Archives for category: Book manufacturing

There’s trooble at t’ mill.* This Publishers Weekly piece Big Trouble in Ink Production warns us of scarcity added on top of price increases in ink. Green-ness and tariffi-ness are impacting supplies of materials from China. First it’s paper, then press capacity, now ink too! We manufacturing people are having to work for our supper.

Just because it’s so nice, let me refer you to this video on making ink.


* Allegedly this is what they’d say in South Yorkshire during the industrial revolution.† As I went to school in Yorkshire this was a catchphrase we often repeated to one another. Hey, we were kids. One Sunday morning on our way to chapel we saw that there was indeed trouble at the mill. Rawthey Mill, about half a mile away across the fields was indubitably on fire. Well, what’s a red-blooded schoolboy to do: one’s duty to God by turning up at chapel, or off to fire-fighting duty? Are you joking? Es war getan fast eh’ gedacht as Goethe puts it, and off we raced to save the day. The fire was in the mill proper, but our efforts focussed on the adjoining residence which, although not burning, was certainly at risk. We emptied it in a trice, taking everything outside and placing it all at a safe distance away in the open field neatly situated between the cow pats. I can remember crouching on hands and knees under the grand piano along with Balls Ballingall and straining upward while our coadjutants unscrewed the legs so we could get the thing out into the field too. We probably didn’t need to take up the fitted carpets, and we certainly didn’t need to rip the sconce lights out of the wall, but we were on a roll. Soon there was nothing left indoors to remove except the wallpaper on the walls — and we considered it! By this time the fire brigade had got the mill fire under control — so it now being lunch time we left everything in the field and went back to eat.

I was surprised when the owner expressed his intense gratitude to us eager fire-fighter boys, and presented the school with a clock which now hangs on the front of the Busk Holme rugby pavilion. I never did find out how long it took to put everything back, or who did it. Luckily it was a beautiful day.


† Not so fast. The origin of this phrase is cloudy. It certainly didn’t originate with Monty Python’s Flying Circus as many speculate, since John Cleese et al were also schoolboys at the time of the Rawthey Mill fire, but it may not go back that much farther. My muscular fire-fighting took place in the late nineteen fifties. The earliest quote the Oxford English Dictionary comes up with is merely 1967, where they have it being used in John Winton’s H. M. S. Leviathan. Mr Winton’s (Lieutenant Commander John Pratt, actually) books appear to be out of print: they include the straightforwardly entitled We Joined the Navy. There are lots of them: 14 fiction and 29 non-fiction. He obviously made good use of the long watches at sea.

The expression “There’s trooble at t’ mill” shouts music hall to me, but I cannot find that anyone has made a record of the line. If you know, please tell the Oxford English Dictionary folks at this link.


Double fan binding is a tweak on perfect binding. Rather than just having glue applied to the roughened edges of the book block, the loose pages are fanned one way and glue is applied, then they are fanned the other way and glue applied again. Thus the glue’s adhesion surface is not just the milled* spine, it’s the spine plus a tiny bit of the face of every page in the volume. With modern efficient adhesives this is pretty strong.

Here’s a promotional video showing how it’s done. If you look for double fan binding on YouTube you’ll find hand binders doing the job manually.

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

Ultra fan or Ultra bind are the names by which this method tends to travel in the book business. Originally the UltraBind machine was designed for library repair work — in the video you can see books of different thicknesses and trim sizes going through one after the other. That they are destined for case binding is shown by the insertion of endpapers at the start. The system will of course work equally well for paperbacks, though it’s only recently that libraries have started holding them, and they probably don’t often judge it worth the money to rebind them.

In the dim and distant library repair was an exclusively hand-craft job. Loose stitching would be removed and replaced by new tighter sewing picking up the same thread holes as in the original binding. Such skills now cost too much and libraries have accepted that they have to get their books rebound without sewing. This means the cutting and grinding off of the spine fold, resulting in tighter gutter margins: this no doubt hastens the next visit of the book to the library repair binder as readers strive to crack open the spine. (Readers: please never do this to a book. Your job is to read it, not to test its endurance to pain.)

The machine can be used for short runs of new books, and is the basis of publishers’ ability to keep old books in print for ever via the magic of print-on-demand.

You can get to other entries in this binding styles series via the Index which can be reached via the tab at the top of the page.


* Milling just means grinding off the edge of the pages to roughen them so that the fibers in the paper are raised and can bond more strongly to the glue. The bond is further enhanced by notching the spine.

Will the new tariffs on Chinese goods be implemented or not? Despite our President’s repeated assertion that Americans are not paying the cost of the tariffs he’s imposed thus far, it turns out that he thinks it right to delay the implementation of much of his new round till after the Christmas season, because he doesn’t want to increase the cost of the holiday for the very people he’s always telling us don’t pay this cost. “We’re doing this for Christmas season, just in case some of the tariffs would have an impact on U.S. customers”.

Bibles and other religious books are omitted from the tariff list altogether. No doubt we can thank the “base” for this exemption. Along with iPhones certain categories of book — children’s picture, drawing and coloring books — as Publishers Weekly tells us, will not be subject to tariffs till 15 December. However all other books printed in China, including trade, education, and professional titles, are still subject to the 10% tariffs which are scheduled to take effect on 1 September. Of course, as in so many instances, the President may change his mind yet again! Stock markets around the world have become accustomed to bouncing up and down again in response to yet another volatile White House tweet. In the meantime should we look for publishers to emphasize the religious aspect of their novels and argue that they are really religious books? Much more likely, because of the rather short lead-time in book printing, orders will just be placed elsewhere. Chinese book manufacturers may be able to reduce their prices to counter this move, but when all’s said and done, where you print your book is a straightforward economic decision. This will of course only worsen the capacity crunch in the US book manufacturing industry. Look for delays.

See also Tariffs.

John Conley ruminates at Book Business Magazine on the changes occurring under our eyes in the book manufacturing industry. Not sure I’m entirely comfortable with calling that “the book value chain”, but there’s no pressure on me to sound like I’m up-to-date and tuned in.

Consolidation continues — though we should note that LSI and Quad Graphics have just agreed to stop their merger, mainly I guess because of government objections. Book Business Magazine has this story too. A small dip in print sales for books can’t really have anything to do with it, though The Bookseller‘s article is linked to in the same issue of the magazine.

So we just won’t be quite as consolidated as we might have been, though there are undoubtedly fewer book manufacturers out there. Publishers are now looking at forging ever closer relationships with their suppliers, rather than playing one off against the other as we used cavalierly to do. It’s also a matter of concern that book papers continue to be in short supply. If paper mills can really make more money manufacturing other grades that’s of course what they should do. Nobody’s in business to save the book.

There does seem to be no doubt that as far as book manufacturing’s concerned, the education market (schoolbooks and college textbooks) is withering away. This should help other publishing companies who have been used to planning around the capacity crunch occasioned at printers by the approach of back-to-school, and will now perhaps find press time more available.

Mr Conley lists five strategic threats to the book business which he claims are not being addressed:

  1. changes in retail distribution
  2. paper shortages
  3. clunky distribution (from the bindery to the publisher)
  4. shortages of skilled labor
  5. the fact that book manufacturing is not located where the population is.

While I can’t disagree with Mr Conley’s analysis, my divergence from this sort of plaint is that I don’t think strategic changes in direction in any given business usually come about because people working in the business plan for the change. Change happens more randomly, and managers tend only to be able to react to what just happened rather than to make preemptory moves. And this is fine, because by and large we are pretty smart, and can react to events in fairly smart ways. If we do make huge bets on future outcomes we run the risk of being wrong just as often as we are right. Building these levees in New Orleans looked like a really smart idea in the early 20th century. As long as people want books we’ll find ways to make them. For the immediate future print-on-demand seems to me to provide a survival bolt hole. Now of course for those who say that POD books are not good enough for them, there’s the option of small press letterpress printing, and hand binding. And paper can of course be made by hand. Just needs people willing to pay the price.

Shelf Awareness of June 28, 2019 included a column by Robert Gray under this title, now archived at his site, Fresh Eyes Now.

Mr Gray has been reading H. A. Pavey’s 1905 piece from the Chicago Daily Tribune exploring the question “Why Novel is a Success” [sic].

Mr Pavey basically ascribes the fog of uncertainty surrounding this question to the illogicality of women who make up the majority of buyers of novels! (He was writing in 1905.) He goes on, quietly changing to the masculine pronoun, describing a reader going into a bookshop and picking up a novel:  “Instinctively he opens it at the first touch. Type and paper will be expected to make the first appeal in the physical makeup. An attractive frontispiece and title page will be convincing, as will possibly well done illustrations. Then the scrutiny of the cover will follow.” This is all very flattering to those of us who have toiled on the physical side of the book business, but unfortunately it isn’t enough to seal Mr Pavey’s deal. “In the meantime the salesmanship of the salesman will be called upon as it so seldom is at the average department store’s general counters. For any book that is in demand, the salesman will have had his own brief lesson. He will have read the reviews of the book as far as possible; he will have run through it himself perhaps as closely as does the average reviewer; he has at his tongue’s end a striking situation or two of the situations needed to have made the work talked about and favorably reviewed.”

However Mr Gray concludes, along with Mr Pavey, that the reason for buying a book is different in each instance, and impossible to discover. “So, what’s the magic key to discovering why readers buy particular novels? . . . there is none.” If only we did know why people buy books we’d be in a much easier business: we could promote the books directly to the people who we know want them, and as a result we’d be able to judge ahead of time how many copies we ought to print in order to fulfill demand. (Certain types of academic publishing already approach this condition.)

Ultimately the ability to fulfill exact demand by print-on-demand will bring us close to this situation. This doesn’t mean that we’ll do it though. The temptation to get a lower unit cost of production (to increase your profit margin at a given retail price) will make publishers continue to gamble by filling warehouses with speculative stock. The best we can anticipate, at least until the book manufacturing industry withers away, is that we’ll use POD to fill the inventory needs of that famous long tail — the last few copies which dribble out over the years when the book has substantially been forgotten. Being able to fill demand exactly won’t, of course, tell us why this or that novel is a success, but as long as we can sell as many copies as possible publishers will perhaps not be altogether concerned with retail customer motives.

We always referred to creases introduced in folding signatures as gussets. We even used it as a verb — gusseting. I cannot find dictionary confirmation of this meaning for the word. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that a gusset is a sewing term (originating from some joint in a suit of chain mail) meaning a triangular bit of material spanning an awkward joint. Charmingly they reference “the scent of gusset” as underarm odor.

Gussets in your sigs were not an everyday occurrence. This is because they’d turn up in multi-fold situations, and 64-page signatures were pretty unusual in book work because folding a sheet of paper that often was quite hard as the thickness would bulk up. Accordingly they were found mainly in bibles, which were printed on light-weight paper. Here’s an example.

These gussets would normally show up in the inner margin, usually at the top of the page because the books were normally imposed so that that was where the closed folds would all be located. The problem was that air would be trapped in there, and prevent the pages lying perfectly straight on top of one another. Lighter-weight papers would not be heavy enough to overcome the air-lock. When the bolts were chopped off in the binding process the air would be released but evidence of the creases that had already been created by pressure in forwarding would remain.

This second case, from a book printed in 1931 by H. Wolff on a heavier stock (a 45# or 50# smooth offset sheet) probably results from some other cause like some maladjustment on press or in the folding process so that a tiny fold was introduced into the whole sheet. You can tell the crease arrived after the impression — the type is compressed at the edges as it turns over into the tiny fold. In other words if you opened out the fold you’d find ink on the inner surface.

You may also occasionally find evidence of a crease which was put into the paper before it went through the impression cylinder: here the type will be broken in two parts when you pull the crease apart. This is more frequently found in magazine and newspaper printing than in bookwork: mainly because the presses are run so much faster. These blank strips result from a maladjustment of the paper-handling rollers at the start of the press. The image is printed over the top of the fold, with no ink on the inner sides of the crease.

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.