This week I’ve been reading a newly published set of six history books. And unfortunately, I should read them as quickly as possible because these books are designed from the get-go to fall apart in short order.
As a consumer this is maddening. The set cost me $550 (or $91.66 per volume). And after inspecting the books, I feel certain the publisher is likely greedy and thinks we are ignorant. Let’s take a look.
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The new set of books are on the right. Some traditional books are on the left. If you look closely, you’ll see the difference. The books on the right are “perfect bound.” What does that mean? Basically, the printer took a bunch of single sheets and applied glue to one edge. It’s how cheap paperbacks and other impermanent publications, such as magazines, are made. And perfect binding – once unthinkable for expensive books – is now common.
The glue will get brittle. And if you stress the binding to, say, try to make the pages lie flat, then the pages will start to fall out, one by one.
On the left is how Lost Art Press and some other publishers make books. The book starts as large sheets of paper that are folded into “signatures” – basically self-contained booklets comprising eight, 16 or 32 pages. Then we stack these signatures in order and sew them together with thread (a process called Smyth sewing). Then we apply glue to the edges of the signatures plus a fiber-backed tape to add durability and flexibility to the book.
Books made this way are designed to last many decades and suffer abuse.
So I know there are some people out there who are saying: Perhaps the publisher of the perfect-bound books couldn’t afford to use an expensive binding. How can we know what the book cost to make?
Well after 32 years in this business and quoting hundreds and hundreds of jobs, I can guess.
Based on the paper weight and page count, I estimate these books cost about $7 apiece to manufacture – so $42 total for the set. If they had switched to a traditional sewn binding, my best guess is that the books would cost $10 to $14 each to make (the paper is quite thin). So $60 to $84 to manufacture the set, max (and I’m being generous).
So no matter what the publisher is paying the authors (likely 10 percent to 15 percent of gross), the publisher is basically printing money. For itself.
I know this might sound like a “holier than thou” blog entry. But – particularly when the content is worth preserving for future generations – I have no patience for cheap, fall-apart books. And I hope that perhaps this blog entry will help you spot these ornery critters in the wild.
— Christopher Schwarz
Make Your Own ‘Signatures’