Archives for category: Book manufacturing

Production folks are the realists of the publishing industry. They know what it takes to get a book made. If the printer says it takes 12 weeks to reprint your book, it’ll take 12 weeks — though of course before you accept that story you’ll have done your kicking and screaming, telling them you’ll never send them another job, and all that stuff. But twelve weeks is what it’ll take.

Once upon a time this was how things were with pretty much every print job. We got used to it: it often used to seem that printers went as slow as they could because they were all worried that once they had finished your job they’d never get another one to take its place! But since the eighties or nineties publishers have gotten used to getting books just like that. Snap your fingers and bingo-bango the books were in the warehouse. The great schedules we have gotten accustomed to — big publishers could until recently insist on a one-week turnaround for a straightforward reprint — depended on a situation of slight over-capacity in the book manufacturing industry. Great for publishers; lousy for printers who had to vie with one another to keep their plants busy.

Now, for a variety reasons, many of them pure mischance, there’s a severe mismatch between demand and capacity. Lousy for publishers, but also lousy for printers, many of whom have recently gone under because of the effects of the prolonged over-capacity situation. In crude terms if there is work for fifty book manufacturers, but there are sixty of them in the business, a correction will affect not just ten companies, but more like twenty of them will eventually have been so weakened that they have to give up the struggle because of the effects of competing for so long on schedule and price. Clearly we then move rather dramatically to the other side, where work for fifty is being crammed into forty plants. It may be that some of the recent closures resulted from a plain-wrong bet that the pandemic would clobber book sales. Sales have held up ridiculously well, but once you’ve closed your plant, it’s too late for second thoughts.

Publishers will naturally adjust to the new reality. If you postpone the decision till the leaves turn brown, it’s probably going to be impossible to get that reprint in for the Christmas trade. Ever earlier decision-making may feel like it has to be less accurate, but it can nevertheless be made to work. Yes, printing smaller quantities more often has become the norm as technological developments have favored simpler setups; but running your inventory less close to the bone is only marginally less profitable than last-minute demand management. You may not want to print larger quantities, but it is rather desirable to have some inventory on hand when customers come a-ordering. We used to have to factor in longer lead times for book promotional events: get used to a return to the new (old) reality. And don’t think you’ll be able to get the manufacturing department to make up for that delay in ms delivery, in proofreading, or in getting the index done. It’ll probably be a long time before we get back to the good old days of surplus capacity. Printing technology has moved decisively towards “right sizing”, and the inefficiencies of surplus capacity are not something any manufacturer will be rushing to fund.

Time cures all of course. If there’s work there to be picked up, someone’s going to expand into the market-void. But setting up a new plant, even expanding an existing one, takes time and of course demands capital. We’ll get there eventually, but just as I opined about paper the other day, shortages tend to be followed by price increases. Price increases in the book manufacturing world lead eventually to price increases at the retail level. So buy these books now. Get them while they’re hot — and cheap!

An aside: in days of old, when the book manufacturing industry in Britain had yet to invest and catch up with their American competitors, I used to say that a schedule (pronounced “skedule”, as we say it in America) meant a program of dates you believed would be kept to, whereas a schedule (pronounced “shedule”, à la UK) was a programme of dates you had absolutely no intention of adhering to. Do not be tempted, just because your bosses have become used to seeing happy results, to revert to writing “shedules” !

We are used to this sort of encomium being directed at Gutenberg’s Bible, but Edward Burne-Jones, not totally disinterested it’s true — he did the illustrations — when he spoke of “a pocket cathedral . . . the finest book ever printed” was referring to The Kelmscott Chaucer.

The University of Delaware has organized an exhibition, which is available online here, to mark the 125th anniversary of the book’s publication on 26 June 1896. There are events worldwide, and a comprehensive list may be found at The William Morris Society’s website.

This prospectus describes the binding options for the book, and offers copies at prices which of course startle today’s readers. Notice the warning about the ink used: a full year’s drying was required before the sheets would be safe for folding and forwarding!

William Morris established the Kelmscott Press at Hammersmith in January 1891. Between then and 1898, the press produced 53 books (totaling around 18,000 copies). After an age which had ushered in mass production, Morris wanted to demonstrate that the craft standards of the past could be repeated – even surpassed – in the present. Kelmscott books reinvigorated the ideals of book design and inspired better standards of production. Numerous other presses were set up to perpetuate Morris’ aims, including the Doves, Eragny, Ashendene and Vale Presses. Fine arts printing is important of course, but we had to wait till the 1930s for the practical application of these design principles to “normal” books. Stanley Morison was central to this design revolution. Today’s book buyer has to thank William Morris that today’s production values aren’t even worse than we’ve allowed them to become.

I have to confess that William Morris, socialist though he was, was always a bit of too much for me. Earnestness is of course important, but it can be a bit wearing. Remember the fashion for Morris wallpapers and furnishing fabrics: too intense. And books to my mind do benefit from white space. Still, a great, energetic and good man.

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.