Binding Boot Camp: Some Basics from Acme Bookbinding

I'm always on the lookout for good explanations of the publishing process, so I'd like to share one I find particularly valuable. "The Making of the Modern Book" is a talk presented by Paul Parisi, president of Acme Bookbinding, which goes into detail about the way books are made now, the reasons for the decline in quality, and much more. If you're just starting to wonder about the way books are made, this reading is highly recommended. Although it focuses on the differences between library bindings and trade hardback binding, the material is relevant across the spectrum.

Here, I want to share a few excerpts of particular interest. On Smyth-sewn bindings, and why all books aren't sewn:

Better quality books are sewn using a process called Smyth sewing. Smyth sewing, a process for sewing through-the-fold, gets its name from the Smyth Company once located in Hartford Connecticut. Smyth's workhorse #12 and #18 book sewing machines were the Kleenex and Frigidaire of their era. Today most trade books that are sewn through the fold are sewn using machines made by Aster or Nuovo Smyth, both Italian companies, or Mueller Martini, a Swiss company. These machines sew at speeds up to 200 signatures per minute. Smyth sewn books are flexible, strong and excellent candidates for rebinding. They are the books that one day might be selected for recasing. They are also equivalent in structure to the books that are National sewn in the library bindery.

Why then aren't all trade books Smyth sewn? Cost is the short answer. Smyth sewn books must be taken off the production line and be processed one signature at a time through a sewing machine. Granted, the machines sew at a very high speed, but the extra step of sewing adds to the production time and adds cost to the book directly proportional to the number of signatures it is comprised of. Keep in mind that the thicker a book, the more signatures it will have, the more time it will take to sew this book one signature at a time, the greater the cost. Also keep in mind that book manufacturers wish to keep their binding lines running at steady speeds of approximately 3000 books per hour. It takes quite a bit of sewing capacity to produce that many books. Consequently sewing is always a bottleneck in the bindery.

If you've ever wondered what "signatures" are, and how they work, Parisi's explanation is succinct:

After printing, the sheets that will make up a book are folded into signatures usually made up of 16, 32, or 64 page impositions. These signatures then are collated into complete books on gathering machines--big machines with many pockets that each feed one of the signatures that will make up a book. A 320-page book, for example, might be comprised of twenty 16-page signatures or ten 32-page signatures. The trim size of the book (the height and width of the finished book[approx equal]s pages) and the maximum sheet capacity of the printing press are limiting factors that affect the choice of printing imposition. In my example of a 320-page book, the press sheet would have to be twice as large to have a 32-page imposition as opposed to a 16-page imposition. This is important because the more pages in a signatures, the fewer signatures in a book, the lower the cost of folding, gathering, sewing and binding a book. On the other hand books with lower page count impositions, such as 16-pages, generally are considered to be of higher quality.

Also, you know how there are some bindings that look glued, but seem to have the signatures intact? This is called "burst binding," and here's a description:

Some perfect bound books do not have the folds of the spine milled away. Instead holes punched in the folding process are filled with adhesive during perfect binding. These bindings are often called burst or notched bindings. It might appear that burst bindings are stronger than perfect bindings because the folds of the signatures are left intact. That is true only for the outer pages of each signature. The inner pages are held in the binding only by the small amount of adhesive that is able to flow in through the holes burst through the binding edge fold. If there is any misalignment of folding or defect in gluing, then these books are subject to failure. Burst bindings are inexpensive to produce because sewing is omitted. They look like sewn bindings to most consumers since the folds are preserved. Burst bindings are not good candidates for rebinding and they often do not hold up well to repeated use and abuse.

Parisi makes a good point that's worth repeating in the context of Bible publishing: "The economics of mass production is the culprit not the unscrupulous publisher." The more you understand about the way books are made today, the more you appreciate the challenges faced by any publisher hoping to (a) produce quality bindings, and (b) stay in business. The sad fact is, a lower quality product doesn't necessarily disappoint consumers, because most of them aren't going to notice. As Parisi notes, "...bad binding structure does not become apparent until the book has been used many times and has failed." A poorly bound Bible is only a problem if it's going to be "used many times," the way a library book is. My guess is that, if consumers used their Bibles often enough for the disadvantages of adhesive bindings to become apparent, publishers would find a way to sewn them all, just to avoid the complaints. But if consumers don't complain...