Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Back to the Future

I see today there are lots of posts on lots of blogs, all from people who went to BEA (BookExpo America) last week and are now buzzing about digital books and How They're Taking Over And We Can't Stop It, and How It's The End of Books.

OK, so I'll say it here. Just a small comment, but I'll say it.

Think of people buying books. It's a money-making opportunity. So you write a book, and you go find a printer and get it printed up, and then you go to some place where people will hear your voice, and you try to sell it. Or maybe you know how to do the printing yourself, so you go out and find books to print and you print them and then you go to some place where people will hear your voice, and you try to sell them.

Everybody's their own entrepreneur. One person can write a book and sell it - and thousands more will try it and fail but that's not the point. The point is that the industry - and the money - is in the hands of the little guy.

Does that sound like the current state of digital publishing?

That's odd, because it's a description of the state of book publishing 350 years ago. Back then, your book was printed by cold type on a handpress, either by you or by some guy who lived down the alley, and you might be hawking your book on the village green, but you had the power to publish your own books, and to price and sell them. Over time, little publishers arose and became big publishers, and a giant industry arose around the process of printing and publishing - one in which the writer and the printer were fairly small cogs in the process. Publishers made money through volume, and volume arose through cheap printing which came via machine-made paper and then huge offset printers and dozens of other money-saving advances, and with each one the amount of capital expense needed to publish a book rose until the little guy pretty much couldn't handle it.

Now, thanks to digital publishing, we're right back where we were in the 17th century. Anybody can publish a book, but they're hawking them on the Internet rather than on the street.

I'm not saying digipub isn't a bad thing for some people. There's a loss of professionalism and a loss of knowledge and lots of books that won't get through to as many people because they don't find out about them when the bookstores aren't there to put them on their shelves. I'm not saying the industry isn't changing - I'm just saying I don't think it'll be the end, and I don't think it's necessarily a disaster.

Last week I had an interview in which I tried to explain being a bookbinder. Knowing that in the average population most people don't really understand bookbinding, I took along four books I had bound - a full goat, an historical full calf, a buckram and one bound in velvet. I slapped them into the interviewer's hand and bid her hold them and turn the pages. She wanted to keep on holding them. Once I figure out how to get more people to experience well-bound books again, I think people will be clamouring to have their books rebound.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Jane Austen, Bookmaker

Ran across an article  about the upcoming sale of one of Austen's few surviving manuscripts - this one a partial MS of "The Watsons". What intrigued me for bookbinding was learning that Austen wrote on little sections of paper that she made (presumably herself, since she was very private about her writing), by cutting a sheet of paper in two, trimming the edges, stacking the two pages and folding them in half, to create 8 page sides to write on.

As her novels are quite long, I rather suspect that as she finished her sections she sewed them to one another, to keep them in order and to facilitate going back and re-reading. With only two pages to sew through, she could have done that herself quite easily, and just as easily, if she corrected so much that she needed to replace a few pages, she could cut the thread and replace the section.

The size of the pages interests me; it is said she wrote on small pages but the one photo I did see online shows that each side contains about 25 lines of about 45 - 50 characters each, and the lines are not particularly crammed together; nor is the writing. So I suspect she was making her sections by cutting down a sheet of the paper that would have been normally used at the time - perhaps a crown or a small demy - something about 15" x 20", folded and then trimmed, would have given roughly the right size; a quarto of about 7.5" x 10" (19 cm x 25.5 cm)

When the auction details are posted I will find the size and see how close I came.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Shapes and Sizes

Like a lot of romantics, I fell in love with heart books the first time I saw them. No, I'm not talking about the modern version, where you bend two adjacent pages towards one another and push the foredges down to the spine so it makes a heart shape.

I'm talking about the original late medieval/Renaissance-era heart-shaped books, like this one in the Royal Danish Library 

When I started bookbinding, I thought binding a heart shape was going to be easy. So I talked about it to my boss, and saw the slow smile spread across his face - the smile that said "It's harder than you think", and "Why don't you make one and get back to me". Well, since then I've made thousands of [rectangular] books, and he's right. The main issue is going to be shaping the thing, because knives and guillotines are really good at cutting straight lines, but not curves. And I suspect that if you printed it (yes, I know this one was hand-written, but bear with me) on rectangular pages and then cut down the sewn textblock you'd have a problem with accidentally cutting into the text. To say nothing of the agony that would ensue if your knife slipped, after all that work.

So my theory, as yet untested, is that if you're going to hand-print it, you rough-cut the shaped pages, fold and sew them in the heart shape, and put it between two shaped boards, clamp them and cut or sand the textblock down so the edges are even. Then you could apply your edge treatment (this one is gilded but I'm not going there, not at first).

This really does sound like a fun thing to try this summer. But I'll get back to you.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Wanted: One Engineering Degree

If you read my last post you have your suspicions as to why it's been a while.

Yes, the stamping was a challenge, an obstacle, a learning experience, and a pain. It also took days. So many days, and so many ruined covers, that I ran out of cover cloth, had to go back and get more from someone who didn't want to sell it to me, made more covers, ran out of board, rescued and re-lined board from the ruined covers, and finally, just when the deadline loomed and I had already made my disaster plan, the process gelled enough for me to get my two covers decently stamped.

I want to explain. I'm not only new to typeholders - I'm new to typeholders that fall apart in the middle of a stamp, sending hot metal cascading down onto the prepared foil and making random gold marks, or just burning the bejeesus out of my fingers as I scramble to prevent that from happening.

Here is my best typeholder:
In case you're wondering - no, it's not supposed to come in two pieces. If you don't know typeholders, here's the problem: The brass part holds the type, which must be heated evenly to about 200 degrees (F.)  or so. You have to heat it thoroughly, or the heat will be uneven and the stamping will be uneven, too. The brass part comes inserted into the wooden handle. Over time, bit by bit, with occasionally leaving the handle to get too hot or occasionally forgetting all about it until you smell smoke, the interior of the handle burns itself out. You can see the scorch marks at the top - the inside of the handle is completely charred and disintegrated. You can stuff cloth into the hole inside the handle, or leather, or whatever you will, enough to seemingly hold the brass part in place, but it has a habit of giving way at exactly the wrong moment.

I got my typeholders at a discount because they were used and burnt out. I'm an optimist - I think I can make them work. I even think I can improve them. First, I want to make a handle that is intended to be removable. I would like to be able to heat up the brass section without there being a handle on it that must be cossetted and watched and prevented from burning. Then, when the brass is heated, I want to be able to snap on a handle that will hold it firmly, and get to work. The handle should be easy to snap on and off, and should have heat resistance. I'm thinking the part of the handle that touches the metal needs to have an insulator - maybe a layer cut out of a silicon potholder - but the handle overall needs to be the right size and shape to fit well into my hand, as sometimes I have to apply quite a bit of pressure.

The tang on the brass section is slightly tapered and has a square profile and is about 1-1/4" long. Somehow the handle has got to fit over that quickly and easily. Now that I know what I want, the thing is to figure out how to make it. Wish I'd gotten that engineering degree when I had the chance ...