Making a book is a production that far exceeds the mechanics of printing a manuscript so that it may be distributed to the public. From the writer's standpoint, it may seem that having finished a manuscript, the hardest work is behind. The publisher, however, would argue otherwise: having the manuscript in hand is just the beginning of a long and complicated process of making a product that, ideally, many people will want to buy.

Paperback or Hardback?

Before production can begin, the editors must determine whether the book is going to be a paperback or hardback (called "cloth" in the trade). The difference between the two can be significant, not only in cost but also in marketing opportunities and public perception. Traditionally, books issued only as paperbacks were cheap reads written strictly for entertainment and meant to be thrown away after they had served their purpose. Hardbacks, on the other hand, were meant for serious literature. Starting in the mid-twentieth century, if the hardback sold well, it would be issued in a paperback edition at a much cheaper price and often with different cover art. In short: paperbacks were always considered second rate, though this has changed in recent decades.

The grandaddy of paperbacks was the pamphlet, or chapbook. All of us are familiar with pamphlets because they remain a common, inexpensive form of publication. Typically, they are small -- about 7" tall and 5" wide -- and contain about 20 pages. From the early days of the printing press, printer-publishers produced pamphlets quickly and cheaply to satisfy popular tastes, sometimes to address incendiary or unseemly topics but usually to promote political or religious agendas. Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" was a pamphlet. So was Bejamin Franklin's "Farmer's Almanac." Sensational events -- like the assasination of President Lincoln -- always generated a spate of pamphlet publication Pamphlets were printed in small runs on just about every topic imagineable. Consider this excerpt from a 1790 review of the history pamphlets:

From PAMPHLETS may be learned the genius of the age, the debates of the learned, the follies of the ignorant, the beliefs of government, and the mistakes of the courtiers. Pamphlets furnish beaus with their airs, coquets with their charms. Pamphlets are as modish ornaments to gentlewomen's toilets as to gentlemen's pockets; they carry reputation of wit and learning to all that make them their companions; the poor find their account in stall-keeping and in hawking them; the rich find in them their shortest way to the secrets of church and state. There is scarce any class of people but may think themselves interested enough to he concerned with what is published in pamphlets, either as to their private instruction, curiosity, and reputation, or to the public advantage and credit; with all which both ancient and modern pamphlets are too often over familiar and free.

As we see from this quote, the pamphlet -- a cheap, popular kind of mini-paperback -- had already made a huge impact on the daily life over 200 years ago. It was but a short transition from the pamplet to the full-sized paperback in the 1830s. Paper and printing were cheaper by this time, thus allowing for larger paperback editions at low costs. Also, the reading public was growing in tandem with leisure time to read. Interestingly, both England and the U.S. started publishing cheap, paperback fiction at this same time. In England, these books were called "penny dreadfuls" because of their price and their content. Like popular fiction today, the subject matter was limited to thrillers, romances, and adventures, often aimed at young readers. The usual form was a weekly installment of a novel. A complete novel might cost a nickel. Often these appeared as fiction supplements in newspapers.

The newspaper angle was significant because, unlike books, newspapers were cheap to produce because the paper itself, called "newsprint," was cheap and also because postal rates for newspapers and other periodicals was cheap. Postage for books, by contrast, was expensive. In 1837, two American entrepreneurs, Rufus Griswold and Park Benjamin, saw that by printing a weekly fiction magazine on newsprint (a single large sheet, which they folded to make a magazine), they could sell it and mail it as a periodical. In this way, they invented the paperback.

One of the early paperback best-sellers was an adventure-romance concoction called Malaeska: the Indian Wife of the White Hunter by Mrs. Ann Stephens. It offered the allure and mystery of frontier life, as well as the taboo topic of inter-racial marriage. It sold 65,000 copies in 1860. The publisher, Beadle and Company, boasted that it sold "Books for the Million. A Dollar Book for a Dime!" This appeal to the common man and woman, as opposed to the well-educated upper class, is a significant turn in U.S. literary history and one we'll discuss in the chapter on literary culture.

Here's what one reader recounted of his youthful love of dime novels, which he read in the 1880s-90s:

I read them at every chance; so did every normal boy of my acquaintance. We traded lesser treasures for them; we swapped them on the basis of two old volumes for one new one; we maintained a calndestine circulating library system which had its branch offices in every stable loft in our part of town. The more daring of us read them in school behind the shelter of an open geography propped on the desk

The popularity of early paperbacks waned in the late 1890s as a new form of magazine won readers: the "pulps," cheap magazines that specialized in thrilling tales. They were called "pulps" becasue of the cheap pulp-wood paper used in their production. This paper had a very short shelf life because of its high acid content. If you've seen an old magazine whose pages are brown and crumbling with age, you've seen what becomes of pulp paper. The pulps reached their peak in the 1920s-30s. Unlike their predecessors, the dime novels, these magazines could be truly salacious and sometimes deviant. Their subject matter ranged from sci-fi to crime to adventure to romance and often played to the lowest level of taste.

The rise of radio in the 1920s-30s, with its rich programming of dramatic, romantic, crime and adventure stories, probably did more to encourage pulp reading than distract from it. At bottom, the pulps were the parents of the comic book, which were essentially illustrated versions of the pulps. In the 1930s, at the peak of the pulps' popularity, paperbacks came back in a big way, except this time they took the high road. Penguin Publishing in England and Simon & Schuster in the U.S. started publishing best-sellers and classics in paperback form. Pocket Books, the Simon & Schuster imprint, explained itself as follows:

Now for less than the few cents you spend each week for your morning newspaper you can own one of the great books for which thousands of people have paid from $2 to $4.

These new Pocket Books are designed to fit both the tempo of our times and the needs of New Yorkers. They're as handy as a pencil, as modern and convenient as a portable radio and as good looking. They were designed specifically for busy people -- people who are continually on the go, yet who want to make the most of every minute.

Marketed initially to "modern," on-the-go New Yorkers, the upscale paperback carried a certain cache: here were legitimate, literary works at bargain prices in classy packaging. What was not to like? At 25 cents a book, any one could now build a private library. In fact, the new paperback put an end to the commercial lending libraries (often found in drug stores) that had served those who could not afford to buy hardback books. By the 1950s the paperback revolution had changed the reading and buying habits of the reading public. Every publisher had a line of paperbacks. The enterprise was hugely profitable because they were printing books that had already been published -- the acquisition fees were small in comparison to first rights for a cloth-bound edition. By the 1960s, it was routine for hardback best sellers to get a second run as a paperback. Often the paperback brought in far more money than the hardback.

By the 1970-80s, publishers were printing POBs, "paperback originals," forgoing the traditional cloth-bound printing for a first edition paperback. In effect, they were hedging their bets, figuring that a POB was the best route for books that a) appealed to a young readership that did not usually buy hardbacks and b) would probably not earn the returns for all the time and money it takes to promote a hardback. In marketing the paperback original as a special edition, publishers were attempting to narrow the divide between the hardback and paperback. Until the advent of paperbacks, books had always been expensive and, as a result, high brow, priced for the upper class, who had the money and leisure for books. Now that books in paper were cheap, could the publishers make high-brow readers like and respect paperbacks?

Nowadays, many books are published as POBs, only now they are called "trade paperbacks." The cost of printing and marketing a hardback is so prohibitive that it often makes more sense to market a book as a paperback. In fact, some publishers produce nothing but paperbacks. But marketing trade paperbacks remains problematic because paperback still carry a stigma as something cheap and second-rate. Book reviewers, for example, take a hardback more seriously because they know that the publisher takes the hardback more seriously. The hardback costs more to produce and, as a result, it obliges the publisher to promote it more heavily with books tours and advertisements. Trade paperbacks never get as many reviews as hardbacks.

But when a publisher decides to publish a book as cloth-bound, it is taking a big risk because the initial outlay of cash is significant. It has become increasingly difficult to get people to spend $25 on a book. So the publisher will put advertising behind the book, send the writer on a book tour, hire a publicist to promote it, and still may end up with tepid sales. All of this investment would have gone much farther had the publisher printed the book as a trade paperback instead. People still buy paperbacks. So there's the rub: print the first edition as a paperback or a hardback?

The Size of Books

The second decision in producing a book is its size. Paper size dictates book size. Originally, paper was made by hand and a single sheet was of limited size -- actually, limited to the size that a man could hold in two hands. We still work from that size today, more or less: it's now designated AO and measures approximately 33 x 46 inches. Starting with this big sheet, we can derive all common paper sizes, and their attendant book sizes, by folding the sheet in half, then half again, then half again, and so on. Each fold creates a new size, until we get a tiny book of 32 folds. The most common paper sizes are A1 (23 x 33"), A2 (16 by 23"), A3 (11 x 17"), and A4 (8 x 11). Although these measurements are approximate, you can see a couple of familiar sizes in there. Click the cartoon below for a comparison of these sizes:

The size of the book will tell you how many folds per sheet and, in turn, how many pages you can print on those folds. A paper folded twice will yield four sections or leaves. If you print on the front and back of each leaf, you'll get eight pages. The four-leaf book size is called "quarto" (Latin for "four"). The eight-leaf book size is called "octavo" (Latin for ?). The octavo will yield 16 pages per single sheet. The quarto -- 9 x 12 inches -- and the octavo -- 6 x 9 inches -- are the two most common book sizes.

To understand book production, you must understand how each folded section (called a "signature") is printed and bound.

So let's review: we start with a big piece of paper, like A0, then we decide how we're going to fold it -- this will tell us a) how many leaves these folds will create and then b) how many pages will have. Remember, we will print on both sides of this sheet of paper. That means that each leaf will be two pages.
<<<Click on the illustration for more.

If we use a really big sheet of paper, then we can do more folds and still keep the page size the same. A big sheet will increase the size of the siganture (that is, the number of leaves and pages we get from each sheet) and decrease the production work because it's a hassle having to put together a pile of signatures that have, say, only eight pages (four leaves). Imagine how difficult it would be to make a book if you had to sort and bind every page individually. Each signature keeps many pages together in a single bundle, which makes binding them into a book much easier.

Once the singatures are tightly folded, then stacked, it's time to stich them together. This used to be done by hand. After the spines of the signatures are sewn together, the book is ready to be bound in its cover. Keep in mind that the edges of the signatures have to be cut in order to liberate the pages -- because each signature is a large piece of folded paper. Cutting, known as "trimming," occurs before binding or, in the case of books that will see a lot of use, after they are bound into their boards (the cardboard that the book cover is pasted onto).

Virtually all cloth-covered books ("hardbacks") have sewn signatures that are glued into a cover. All paperbacks (starting in the 1920s) attach the signatures to the cover with glue only. This is called "perfect" binding. Usually, the spines of the signatures are cut and roughened up in order to facilitate better glue adhesion. No doubt you have seen a paperback whose pages have come out of the glue. You never see a hardback page simply pull away from its signature -- it has to be torn out because the signature spine remains intact (not cut) and sewn. As you can imagine, perfect binding is much cheaper than sewn and glued binding. Click on the photo for more>>>

The Shape of Books

We must remember that books are a kind of technology and, as we know, new technology grows from necessity and experiment and happenstance, among other forces. The book as we know it -- a ream of paper sandwiched between two boards -- is a fairly recent invention. The first medium used for writing was clay because clay was readily available, durable, easy enough to store, and it did the job. Admittedly, at the time (about 6,000 years ago), the job wasn't a big one since writing didn't have much work to do. Mostly it was for record keeping. As a result, there was no need for long texts.

A bit later, as writing's use expanded, the Egyptians invented an early form of paper, made from papyrus, a marsh reed that grows only in Egypt. The Egyptians' chosen medium for text storage was the scroll. However, there were many other media used for text storage in other parts of the world -- everything from silk sheets to bamboo slats. Still, papyrus -- because of its light weight and flexibility (there were few materials that could tolerate being rolled up), became the premier writing medium in the Western world until the first century A.D.

Around 300 B.C. another medium was invented: the codex, a proto-book. Originally its pages were papyrus or wax-covered wood (the Romans preferred the latter), then came sheepskin (vellum) pages. Early Christians adopted the codex format for their Bible. The codex (plural = codices) laid flat, it was carried between two leather or wooden covers and so It stored well; it was easier to read than the scroll, and was more durable (papyrus was delicate in comparison to vellum). Also, unlike the scroll, you could write on both sides of the codex's page. The codex was not bound, it was simply loose leaves inside two covers. But, for the most part, the codex was the book we came to know. By the about 200 A.D., the codex had become the medium of choice in the West. At about this time, the Chinese invented paper, but, astoundingly, paper-making wouldn't come to the West until 1,000 years later.

A rarefied, expensive hand-crafted product, the codex was almost always a huge and heavy object reserved for the very few rich and educated who could afford it. The codex set a standard for for books -- as elaborate luxury items -- that would stand for centuries, until cheaper paper and printing made books accessible to the common man and woman.

To get a better sense of a book as technology, take a look at this funny video, called the "Medieval Help Desk":


The basic process of paper-making has not changed since this technology was invented 2,000 years ago: if you pulp high-cellulose organic matter in water, add a binder to this mush, drain off the water, spread the mush out in a thin sheet, then let it dry, you'll get paper. You can make your own paper easily by throwing scrap paper, even strips of cloth, into a blender, adding water, then blending until this mess is pulp. Spread this stuff out on a cookie sheet, then bake in the oven on low temperature (120 degrees). You'll get hand-made paper. It's a simple process, really, and makes you wonder what took Westerners so long to catch on.

Here are two videos that show you the two ways to make paper: by hand or by machine:

The difference between making paper now and making paper centuries ago is that our pulp sources are not as good as they were back then. Originally, paper was made of cloth. Ragmen would roam far and wide collecting scrap cloth to sell to paper makers. Now, only special paper is made of cotton cloth -- it's called "rag" paper. You can tell by touch that it's heavy-duty stuff. About 99% of the paper we use daily is made from wood (or mostly from wood). This is a much less resilient material than cotton. And, unlike cotton, it is highly acidic. If wood-pulp is not treated neutralized, it will literally burn up over time.

Nobody knew this in the 1830s when they came up with a paper-making process that used wood pulp. It took one hundred years (1930s) to understand that, when exposed to light and heat, wood-pulp paper deteriorates rapidly. At that time, conservators began developing methods to make paper longer-lived. One of the reasons libraries starting micro-filming their books was to combat the deterioration of their many books. The irony is that micro film is just about as volatile as wood-based paper.

Soft wood (pine) forests are carefuly cultivated nowadays to supply the huge demand for paper (computer usage has not diminished paper usage; in fact paper usage has increased). Most of this wood comes from Canada and the U.S. Worldwide, about half the wood used in paper-making comes from renewable sources, that is, tree farms. The other half comes from various sources, some good (recycled paper) and some questionable (non-renewed forests). The question of sustainability should compel paper makers to consider alternative vegetable sources, such as hemp and cannabis, and increased recycling, but so far not much movement has occurred in this area.

Paper comes in various weights. The most common nowadays is 20 pound bond, used in photocopy machines and so on. It's called "bond" because this kind of heavy-weight paper was used for government bonds and other such documents. "Bond" also refers to the strength, or bond, of the paper fibers. There are two types of bond paper: rag content pulp and chemical wood pulp. Rag content is a higher quality paper and made of cotton or linen, while chemical wood paper is made from trees. You can buy bond paper with rag content as low as 25%. We determine the weight of a bond paper by its weight in pounds when a ream of 500 sheets, sized at 17 by 22 inches per sheet. Publishers typically use 50-60 pound paper for books. Needless to say they have to find a good supplier of paper that has consistent quality.

You should know that all paper is bleached to make it brighter and "sized" to keep it from absorbing too much ink (which would make the writing look blurry). The edges of book pags have been decorated in various ways over the centuries. The most common enhacement was gilding, coating the page edges with gold. The most elaborate treatment of paper was painting pictures on the fore edge of the book.

<<< Click on picture for more.

Book Covers

Books during the early period of book production -- from the monastic/scribal illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages to the elaborate early books from printing presses -- usually had leather covers. Some of these were ornately tooled and decorated, in imitation of fine books from Arab countries. The practice of making leather binding was already old when Gutenburg produced his famous Bible in 1455. However, by the time printed books were in greater production and wider circulation and literacy was increasing significantly, printers sold books that were unbound and this practice continued for centuries. Why?

Printers acted both as publishers and book sellers, but they weren't in the business of covering books. That was a separate craft, undertaken by artisans in a different guild. If a book buyer wanted his book covered, he had to ask for this separate service. Such careful hand-work was expensive and many book buyers did not choose to get their books covered, for the books themselves were very expensive (remember, books were luxuries). So the book would come from the printer in a wrapper, which was the forerunner of the dust jacket. The wrapper would be plain paper, without any writing on it.

Until the 1800s, the most common covers -- when there were covers -- were full leather (over board) or half leather/half (exposed) board, with only the title on the cover or the spine. Not until the 1800s do we see a wide variety of illlustrated hard-covers. Mostly these had an embossed (raised) design with gilt letters on leather or a cloth made to look like leather. Increasingly, these would show embossed illustrations. These were soon replaced by illustrations ink-stamped on the cover.

Publishers introduced dust jackets in the 1820-30s. Like their predecessors, the wrappers, these were plain paper and they wrapped the entire book. As a result, they were treated like wrapping paper and discarded. Dust jackets as we know them appeared about 20 years later. By the end of the 1800s, dust jackets replicated the cover illustration, though again they were often thrown away. The rise of pulp magazines and paperbacks in the early decades of the 20th century spurred innovation and experiment in book cover design and, in turn, book jacket design. Book jackets became so elaborate that readers started keeping them. And book covers became a bold new art form -- both in image and in the use of type.

In recent years, trade paperbacks have been given hybrid covers that make them look upscale -- they have flaps like book jackets but they're paperback covers. The cover, like all elements of book production, is a marketing decision. Contrary to the old saying, "you can't judge a book by its cover," the irony in book design is that this is precisely what book covers are trying to do, make readers judge the book at a glance and react positively, and then buy it.

Here's a brief video review of book production:

Questions for the Reading Below (designed to help you with the reading quiz):

1) Why would a publisher choose to print a hardcover instead of a softcover even though a hardcover is more expensive?

2) How was the pamphlet a precusor to the paperback?

3) Before the use of paper in book-making, there were what kinds of materials?

4) How did paper-making change in the nineteenth century? And what was the result of this great change?

5) What is non-linear reading?

6) Name the major parts of a book.


1) The origins of the dime novel

2) Folding sheets to make sIgnatures

3) A Brief History of the Pamphlet

4) From Scroll to Screen

5) A Brief History of Paper Making

6) The Scroll, The Codex, the PDF

7) What Mummies have to do with Paper

8) The Latest Development in Book Covers

Next Chapter>>>