Archives for category: Book manufacturing

In the seventeenth century there evolved a habit of printing a duplicate half-title, printed vertically, as shown in this book from the Folger Library.


The practice is discussed at the Folger bog, The Collation, by Elizabeth DeBold who has checked the Library’s holdings to find example of this oddity. She tabulates the results for ten volumes.

The reasons for including this vertical half-title are not entirely clear. Was it meant for ID during production and intended for deletion during binding, or, as several examples attest, was it intended to be cut out and pasted onto the fore-edge, so that people who liked to shelve their books spine in would be able to identify their books?

The article includes this picture of William Cartwright sitting in front of two shelves of books shelved spine in. Of course this may not have been the intended purpose of the page, just a clever adaptation.

Apparently “vertical half-titles persisted into the nineteenth century (and paper labels meant for the spines of multi-volume works were printed with the books in the eighteenth century, although comparatively few of those survive)”.

John Carter in ABC for book collectors effortlessly nails it “The fillet is a binder’s tool: a revolving wheel with one or more raised strips on its circumference for impressing a line or parallel lines on the leather or other binding material. In the description of books the term is commonly used to mean the line or lines produced by the tool. It is seldom if ever used except of leather binding. Since about 1700 filleting has generally been gilded. A French fillet is a triple fillet, always in gold.”

The cover for Lionel S. Darley’s Faber book shows a couple of fillets on the left.

Now of course most of us, when we think of fillets, which we doubtless pronounce à la française, fillay, may think of fish or steak before we ever arrive at the decoration of bindings. We also have to bear in mind a ribbon used principally as a hair binding, a sort of Alice band. Once upon a time the word could be used to mean a headband on a book. In book printing the word can be used to designate a rule made up of broad lines or broad and narrow lines, often printed as a border. Engineers will probably think of it as a chamfer, a rounded joint between two bits of metal.


If you hire a sharp-elbowed businessman you shouldn’t be too amazed when he uses business tools to attempt to solve his problems. Are you able to add to the cost burden of your competitor? Do it: can’t fail to put you at an advantage. The imposition of tariffs as a substitute for diplomacy is now pretty well established.

Books imported into the USA from China and Mexico will now be subject to import duties. These countries were both at one time looked on as sources of cheap manufacturing by US publishers, though over time the cost advantage has narrowed. The Hong Kong print industry has evolved from what thirty or so years ago was basically a labor-intensive, slightly old-fashioned print business into a slick modern one now with efficiency increases keeping step with rising wages. True you had to wait four weeks or so to get a book across the Pacific but the reduced cost made the deal a good one.

A recent post noted that at a Book Industry Study Group meeting in April it was suggested that publishers deploy international connections to alleviate the capacity problems in the current US book manufacturing industry. Well, that just got a bit harder, didn’t it? There has always been a European option. Italy always had the reputation of printing a handsome book but at a relatively high price. As far as I know France and Germany don’t seem to fish in transatlantic waters. Great Britain has the advantage of speaking the same language as we do. When I was working for British publishers there tended to be a tidal effect under way at almost all times: sometimes books originated here might be printed there, while at other times the opposite effect was under way. The variable was always the £/$ exchange rate. Brexit chaos has surely tipped the price/exchange rate scale in favor of UK manufacturing. Of course, I have no idea what their own capacity problems may look like. Surely there have been plant closures there too.

No tax on knowledge they used to cry, though nowadays in most places sales tax will be added to the price of that book you buy. So why not a tariff too? We’ll all get used to paying more as we wave goodbye to free trade.

We’ve all gotten used to the roller-coaster ride that has been the paper pricing picture over the past few decades. D. Eadward Tree suggests this uppsy-downsy may be over. I wonder.

Pricing marches with the supply/demand cycle. Shutting down a paper-making machine is a big deal, so as owner of a paper machine you will want to delay that decision till the last possible moment. Historically Sod’s law (Murphy’s law to US readers) has usually meant that that moment has tended to coincide with the beginning of the recovery of demand, so that suddenly, just as demand is increasing, supply is dropping. So you turn around and start getting the machine ready to make paper again, which you manage just in time for everyone else to have pulled off the same trick. In other words, as supply peaks, demand plummets, as the next phase of the economic cycle comes around. This isn’t a result of stupidity: it’s an effect of the difficulty of turning on and off your paper-faucet. Taking 14% out of the American coated-freesheet-making capacity by closing a single mill might look like a transformational change, but won’t it just fall into the same pattern after a number of years? There may be a bit more of a lag than before, but after all, if there’s more demand than capacity, surely someone’s ultimately going to be tempted to try to supply it even if being able to charge more for your product may dampen enthusiasm for a while.

It’s undeniable that print runs are coming down, and it’s also true that suppliers’ demand planning has become harder than it used to be because of this ability to print closer to a six-month supply or even less. But it’s individual print numbers we are talking about: not annual gross demand for books, which remains fairly constant even if it’s now achieved by two or three individual printings. If there’s a misfit between print capacity and publishing’s needs, the misfit between that and paper-making capacity is even greater. It’s like publishers want to print books in the hundreds, book manufacturers need to work in the thousands, and paper makers are forced to think in the hundreds of thousands. It’s all a balancing act: matching capacity to demand is an art not a science. Ultimately balance will be achieved; only to be disrupted all over again.

However as book work moves more and more towards digital printing, the “problem” will tend to get less and less “problematic” as papers suited for offset (or even letterpress) printing decline in significance, and the main paper used for books becomes that used for digital print.

This is Shelf Awareness’ report from the 1st of May:

BISG Annual Meeting: Dealing with Paper and Printing Problems

A major focus of the Book Industry Study Group’s annual meeting last Friday in New York City was the paper and printing problems that resulted in booksellers having difficulty reordering many popular titles during the holiday season last year. Those problems were what Janet McCarthy Grimm, v-p of Lindenmeyr Book Publishing Papers, called “a perfect storm,” which included paper shortages, fewer printing and binding machines for books, several company collapses, a shortage of qualified workers, trucking and warehouse shortages, all occurring when the printed book has had a resurgence and some titles were in very high demand.

Although there were improvements in the general situation in the first quarter of the year, there is usually “some seasonal downtick at this time,” Grimm added. “When orders pick up, we could switch back to a situation like last year very, very quickly.”

Grimm (r.) and Baehr

Speaking at the session on State of the Supply Chain: Paper and Printing, Grimm emphasized that part of the problem has its roots in decisions in recent years by paper mills, printers and binders to cut back on book-printing capacity because of the consensus that the book business was going to take a digital path similar to that taken by movies and music. Although this hasn’t happened as predicted, the book-making industry hasn’t adjusted well. As Matt Baehr, executive director of the Book Manufacturers’ Institute, put it, “Those exiting the business are not coming back” and existing companies are not adding enough capacity. “No one is investing millions of dollars” in this area, he said.

In some cases, printers that don’t specialize in books are taking on books as a side business to printing cards, brochures and fliers. Hardcover printing remains the most troublesome area because of the need for perfect binding. And publishers doing digital printing for hardcover books still have to find the right binders.

Baehr noted that the general printing difficulties extend to shipping and warehousing, saying that “the trucking industry is under tremendous pressure.” Shipping continues to grow in volume, and there are many seasonal spikes, such as needing to transport food at harvest time and dealing with bad weather. Like the printing business and most other blue-collar businesses, the trucking industry is also having difficulty finding qualified drivers.

Both Grimm and Baehr emphasized that publishers need to be in steady contact with everyone in the book manufacturing chain and plan ahead as best they can. “Reach out to your manufacturing partners,” Baehr said. “They want to be partners.” Publishers should plan farther ahead than usual, and Grimm emphasized that this is especially true for big projects, and also lessens the stress of inevitable surprise projects.

Baehr noted that publishers who last year had “better luck printing generally were those who supplied their own paper.” He advised publishers to “consider taking their destiny into their own hands” by finding paper sources.

Both printing problems and possible solutions are international, Grimm and Baehr said. Grimm said one way to improve the general situation is “to fill holes in the system with product from offshore.”

The first paragraph does sound a little defensive: those naughty bookstores — buying too many books at Christmas; do they think we’ve got unlimited stocks? But of course it’s not that we want to hold onto our books: it’s that we can’t get them in fast enough. Back when I started in this business there was a wide-spread feeling that having lots of stock on hand did represent an assurance that you’d have something to sell in the coming months and years. Of course that was back when we worked under the technological determinant of letterpress printing, where logic pushed you towards printing once and for all time. Reprinting existed of course, but was a burden, organizational and financial, (when I started out we didn’t employ anyone whose job it was to order reprints, because there were vanishingly few of them). It wasn’t until offset lithography took hold that reprinting became cheap enough to be fully incorporated into publishers’ strategic vision.

Some of our recent capacity problems have something to do with a technological switchover analogous to the letterpress/offset switch which took place in Britain in the nineteen sixties, and over here somewhat earlier. We are in the midst of a move from offset to digital printing, and maybe there’s been an overeagerness to junk offset presses before the digital capacity was in place to take up the slack. This sort of problem is self-healing: it’s just a timing of investment issue. In the same way that the switch from letterpress to offset enabled publishers to reduce the quantities they’d print, so too does digital make it possible to print in smaller quantities than offset permits. That publishers find it desirable to print smaller runs does not have to mean that there’s less demand for books out there — it means publishers are better able to match supply to demand by printing the “right” quantity. And this reduces the cost of unsold or slow-selling inventory and cuts down on wastage. It does however depend on a book manufacturing industry with the capacity to cope. At the moment we seem to be slightly out of balance.

The reason paper comes in the sizes it does is not just tradition or whim. It has to do with √2 and aspect ratios. If you are making a book, when you fold a piece of paper in half you want its aspect ratio, the relationship of height to width, to be the same as it was on the larger sheet, otherwise you end up cutting a lot of paper to waste. √2 is notoriously an irrational number but this doesn’t prevent its being essential to the construction of the apparently super-rational* paper size system, A1, A2, A3 etc, each of which represents a halving of the one before. John Barrow’s Gresham College lecture, The Uses of Irrationality, gives you the mathematics. You can watch it at this link, or download a transcript.

Wikipedia has a pretty exhaustive discussion of the matter.

See also Size, and Cut sizes.


* The picture shows the ISO A series system with the truly irrational US system shown on red.

Richard Charkin, via Publishing Perspectives last September, provided A Very Short History of the New Oxford English Dictionary, in which he describes the revolutionary digitization of the Dictionary in the eighties, a process in which he was intimately involved. It turned out to be a process which transformed the economics of the ancient cost center.

Whether or not a new edition of the OED will ever in fact be printed, we have to admit that the digital version, constantly updated, has become the most important bit of the project. Print sales of the current edition of course continue, but the project as a whole has changed over the last forty years from just-print to print-with-digital, to digital-with-print now. It’s possible it’s en route for a fully digital life style, but down the road a bit I’d bet that hard copies will be available via print-on-demand. However the ease (and constant updating) of the online version makes getting up to consult a large and heavy volume seem unduly cumbersome. Given that we now tend to write everything on our computers, having access in the same space to the greatest dictionary in the world is just overwhelmingly convenient.

As Charkin puts it “There will probably never be a third printed edition, but the online edition is in great health, builds every year, extends our understanding of English, our linguistic and cultural history, and stands as one of the great digital projects of all time.” I’d go further and ask: will there ever be something called a 3rd edition? An online project can evolve continuously, adding new material, correcting errors, updating the old on a daily basis. Thinking of 1st, 2nd, 3rd editions is now quaintly old fashioned: publishers issue a new edition of a book when changes have become sufficient for them to be able to justify printing a fresh, revised book with a realistic belief that their installed base of readers will feel the need to plunk their money down for the new edition. Obviously you can’t have a new edition every week, but in terms of content, with an online constantly updated project you can effectively have one every day on which any change is made to the database. It will be interesting to see if traditionalist opinion demands that there will ever be a moment at which OUP declares: “OK, today’s online recension is actually now going to be called ‘Third Edition'”. Sounds so silly that I bet it never happens.

Clearly the earlier you hook ’em the less likely they are to be able to get the hook out of their mouths. Make students dependent on the OED, and they’ll guarantee your subscription income in years to come. The Bookseller (link via Book Business) tells us that OUP have announced that they’ll be giving free access to UK primary and secondary schools.

See also my earlier post OED which I wrote while still employed by OUP, and at a time (2012) when the 20-volume set was being reprinted. The post contains a description of the manufacturing process for the two-volume, Compact Edition reproducing in miniature the entire 20-volume set.

The New York Times reports on an exhibition of tiny books at the Grolier Club in an article by Sarah Lyall which contains lots of illustrations. I’m afraid that tiny books excite a level of interest in this viewer proportionate to their size. I glanced at some of these books on a recent visit to the Grolier Club, and as usual found it hard to make much of them. So they’re small. Yes . . . Making these little volumes is cunning, detailed work, and at that level quite clever. Insisting on there being printed text inside the tiniest of these miniatures is surely slightly manic. The type is so small you need a magnifying glass.* Books surely are for reading, not for furnishing a doll’s house, or even a doll’s library.

One piece which does catch my eye is a sewing kit made out of a walnut shell, and containing a copy of Valeurs et constance, and almanac from 1823. I guess if you can see to thread a needle, you can probably see to read the almanac. Carting your reading around in a walnut shell certainly makes for light traveling — and easy loss, which is one of my sources of concern on looking at these things. The Times article has a picture of the entire kit. Also included is a picture of a Galileo letter reasoning that the Bible should not be used as the basis for science. Notable is the presence in the picture of a flat sheet as well as a bound book.

The Grolier exhibition closes on 19 May.


* This of course is also true of the compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, but in this case the miniaturization is done to fit 20 large volumes between one set of covers (well, two sets actually), and enables humans, not dollies to consult the dictionary.

“Roger Payne (1738–97) was a book-binder of legendary skill and invention, who can be credited with the introduction of a distinctly neo-classical style of finishing, and a wholly original style of endpapering. He elevated the book-binder’s invoice to the status of a work of art. [One may been seen at Jeff Peachey’s blog, linked to below.] He also enjoys, with Samuel Mearne, the uncomfortable distinction of having more books wrongly attributed to him than any other binder of his time. Any collector, pondering the purchase of a book reported as ‘bound by Payne’, should look to see if there is some more tangible evidence, an invoice, identifiable tools or the characteristic endpapers, or whether the attribution has rather been handed down from some hopeful catalogue description of the 19th century.” (John Carter: ABC for Book Collectors)

A Payne binding from the Folger Library

Wikipedia describes his work thus: “His most significant work was executed either in Russia leather or in straight-grained Morocco, usually of a dark blue, bright red, or olive colour. The end papers were usually purple or some other plain colour.” Payne’s main patrons were Earl Spencer, the Duke of Devonshire, Colonel Thomas Stanley, and Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode, who left to the British Museum 4,500 volumes, valued at £10,000 at the time of his death in 1799.

At his blog Jeff Peachey indulges in a speculative critique of this picture of Roger Payne, who rather looks like he’s about to faint from lack of nourishment.

Portrait of Roger Payne. Source: Recent Antiquarian Acquisitions, The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Payne certainly doesn’t look like he’s eating too well — Mr Peachey speculates that that may be his lunch heating on the fire. Though the artist may portray him as the starving artist, Payne did in fact get paid for his work as is shown by a collection of his invoices preserved at the Morgan Library in New York. However when he died on 20 November 1797, he was buried in the churchyard of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields at the expense of his old friend Thomas Payne.

Mr Peachey points out that for a bookbinder he’s doing odd things to that book, though of course that may be the fault of the artist. Trying to bend the volume by leaning on it when its fore-edge is being held for some odd reason in a clamp is not a prudent move: especially in light of the fact that Payne was notable for his use of thin boards (which never warped).

He looks in much better shape in this statue on the outside of The Victoria and Albert Museum, though the same might not be said for the book he’s holding — maybe it’s the same volume as in the other picture.



Bookbinder Jeff Peachey brings us this image of an End Locking Loose Leaf Sectional Post Binder. It comes from an advert on a blotter. (You can see where the sunlight has yellowed the bit which wan’t buried under papers.) I used to have one of these desk blotters — before the days of Bic pens we had to blot everything we wrote because the only way to write anything was with an ink pen. My blotter was a superior leather version, put out by a bible bindery down in Cornwall. I once made the journey down to visit them, arriving all-a-tremble after some hair-raising driving by my Bible manufacturing colleagues.

A binding like this would live and have its being in an office situation. You’d need a hole puncher to prepare a new sheet for insertion: unscrew the bolt at the top of the post, open the book and insert your new page in the appropriate location. I can’t remember for sure whether or not the large account books I remember from the accounts department in Bentley House in the sixties were bound like this, but I bet the were despite what I wrote in my earlier recollections. There’d be a page for every book in one or more volumes, and every sale would be entered by a clerk perched on a high stool. Clearly the pages would need to have been placed in the book in alphabetical order, otherwise Mr Walmisley would never have been able to find his place when Bill Starling’s assistant arrived to tell him about that trade counter dale of Pericles.