending $20 on the hardback edition; if the paperback falls apart after 50 borrowings, I can always buy another one”. Fifty years ago books, while not quite like milk, did have a sort of sell-by date. When a book came out in 1965, if you really wanted a copy it behooved you to get up off your backside and buy one. Waiting would almost inevitably result in disappointment, because back then it was rather expensive to reprint a book which wasn’t selling in large numbers. As a result most books went through a single printing and then disappeared into the world of OP. Now that we can rely on digital printing, and especially print-on-demand, to make a book available “for ever” buying the cheaper paperback becomes a reasonable library acquisition policy.

Things are getting back to normal. Last year it was beginning to look as if you’d never be able to get a book printed again. Now publishers’ warehouses are choc-a-bloc because almost everyone responded to the supply-side crunch by overprinting. In 2022-23, although sales have been quite buoyant, the age-old problem of excess inventory has returned to haunt book publishers.

Printing Impressions has a forecast for 2023’s printing business. Kevin Spall, Senior VP at Scholastic, says “Publishers are full, having overbought because demand was high and capacity was low. We bought inventory to be prepared. And now, as demand softens, we still have inventory. The need to reprint is less certainly than it was a year ago when the demand was just starting to spike, and those are not issues that are going to go away quickly.”. . . “We’re in a very different place today versus where we were sitting last year at this time when, for any variety of reasons, printers were booked out for 12 to 18 months, and we just couldn’t find capacity domestically. About four months ago I started getting calls from print partners with pockets of capacity maybe once or twice a month. Now, I would say across the board softness is in everyone’s view for the year ahead.”

Schedules at book manufacturers have come crashing down: it’s back in sight of where it was in the good old days when you could get a reprint in a week, maybe two. But first of all, we’ve got to sell, or perish the thought, waste that excess inventory, or we just won’t be able to squeeze any more books in. Books are an awful business: you’ve never got enough of a bestseller, and you’ve always got too many copies of all the rest. All those books lying there gloating at you have got huge dollar signs written all over them — that’s where the capital driving the business is currently located. Too bad you can’t pay for a reprint of the latest bestseller with dead inventory from a thousand over-printed volumes.

Fore-edge painting used to be a one-off highly deluxe operation, involving a craftsman taking up paint brush and painting the trimmed edges of a book. See Fore-edge painting and Fore-edge painting again.

Now a design can be affordably applied to the trimmed edges of a complete edition of a book thanks to digital printing technology. This video shows it happening, and very little else: just line up the trimmed books, clamp them tightly, and let your little Chinese-made ink-jet print head do the rest.

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

Theoretically book edges don’t have to be printed only digitally: you could do them by silk screen or even at a stretch I suppose by offset, but the cumbersomeness of setting up such a system would doubtless make it prohibitively expensive. This digital system will obviously add cost, but not so much extra that nobody can afford to use it: here’s Waterstone’s special edition of Lessons in Chemistry with the elements printed on the fore-edge; top and bottom are plain blue. They’ve also given it fancy ends, using the same design as appeared on the preprinted case of the trade edition.

Cambridge University Press and Assessment have digitized their thirty-four Christmas books. An account is published in Fine Books Magazine. The Press’ own announcement doesn’t suggest any way in which you might be able to consult these scans. They are part of the CUP archive at the University Library. Apply at the front desk?

If you’re not letting the masses look at them, what’s the point of scanning these books? Is it only a belts-and-braces sort of archivists’s trick. A bit like “You’ll never steal another Darwin’s notebook from us”? CUP have been asked by Publishing Perspectives to let them know when (if ever) the scans do become publicly available. Archivists no doubt regard the existence and survival of these items as sufficient justification in itself. Wishing to keep archival materials “forever” is a human characteristic, whether forever is really forever, or just means “until I’m gone”. Surely anyone who wants to study a printer’s presentation books will want to see the books themselves — after all their physical properties are a huge and basic part of the effect, and the point.

I suppose it’s OK, is it, that we live in a world where the words “hi-res digital copy” inspire automatic respect? My recent Gentileschi post went on about this.

From Nate Hoffelder’s weekly email of links comes this piece from the Internet Archives Blog reminding us that Digital Books Wear out Faster than Physical Books.

We used to hear a lot about how computer advances would, with the passage of time, render inaccessible lots of things we then relied upon. Changes in computer languages, software, conventions, whatever would inevitably make reading that antique floppy disk impossible. I imagine it’s hard to read old Wang files today. We don’t hear as much about this any more. Maybe this is because we’ve taken the warning on board, hired IT departments, and constantly refresh the archive, or maybe (same thing in a way) we just assume it’s someone else’s problem, and we’ll be kept all right: after all don’t our computer companies keep on sending us directions to upgrade to their new operating system? Of course “being all right” tends, in this world, to mean paying some more money to upgrade your software so that it can still decipher those hieroglyphic files. This is just another reminder of how far from true ownership your relationship with your ebook library really is. (Though if you can read it and enjoy it, what difference does ownership really make?)

Even though in The Foundation series, millennia in the future, they buzzed around reading ebooks, they nevertheless had a vast central library. What was kept therein? Printed books do make for a pretty solid archive. You just put them away, and a couple of centuries later there they are waiting for you to take them off the shelf again. Of course, paper will eventually disintegrate — modern archival papers are claimed to be good for 1,000 years, though nobody’s been around long enough to test this claim — and one can easily argue that a water-tight update protocol could make digital files more survivable than paper ones. Still, who’s going to commit our descendants to a regular re-running of every ebook file in the world? Or in the complementary scenario, to printing a new POD copy every 1,000 years? And who’s going to pay for it? Not our problem! — Let’s just hope they still care about what we’ve put in the archive.

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley of Oxford University Press starts off her blog post entitled “Is publishing sustainable?” with an account of how environmentally expensive book manufacturing is. She overstates her case of course, understandably, given that her job title is Director of Sustainability at the Press. When I first saw the title of the post I thought we were in for an essay on whether publishing could survive economic and technological conditions — which I believe (and hope) it will. But of course it’s not that kind of sustainability: I obviously hadn’t allowed for OUP’s new electronic chops.

There’s no doubt that books do take a toll on the environment — which I’d claim is most significantly incurred in trucking the damn things hither and yon, often in the end to a place where they’ll be incinerated as unsaleable. But we’re already taking action on that. It may be true to claim that “Wood pulp, for making paper, board for book covers, and packaging, comes from forests in countries ranging from Brazil to Finland. Commercial forestry for timber and pulp contributes to deforestation and forest degradation, a leading driver of biodiversity loss that also accounts for around a tenth of global greenhouse gas emissions.” True, but almost irrelevant. If you took all books out of the equation the difference would be unnoticeable: book paper represents a tiny proportion of printing papers, which in turn is a small proportion of overall paper manufacture. Still, as she says, “Publishers can reduce their impact by sourcing certified sustainable paper”, and they do. Most books are already being printed, and have been for most of this century, on paper from sustainably managed forests.

It is of course only to be expected that advocates of digital over print should minimize the environmental costs of electricity, computer manufacturing etc., though in fairness I have to note that Ms Barsley does acknowledge this cost. Whatever the detail of the calculations, OUP is set on a course to achieve by 2025 carbon neutrality from their entire operation, 100% certified sustainable paper usage, and an elimination of any waste to landfill. Obviously if you don’t print any books, this is easier to attain, but the increased use of digital printing also makes controlling your inventory a lot easier. Even when I was there a significant proportion of OUP’s print books were already designated “MD” — which means in their system “manufactured on demand”, i.e. manufactured one-off only after a customer has ordered the book. For an academic publisher this route is truly a no-brainer. Warehouses are expensive, especially for books which only sell in dribs and drabs.

On November the 8th The Bookseller informed us that Cambridge University Press & Assessment* have appointed their first global director for climate education. The Scholarly Kitchen brings us a more general report on what actions academic publishers are taking. That we can do so little in terms of the overall problem should not of course be taken as an excuse for doing less than we can.

See also Environmental sustainability.


* This is the awkward name the Press has adopted since they were smooshed together with the Local Examinations Syndicate — the folks who create all those exam papers. Can’t help unease: Press is an object, Assessment an activity. Better would have been Cambridge University Press Publishing and Assessment, maybe with a colon or a —. As my friend David Tranah points out, a major gain from this would have been the resulting acronym: a cuppa is what we all need. Cupa sounds more like a sort of Amazonian rodent.

EBITDA stands for Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization. It is a measure of the amount of operating cash in the business. QuickBooks tells you how to figure it, and why you’d want to. As they indicate, “Those who use the EBITDA formula prefer to analyze a company’s performance based on day-to-day business operations. They disregard debt (interest costs), taxes, depreciation, and amortization.” Printing Impressions has an introduction and the application of EBITDA in print acquisitions. Quite a lot of book publishers now use EBITDA. (My ex-boss, a fan, used to shout at me “Don’t say ‘a lot’. What’s the number?” Sorry, I know not.

To quote the exhibition Building the Book from the Ancient World to the Present Day at The Grolier Club “A sheet folded in half once creates a folio of two leaves; a quarto, folded twice, results in four leaves. Other formats include octavos, duodecimos, sextodecimos (16mos), tricesimo-secundos (32mos), and sexagesimo-quartos (64mos)—the smallest known being a 128mo printed by the Plantins in the 16th century.”

Folio, quarto, octavo, duodecimo

Follow the links on the right side of the exhibition website linked to above.

The actual dimensions of each of these will depend on the sheet size you start with. The relationships will remain the same. Some sizes may be found here.

In a post from 5 June 2020 I wrote

In so far as they think about it, I imagine that most book-readers believe that when a publisher decides to print 5,000 books, 5,000 books is what they’ll receive. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Indeed one might almost say that of all the possible quantities which will be checked in at the warehouse, 5,000 is probably the least likely!

This is not because publishers and book manufacturers are really bad at counting: it’s inherent to the manufacturing process. If a car manufacturer sets out to make 5,000 cars, that’s what they’ll make. They set up 5,000 bits of metal on the conveyor belt, and stop adding more bits once they’ve reached 5,000. (All right; I dare say it’s a little more complicated than that.) A book is made differently. It’s made as a collection of different parts which end up being brought together and united at the very end of the process. And it’s made of rather flimsy materials any of which can easily get damaged at any point in the process. I’ll use as my example the now rather old-fashioned procedure of a book printed on a sheet-fed offset perfecting press, bound as a sewn hardback with a jacket. (Books printed in other ways have to go through the same steps but they are often made with a different sequence and significance.) For my example I’m assuming a 5% over/5% under allowance on final delivery.

Lets assume our book has 320 pages, and is imposed to deliver 32-page signatures. Each of these ten signatures/sections will be printed separately, or possibly as two-up for five separate passes through the press. If there are two sigs on each sheet, the sheets will then have to be cut in half after they have been printed. Once you have your ten stacks of flat sheets each containing one signature, you send them off to the folding department where they will be folded down to ten little booklet-like sections. Let’s say there’s also an 8-page 4-color insert, which has been printed at a different plant and delivered already folded to the bindery. Now each of these eleven sections (10 for the text, and one insert) will be placed in sequence in a series of pockets on a gathering machine, which takes one from each pocket to make a book’s-worth of eleven sections, arranged we all hope in the right sequence without any duplications or omissions. Prior to gathering the first and last sigs will have had the endpapers tipped on. Now that you have lots of little piles of sigs, each making up an 11-sig book, they will go into the sewing department where they’ll be joined up into untrimmed book blocks. Cases are made from board and cloth, then stamped with foil. Thereafter the book blocks and cases go to the binding line where the book blocks are squeezed, gripped and trimmed, get their spine glued, and a liner applied, then get glue spread down the sides and have the case cover dropped and pressed onto the pages before they roll off the end of the machine. Here they receive a rapid examination as the jacket is applied, and the books travel on on a conveyor belt to where they are packed into cartons meeting the weight requirements of the warehouse to which they will be traveling.

At every one of these steps there is a risk of damage and loss, so you have to figure out what the loss risk might be at every stage and aim for a quantity at step one which will get you to the finish line with at least 5,000 copies of the book. Printing presses are big pieces of equipment and don’t stop and start on a dime. Makeready is required for every impression: you have to get the paper path perfect and adjust the ink/water balance to ensure an even black impression across the whole sheet. You’ll know from past experience how much paper you’ll be likely to need for makeready on this press: so you start off aiming for, let’s say 5,550 copies. (This is just a notional number used for this example. I don’t have access to any book manufacturer’s spoilage allowance data — and in any case it will vary from plant to plant, and press to press, maybe even from crew to crew.) You don’t want to make the spoilage allowance too big, because you have to pay for the paper you use, but you don’t want to make it too small, or you may be forced into a little (and killingly expensive) reprint of one sig to make up the count. Additionally there are accidents which can occur on press and have to be allowed for: a lump of dust flies onto the plate, or even a fly, and gets squashed onto the blanket where it starts printing. This we call a hickey — and as soon as they notice it the press minders will start pulling pages out of the press and throwing them away, while one of them cleans up the blanket and on we run guessing at how many impressions we need to add at the end of the run to keep our count up. You don’t stop the press if you can avoid it: if you do, there’s that makeready to do all over again.

So here you are, off press with between 5,250 and 5,650 copies of each of ten sigs. Sod’s law will determine that you actually have about 5,500 of eight sigs and 5,250 of two of them. You may loose a few sheets to makeready on the folder: it’s got to get the fold in at perfect right angles to the edge of the sheet: start with the sig with the highest count! On their way to the gathering department one of the skids of folded sheets may get bashed by a passing forklift truck, or waiting overnight, they may be dripped on when the roof leaks in a thunder storm — hey, accidents do happen. At each step you’ll lose a few more overall: fingers crossed the major loss will not be on the sigs you started out with 5,250 on.

The manufacturer will be aiming to deliver the maximum number of books permissible under the purchase order. After all the more they ship the more they’ll be able to bill: but there are limits. Most orders allow for a 20% slop, which tends to resolve into 10% over and 10% under, but more powerful customers will negotiate that down to 5% each way. In this example, worked on 5% over/under, the book manufacturer will be striving to be able to ship and bill 5,250 copies — and will be tearing hair out if the count drops below 4,750. The same consideration has been motivating the jacket printer, and the insert printer. They will aim to over-deliver against the ordered quantity, but not by so much that their materials costs will cause them a loss on the job. Publishers often like to receive extra jackets for refurbishment in the warehouse, so running out of jackets at the bindery line shouldn’t be an issue, though like everything else it has been known to happen. If you go into the gathering line with one or two sigs totaling only 5,075, you know you’re not going to be able to overdeliver too many, or any at all, and you also know that all those extra sigs from the other parts of the book are just wasted time and paper. They’ll be sent for recycling after the job’s completed. Storing partials is no longer an economically viable aim.

Book manufacturers will negotiate adjustment to the overage allowance. What I mean is they may accept an order for not-more-than, in which case the overage allowance of all goes to unders none to overs. In other words, in our example, the 5,000 will be priced at rates which would apply on a 4,500 run multiplied up. If the publisher ordered 5,000 exactly, the job would be priced as if it were a 5,500 run. In any case, if the manufacturer comes off with too many copies, they will be on the phone asking the publisher if they’ll accept overs over and above the overage allowance. If the book has subscribed well (i.e. if bookstores have ordered better than expected) the publisher may well decide to accept extra copies, so that the time when they’ll need to order a reprint is moved out a little. Tough negotiators will offer to accept these overs at no charge: I’d have agreed to paid for them at run-on cost; but I’m just a softie when it comes to supplier relations. Unlike many I regard the relationship as a partnership: if this sounds a bit old-fashioned, I fear it is.

The advent of digital printing, plus the forces of economics, which to some extent may be held responsible for the development of digital printing, have reduced the significance of overage. At the extreme end, true print-on-demand, overs aren’t an issue: the customer orders one copy, one copy is produced. If you’re printing a couple of hundred copies though, some of the pitfall-points listed above do come into play. Obviously damage can occur at random, but the crisis points are fewer, and it’s easier to get close the the ordered quantity on a digital press run than with other processes. Of course you may still have the spoilage allowances on the folding and binding lines to negotiate.

This is good news: less spoilage is good for us all, ecologically and economically, and being able to more accurately control your inventory makes publishing more profitable, or at least removes one hindrance to profitability.

Paper is sold by weight. In the days when most of our printing was done sheetfed, you had to be able to get to a number of pounds from the required number of sheets. This you could calculate in two steps: firstly by working out the number of sheets needed for each copy — if it’s printing 32 to view, i.e. 64 pages per sheet, your 256-page book will require 4 sheets per copy. Multiply that by the number of copies you plan to print, and add a spoilage allowance, which, if you didn’t already know it from experience, was something the printer could be coaxed into giving you, but would always be a “best guess”. With these numbers — Bob’s your uncle — a number of sheets. How much does each sheet weight though? This information is contained in the basis weight designation for the paper: if it’s 50# basis that means that a ream of this paper, if your sheet were to measure 25″ x 38″, would weigh 50 pounds. But of course your book is almost certainly not going to print on a sheet as small as 25″ x 38″ — this is just the standard sheet size used when we talk about book paper basis weight. These sorts of quaint old-fashioned things are there because they were first thought of eons ago. Who talks about reams now? But because it all works nobody’s changed it. (Metrication in Europe has greatly simplified this sort of thing.) So

M weight = Length of sheet x Width of sheet x Basis weight ÷ 950/2.

The number 950 is the product of 25 x 38 (the standard sheet size area). You’re calculating the area of the sheet you need to buy and dividing it by the area of the standard sheet which links you to weight. The 2 comes in because a ream is half of a thousand — 500 sheets. The answer to this equation, the weight of a thousand (M) sheets, is then multiplied by the number of thousands of sheets you need: and now you have it in pounds.