Archives for category: Paper

Printing Impressions reports “The equilibrium between paper demand and supply within the printing industry continues to remain out of balance in North America, with no end in sight. Much of that has been driven by outright mill closures, numerous paper machine shutdowns, and the repurposing of existing mills to produce packaging, board stocks, and other high-value products instead of lower-margin printing grades.”

This much, I think, we all knew. It comes as a surprise therefore that this is the lead-in to a story about the closure of a Canadian paper mill. Who knows what’s going on? We do have to remember that there’s paper and then there’s paper. This mill however, on Vancouver Island in western Canada actually makes packaging grades, the very grades we had thought were in high demand, causing shortages in printing papers. However it does seem that their main market is in China. “Paper markets in China served by the mill have significantly weakened while there have been substantial cost escalations for chemicals, energy, and wood fibre used. . . The intersection of these pressures has materially impacted the financial viability of the paper operation.”

I’m sure they don’t need me to suggest that selling their product on this side of the ocean might have been an option. Shutting down a line is an expensive operation, and dealing with 150 redundancies and the severe blow that’ll have on your local economy is not something you casually drift into. They must have no practical alternatives.

Paper is sold by weight. In the days when most of our printing was done sheetfed, you had to be able to get to a number of pounds from the required number of sheets. This you could calculate in two steps: firstly by working out the number of sheets needed for each copy — if it’s printing 32 to view, i.e. 64 pages per sheet, your 256-page book will require 4 sheets per copy. Multiply that by the number of copies you plan to print, and add a spoilage allowance, which, if you didn’t already know it from experience, was something the printer could be coaxed into giving you, but would always be a “best guess”. With these numbers — Bob’s your uncle — a number of sheets. How much does each sheet weight though? This information is contained in the basis weight designation for the paper: if it’s 50# basis that means that a ream of this paper, if your sheet were to measure 25″ x 38″, would weigh 50 pounds. But of course your book is almost certainly not going to print on a sheet as small as 25″ x 38″ — this is just the standard sheet size used when we talk about book paper basis weight. These sorts of quaint old-fashioned things are there because they were first thought of eons ago. Who talks about reams now? But because it all works nobody’s changed it. (Metrication in Europe has greatly simplified this sort of thing.) So

M weight = Length of sheet x Width of sheet x Basis weight ÷ 950/2.

The number 950 is the product of 25 x 38 (the standard sheet size area). You’re calculating the area of the sheet you need to buy and dividing it by the area of the standard sheet which links you to weight. The 2 comes in because a ream is half of a thousand — 500 sheets. The answer to this equation, the weight of a thousand (M) sheets, is then multiplied by the number of thousands of sheets you need: and now you have it in pounds.

My copy of the Library of America edition of Henry James: Novels 1903-1911 is printed cross-grain. It’s the second printing, and I bet the first printing (like all their other books) is printed right-grain. You can see the effect of this “error” in the cockling of the pages. The book resists being opened, and when it is, it protests by wrinkling its spine.

The book just doesn’t want to open properly, all the way, so that you cannot, as you should be able to, balance it in one hand with the pages fully open. A cross-grained book’ll want to mouse-trap — to flip shut if you don’t break the spine thus forcing it to stay open, though this tends to be more visible in a paperback book on a heavier stock. Not only is the cross-grainedness of the volume shown in these strange opening contortions, but the book as a whole just doesn’t want to shut properly. Thus although the cross-grained book resists opening fully, it also refuses to shut fully.

It is indeed a tortured volume.

So why is it cross-grained, and what does cross-grained mean? In an ideal book universe the grain of the paper will lie parallel to the spine. In a cross-grained book it is at right angles to the spine. The grain of the paper, the direction in which the fibers in the paper are aligned, is easily established if you dare. Just take a page and tear it. Paper will tear in a straight line when you tear in the direction of the grain, whereas your tear will wander all around when you do it the other way, against the grain.*

This tear test isn’t any kind of magic. In a Fourdrinier paper machine the very watery pulp is poured onto a moving wire-mesh belt; the movement of the belt causes the fibers in the slurry to align themselves with least resistance to the motion, i.e. in the direction of travel. Thus the fibers in a roll or sheet of paper will (almost all) lie pointing in one direction. For the same reason as tearing across the grain is harder, so too is folding across the grain. The only fold which remains after the book has been bound and trimmed is the spine fold, and it’s here you’ll detect trouble with grain direction. (In extreme cases you’ll also see a cockle in the forage of the book, a waviness of the pages which you can see when the book is just lying there.)

So why would Library of America have allowed their book to be printed cross-grain? Maybe on their reprint, their quantity being lower, they sought to save a little by using up an oddment — or maybe the printer decided to do that on the qt. In the latter case the publisher may well have screamed when they discovered the problem, and have ended up accepting the run along with a bit of a discount.

When you buy paper in sheets you have to remember to specify long-grain or short-grain, in other words, to indicate whether the grain should be parallel to the length or the breadth of the sheet. With rolls of paper this isn’t a consideration: the grain will always be parallel to the direction of the roll, never across it. Adjustments to the imposition and to the roll width are what’ll be used on a web press to ensure your book is printed right-grain.


* The same phenomenon will be known to any woodworker. Sawing across the grain of a board is much harder work than ripping it along the grain direction.

More than seven million people make their living in the North American paper, printing and mailing industries, so all the talk we’ve heard for the last fifty years about the paperless office might impact the livelihoods of quite a lot of people if anyone ever acted on it.

Printing Impressions brings us a story about Two Sides North America, an industry organization dedicated to countering the plausible-looking but baselesss claims describable as greenwashing — “disinformation disseminated by an organization to present an environmentally responsible public image”. Two Sides’ mission is “to dispel common environmental misconceptions and to inspire and inform businesses and consumers with engaging, factual information about the sustainability, versatility  and attractiveness of print, paper and  paper-based packaging.” (Even the goodies can be described as lobbying organizations.) They say they have persuaded 880 companies to withdraw “Go paperless — Go green” claims. If my mailbox is anything to go by the volume of printed advertising has kept on growing, and looks set to continue to keep the presses rolling.

It looks like a no-brainer to claim that paper is more environmentally damaging than computer storage, but over the years we have managed to think about the environmental costs of electronics manufacturing and of electricity generation itself. Paper making has cleaned up its act and the industry plants more trees than it cuts, but obviously as we move inexorably away from coal-generation of electricity the balance will change. At the end of the day the basic difficulty with the paperless office is that people just haven’t wanted it. Seems to me we’ll all be more at ease with abandoning our physical filing systems now that we’ve been spending more and more time working from home. Does this mean that the office, when we get back to it, will be paperless? Certainly, I bet, less papery. Sorry TSNA.

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.