Wednesday, 30 October 2013

How do you make a book? Lari Don

When I visit schools, one of the questions I’m asked most often (usually by 6 year olds rather than 10 year olds) is ‘how do you make a book?’ They’re often very disappointed when they discover that I don’t make books. I just write the words. Someone else does the pictures, and someone else entirely makes the physical book with the actual pages that you turn. I can talk a little about the illustrator’s role, because I’ve chatted to illustrators, and responded to roughs and commented on layouts. But I always have to admit that I have no idea how a book is printed, how the book is actually made, because I’ve never met a printer or seen what they do.

I mentioned this gaping hole in my knowledge to my lovely publishers Floris Books, just once in passing (or perhaps I nagged, I’m not sure), and last week, they organised a trip to a printers and let me tag along so I could learn how a book is made. We went to Bell and Bain in Glasgow, which is the oldest book printer in Britain and the biggest book printer in Scotland, where Tony Campbell gave us a fascinating tour.

The first thing I noticed was the noise. I think of books as quiet things, though I probably shouldn’t because I make a lot of noise killing dragons and shouting ‘bottom!’ when I do book events, but writing and reading can be calm quiet activities.

However, printing is not quiet. The noise in the factory was overwhelming. When one of the printing presses started up right beside me, the hum and vibration was like an aeroplane taking off.

the inside of a printing press
And everything was so big! Books are usually little things you can hold in your hand. But all the machines which make books are great big industrial-sized metal giants.

Bell and Bain is a proper factory, which makes real things, in huge quantities. And for someone who loves books, Bell and Bain is a wonderfully optimistic place. 90 people are employed there and they have recently bought new printing presses (for figures which I won’t reveal but made me gasp.) It’s a thriving business, making books. 7 million books a year…

And here’s how it’s done.

First the digital file from the publishers is turned into a plate. A flimsy wobbly shiny sheet of metal is lasered, then developed with chemicals, so that it’s marked with an impression of the words and pictures the publisher wants printed on the paper. If you are printing black and white, you only need one plate; if you are printing colour, you need four plates (for all the different colours.)

And the plate is huge, because the paper to be printed is huge. A rug-sized sheet of paper, which can fit 32 novel-sized pages on each side. I reckon that about a dozen 10 year olds could sit cross-legged on one sheet of Bell and Bain’s paper. (Yes, ok, doing so many author visits has given me a fairly odd way to judge area…)

a large sheet of paper, scale provided by the powerful hand of my editor Eleanor
So the plates are put in the printing press and the paper is fed though. We saw the biggest press opened up to be serviced. The innards look like the inside of my computer printer at home, but these are the right size for the house at the top of the beanstalk. The ink rollers are amazing, long thick shiny rollers covered in gleaming ink, which is poured over them from bucket-sized pots. I took pictures of all the rollers, but I liked the blood red roller best…

a shiny dripping blood red ink roller
The printing press prints both sides of the papers, that’s why it needs eight presses for colour. But it can do 15,000 sheets of paper an hour. And it's printing all day and all night, 7 days a week.

Bell and Bain have black and white presses too, and we are fairly sure we identified the exact press which printed some of my First Aid for Fairies novels, so I got my picture taken in front of it. (This was much more exciting than getting my picture taken in front of the Eiffel Tower!)

my tourist shot - Lari and the First Aid for Fairies printing press

This process is called litho printing (or at least that’s what I scribbled down) and we also saw smaller litho presses for printing covers on card rather than paper, and a terrifyingly fast inkjet digital printer which printed onto rolls of paper rather than sheets.

After the litho printing press has finished, you have all the pages of your book, but they would be easier to sit on than to read. So next the sheets are fed into a folding machine, which I thought was the most fascinating machine in the building. It’s a conveyor belt, but not a straight one: it has lots of corners, and every time the sheet of paper goes round a corner it’s folded, and somewhere in there it’s also cut and perforated, so by the time it reaches the end the rug-sized sheet of paper has become book-sized, with holes along the back. Though it’s probably not a complete book yet, this section or ‘sig’ will be a fraction of the book, perhaps a quarter or a tenth of a book depending how long the book is. The folding machine also has lines of big shiny ball bearings, which are apparently there to stop the paper flying off the belt at the corners, but made me want to play marbles on the factory floor…

the fabulous folding machine - look at those tempting marbles
Then the book is bound. The folded sigs are put in hoppers above the binding machine, dropped down and layered in the right order. Then the spine of the naked book is dipped in hot glue, the glue goes up into the perforations in the pages and the cover is clamped onto the gluey spine. The cover is then folded round the pages, the edges of the book are trimmed to make them neat and tidy, and the book comes out the other end all ready to read.

Ready to read and still warm. Books actually are hot off the press. Because the glue is hot, when you touch the spine of a very new book, it’s warm!

That glue is also rather wonderful - it arrives in pellets like little white seeds, then is heated until it melts, and is used as hot liquid glue.

cold dry glue, before it's melted
And that is how you make a book!

I must thank the lovely Floris team for arranging our trip, and all the staff of Bell and Bain for letting half a dozen publishers and one nosy writer get in their way all afternoon. I must also thank every child who has asked me how books are made, because their curiosity prompted me to find out more about printing.

I should stress that the above is just my tourist’s understanding of the printing process. I’ve probably missed a couple of steps and misunderstood most of the rest. (I certainly wouldn’t advise setting up a printing company using my description of the process as a guide.) But I hope my account of a trip to a printing press will give you some idea of the skill, effort and technology which goes into creating a physical book.

And next time a child asks me ‘how do you make a book?’ they’d better be ready for a very long and detailed answer. Or perhaps I’ll just give them a link to this blog…

Lari Don is the award-winning author of 20 books for all ages, including fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers. 


Joan Lennon said...

Wow! What a great expedition - thanks for sharing!

Stroppy Author said...

Wonderful! What a super account. And I'm amazed they are still called 'sigs' (from 'signatures', from the days of binding manuscripts). I've done physical printing but not for a long time and not full colour and it's great to see all the new kit - thank you :-)

Richard said...

Factories are magical places. In my day job I've visited several, and I still get a kick out of knowing that there's something I made hidden away in all that monstrous machinery, making all those cars or magnetic tape or whatever.

I have a book that must have been my fathers: Every Boys Book of Hobbies by Cecil H Bullivant.

One of the chapters is on book-binding, with a view to binding a set of magazines for instance. It makes fascinating reading and apart from the horse-bone glue, which might be difficult to source these days, it would be perfectly possible to do on the kitchen worktop.

Penny Dolan said...

Such an interesting and useful post and hooray to Floris Books for setting it up for you. Thanks, Lari.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Gosh, I'm green with envy, but thank you so much for sharing that experience with us!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Oh this is SUCH a wonderful post and I'm green with envy! Along the way I got muddled with the sigs and hoppers but it doesn't matter it looked and sounded TOO marvellous. I could hear the noise and smell the inks and paper. I think there are going to be plenty of publishers out there who are going to have authors bleating in their ears for similar treats! THANK YOU!

Lari Don said...

Glad you all enjoyed the post and sorry if it made you green with envy! It really was one of the most interesting and inspiring things I've done as an author. I was aware as I watched these dozens of people getting on with their jobs printing books, that we, as writers, are the people at the very start of the publishing process who write the words that keep all these other people in jobs. It's quite a responsiblity!