Archives for category: Paper

Less book paper is being made — capacity reduction in free sheet, represents mainly capacity gain in packaging grades which are easier to make and thus more profitable. (Yet, chaotically, printers have difficulty sourcing cartons too.)

But even if, paper having been made, you can find it and buy it, it’s still hard to find a truck to get it where you might use it. “Last date for change” used to be a consideration: it really no longer really exists — the last date on which you can now change your quantity is the day you place your order, or even before, because you’re probably ordering what your supplier has told you you can have.

These graphics come from the recent New York Book Forum discussion “The Paper Pause”. Matt Baehr of BMI moderates a panel of Dirk Hiler from Lakeside Book, Meg Reid from Hub City Press, Jane Searle from W. W. Norton, and PRH paper buyer David Hammond.

If you don’t see a video here, please click of the title of this post in order to view it in your browser. The video takes a while to get going so you may want to drag along a couple of minutes to miss out of the generic “music” which fills the start.

I’m always a believer in the market’s ability to self correct. If there’s a shortage of x, the price of x will rise till such time as businesses that can provide x will flood the market in order to capture the surplus profit swilling about. That’s no doubt how it works, but it takes years to change direction for a business as capital intensive as paper making. Adding capacity takes time (and money) — as the Mr Baehr tells us “To greenfield a new paper millI today would take five years and $2 billion” so even if someone thought that the book paper market was worth going after, it wouldn’t help for a while. Doubtless truckers will rally to the flag before that as wages rise and the need to get out of the house becomes salient — the American Trucking Association’s chart just seems to me a far from disinterested forecast. But of course prices will rise.

Maybe we will have to be content with a world in which there is only one or two different book papers. A large publishing house today may use a thousand different papers: different shades, different finishes, different ppi counts, different roll sizes and so on. Rationalization and standardization is a-coming: I’ve expatiated before on the silliness of insisting of trim size variations of ⅛” here and ⅛” there. The supply chain will enforce such self-discipline.

And of course it’s not just books. Here is Printing Impressions showing us that the same difficulties face commercial printers where price increases tell the story. In another piece they point out a classic antidote to supply problems: pay your bills on time. How many publishers have failed to pull that arrow out of the quiver? Nobody want to discuss it, but you know that for years publishers who payed their bills late always had difficulty getting decent schedules: why not go further and offer earlier payment as an incentive for better schedules?

Freightwaves assures us that supply chains are never going to return to normal. (Link via Technology • Innovation • Publishing.) Well of course they are right — yesterday’s normal can never be tomorrow’s too; change is constant and unavoidable. They do allow however that with all the labor and logistics problems automation will ultimately ride to the rescue. Can we expect to see goods being whisked along conveyor belts running beside our rail and highways?

Immediately after I had posted about Paper’s take-off here comes news from Patently Apple (via Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing) that Apple has been awarded a patent for a virtual paper. Does this mean ordinary paper’s in for a crash landing?

Not really, though who knows what’ll happen next. The story suggests that the end customer is unlikely to be interacting with virtual paper any time soon — it’ll be something developers use. I can’t begin understand all this, but as Figs. 4C and 4D from the Patent application seem to show, a 3-D image will somehow stand out from the surface of the foldable sheet. They somewhat disingenuously suggest “The patent then goes 10 miles deep into the lighting, rasterized images, spheres, pixel depths that could lose the average reader.” Hey guys, you lost me at about six inches down!

For other non-paper paper see Stone paper.

“In 1391, 2.3 million sheets of paper arrived at the port of London: a page for every person in England. Most of it was probably low-quality brown paper used as a packing material to protect foodstuffs and ceramics as they juddered along cartways into the city. A small amount, some 3,500 sheets, was the ornamental paper used for decorations at feasts and known as papiri depicti (Chaucer refers to elaborate ‘bake-metes and dish-metes . . . peynted and castelled with papir’ in ‘The Parson’s Tale’). The rest – hundreds of thousands of sheets – was writing paper.”

Tom Johnson, in his London Review of Books review of Paper in Medieval England: From Pulp to Fictions by Orietta Da Rold (Cambridge University Press, 2020), continues “Only a hundred years earlier, paper was hardly known in England”. (Link via LitHub.) The point here (well, my point anyway) is that demand for paper skyrocketed long before printing à la Gutenberg got going in the 1450s. One might almost suggest that the revolution in printing was a response to the demand for paper and all the things you could do with paper, rather than the opposite. The other point is that in medieval Britain nobody much saw the need for paper: they had parchment.

Paper had been invented in the second century BCE in China, and by the fourth century CE its use there was widespread. Paul M. Dover informs us in his fascinating The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe (CUP, 2021) “During the late sixth century the civil service of the Sui Dynasty provided one emperor with 300,000 paper copies of an edict condemning an imperial rival”. This far eastern origin was known in Europe when paper arrived there: what was glossed over when it arrived in the West was the fact that it came via the Islamic world where it had importantly been adapted to use rags as its raw material. After the 1258 sack of Baghdad by the Mongols paper making in the Middle East largely shut down, and they began importing paper from Italy. Spain was another early source of European paper. When Toledo was “liberated” by the Christians in 1085 they found a paper mill working away there.

Although parchment held the field in Europe, it was expensive, and this tended to militate against any kind of casual use. In 1471 the Innsbruck imperial court bought 86 sheets of paper for the same price as a single sheet of parchment, and as time went by the price differential got worse. Expensive stuff: fine for the laws of the country — Britain’s parliament only decided to stop writing its laws on parchment in 2016 — but lousy for shopping lists, letters, aide memoires or any other less formal usage. Parchment has also the advantage/disadvantage that it’s easy to scrape off a typo and write in a new word. Ink gets absorbed into the fibers of paper, and thus becomes a more reliable witness to the original condition of things. For legal, financial, business and government documents this was by no means a disadvantage.

The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ushered in a frenzy of note taking, and partly because there was finally something on which you could write a note without sacrificing a lamb. Much of the initiative came from bankers and merchants, who realized that as their business grew so did their personal memory become less and less adequate for the facts they needed to retain. Writing notes, once paper became available, could become an obsession. Herman Weinsberg (1518-97), a Cologne lawyer, became a sort of life blogger avant la lettre: his Gedenkbuch in three volumes was a sort attempt to record everything that happened to him and his family. “In less than eight months, Weinsberg filled more than 700 folio pages with anecdotes from his earlier years; he described his own habit of daily writing as like being a fish in water”. People wrote letters, made memoranda, wrote diaries, drew up accounts, listed topics to be dealt with that day, and did all the sorts of things you can imagine doing with paper yourself. The Chinese had even had toilet paper for at least half a millennium by then.

Parchment’s demise may in the end have been hastened by the development of printing: the inks required to adhere to metal types were less successful in adhering to parchment than they were with paper — and of course paper by then was so much cheaper. 

The website Paper Sizes provides a wealth of information about paper sizes ancient and modern. As they say, before we were blessed with international standards in this area, we used a charmingly antique vocabulary to talk about paper sizes. Before paper making was industrialized, the sizes were determined by the size of the mould and the deckle, and this in turn was limited by the length of the human arm.

First, Uncut Drawing Paper Sizes:

Then Uncut Printing Paper Sizes:

For more in this vein, please see Demy octavo, and Paper sizes.

John James Audubon was born in Haiti on 26 April 1785, illegitimate son of a French sea captain and his chambermaid. His mother having died, his father took him with him back to France where his loyal wife brought up the boy as her own. In 1803, probably to dodge conscription in Napoleon’s army, Jean Jacques shipped out to an estate of his father’s near Philadelphia. He married and set up as a trader in Kentucky, achieving bankruptcy in 1819, whereupon he was put in jail. After his release he made a precarious living as a portrait painter and teacher.

Birds were among the subjects he painted and a small showing of them in Cincinnati in 1820 was well received. Later that year he embarked on a flatboat as a working passenger with his drawing materials, his gun, a flute, the clothes he was wearing, and a letter of recommendation from Henry Clay. Audubon had met Alexander Wilson, author of American Ornithology, and believed he could do better, though he could not but recognize that Wilson knew a lot more about birds than he did. The boat took him to New Orleans which became his headquarters for the next six years. His living was made painting portraits, teaching art, music, dance, and fencing, with help from his wife who joined him in the south fourteen months after his arrival. All the time he was painting birds, and as this picture from one of his notebooks shows, kept studying ornithology.

Some insight into his working methods may be gained by his statement “The many foreshortenings unavoidable in groups like these, have been rendered attainable by means of squares of equal dimensions affixed both on my paper and immediately behind the subjects before me. . . . I have never drawn from a stuffed specimen . . . nature must be seen first alive, and well studied before attempts are made at representing it.” He did in fact end up having to use a few stuffed models or skins only. Working from dead models presented its own problems — he had to work fast before the color of the eyes and feet faded. In the spring of 1821 he had difficulty getting his image of the great white heron to come alive on the paper. “By the time he was finished the bird was putrefying, but braving the nauseating stench, Audubon opened the bird’s carcass to determine the bird’s sex and its eating habits.” Apparently either from hunger or curiosity he ate a large number of the birds he pictured, testifying that “starlings were delicate eating” while flickers he complained tasted too much of the ants they fed upon. Perish the thought, but how would you know what ants taste like?

Overall Audubon worked principally in water color, but he employed other media such as pencil, pastel and ink. Most of his earliest surviving work is in pencil and pastel color. He drew on the largest sheet available, double elephant, 40″ x 30″ and it was at this size that he commissioned reproductions from English engraver Robert Havell Jr. Havell printed the paintings on the same double elephant size sheet — they measure 29½” x 39½” (no doubt they got a little trim on all four sides, though standard sizing was probably a bit more variable back then). Printing, by a combination of aquatint and etching, was of the outlines only: the colors were added by hand. At one time Havell had fifty men and women working on the coloring of the job. The prints were offered for sale loose as folios of prints, and this I suspect is what explains the habit of referring to the paper size as “double elephant folio”. Folio, in the book paper context, implies there was one fold, which would have resulted in book with an untrimmed page size of 20″ x 30″. But of course books containing bound-up selections of Audubon’s prints are twice that size. They must have incorporated the prints by tipping them onto stubs bound in place.

Audubon worked hard at developing the business represented by the selling of prints of his paintings. The creation of The Birds of America is said to have cost $2 million at today’s values, and selling subscriptions was a never-ending process. Apart from business and birding he managed to write enough to fill a 900-page volume in the Library of America’s edition.

Towards the end of his life he was helped by his son John Woodhouse Audubon, to create a smaller format edition of The Birds of America. The art was allegedly copied by his son with the aid of a camera lucida for lithographic reproduction— presumably we are talking here of projecting the images onto litho stones and drawing them there. I may be guilty of inadequate imagination here, but to me this seems to suggest that the images would end up reversed unless they were printed by offset lithography— but allegedly offsetting wasn’t discovered till the early twentieth century. Were mirrors involved? Must be so.

He died in 1851 at his estate overlooking the Hudson, about twenty blocks south of where I sit. He’s buried in the cemetery on his estate’s southern boundary. The area is referred to as Audubon Park Historic District. On the map below it’s located at the end of the label for Hispanic Society Museum and Library. A few blocks further north, on Broadway, can be found the Audubon Ballroom — well its facade and part of the interior anyway — site of Malcolm X’s assassination.

The Audubon Ballroom facade

In 1863 Audubon’s widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, sold to The New-York Historical Society her husband’s preparatory watercolors for The Birds of America (published serially in London between 1827 and 1838). The Society owns all 435 known preparatory watercolors. They also have a double-elephant edition of The Birds of America, as well as the octavo edition and his Ornithological Biography

Northern Manhattan is the center of the Audubon Mural Project, where all round the neighborhood bird paintings have sprung up on public walls and doorways.

And of course, perhaps the most appropriate memorial, The Audubon Society is named after him.

Though he was a shooter, Audubon would be happy that we are now able to look out from his estate and observe almost every day peregrines, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks and bald eagles. These last, I like to think, have been coaxed back to the city by a program a decade or more ago whereby fledglings were raised in Inwood Hill Park at the very northern tip of Manhattan. The idea was that by growing up there they’d be more likely to come back to live (and breed) as adults. Seems to be working, though I don’t think we’ve gotten to breeding yet. I’ve observed a couple eating their lunch on an ice floe floating upstream just below my window. Bald eagle populations have recovered nationwide from close to extinction to about half a million, almost their assumed numbers at the time of the arrival of that scourge, the European.

Audubon’s bald eagle

At a recent webinar, “The Powerful Case for U.S. Book Manufacturing in the Face of Global Supply Chain Challenges, Paper Shortages, and Rising Distribution Costs”, Bill Rojack, VP at Midland Paper warned us that although the paper market has always had cycles, our current supply problems result from something more troubling. “The paper business has been consolidating for years and will continue to consolidate,” and the pandemic had expedited the process. Book paper represents only about 5-7% of the total paper market (including paper for catalogs and magazines), and in spite of an increase in demand by book publishers, overall paper demand has fallen 50% in recent years. In response many mills have switched from printing papers to other products where they can make more money — such as corrugated boxes and other packaging materials. Thus on current trends, it looks like the paper crunch for books is likely to get worse before it gets better. Once plants have invested millions of dollars converting their factories, retooling back to paper is prohibitively expensive. So even if the packaging market does become saturated it will take a long time for demand to rebalance supply. (See Publishers Weekly‘s report.)

Though this may seem like a tail-wagging-dog situation, speakers at the webinar suggested that part of the solution will be for publishers to modify their behavior. How many copies we hoped to sell, how long we were willing to inventory books, considerations of the aesthetic details of paper appearance and quality, preferences for certain “house” trim sizes, the fixation on unit cost — all these will have to give way as we work with our printers to overcome shortages of materials. (Shortages of labor will probably cure themselves before paper picks up). Our future strategy will have to be to manufacture on a sort of programmatic basis, taking in only the “right” number of copies for our printers given the supply conditions applying at the time of ordering — the number of copies they are able print at that time — and allowing them the flexibility to print more copies for us whenever they can fit the job in. This is not an utterly unheard of methodology — we were already operating a small but growing auto-ordering system at Oxford University Press at least a decade ago, and this is merely a logical extension of that. It sort of represents an extension of the publisher’s inventory control department into the book manufacturer’s back office. Working together to fulfill demand will become a much more collaborative activity.

The important thing will be to avoid killing the golden goose. Demand for printed books is robust, and this has exacerbated the effect of paper shortages. It would be mad for publishers not to compromise on paper choice and print scheduling if that were to lead to the public’s abandoning the printed book out of frustration.

Let it be admitted that a world with only ebooks would still be a perfectly decent book world. Ebooks have the potential to be more profitable than printed books anyway, but a majority of the reading public still prefers a paper book. Pity to have their preference blocked off by stubbornness.

The symbol for acid free paper

We rather carelessly talk about acid free paper, when what we really mean is acid neutral paper. Acid free, i.e. totally alkaline, is not an available condition in the manufacture of paper. Acidity is measured on a scale from 0 to 14. Neutrality is marked by a pH* reading of 7. Acid free paper will have a pH reading of 7 or slightly higher. In order to reduce the acidity of the wood pulp the highly acidic lignin and sulfur will have been removed in processing. and some calcium carbonate or magnesium bicarbonate may be added. Paper like this, on which lots of books are printed nowadays, is referred to as permanent paper and is covered by ANSI NISO ISO 9706 which specifies a pH level of at least 7.5. Non-permanent paper, which includes newsprint and groundwood paper, is the stuff that turns brown in sunlight, and left long enough, becomes brittle and breaks down into dust particles. It’s the acid in the paper which makes for this reaction. Permanent papers, are made from wood fiber, thoroughly treated to remove impurities. Archival papers, covered by ISO 11108, are made from cotton, cotton linters, hemp or flax, and may contain only small amounts of fully bleached chemical pulp. Archival papers are often claimed to last for 1,000 years.

Is it odd how freedom clings, erroneously, to papers? Acid free doesn’t mean free of acid, and nor does wood free mean free of wood!


* Casually used to mean acidity, but actually “potential of Hydrogen” (or power of Hydrogen”). The pH scale is used to specify the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution. Acidic solutions (solutions with higher concentrations of hydrogen ions) have lower pH values than basic or alkaline solutions. The scale is logarithmic.

Paul Powlesland sends via Twitter these pictures of an enthusiastic attack on a paperback by some mice.

The book his mice devoured with such gusto was Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. Mr Powlesland’s absence from his cabin evidently lead to a lack of crumbs being dropped on the floor, so what’s a mouse to do? Improvise. Strange, isn’t it though, that the mice seem have just torn out bits of paper, not actually consumed them? Were they looking for the good bits? It looks like the spine may have been a special target, and I guess this means the glue in the binding contained some nourishment, or maybe just tasted good.

The first picture puts me in mind of the discussion in a post of a few years ago, Is this a book? about whether individual pages or words scattered about still can be regarded as a book. If all the words are there do they really have to be in the right order to qualify? And what if some of them are in a mouse or two?

Cf. Taste in books.

Publishing Perspectives reports that the Association of University Presses has signed up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Publishers Compact organized in collaboration with the International Publishers Association. In July, the IPA says, there were 100 signatories. Now at one swoop* another 150 publishers have been sort of signed up.

This is no trivial undertaking. The ten commitments you take on are:

  • Committing to the Sustainable Development Goals† (SDGs): Stating sustainability policies and targets on the signatory’s site, including adherence to this compact; incorporating SDGs and their targets as appropriate
  • Actively promoting and acquiring content that advocates for themes represented by the SDGs, such as equality, sustainability, justice, and safeguarding and strengthening the environment
  • Annually reporting on progress toward achieving SDGs, sharing data and contributing to benchmarking activities, helping to share best practices and identify gaps that still need to be addressed
  • Nominating a person [in the signatory company] who will promote SDG progress, acting as a point of contact and coordinating the SDG themes throughout the organization
  • Raising awareness and promoting the SDGs among staffers to increase awareness of SDG-related policies and goals and encouraging projects that will help achieve the SDGs by 2030
  • Raising awareness and promoting the SDGs among suppliers, to advocate for SDGs and to collaborate on areas that need innovative actions and solutions
  • Becoming an advocate to customers and stakeholders by promoting and actively communicating about the SDG agenda through marketing, sites online, promotions and projects
  • Collaborating across cities, countries, and continents with other signatories and organizations to develop, localize, and scale projects that will advance progress on the SDGs individually or through [the company’s]
  • Dedicating budget and other resources toward accelerating progress for SDG-dedicated projects and promoting SDG principles
  • Taking action on at least one SDG goal—either as an individual publisher or through your national publishing association—and sharing progress annually.

I suppose we’d expect those liberal publishers to do what they can for environmental conservation — this is especially true because the industry’s impact on the situation is pretty minor. We’re not a major source of any kind of gas — our hot air is usually locked in solid form— so the sacrifice isn’t immense. No doubt it is possible to buy paper from non-sustainable sources, but nowadays almost all books are printed on papers which are made by companies which plant more trees than they harvest, as well as containing significant amounts of recycled pulp. You’ll find the Forest Stewardship Council logo and the recycling logo on the imprints page of many books.


* I’m a bit fed up with the cliché “at one fell swoop”. Macbeth‘s Macduff has a lot to answer for, though in his usage “All my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop” he does have the virtue of living consistently in the hawking metaphor. The swoop is of course the hawk’s dive onto its prey, and “fell” just means deadly. But this must now be the only context in which we find “fell” used as an adjective, though The Oxford English Dictionary does give us a rather arch example from 2011 in The New York Review of Books.

† Information about the seventeen SDGs —sustainable development goals, labelled below — may be found here.

We all know papyrus — it’s in the Bible isn’t it? It’s a sort of paper used by ancient Egyptians, isn’t it? But we are probably all a little vague about what it actually is.

Well it’s made from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus. Slice it thin, soak it, then lay out a double layer of strips at right angles to each other, press the resultant web to dry it, and there you have it, a sheet you can write on.

Open Culture, via Shelf Awareness for Readers, sends us this charming video story about papyrus. It takes you through all the steps of papyrus making and goes on to give a bit of history as well as a look at current (tourist-driven) demand.

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

I discover I already wrote about papyrus four years ago: Papyrus, with a different video.