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|
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|
|a shiny dripping blood red ink roller|
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|
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|
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.