How Books Are Made

paper foldingPaper folding has been around forever. The Japanese call it Origami, but there are all sorts of complex and quite beautiful forms of paper folding beyond Origami, as the image to the right demonstrates.

If you’re curious, plug “paper folding” into Google Images. The styles, creativity and beauty of some of the finished pieces is amazing.

The creative paper folding involved in these pieces of art are all done by hand. However, today in 1857 (157 years ago), a Pennsylvania inventor called Cyrus Chambers, Jr., patented the first practical folding machine, designed to fold both newspapers and books.

It was a small revolution in the printing industry. Why?


Guttenberg invented his moveable type printing press in 1450 (although the Japanese beat him by 72 years, when they created a moveable type printing press in 1322). Gutenberg’s press made it possible to widely distribute books, and it revolutionized publishing.

However, before 1857 and the automatic folding machine, book pages that were printed on the press were laboriously cut up, assembled and bound into completed books.

What Chambers did was automate the process so that books could be assembled almost completely by machine.

I was once a project coordinator for the biggest printing company in North America. Because of that job, I have a thorough knowledge of the way books and magazines are put together.

How a Book is Made

Here’s a simple example of what Chambers did: Imagine cutting up and stacking 100 pages of a small book, all by hand, then gluing and binding them together. Sounds like a painfully tedious process, doesn’t it? That was the pre-folding machine way of doing it.

Now, take a sheet of paper – or just imagine having one in your hands. Fold the sheet in half. Then fold it in half again.

Then trim all four edges so that the pages all lie together neatly and squarely. There are eight pages of a book, right there.

That folded block of sheets is called a form (and the unfolded version is sometimes called a spread). The eight page form is one of the simplest. You can also have a four page form, although these are unusual. Eight page forms are common, although a sixteen page form is by far the most common. Check the magazines sitting nearest to you, and you’ll notice that the ones with staples in the spine most often have a total number of pages that are combinations of 16 and 8 page forms. You can also get 32 and 64 page forms, but these are more usual in very small sized books, like the old Readers Digest, or the current Prevention magazine. Like fabrics on the roll, paper comes in various widths, and the number of pages you can squeeze into a form depends on the width of the paper on the roll, and how big your book/magazine pages are.

16 page spread
A 16 page spread (form)

To make a magazine, the forms are slipped inside each other, stapled, and the edges trimmed. This is called “saddle-stitch” binding, as the stacks of forms are hung over a rail, like a saddle, and pass under the stitcher, cover up.

To make a book, or a magazine with a square spine, the forms are all stacked on top of each other in the correct order, the spine trimmed (actually, it is ground down, but it is called trimming), glued, the cover wrapped around the whole stack, and then the edges are trimmed. Voila, a bound book. This is called “perfect binding”.

This is the way that traditionally printed books and magazine are made, making full use of modern versions of Chamber’s folding machine. That is why, sometimes, with a legacy published book, you will find multiple blank pages at the back – they didn’t have enough material to fill the last pages on the last form.

Print on Demand Printing

A modern folding machine

Print on Demand books, which most indie authors offer as their print edition, would seem like a step backwards: They print single pages at a time, stacking them up in one part of the press, while another section prints the cover to wrap around the finished stack of pages. The book is then trimmed down to finished size.

What makes Print on Demand different from traditional presses is that digital files are used instead of the big forms, making it possible to print just one book at a time, and a different book right after that. This makes Print on Demand printing more expensive per book, but far, far cheaper in total than a traditional print run. A traditional print run prints thousands of books at once. Print on Demand can print just one, so printing costs are kept considerably lower (and so is the paper wastage).

When you order a print edition from an indie author, the book is printed once you have paid for it, taking anywhere from five to twenty minutes to print, depending on the number of pages (and my books would be closer to 20 minutes!). Then the book is sent to you directly from the printing house.


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