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The Bookbinders Interview

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Book binding

Q: When did you first get the idea for Do-It-Yourself books?
    A: The first step came in 1990, when we were introduced to WordPerfect 5.1 on a 386 PC with a laser printer. Although, at that point, the printer had only a monospaced Courier font and we were just using the system to edit work, make corrections and print a perfect copy every time without all the slog of using a typewriter and gallons of correction fluid.

Q: So what you produced wasn't very book-like?
    A: Not for about a year, or so. Then the FaceLift add-on for WordPerfect arrived and gave us proportional Bitstream fonts, which we could use to do proper typography. Although we were still only at step two of the book production process at that stage.

Q: And it was a couple of years more before you produced your first book?
    A: The third step was to get a novel that existed on the computer as a sequence of type-set pages into a form which we could make into a hardback book. To which we could add a jacket. And following the traditional book-binding process, that involves making a set of booklets, sewing the pages of each individual booklet together then assembling the booklets into a block, onto which the hardback case is applied.

Q: And this was a problem?
    A: These days, all decent word-processing programs include an option to print a document as a booklet. But this is technically difficult if done from scratch. For a 32-page booklet, for instance, you have to print pages 32 and 1 on the first sheet and print pages 2 and 31 on the back of them; print pages 30 and 3 on the second sheet and print pages 4 and 29 on the back of them, and so on.

Q: So you have to redo the book with the pages in this peculiar order for printing?
    A: Yes - either manually by cutting and pasting from one document to another, or the 'easy' way - by running a macro on a 32-page chunk of the novel.

Q: I gather the macro wasn't something that you could get 'off the shelf'? Something that someone could sell or give to you?
    A: Right in one. In fact, you need two macros - one to reassemble the pages in their booklet order for printing and another to apply the correct number to each page - so that the first eight sheets are printed with pages numbered in the order 32, 1, 30, 3, 28, 5, 26, 7 and so on. In fact, the first macro was very flexible and it allowed us to print booklets with any number of multiples of 4 pages - i.e. 4, 8, 12, 16, 32, 36, 48 and so on. With blank pages inserted to make the total up to a multiple of 4.

Q: It all sounds very complicated.
    A: Yes, well, that's probably why we didn't produce our first hardback until 1993!

Q: How did you get on with printing the jackets?
    A: We had a laser printer which could print only black on sheets up to A4 in size. So jackets were paste-up assembly jobs and colour was applied by hand as we didn't have our A3 colour printer then. In effect, each individual jacket became a separate work of art with its own unique painting on the cover.

Q: Not exactly production-line stuff?
    A: No, but it was never intended as such. The whole object of the exercise was to get a novel, or a collection of short stories, onto the bookshelf in a form that looked just like the other, commercially produced, books around it. To escape the boring and unwieldy format of a typescript on A4 paper in a ring binder.

Q: But you also began to produce softbacks as well as hardbacks?
    A: It's always nice to have an easier option. We'd seen thermal binding systems, in which a strip of hot-melt glue on a cover is melted in a heating system and secures the pages. But the covers we'd seen were suitable only for binding about 10 sheets of paper, which is some way short of a novel! It wasn't until about 1996 that we came across a source of covers with a 10 mm spine.

Q: Does that mean you're limited to books of a certain length?
    A: Yes, but the limits are pretty broad. We can use 80, 90 or 100 gsm paper, which gives us about 60 to 95 sheets in a softback book, or 120 to 190 pages, and we can set the book in 10 or 11 point type. This gives us a range, in terms of word-count, of 60,000 to 95,000 words.

Q: Yes, the latitude is pretty wide. Which format to you prefer - hardback or softback?
    A: Hardbacks. Although the softbacks are quicker and easier to make, we consider the hardback is the preferred way to present a book-length work.

Q: So do some authors get their books up past 95,000 words because they have to go into hardback at that length?
    A: Not necessarily. The format is the author's choice. Jon Gored, the author of Dreamers of the Day, which is about 206,000 words, decided he was going to make it a boxed set instead of a single, hardback volume. And it was printed up as a set of four softbacks. In fact, his bookshelf version reversed the conventional book form. The pages had a soft binding and a hard jacket in the form of the printed box. And he sees his next epic, Prey [280,000 words], as a 5-volume boxed set.

Q: You've achieved the transition from typed manuscripts to actual books on bookshelves. Is there a next step? Something electronic, perhaps?
    A: It's always possible but only as a secondary system. We don't see anything else taking over from words printed on paper in the immediate future. It's what the authors want - and it's the preferred format for the reader, too. After all, a book is always there for you. You don't have to plug a book in to the mains to read it or give it a new set of batteries, and you don't have to reboot it because books don't crash!

Q: You - meaning Romiley Literary Circle authors - have put short stories on the Internet - you're not planning to do the same with novels?
    A: Never Say Never to quote most of the Bond film title, but it's not going to be a route for every author. Perhaps the idea way to distribute a novel-length work would be as a .PDF file rather than an HTML document as the former gives the author almost total control over the page layout and our authors are all typography freaks these days. But you're still relying on the host computer having the fonts specified so that it can display the pages correctly - which may not happen with a substitute font. This is likely to be a problem as our authors refuse to use Times New Roman or Arial. I'd say the printed page still has a long and noble future. Particularly for RLC authors.

Nigel Circassian in conversation with Henry Smith and Alan Marshall.

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