Archives for category: Book manufacturing

Once upon a time there was a Doubleday Bookstore on Fifth Avenue. There was another store further down which changed from Scribner’s to Rizzoli. These were bookstores, owned by publishing companies, which would sell books from any publisher, but presumably they’d have extra quick access to books published by their publishing wing. More specialized are the shops maintained by some university presses which sell books from their own press only.

(Thanks to Jeremy Mynott for the picture.)

For many years Oxford University Press maintained a bookshop in Oxford — and now it’s gone. When I worked in Cambridge, Cambridge University Press didn’t have a bookshop*, but now they do — and they show every sign of keeping going, and of doing pretty well. Why can CUP but not OUP support a bookshop? Both locations are “downtown” and rents one might expect to be similarly high. Perhaps it’s no more than a timing thing: maybe OUP’s lease came up for renewal at a particularly bad moment.

Mr Dean calls in his letter shown above for an explanation from the Delegates, the committee of academics who manage OUP on behalf of the university (members of the corresponding group in Cambridge are more charmingly called Syndics — members of the Press Syndicate). I’m not sure Mr Dean should be holding his breath: explanation is unlikely to be forthcoming. Business decisions get made for lots of reasons, but one has to assume an element at least of “the cost of the operation is no longer worth the return”. To what extent is this retreat liable to have an adverse public relations effect? In so far as you believe Oxford University Press should aggressively support “the book” — and I sort of think they should — this will seem like a bad idea. Regular customers may miss it, but how many others will regard having to go to Blackwell’s as a serious inconvenience?

This may not be directly related to the recent decision by Oxford University Press to declare itself desirous of being seen as a digital company rather than as an old-fashioned book publisher, but it would at least seem to be a decision from the same drawer as their logo change.

But of course there is a longer-term trend here with the book business becoming less and less vertically integrated as time goes by. Originally a publishing office was effectively nothing other than the front room of a print works, which also acted as a retail bookstore. It took till the nineteenth century for “publishing” to become a business distinct from printing. Gradually of course we got to a place where there were book manufacturers, and book publishers, and booksellers, and literary agents, and we have become used to regarding these as separate distinct businesses. Of course this was never as clear-cut a picture as we like to think.

Who recognizes the name Wolvercote? The paper mill in Wolvercote, a village north of Oxford, had supplied paper to Oxford University Press from 1672 onward when the Delegates bought it in 1772. The benefits of OUP’s owning a paper mill never outweighed the costs and ultimately the mill was sold in the 1970s. Wolvercote’s fortunes did not improve after the sale and production ceased in 1997. Oxford stopped printing their own books in 1989, and just shut down the last vestiges of their printing services this year. Cambridge never had a paper mill and didn’t get out of the book manufacturing business till the last few years.

Lots of other university presses had their own printing departments. I suspect none now do. Here’s an old picture of Princeton’s composing room.

Now of course we should not overlook the fact that the largest trade publisher in the world is owned by a printing company. Bertelsmann is big in printing and in book clubs. Of course nobody would claim that Penguin Random House “owns their own printing house” — here the ownership is in the opposite direction. The temptation needs to be resisted to over-compartmentalize things. We know, don’t we, that bookshops can publish books, libraries can publish books, authors can publish books, magazines can publish books (e.g. Reader’s Digest), printers (and here’s another link) can publish books, and we know that several printers set up book clubs which would efficiently utilize their machinery? Dover Books is a striking example of a printer-owned publishing company, having been acquired many years ago by Murray Printing Company, now part of LSC.

Publishing is not a very difficult business to get into: we can all do anything, so don’t be surprised when we do. But allow publishers to do a little book manufacturing and book retailing too.


* For many years, when I first started in the business, there was a stated reluctance on the part of publishers to by-pass the retail bookstore business and sell direct to the public. This was part of the settlement represented by the Net Book Agreement. We used to sell university publications (exam papers, The University Reporter, Statutes and Ordinances etc.) in our Euston Road office, but would resolutely refuse to sell any books, directing customers to Dillon’s, the nearest bookshop. The Agreement is gone, and gradually so too is evaporating that direct-sales reluctance.

Photo Stephen Bond

Cambridge University Press (Printing Division) would produce a gift volume for presentation to important people each year at Christmas. I guess I should feel grateful that for a single year I was important enough to get one, but it was just for the one year, the year in which it all came to an end. No doubt the gift list was extra-wide in 1974 for the valedictory survey volume A Printer’s Christmas Books.

Perhaps it’s surprising that the Press never kept a full set themselves, though this is not too surprising if you devote a couple of minutes of thought to just what you’d do when you get a book for Christmas — returning it to the publisher after a couple of years is certainly not high on the list of options. And if you’ve got a couple of them lying around the office when you retire, where do you think they are going to end up? However, the Press has now managed to accumulate a full sequence of their own Christmas books, which runs from 1930 to 1973.

The BBC has the story, along with several pictures. (Link thanks to Jeremy.)

R. R. Donnelley did the same thing. Their series is named Lakeside Classics, and started publication in 1903. It still continues.

There’s an exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York City of elaborate leather bindings from The Jayne Wrightsman Collection. Here’s a video trailer:

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

Here’s a more technical video demonstrating some of the techniques used by these craftsmen.

Ms Wrightsman (1919-2019) indulged her taste by turning her New York apartment into a sort of Versailles annex. She described the process as “Marie-Antoinette-ing it up”. To me the whole conception is a bit rebarbative: the idea of living surrounded by objects too valuable to use, objects which had been handled by Madame de Maintenon et alia, is upsetting to the egalitarian spirit. There are photos of the Wrightsman apartment showing elegant tables covered by leather-bound books which must have required a team of dust-removal technicians, as well as book binders, to care for them. Maybe you get used to this sort of life, as presumably the original royal owners did, and become able just to treat these works of art as straight-forward reading matter which you are allowed to pick up and open.

At the Morgan the books are all encased in protective perspex boxes, and the whole thing suffers from the usual problem afflicting bibliographic display: you either show the cover, or you prop the book open at one spread, and that’s that. Books are made for page turning, but you can’t allow exhibition visitors to get loose on such valuable objects. The Morgan attempts to get past this problem with its displayed Gutenberg Bible, showing a different opening every time you visit.

The book which most struck me was the one shown above. No dimensions are given, but it’s probably 3½” x 4½” or thereabouts. The exhibition label describes it as “Étrennes mignonnes curieuses et utiles, 1786. Painted white morocco, with red leather onlay, gilt plaque border, and foil and paper under mica”. It comes from the Morgan’s own collection having been bough by Mr Morgan in 1906. Perhaps because it’s so small it doesn’t seem as overwhelming as many of the other volumes, and shines out like a little jewel.

A puzzlement to me is that central painting, protected by mica. Why, with something so elaborately bound, would you allow such a slap-dash label, “à Minorque“? No explanation is forthcoming in the exhibition labelling but it would almost seem that the painting, presumably an illustration to the text, had been done by a royal infant, and included for sentimental reasons. These however can’t have included a necessity of misaligning it — they surely didn’t sail downhill to Minorca.

The Wrightsman exhibition will remain open till 30 January.

How best to print your book?

Jane Friedman’s blog has a guest post by the marketing director of Gorham’s Printing setting out the pros and cons of PoD, offset and digital printing. The post is substantially designed as a clarifier for self publishers — if only because production employees in a publishing house will almost never be asked to (allowed to) make such a fundamental determination.

Of course, for book publishers, having such thoughts is a bit of a luxury in today’s market. Who cares what printing technology is used — we just want to get the books. I’ve heard of one book manufacturer who has announced they can accept no more orders for hardback books for delivery before the end of next year, 2022. I don’t know any details, but it could just be down to staffing problems leading them to put such bindery workers as they have onto the (less labor demanding) paperback lines. Clearly they don’t expect the labor market to improve quickly. Staff shortages, paper shortages — shortages of everything except for orders! Prices look like they’ll be going up by about 10% for next year. Look for price increases at the retail end too.

rrhersh asks in a comment on yesterday’s post, Tok-iTalk, “What does it cost to reprint a book from the days before the text was a computer file? In a fantasy world where the cost was zero, it would indeed make sense to reprint everything. In the real world, it depends on what is that cost.”

Well, let’s first get the idea of “reprinting” clarified. There are two elements in the cost of reprinting a book: firstly, the cost of paper, printing and binding — the running costs, the total of which will depend on how many copies you print, and, secondly, the cost of setting the book up — all the costs you incur before you get to press: this will be a single number unchanged by the number of books printed. In the olden days when books were all printed by letterpress there was only one way to reprint an old book: find a copy of the book and reset it — i.e. start all over again. Fiendishly expensive; and because “origination” was so expensive you’d be “forced” into printing a lot of copies to amortize your setup costs, which meant you could only reprint the surest of sure things. Then we developed offset lithography, where you only needed to find a couple of copies of the book, strip them up into mechanicals and send them to the printer who’d photograph the boards and use the resultant negatives to make up flats, make plates and print the book. Quite expensive, and still necessitating pretty long runs, but often doable. Then we developed the technology for the printer to receive a computer file: less expensive, but still no bargain. And finally we got to print-on-demand where you could take that computer file and set it up to print as few as one copy: pretty cheap to set up, but relatively expensive for every copy printed.

Pretty cheap to set up means cheap compared to previous methods. I don’t have access to today’s costs (and have managed pretty much to forget those from a decade ago!) but to scan a book to convert it into a PDF (a flat file, a picture not a letter-by-letter translation) and then to have the printer set it up in their system ready to print might cost a couple of hundred dollars. The typesetting files from books dating from the early days of computer-aided composition were often hopelessly garbled, if indeed they survived at all. So usually you’d have to have a copy of the book, and this was often a bit of a problem. I used quite often to go to Amazon and buy a second-hand copy of an OUP book so I could set it up for POD. But the books I was dealing with were expensive enough that their retail price could cover such expenditures.

To a university press or an academic publisher the invention of print-on-demand was a god-send. Where else are you likely to find a greater number of books which deserve to remain available? And books which only ever had restricted demand and therefore a high price — just the pattern inherent to POD. For trade houses this is a rather different deal. An example from several years back: a 6-⅛” x 9¼”, 578 page hardback (apart from origination) cost $12.36 to manufacture. But as the book was priced at $99 that was fine: sell two or three copies and you’re ahead of the game. This is maybe two or two-and-a-half times as much as a “regular” offset reprint might cost per copy, but of course such a reprint would involve a commitment to a sale of a number of hundreds of copies, from which need POD releases you.

So why not just take your entire OP list and set it up for POD? University Presses are moving in this direction, but there are issues. You need to get the author’s permission. If the book is out of print and you’ve reverted the rights, you no longer have the right to publish, so you’ll need an agreement from the rights holder, and this may cost you enough to make the whole idea a non-starter. If rights weren’t reverted, then you need to find a book, which may cost you. Scanning a book to create a PDF files costs something, and there is a set up charge at the POD printers. You’ll need to have a person to organize all this, and such persons are usually paid. (Think ebook only, and your costs basically end there — but they are not nothing.)

If you’re an academic publisher such an investment may look worthwhile — you’ve got lots of old books, all of which can carry a decent retail price, and any of which might sell. If you are a general publisher this calculation may look rather different, and will tend to weed out any books which might never sell. The Torquemada Puzzle Book would probably fall victim to such a calculation — note that its recent reprinting was a slightly different deal: not a reprint by Gollancz, but a reissue by Unbound. One might think such a distinction shouldn’t mean anything, but. a reissue gets into the front list promotional budget whereas a reprint wouldn’t. (So big organizations aren’t perfect!)

So unfortunately just reprinting everything is still a question that requires thought and analysis — both of which unfortunately cost time and money — which nobody has.

Printing Impressions brings us the news that R. R. Donnelley & Sons has agreed to a takeover bid from Atlas Holdings of Greenwich, CT. Atlas already owns LSC, so the acquisition holds out the possibility of a sentimental return to the olden days. They also own Finch Paper. So someone is betting that there’s life in publication printing yet.

As an earlier story from the same source sets up, there is the possibility of a tussle over the RRD acquisition. Atlas’ bid comes in at $8.52 per share, and Chatham Management has increased their original bid from $7.50 to $9.50 per share. Thus far the RRD board seems determined to go ahead with the Atlas merger, but who knows what’s next. Consummation of the deal cannot happen before the first half of 2022 anyway.

Photo: Andrew Jameson

Richard Robert Donnelley came down from Canada and in 1864 founded a book printing company named R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company in Chicago. A century later it had become the largest printing company in the world.

I remember visiting Donnelley in Chicago in the mid seventies, but I can’t be sure it was this building or another just like it. I was struck by one huge plant devoted to printing only Readers Digest Condensed Books. Much of RRD’s book work had already migrated to Crawfordsville, Indiana, where everything was on one level, not like this place involving constant trips for skids of sheets, book blocks etc. up and down in massive elevators. Once upon a time, when muscle was cheap, this sort of inconvenience was no inconvenience.

There was a time not all that long ago when the gigantic figure of R. R. Donnelley bestrode the universe (of book manufacturing). Not much striding going on in the second decade of this century. Let’s hope our baby steps continue for many years.

If your old (and valuable) book is so loose it’s almost falling out of its case, then you need to take it apart, resew it and put it into a new set of covers.

This process is referred to as disbind-rebind. Too bad in a way that our language allows us ugly word formations like disbind, though it is quite clear what it means. You can follow step by step the reconstruction of an old and damaged book at The Folger Library via this story at The Collation. The account is so thorough and detailed that at the end you’ll think you could do the job yourself.

On a similar topic: it’s nice just to look at this video recounting the refurbishment (another unfortunate word) of another old volume. This one includes touching up damaged foil stamping and the recreation of a missing first sig.

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 story comes from a LitHub post., and features Sophia Bogle of Save Your Books.

One of the unfortunate consequences of our modern super-efficient book manufacturing processes is that future bibliophiles will not be able to carry out this sort of repair on the books we buy in bookstores today. The logic of manufacturing development spurs us on to the point where replacement becomes more efficient than repair. Who turns collars or even darns socks nowadays? Let’s hope there will be some kind of non-digital replacement copies of our best books available for purchase in 100 years. I expect there will be because as a business becomes more and more efficient, so simultaneously grows up alongside it a sort of craft nostalgia equivalent creating more expensive products done in the old way. Craft beer for example, and of course all the small letterpress print shops around the world.

It’s all a lot more straightforward getting a book ready for the printer than it used to be in the days of analog working. But computers are unforgiving — give them the wrong instruction and they’ll faithfully execute the flawed plan. No more good old compositor Bill glancing at it and seeing there’s something wrong which he can rectify quite simply, at worst by a phone call.

Printing Impressions has an informative article on the commonest errors in files submitted for printing. In order to make out that everything is ship-shape and Bristol fashion the printer will run a test on the files submitted by the publisher. This test is referred to as pre-flighting.

The most frequent pre-flight problems discovered in customer-supplied PDFs are

  • The resolution of images is too low
  • Use of incorrect or unwanted color spaces
  • Bleed is missing
  • Fonts are not embedded in the PDF
  • There are problems with transparency
  • The PDF file contains an incorrect number of spot colors
  • There is an issue with overprint
  • Total ink coverage is too high
  • Incorrect ICC profiles are used
  • The dimensions of the PDF do not match the requested size
  • There are issues with flattened transparency

So take care. Check-lists are always a good idea.

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.