Book spines, page four printers and The Naked Author

I belong to a reading circle, and my fellow members always tease me that when the title selected for discussion next is produced, I can’t help immediately turning it ‘spine-on’ – to look for the publisher’s logo. It seems book printers have a similarly predictable first response to any new volume they come across. But theirs is to turn straight to page four – to see who printed it. Only once that key detail has been established do they begin to examine in closer detail. Firstly wondering if not printed by them, then why not? And then starting to deconstruct the production specifications – quality of binding, type of glue and paper used, fit of spine etc.

All this is fresh information to me because I recently had the real privilege of watching my book come off the press. You can’t actually watch the entire process in one day (there is lots of drying and forklift moving between different machines during the various stages) so what I  watched was the collating and binding of The Naked Author, at Cox & Wyman in Reading.

Part of the CPI Group, Cox and Wyman produce around 66 million paperbacks a year (enough for the entire population of the UK to have one each). Under the guidance of Customer Services Manager, Egypt frequenter (but no-time archaeologist) Howard Carter, I watched all sections of the process. I saw the stately emergence from vast machines of the shiny printing plates; vast rolls of paper receiving ink which is transferred (or offset) from  the plates via rollers; pre-printed sections being collated and loaded for combination into the content of the book; the progress of the cardboard covers from a different direction towards a date with these paper packages; their combination into long double sections (paperbacks are produced two-up); their sticking, cutting and finally packaging into plastic-wrapped packs ready for delivery to the distributor’s warehouse. And the eventual product, a whole pallet made up of just my book, produced a very satisfying shape. I had a strong temptation to sit on top of it (but did not like to ask).

Some of these books might even end up being sold to Cox & Wyman customers, as self-publishing firms are now providing business for conventional, quality printers.

Academics can’t help being on a field trip, whatever they are doing. So in addition to assembling a complete set of the stages I saw today to show our MA Publishing students, here are three things I did not know until now:

  1. Today many publishers pay their printers to store the printed books, as it is cheaper to keep them there for ‘calling down’ as needed, than to store them in their own warehouses. This is called partial delivery.
  2. The tremendous speed at which the machines move. For example, the binder throughputs 14,000 books an hour. Trying to take digital pictures of the machinery, my camera repeatedly registered ‘blurred image, do you wish to take again?’
  3. The significance of page four to a printer. And from now on, I shall always be looking out for the CPI logo.

Photos by Louise Scaldwell. Visit by kind permission of Sandy Wieliczko, General Manager.

The Naked Author: A guide to self-publishing is published by A&C Black.


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