Two Directions for Material Books

I am a book artist who spent twelve years hand printing and binding a book entitled Pictorial Webster’s. I then spent a year with Chronicle Books making it into a trade edition that would sell for $35.00 and yet still retain some of the qualities of a finely printed book of yore. I have been on both sides of the physical book world. I am one of the very tiny publishers that is most concerned with making beautiful books using quality materials and bookbinding technique, allowing the price be dictated by time and materials. Not having an intermediary agent I worked directly with Chronicle and gleaned some insight into the continual march to the cheapest product by the larger publishers.

There is a segment of society that still craves a beautifully bound book, and this segment also tends to have a great deal of wealth. Much like the turn of the 20th Century when the linotype and monotype helped speed the mass production of books, they also spawned the Arts and Crafts movement and small publishers such as Kelmscott Press who published lavish, traditional books. Modern day publishers such as 21st Editions have capitalized on this same feeling that beautiful books are about to become extinct. (21st editions has even registered the phrase “The Art of the Book” as their own!?) I came to publishing from the angle of a book artist. Pictorial Webster’s was first a small run of 100 hand-printed, leather bound books that took me twelve years to produce and all of the copies have yet to be bound. I have noticed that I have made many more sales to private individuals than I have to institutions.

Because Pictorial Webster’s is such a visual book, it lives best as a physical book which accounts for its great sales as a trade edition. When I was ready for the mass produced book to be printed, I was in negotiations with two publishers. One was Chronicle Books, the publisher I thought from day one would be a good fit for selling an “Artist’s Book,” as they had published Griffen and Sabine, aunt Sally’s Lament, and other books that were way off the norm. I had also been approached by Melcher Media, a book packager in NYC. Melcher Medias lure was greater control over the final product. Mr. Melcher did his best to give me the impression we would produce the book using the most responsible production techniques and materials as environmental and economic concerns are important to me. I believe sustainability should be a concern for all disciplines. It is sad that many companies have been using paper pulp made from clearcut rainforests in Indonesia. I had made a decision that I would not print my book commercially if it was to be produced in China. My dream was to buy paper from the Mowhawk paper company which is responsible about using post-consumer paper and produces all of their energy with wind power. My ultimate printer would have been Stinehour press and perhaps use the Acme Bookbindery in the Boston area. I tried to convince the publishers that consumers who would buy my book would also be willing to pay more, but I heard about research that showed that there is a big cutoff at $30 that many book buyers will not cross. I began Pictorial Webster’s in 1996 and planned from day one to try to have a trade edition made. In those days Merriam-Webster had expressed interest in publishing the book and had given me the green light to find a printer that could do it for under $4 per book. (I was told they liked production costs to be 1/8 of list price.) Therefore I was sourcing materials and sending samples of the product to various printers and scouring the shelves of libraries and bookstores to see what was possible in commercial printing. Although there continue to be bright spots in commercially produced books, much of what I have experienced is depressing. At my first real meeting to discuss the production of the book with Melcher, it became clear that China was what they had in mind for everything. “Come on, get real,” was his response to my complaint. “You will never get this printed domestically. It’s never going to make money.” Thankfully, Chronicle delivered production in Canada. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best they could do. Few books are sewn in the United States, and many of the printers I had originally contacted to get quotes for printing the book had gone out of business, including Stinehour Press. One of the stumbling blocks for production in China it turns out was the cream colored paper I desired. At the time we printed Pictorial Webster’s, the only way to get off-colored paper in China was to have an initial print run with a crème colored ink! I wrote an article in Ampersand Magazine detailing my struggle to get my book produced in a way that I thought would make it a pleasing product. As a bookbinder I wanted my book to retain what I thought were the most important qualities of a book: good printing, a pleasing feel in the hands, and good design that works in a book. As much as I agonized, Chronicle was very good at making that happen. Unfortunately, though I thought I had convinced Chronicle Books that making a beautiful book would help drive sales. I bought a copy of their fifth reprint only to discover that it was shipped overseas to China! I had had an understanding with Chronicle that this would not happen. (Was it in the contract? I can’t recall.) I had given them .5% of my royalties, in fact, to help keep production local. The new book is not printed on the Environmental Fiber paper cover that we used for the first book, and the printing on the cover is no where near the quality of the original. . . . I will update this with news as this story evolves.

As much as I thought there was hope at some point for mass-produced books – I feel I’m agreeing more and more with William Morris. If you want a beautiful book, you may as well make it yourself. Most physical books for the trade will probably be more and more cheaply made while a very small segment of the publishers – folks such as David Godine will continue to make quality books in design and manufacture as there will continue to be a demographic that craves good books. And as Book Arts continue to flourish in college art departments, hand crafted, self published books will increase as well.

4 comments

  1. JCarrera

    My concerns are for the U.S. economy and for the environment. While working on my book I have seen many printers go out of business here in the United States because the printing is so much cheaper in China. From my basic view of economics, it doesn’t seem sustainable to lay people off from good paying jobs in the U.S. so that we can buy more and more cheap goods from China. Our trade imbalance is so great – every little bit that keeps creeping that way seems wrong. Also, according to an industry watchdog website I found through the Mohawk website, many printers in China are not using environmentally responsible pulp. The Rainforest Action Network launched a boycott of “Fancy Nancy” and many of the Disney Books because they were found to have rainforest tree pulp in them. We know that Chinese industry does not have the same high standard for dealing with pollution as we do here. Also, why waste all the energy shipping tons of books across the ocean? These are my main reasons for wanting to keep the manufacture local.

  2. Jack Kessler

    That’s very interesting, thanks. I wonder what role(s) the Chinese will play in printing and publishing going forward, now. Much of what eventually came to be our printing was invented by the Chinese — movable type, the transmission of that to Europe is unclear, according I believe to Needham — xylographic, they share that with the Koreans. Nowadays the Chinese are developing digital techniques for depicting text vertically, which I find very interesting to imagine. Recently they have become prime customers for our hitech, too, no longer just producers or assemblers — getting rich is glorious, as they say… I understand Kodansha does much of its work there now. US printing does have an originality all its own: Copper Canyon and Heyday are two of my favorites, for reasons both aesthetic and political.

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