Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Slow Road to On-Demand Hardcover

As an amateur writer, there isn't a high demand for print copies of my work.  And while using an on-demand press for paperback copies of my book is quite novel, sharing an electronic copy of the same title is many magnitudes more convenient, efficient, and inexpensive.  Indeed, as I grow older I find myself reading almost exclusively in digital format, and when my eye falls on a messy stack of paperbacks or pile of periodicals cluttering up my already-untidy home, I have to admit the sight irks me.  

And yet, much of my life has been spent close to books - hiding out among them in libraries, lugging them around under my arm or in a rucksack, or, of course, with my nose buried in them.  I still derive great pleasure in reading from an actual book, and even the best of today's E-readers cannot replicate the multisensory appeal of cracking open a old tome and diving into the text within.  It was because of this that some time ago I made the decision that I would buy only those books I truly loved in hard-copy, and by hard-copy I mean a nicely bound hard-cover edition.  The rest, I would consume digitally.

But there was a problem.  My own books, which I do not actually read, but of which I am, after a fashion, fond, were not available in hardcover.  It is possible to use some of the popular on-demand presses to produce a hardcover edition, but that entailed jumping through many hoops that were largely out of my control.  Despite this I kept thinking it would behoove me to find someway of obtaining a few hardcovers, mostly to give as gifts. 

One day as I sat at my desk working, my mind drifted to the subject of hardcover books and I realized that long ago, fine books were made by monks painstakingly copying out manuscripts with a quill pen, or printers typesetting page after page of novels by hand.  And there I was sitting in front of a computer, next to a laser printer, and with a modest array of tools in my basement that would likely fill any ancient craftsman in shock and awe.  "I'm going to bind my own books," I told myself...and that was that.  

As it turns out, there are many resources for the aspiring bookbinder available to those with access to the internet.  There are a wealth of how-to articles, and even YouTube videos on the subject.  There is no point in me replicating such resources, since they are easily available, and produced, in many cases, by those with actual expertise on the subject.  The point of this post is to communicate to those interested that it is very possible to bind your own books in this day and age, and what it is more, it is very gratifying.  That being said, it is also ludicrously inefficient, time consuming, and, depending on how you approach it, expensive.

A Vague Roadmap (for the curious):

Step 1:  Observe and learn
materials needed:  eyes and a computer, ears optional

By far the best resource for wrapping my head around the task was browsing YouTube for videos on bookbinding.  There are quite a few videos available, but a few to get started are available here, here, and here.

Step 2:  Print your book
materials needed:  computer and printer

To bind a book you will have to print out the pages in what are called signatures or sections, which will then be be sewn together with thread.  Organizing your existing text into signatures without assistance would normally be quite a chore.  Luckily software exists to help you out.  I have been using software, aptly titled "bookbinder" available here.  Your book will need to be in .pdf format for the program to operate. 

Bookbinder will spit out several signature files (in my case 13-14 files) which you can then print.  At this point you will have to have an inner dialogue about the costs of printer ink and/or toner and printing out an entire book.  I suspect doing this on an inkjet printer would be possible, but harrowing.  You should also realize, that unless you have a printer with auto duplexing, you will be duplexing manually, which adds another layer of possible human error to the process.  I can say from personal experience that doing this with a simple consumer laser printer is...not horrible.

A note on paper:  To keep things simple, I don't mess about with paper (and therefore book size).  I use the standard 8.5x11" paper size to print two pages side by side.  By my standards (which aren't lofty) ordinary printer paper will do in all but one respect - the grain on normal 8.5x11" almost always runs long (I think that's the right way to describe it.  In any case, the grain runs parallel to the long edge).  This will cause folding trouble down the line, so to get around this I buy 11x17" paper and have the print shop cut it in half for me, resulting in two reams of short grain 8.5x11".

Step 3:  Fold and Sew your signatures
materials needed:  bone folder, needle, thread, and possibly cloth tape

At this point, you essentially fold each sheet of paper in half, assemble the signatures in order, and sew them all together with a needle and thread.  I did observe several binding methods that relied solely on glue to keep the pages together, but it seemed to me that sewing would create a much stronger and lasting bond between pages.  I am no tailor, nor can I claim to have knit anything in my life, but even so the sewing was manageable.  With a steady hand and patience I was able to get a decent result, and it is the kind of work that can be done without much thought, giving you the opportunity to catch up on your favorite radio program while you stitch away.

To make the process a bit easier, it is advisable to build a sewing guide.  I took me less than an hour to throw together a rickety little wooden contraption that did the job, though I'm sure anyone who's ever imparted a ounce of woodworking advice to me would wince if they saw the thing.  All manner of these sewing frames are evident in the various how-to videos, ranging from simple to byzantine.  The following video gives you an idea of the process:

Step 4:  Hardcover 
materials needed: book cloth, stiff board, glue, brush, scissor or knife

In this step you essentially bond the cover material of your choice to segments of stiff board (cut to size) to form a hard cover.  I have used both cloth and imitation leather for this purpose, both without issue.  There are quite a few materials made specifically for bookbinding, but I have read that many other fabrics may also be used as well.  For my own purposes, I looked through the selections available at the Talas bookbinding supply, but I'm sure there are many other sources as well.

The most frequently used bonding agent appears to be PVA glue.  A good brush and lots of wax paper are quite helpful.  Once you have bonded the cloth to the board, you then bond the sewn stack of signatures to the cover, and glue in some fancy endpages.  The whole process can take many hours, as you must wait for the glue to try between the various steps.

At this point you may have something approaching a finished product.  However, you now need to somehow put the relevant title and other text on the cover of your book.  You might choose to adorn the hardcover with some sort of printed dust jacket, but I dislike dust jackets, so I did not.  After some research, I decided to try my hand with foil stamping.  Up until now, provided you had a computer and printer, the whole process was relatively inexpensive, material-wise.  Bookcloth and binding board are not exactly inexpensive, given what they are, but if you are willing to use less traditional options, I believe the material costs can be kept quite low.  The next step negates this and makes the whole process quite cost inefficient unless you plan on producing a large volume of books.

Step 5 (optional):  Stamping  
materials needed:  stamping foil, some sort of hot stamping apparatus, and type

This method of stamping involves pressing hot metal typeface into foil placed above a receptive surface.  Stamping machines and other pieces of equipment aren't exactly easy to come by.  You likely won't find them at the local hardware, or any big-box stores.   Your best bet is likely finding something used on ebay.

Because of this, I first tried to circumvent the need for purpose-built stamping equipment. Without going into the details of my many zany experiments, I can say that all of my ideas yielded decidedly sub-par results.  I eventually bit the bullet, and with some very patient and careful ebaying was able to acquire an "antique" stamping machine and the necessary foils and types. 

With a little practice I was soon getting decent results, and ultimately was able to put together a simple cover that was fairly pleasing to my eye.  Stamping a cover is a little nerve-wracking, because there is no undo button, but there is nothing quite like seeing some shiny new gold letters imprinted on the cover of a book you wrote. 

And there you have it.  A vertically integrated hardcover publishing solution for the amateur author.  Most writers would rather outsource this to others so they could spend time actually writing.  They would probably end up with a nicer end product, too.  But if you are like me and cannot help but try your hand at making things, it could end up being a very fulfilling experience. 


  1. That was interesting. I'm going to be printing mine as trade paperbacks, but I'd love to do a hardcover version one day. Do you think there will be any problem with just using ordinary paper in terms of its keeping qualities? (i.e., yellowing, that sort of thing.)

    -- Victoria

    1. I am by no means an expert on the subject, but I think that using acid-free paper (very easy to come by) will go a long way to help prevent yellowing, crumbling, etc..