Archives for category: Book manufacturing

Though I’ve never seen this before one sees how it could happen.

Perhaps surprisingly for a German book my hardback copy of Johann Peter Eckermann: Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens is rather a cheap production. It comes from the second printing which took place in 1984 at the Karl-Marx-Werk, Graphischer Großbetrieb, Pößneck, in Thuringia, appropriately not far from Weimar  (35 miles) in the German Democratic Republic as it still was then. It is printed on a groundwood sheet (you can see it yellowing around the edges) and is perfect bound — something we have always assumed no German publisher would ever do to a hardback. No doubt C. H. Beck of Munich found this almost 900 page book difficult to price, so cut the necessary corners, though the book is bound in a nice bit of blue cloth. The print works is still there in Pößneck, now discretely renamed GGP Media, short for Graphischer Großbetrieb Pößneck which is what it was first called when it abandoned its connection with the great man.

That little scrap of paper sticking up is bound into the perfect binding. It’s the bottom right hand corner of the page behind it — I guess the next person got a copy lacking that bit, while I get to enjoy it twice.

As Thrym & Ellen point out at the start of their post Stellar Book Jacket, Jan Tschichold advised against putting anything meaningful on those disposable pieces of advertising, book jackets. Fair enough: I’ve advised the same policy with regard to endpapers. Thrym and Ellen have however come up with a cunning counter example.

This star chart is the folded-out jacket of The Stars: A New Way to See Them by H. A. Rey. You can see the folds for the flaps at the top and the bottom of the picture. Unsurprisingly the spine area has taken the most damage. Rey (born Hans Augusto Reyersbach) was half, with his wife Margaret, of the team which brought us the original Curious George. They wrote the first six volumes of what has become almost a publishing industry of its own. You can see at the link above that the jacket also gave you a horizon chart before you unfolded it completely.

The book is still in print, though no doubt the fold-out jacket has been abandoned along the way. A second-hand version of the 1952 1st edition is available at Amazon for $75.00. The condition of the dust jacket, which apparently carries the original piece of $4 is described as “Very good”. Go for it: you’ll never see a more thoroughly functional jacket.

Illuminating a manuscript meant embellishing it with gold and/or silver.

Gold leaf was made by taking a small lump of gold, putting it between layers of goldbeater’s skin (a membrane derived from the gut lining of cattle) and beating it till it became thin. Wikipedia tells us that 1000 bits of cleaned and processed goldbeater’s skin stacked one on top of the other would only measure an inch thick. The American Institute for Conservation provides fairly gruesome detail on the making of goldbeater’s skin. Apparently malnourished cattle were preferred: less fat to get rid of.

Over a hundred layers of membrane/gold/ membrane could be beaten thin as one operation. Thin meant very thin: 1/250,000 of an inch. If a piece of gold leaf was left unattended by an open window it would fly away on the lightest breeze.

Publishers are notoriously careful, and gold isn’t something they throw around. That gold stamping on the spine of the book you’re reading isn’t gold (metal) it’s just gold (color). The only exception to this is in Bible production, where for a de luxe Bible you will find gold leaf used for the stamping on the leather cover and for the edge gilding of the pages.

This video (click on the title of this blog post if you don’t see a video below this paragraph) shows an Ochsner Edge Gilding machine in operation. You can see the gold leaf in the bottom of the track; it is pressed, with heat, against the thoroughly sanded and smoothed book block.

Bell Type and Rule Company will sell you a kit including sheets of 23 carat gold foil so you can personalize your Bible, and no doubt, those of all your friends.

You can get hold of gold leaf fairly easily. Amazon offers you a pack of 25 5½” square sheets for $7.98 with free same-day delivery for Prime members. The manufacturer does however admit to you that this gold leaf is really only “golden leaf”, being made of 85% copper and 15% zinc. Real gold leaf is available for a higher price but, as they keep emphasizing its edibility, seems to be directed at the cooking/baking/ candy-making market. Fair enough; there probably aren’t a man market of illuminators out there these days.

An orihon is a folding book. It consists on one long sheet of paper (or more than one, glued together) printed on one side then folded concertina-style, and possibly contained between a cover front and back. The style originated in China during the Tang dynasty (618-908 AD) probably starting out as a scroll folded up for storage. Orihons became popular in Japan — indeed the word orihon comes from the Japanese — and in another case of independent invention, became the form in which Mayan codices were “bound”.

Here are a couple of modern examples: Stack by Edwin Frank, published by Ugly Duckling Presse, and Manhattan Unfurled by Matteo Pericoli, published by Random House. Manhattan Unfurled is actually printed on both sides of the paper, showing the East Side on the recto, the West Side on the verso, or vice versa. It is delivered in a slip case together with a little booklet describing the project — a sort of Preface. Stack comes in a little felt envelope.






Most Mayan codices were destroyed by the conquistadores and the priests they brought along with them. These representatives of advanced civilization believed they were doing God’s work by eliminating the error which was self-evidently contained in these writings which they couldn’t understand. Very few survived. As Wikipedia tells us “The folding books are the products of professional scribes working under the patronage of deities such as the Tonsured Maize God and the Howler Monkey Gods.” Rather reminiscent of the basis of scribal culture in Europe.

The Madrid Codex; the longest surviving Mayan codex


Susan Ferber, Executive Editor at Oxford University Press, is quoted by Dr. Syntax: “I think we have taken for granted what an incredible development print on demand has meant for publishers, authors, and readers.  There is no need to declare books out of print anymore; we can literally make work available forever, which is a development on par with the printing press in my mind.  I think the death of the print book has been the most overhyped negative in the publishing world.  This has been augured and feared for so long, and for new generations of readers, it is so heartening to see that they love the print form.  It is enduring and old technology can and does have value.”

As a long-time POD evangelist, I can enthusiastically agree. Susan’s in charge of history, and OUP’s American Office has a rich history in history publishing. One of my regrets about stopping work is that I hadn’t been able to bring all of these old classics back into print. We did manage quite a few though.

The always contrarian French (Le tiers livre ) appear to disagree, reporting via a tweet by Jose Afonso Furtado, that print on demand is dead. But hold on: it’s only dead because it’s become so much a part of the scene that we no longer need a special name for it. Those French: so witty and full of paradox! François Bon tells us that when the annual sale of a book drops to 500, Hachette will switch it over routinely to POD. I don’t know, but I’d bet US trade houses haven’t made such a radical across-the-board decision. University Presses and academic publishers may effectively have done so, but of course for them a sale of 500 a year is nearer the top than the bottom end of the sales range, so the potential switch point will be very different. Mr Bon’s article focuses primarily on the difference POD can make to authors and their relationship to the book emphasizing the POD book as part of a digital continuum. One cannot disagree that the arrival of digital publishing has given authors great freedom in both the ebook and the print book arenas: and good thing too.

Of course the fact that a publisher need never put a book out of print now that it can be printed one-off in response to whatever orders trickle in, does mean that authors’ rights will never revert to them. Thus the freedom authors have gained in being able to print their books on their own (self publish), appears to bring with it a loss of freedom in their relationship with their publisher. While I am sure there are cases where this has resulted in real loss, the problem strikes me as one more of theory than reality. If the author wants their rights back for one of their old books surely just asking for them would result in most cases in success. In the future contracts should (and no doubt in many cases already do) contain a reversion agreement not couched in terms of “out of print” or “unavailable” but in terms of a sales volume or a finite number of years. You don’t chose a publisher in order to have a fight with them: in most cases it’s quite easy not to.

Duodecimo, sometimes voiced twelvemo (and occasionally written in the same way, or as 12mo or 12°), is a small size of book between octavo and sixteenmo or sextodecimo. In Moby-Dick Herman Melville assigned the dolphins and porpoises to his classification of duodecimo whales: a 12mo book was a small relatively narrow object. Its smallness meant that the paper savings sometimes made the extra labor of producing it worthwhile.

  • A folio has been folded once, (resulting in 4 pages on 2 leaves)
  • a quarto twice (4 leaves, 8 pages)
  • an octavo thrice (8 leaves, 16 pages)
  • a sextodecimo four times (16 leaves, 32 pages)
  • there’s even a tricesimo-secundo, 32mo, folded eight times (32 leaves, 64 pages)

Keep you eye on the leaves (each one consisting of two sides, thus two pages) and the system makes sense. A duodecimo will have 12 leaves, 24 pages — something which can’t be achieved by just folding a single sheet of paper. (I’m not talking about a web press here, just sheet-fed.) There’s also a vicesimo-quarto, a 24mo: just think twice the 12mo structure described below. These names, while they may have actually been used by real people in the dim and distant, are now in the exclusive possession of the bibliophilic community. The only interaction we have with them is when we see reference to Shakespearen Folios and Quartos, and in the quaint proclivity of Brits to talk about Demy octavo when they mean what we’d call 5½” x  8½”.

Keith Houston helpfully provides a layout for duodecimo in The Book. His version displays both sides of the sheet shown side by side. The watermark he’s added shows this, as does following the page numbers.

To make your duodecimo book, you’d print up your 24 page sheet (12 to view), cut away the eight pages at the foot, inserting them after folding into the middle of the remaining 16-page section to give you the full 24-page section.

Once upon a time these terms defined trim sizes. You’d combine the name of the sheet size with the number of folds/leaves, to come up with names like Royal octavo, Crown quarto, Demy octavo. Nowadays we’ve thrown in the towel and resorted to inches or millimeters. So although a duodecimo implied a small, narrow book, just how small it would be would depend on the sheet you started with. A Royal duodecimo would end up as a 4⅞” x 8⅛” book while a Crown duodecimo would trim down to 3⅝” x  6⅜”. Actually I don’t think Royal or Crown sheets were much used for duodecimo — think of them as being here merely as examples.

Photo: Slow Industries

Here is a book where format matches content. Picking up on Melville’s whale classification, this duodecimo volume examines the Duodecimo Whales. The publishers, Slow Industries also have larger volumes covering the Folio Whales and the Octavo Whales.


The first thing that struck me about Keith Houston’s The Book (W. W. Norton, 2016, $29.95) was the deconstructed binding. It’s like a three-piece binding without the sides. The only bit of cloth is the red spine. The bare binders board is exposed front and back, teaching by showing how a book’s case is constructed. I don’t think you can make it out in this photo, but the only thing on the back board which isn’t printed black on the raw board is the barcode. In order that the barcode should be scannable (i.e. have sufficient definition and clarity) they have had to print it on a white label and stick it (very straight and accurately) onto the board. It’s wonderful what these Chinese book manufacturers can (still) do.

You can see the braces down the side of the copy identifying the different elements. This technique (again, teaching by showing) continues inside the book, as can be seen from this photo of page 1.

Every Chinese schoolchild can (allegedly) tell you that Cai Lun invented paper, and Mr Houston tells the story, with narrative aplomb. Mark Kurlansky doesn’t beat about that bush “Cai Lun did not invent paper” he states in his Prologue: after his account Mr Houston also reveals to us that records exist of paper being made in China long before Cai Lun’s time, but his story is the one that sticks in the mind.

Mr Houston is a reliable and entertaining narrator. I think it’s fair to say that in his 26 pages about paper making you will develop a better understanding of the procedure than you’d garner from the entire 336-page volume Paper by Mr Kurlansky.

The focus of the book is historical. We learn about the development of writing systems, the making of papyrus, the growing popularity of parchment and paper, the work of scribes, all the major figures in book history, plus how what we now expect in a book and its format came to evolve. It’s not that you won’t develop an understanding of today’s book manufacturing industry — you’ll just pick it up as it were along the way. And the author does end the book with a very detailed colophon telling us all about this particular book’s manufacture, in China where we seem to have to go nowadays to get anything done in the old-fashioned ways at an affordable price.

The book is generously annotated. There are 62 pages of endnotes, and a sprinkling of footnotes. There isn’t a complete bibliography; rather a 3-page list of Further Reading, which is I guess OK. You can dig anything special out of the endnotes. Many color illustrations are spread throughout, printed on the cream text stock: some of these are a bit flat and murky though.

This is a very good book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot.

Mr Houston, who is the man behind the Shady Characters blog, will be giving a talk on book history at The British Library on 3 July. I bet it’ll be worth the ten quid.


The trouble with music setting is that there is so much going on simultaneously. You have to have your staff lines, then on top of that you have bar lines, notes, time signatures, clefs, slurs accents and so on, with text below if it’s a song. If it has a base line and a treble line, or it’s an orchestral piece, with multiple parts, everything has to be in vertical alignment. In hot metal type, putting a note on top of five horizontal rules was an impossibility: the two elements had to be at the same level so that they’d both print. You can imagine having little bits of type showing a crotchet on or between the five lines of the staff I guess, but this would lead to some pretty intricate work. That it was done can be seen from this photograph of a relatively straight-forward job from

From the Museum of Turnhout

Prohibitively intricate; which is why the manual process of engraving, shown in the video below, lasted until computer setting was sophisticated enough to take over. Apparently early printers would operate with paper carrying preprinted rulings, but this obviously demanded a precise control of registration, always difficult but especially so when the paper has to be dampened before printing. They might alternatively rule in the staves after printing, which again would demand some pretty tight control. Engraving into metal plates, initially copper, was first used for music in 1581.

The Munich music publisher G. Henle Verlag’s website shows a couple of videos of the music engraving process. I think this one is the clearer of them, but if you visit their site you can enjoy a demonstration by their charming operative, Hans Kühner. The manual process, beating notation into soft lead plates using punches and a hammer, continued in operation till the 1990s, by which time an adequate computerized replacement had been developed.

(If you get this post via email, and don’t see a video at this point and at the bottom of the post, please click on the heading of the post to view it in your browser.)

You can see that printing would be via the intaglio process: ink collects in the grooves punched into the plate, and is then transferred to the paper. This of course dictates that the engraver work in reverse images.

Printing music was always a demanding branch of the business. The size of sheet music (conventionally 9″ x 12″) is slightly larger than most presses are built to accommodate economically and the scores need to be bound so that they remain open without attention. Thus the work tended to be done by specialist printers, of whom there remain fewer and fewer. What about an e-reader now that we have crossed the computer barrier in creating scores? Well, of course they are all too small too. Here’s a solution: The Digital Reader sends a note about the Gvido Dual-Screen Music Reader. The Gvido website provides the following lyrical video, showing the device in operation.

Here’s another video. The first half of the almost seven minute film is given over to inking the type and the second half to pulling two impressions to print one side of a two-page spread. You can see how dreams of automation would have played in the minds of workers who’d have had plenty of time to think of relief.

See also Gutenberg Fry-up.

This style of binding is characterized by “a continuous interlaced ribbon, bounded by a double line on one side and a single on the other, [which] divides the whole surface on both covers into symmetrical compartments of varying shapes and sizes; the central compartment is most important and may be empty; the other compartments are generally filled with gilt tooling, the ornament often including naturalistic leafy branches”. Thus A. R. A. Hobson, quoted in John Carter’s ABC for book collectors.

The lavish style was developed in Paris in the 16th century. Paradoxically its name, (in French, à la fanfare) derives from a book bound long after the popularity of the style had declined. Joseph Thouvenin revived the style in 1829 for a binding of Les fanfares et corvées abbadesques des Roule-Bontemps de la Haute et Basse Coquaine et dépendances. The book, described in the preface to an 1863 reprint as “a singular book, indeed one of the most bizarre you’ll ever see” was first printed in Chambéry in 1613. It is written in the local dialect by an author identified only as I. P. A. For those who wish to follow me down the rabbit hole, the book can be found at Google Books.

This classificatory fineness seems rather excessively detailed, but what after all are bibliophiles meant to do; they are dealing with a closed corpus, and thus can’t really be blamed for making ever finer distinctions so that they have things to talk about! One might, with a modern aesthetic, regard the fanfare binding style as rather excessively detailed too.