Archives for posts with tag: Book Manufacturing

For the few who may not have seen this already.

You can see the three ways of setting type for letterpress printing: hand setting using the composing stick, Monotype (casting only) and Linotype.

For almost 500 of its 560-year history printing has meant letterpress.  A raised image, the mirror image of a character, is inked and paper is pressed against it transferring the inked image of the character, now right way round, to the paper.  Flat-bed letterpress machines carried a form of type back and forth beneath a roller on which sheets of paper were carried round and pressed against the type, which on the return stroke passed beneath the inking rollers ready for the next impression.  For much of these 500 years letterpress printing was made direct from the metal type from the composing room.  After printing was completed the type would be distributed – broken up and returned to the typesetting department either as individual characters put away for reuse in a hand-setting world, or melted down as metal to be used in the next job.  This meant that reprinting was an expensive proposition, as the type had to be reoriginated.  Metal ‘copies’ of the forms (called stereos) could be made and stored for reprinting, but unless the printer and publisher were sure they were going to reprint, this was a risky investment, and was not done for the majority of books.  Moulds of the type could also be made and stored more cheaply.  From these moulds flexible plates could be made which would be wrapped around the roller of a press enabling the paper to be fed in not as sheets but from rolls.  Web-fed presses, whether letterpress or offset, can operate faster, and the paper they use, as it does not have to be separately sheeted, will cost less pound for pound.

In the last third of the 20th century the Cameron Belt press utilized letterpress technology using a flexible polymer-based plate to print an entire book at one pass, an achievement made possible by a simple mill-wheel like device which collected in order one each of the 4-page sections delivered by the press before turning on to collect another book and to deposit the earlier one into the binding line.  This probably represented the final fling of letterpress, which is now to all intents and purposes restricted to fine/art printing.

For the purist, the decline of letterpress is blow.  However its history was a constant falling away – nobody ever quite managed to match the beauty of Gutenberg’s original Bible, but the effort to do so inspired many a printer.  Running your fingers over a letterpress page and feeling the indentation made by the type somehow makes you feel connected to a long and often noble tradition which still lives on in our everyday lives with words like pica, signature, galley, and the proof-correcting symbols we unthinkingly use.


In the seventies we used to know which imposition scheme the printer was using on all our books.  I can’t remember for sure, but this must have been important for paper purchasing.  If the book was using “Imposition I” you’d need a different sheet size than if it was going to be “Imposition U”.  To understand why we “allowed” the decision on the size of paper to be determined in the composing room goes back to the wildly different relationship of the various parts of our industry to one another in the age of letterpress and now.

Imposition is the arrangement of pages for printing in such a way that when the sheet is folded, the pages will be in the correct order and right way up.  Sounds easy when you say it.

But just take a sheet of letter-sized paper and fold it in half across the short dimension first, then fold it in half  again and again.  Number the pages from the front to the back.  When you open the paper, it will look like this.  Note that the only two pages which appear next to one another are 8 and 9, which are the two pages at the center of this signature.  If you made the first fold on the vertical dimension, you’d come up with a completely different picture.  And this is only a 16-page signature.  By changing the sequence of folds printers could achieve quite different, usable impositions.

Modern printing companies have standardized their manufacturing processes, and more and more folding is done on press.  This means that many of the more exotic imposition schemes have been abandoned.  In a sheet-fed letterpress world the folding department might be larger than the pressroom, and folding represented a significant bottleneck.  When imposing pages you would also be dealing with pages of metal type: not nearly as easy to handle as pages of film or digital pages.  The pages of metal type, each secured with a cord, would be laid out in position on a flat working-surface (the stone).  A metal frame (the chase) would be placed round them, and the pages of type would be wedged against the inner edges of the chase with quoins.  Chase, furniture and quoins were collectively called the forme (form in USA).  This locked-up chase would be (carefully) moved to the press for printing.  Each forme represented all the pages which were to print on one side of one sheet.  This work was done in the composing room, and thus it was they who would decide on the imposition scheme.  Of course they would consult with designer and pressroom, but I bet that the decision was often made on folding department capacity and loading, or even composing room preference.  The publisher would then have to get in paper to fit.

When you were dealing with heavy metal formes, obviously changing anything could be expensive.  The most economical printing job would be one which made an even working (UK) or even forms (USA).  A book with exactly 128 pages will fold down to four 32 page sections with no wasted blank pages.  A book of 132 pages will require you to deal with another section of 4 pages or 4 pages plus 4 blanks.  This would have to be imposed for a different fold, and would be differentially costly, not only in folding but in the pressroom and the bindery too.  When we moved to a world of imposing film negatives, the penalty for unlocking the forme disappeared.  Not only that, but the “forme” wouldn’t be made up until the job had reached the printing department, not in composition.  This means that there is no cost penalty involved in changing the page count of the book at the last minute — well no printing cost penalty — you will of course have to pay for the typesetting work involved.  However on a book with a long run it will almost certainly cost you less to rerun it to fit the whole thing into that 128pp extent, rather than leaving it at 132 pages.  The extra money paid to the typesetter will be less than your paper savings and the economies of printing and binding.

I don’t really know where the expression comes from, but if you have a PDF which is set up with double pages, page 2 next to page 3, 4 next to 5, and so on, just as it would look to you when you opened the book and looked at a spread, this tends to be referred to as being in “printer spreads”. Probably the name derives from the computer printer in the office. If you have a PDF like that, you effectively have nothing, because the one thing you can say with absolute certainty is that (apart from the middle two pages of every sig) this is not how the printer needs the spreads to be set up.  That decision won’t be made till the book is imposed, and of course what the printer needs from you is single pages, not any helpful combination of pages.  Maybe the expression comes from the office printer: if you laid the book on the copier and copied two pages at a time, that’s what they’d look like.

It perhaps goes without saying, but there are too many examples for silence: all recto pages must have an odd page number, and all verso pages must have an even number.  Once the book has started, it is unacceptable for any recto to be blank.  (Recto from the Latin for right; verso from the Latin for turn over)

Dear Customer:

I am sorry that you have not had any response to your previous complaints about unsewn binding.

Unfortunately, nowadays it is only a minority of books which do actually get a sewn binding: and here I am referring to the entire universe of book publishing, not just our part of it.  In fact almost all the books which are sewn now are university press publications, and we do still make a few sewn bindings.  This change to unsewn binding is partly of course motivated by a need to economize, but it does also result from improvements in the quality of unsewn binding.  The adhesives used today are much stronger than those used years ago when unsewn bindings were first being used.  Paradoxically page-pull and flex tests show a sewn binding as the weakest type of binding, but this is only because the center two pages will tend to rip free of the sewing at values below those at which a glued book will fail.  Of course the rest of the pages are stronger, and the glued book only “wins” because the strength of every page is pretty much the same as every other.  But in the same sense as “the strength of the chain is the strength of the weakest link”, sewn bindings do test weaker than unsewn!

That is of course not to suggest that you are wrong to prefer that type of binding.  It is the way books were bound for centuries, and we should not abandon tradition lightly.  But there is also a technological reason driving us in this direction: in order to sew a book it has to be a book which has been printed in sections which can be folded to make a “signature” through the folded back of which sewing can be applied.  As the demand for books goes down, we cannot print sufficient quantities to be able to make books this way every time.  On many books the demand is so low that the only way they can be kept available is by digital printing.  With this technology we can actually print as few as one copy only: if you order a copy of the book you are considering, it will in fact printed in response to your order.  We keep no copies in stock and whenever someone orders the book a copy will be printed for them, “on demand”.  Digital print engines deliver the book as two-page sheets, and the only practical way to bind these pages is in fact to glue them.  The book you are enquiring about would actually be manufactured by a company which specializes, among other things, in library repair binding.  When the binding is worn on a library book, the library will send it to this company. They chop off the spine, glue the pages, and rebind the book in exactly the way your book would be bound.  I do think that testifies to the durability of the binding, at least to some extent.

Thus in effect the trade off is: either digital printing (and thus unsewn binding) or the book will have to be declared out of print.  We believe it is preferable to keep the book available than to insist on any specific product specification.  I hope that, however reluctantly, you can agree.

I hope and trust that your experience with the book will reassure you, but one has to admit that to some extent our attitude (the world’s in general) has turned towards replacement as the new durability!

Yours sincerely

I hate getting shrink-wrappped advances.  If I wanted the book shrink-wrapped I would have said so on my order.  I know that manufacturers cannot resist the temptation to select “good” copies to send to the publisher, but I want the advance copy to represent the same object that’s going to be received in the warehouse: not one that was selected as “better” than its neighbors and then shipped to me in kid gloves so that I’d love it.  If the jacket is going to rub in transit, I’d like to know that as soon as possible, not when someone in the warehouse decides to put a hold on the inventory for checking.

It also happens that I hate taking the shrink-wrap off books: I can never figure out what’s the best way to do this.  True it doesn’t take very long to break in, but if you multiply that by the number of advances we typically get, and the extrapolate that over a year, and all the members of your department . . . well call me crazy, but I think that’s a measurable waste of time.

I once told my major supplier that if I received another shrink-wrapped advance, I’d never send them another order.  I never got another.

I do think that advances should be properly checked.  I like to look at every page on at least one copy and flick though all the other copies.  Check the stamping on the spine, and the squares.  Hold the book by its boards and see if it stays snugly in the case when you dangle it parallel to the desk.  If there’s something wrong with the book I want to be the first person to know it.  Nothing, to my mind, makes you look more incompetent, than having someone else point out to you a glaring error, like say a blank page 97, on a book which you have approved.  Check your advances and you may even be able to stop the shipment before it goes, or at least get it turned around before it’s received.

On the face of it it’s really a bit odd to start our books off with a page which adds nothing to the package.  After all, you know the title by the time you reach this page.  And just by turning the page you are able to reach a much fuller version of the same thing.  Why do we persist in adding a half-title?

The origin of the half-title, insofar as we can really know these things, goes back to the earliest days of book manufacturing: printed books would be stored as folded sheets until they were bought by customers, who would then arrange for hand binding on their own account.  If the first page in the stored book block was the title page, there was a risk of its getting dirty or even torn.  So the idea developed of protecting it by an additional leaf.  In order to identify what followed, the practice grew up of writing the title on the outside, and from there it was a small step for some bright spark to come up with a page carrying a typeset ID.  We are all bound by conventions we none of us suspect, so a book without a half-title just looks wrong to us.

The oddness is compounded by the growing habit of including a second half-title at the end of the front matter (which is usually called “prelims” in Britain).  We started doing this in order to beef out a book to fill an even working, but it now seems to have become a standard item in the make up of books from some publishers.  With sheetfed printing of short run books, even workings were more significant, and we developed a number of techniques to avoid blanks.  We used even to resort to the last-minute addition of Part title pages which were not included in the pagination.  But the extra half-title at the end of the front matter was always a nice two pages you could gain without effort.  Publishers for some extraordinary reason seem to regard blanks at the back of a book as an affront.  I’ve never met the reader who said “I’m not buying this book because it has too many blank pages at the back”, but maybe I’ve led a sheltered life.  I was always happy enough with blanks:  in my time I’ve added four blanks at the front and ten at the back of a book without batting an eyelid — well, maybe just batting it once or twice.

Originally the half-title was called the “bastard title”.  This is just the word used in the sense of inferior, or debased origin.

Nothing beats the surge you get from coming on an old book folder that has a sig or two of blues in it.  That ammoniac smell takes you right back.  It is redolent of the successful completion of yet another job.

Blues, commonly called ozalids in UK, (Ozalid is actually a trademark in the USA) were the last proof you used to get before printing a book.  They were a cheap print made from the stripped-up negatives of the book (flats).  The flat was exposed to a sensitized paper, quickly “developed” and sent to the publisher as a proof that all was OK before plates were made from the same flat.  The paper was a creamy color and the type and illustrations appeared blue (the UK ozalid tended to be the opposite, a negative of the flat.  This was because of the right reading/wrong reading negative difference between the two sides of the Atlantic).

I always used to say that nobody with the word editor in their job title should ever be allowed to see a blue.  Editors regard a proof without any marks on it as a reproach — an indication that they were too sloppy to find the errors.  Of course by that stage in a book’s production, any correction would cost a fortune.  Thus it is probably only old production people who get weepy at the scent of a blue.

The Printed Picture by Richard Benson.  344pp, 8″ x 10-1/2″, 978-0-87070-721-6, The Museum of Modern Art, $60 (but Amazon is offering it at $37.80).

This is a brilliant book.  It’s one of those that made me say “I wouldn’t mind if I spent the rest of my life reading this book”.

Richard Benson is a born teacher, a photographer, a collector of printed pieces, a fan, especially of offset lithography, and former Dean of the Yale School of Art.  He writes beautifully and every page illustrates his immense enthusiasm for his subject.  The book works as a series of two-page spreads, each one discussing a particular printed piece.  We start with hand prints on cave walls and move through woodblocks, hand lettered pages, engravings, etchings, aquatints, mezzotints, stencils, silk screen prints, all manner of photographs, collotype, offset, etc, etc, to digital printing.  Centrally it is a study of the evolution of the printing of photographs.  The book contains an eight-page introduction to color theory, which any one of us can learn from.  Many of the pieces illustrated are beautiful in their own right, while others may be mundane — the sort of printed piece we’d all tend to throw away, but which nevertheless has its own range of technical problems magnificently overcome, which it takes someone with the right training and empathy to pick out and explain.

One of the many specially striking pieces shows a wood-engraved photograph from the last decade of the nineteenth century.  The photo was exposed onto a wood block which was then engraved by a craftsman/artist, and printed from a stereo by a steam-driven letterpress machine.  The result is beautiful: it’s like a hyperrealist painting in a way.  This one covers four pages, the second spread being given over to a detail of the eyes and nose of the subject, Frederick Law Olmsted.  The workmanship is amazing: all done by hand with a magnifying glass and a burin.

The book is beautifully printed by 4 color offset by GHP, West Haven, Connecticut on 100lb. Value Silk.  The challenges of printing images which were themselves originally printed (often excellently) by a wide range of different methods is triumphantly overcome.  It’s smythe sewn in a case made of matte laminated paper over boards, with a square back with board in spine.  Buy one, you won’t regret it.

1.  “This is my book” = I am the author.

2. “This is my book” = I own it, I bought a copy.

3. “This is my book” = I am the publisher — I paid to create it.

4.  “This is my book” = I work for the publisher/printer/typesetter/literary agent responsible for creating this book (perhaps “our” would be more usual than “my” here).

5.  “This is my book” = This e-book is on the Kindle/iPhone/computer/e-reader that I own.

Does this tell us anything about the “book”?

Nos. 1 & 2 point to the difference between book as a container of ideas/culture, and book as a physical manifestation of this culture carrier.  War and Peace may be your favorite book, but the ratty paperback you have at home may be a horrid object. Maybe Tolstoy preferred Anna Karenina.  Maybe the most handsome book you have is that Corpus of Roman Coins, but you have of course absolutely no intention of reading it.

No. 3 focusses on the economics of the business and is likely to mean the book as physical object (one that can be sold) rather than 1, though when it comes to handing out Pulitzers, Bookers etc. the publisher will inevitably want to connect to 1 more than usual.  It goes without saying, but of course I have to say it, that without a solid economic rationale none of these different “books” would exist (I’m willing to argue about No. 1 too).

Nos. 2 & 4 seem to be pointing to the same physical object, but if you were the editor or the agent, you may be thinking of No. 1.

Is No. 5 more like 1 or 2?  It sort of straddles them both.  I suppose we do actually “own” a free download from Project Gutenberg, but it’s not quite the same relationship as those bits of paper and board on the shelf.

Maybe philosophers and linguists have sorted all this out, and at the end of the day, we all know what we mean.  But there are instances, and will be more of them in future, when we need to be clear, at least in our own mind, which of these we really want to mean when we speak about a book.

(Based on a conversation with Mike Rosenhack)