Thesis versus book, simply put

1 May 2015

On an entirely different matter, my colleague Paul Kratoska from NUS Press in Singapore wrote the following today:

The advice is simple. All the writing most students do up to and including the PhD is about showing what the writer knows. A book is about showing readers something they don’t know. To do that, it’s necessary to repeat some things they probably do already know, but the heart of the matter is explaining what a researcher has found that’s new and doing it in a way that readers will understand.

The job of the publisher is to try to figure out if the topic will attract enough readers to make this a viable endeavour. Authors can help by writing for as broad an audience as seems reasonable. The editor of the Journal of Asian Studies suggests adopting the “one-over rule” – writing something that will interest readers who are adjacent to the author’s work geographically, and adjacent in terms of discipline. It’s sound advice. In this case the issue is writing for readers who don’t do [disciplinary field of book concerned] but would be intrigued by work from a writer who is.

Wise words!


Thesis vs book

13 May 2013

In my previous post, I asserted that ‘a thesis is not a book’ without offering any grounds for this claim. In this post I shall substantiate my claim by describing and commenting on the main differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. Obviously, some theses are more book-like than others while a fair few academic books are not particularly good in their scholarship and/or in their authorship.

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Purpose

Thesis: To test the student’s competence and establish academic credentials.

Book: To communicate ideas/research results.

Comment: The difference in purpose, as in author and readership (below), means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.

 Form

Thesis: Often book-like but usually amateur in appearance.

Book: It is a book and normally is produced to professional publishing standards.

Comment: Producing a book-like thesis is risky but may be unavoidable. My previous post explores this issue.

 Length

Thesis: Often a lower limit, but not always an upper limit (sometimes the assumption being that the greater length, the greater the scholarship).

Book: Limited by market forces (printing cost, shipping weight, retail price, reader expectations, etc.)

Comment: The whole issue of book length (and word count) is explored here.

 Author

Thesis: Student (writing to pass scrutiny and assert academic credibility).

Book: Writer (aiming to communicate but with obligations to readers).

Comment: Arguably, the student is an involuntary author whereas the writer has choice (but that is to deny the enduring power of the old adage ‘publish or perish’; teachers have other obligations but researchers especially are chained to a publication treadmill).

Readership

Thesis: Panel of examiners tasked to evaluate the student.

Book: Colleagues and anyone else interested in the subject and in learning.

Comment: The difference in readership (between a group that is known and self-contained and one that is amorphous, undefinable and largely anonymous) is subtle but means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.

Focus on

Thesis: Author (the student, who is being examined).

Book: Reader.

Comment: Again, the difference in orientation creates a subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.

Scholarship

Thesis: Exposition required (to demonstrate knowledge).

Book: Absorbed and built on (to frame discourse).

Comment: Theoretical framework is not the only issue here but it is a major one that I explore in greater detail here.

Approach

Thesis: Defensive exposition (to panel of examiners).

Book: Open disclosure (‘selling’ an argument/research results to often unknown and possibly sceptical peers).

Comment: Another reason for the subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.

Treatment of subject

Thesis: Often highly technical and very detailed.

Book: Avoids unnecessary technical detail.

Comment: Many factors are at play here, not only length and approach (as above) but also things like how experienced the author is as a writer. That said, remember that we are comparing the typical thesis and a good scholarly book; there are plenty of experienced authors with an obsession with detail.

Language

Thesis: Often obscure, abstract and heavy on jargon.

Book: Clear with judicious use of technical terms where needed.

Comment: As per treatment of subject (above) but substitute ‘impenetrable prose’ for ‘an obsession with detail’.

Structure

Thesis: Often progressive recitation (along a preordained railway track).

Book: Organic unity, with narrative thread drawing the disparate elements together.

Comment: Arguably, the difference is more about the author’s skills and experience as a writer than any inherent distinction between thesis and book.

Narrative flow

Thesis: Orderly exposition but argument not built; often excessive signposting.

Book: Builds argument, linking chapters with subtlety; has pace and momentum.

Comment: As per structure (above), i.e. more about the writing skills and experience (less likely among new authors).

Ending

Thesis: Often ends quite abruptly.

Book: Wrapped by conclusions.

Comment: Structure and narrative flow (above), hence writing skills and experience, are usually at work here.

Methodology

Thesis: Detailed description required.

Book: Description only if and when relevant.

Comment: Methodology has much the same role as theory – see scholarship (above).

Referencing

Thesis: Often far more than strictly necessary.

Book: Only what is necessary.

Comment: Excessive referencing is typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality found in many theses but is not unknown among experienced authors. Unfortunately, every citation is a ‘speed bump’, reducing the readability of a text.

Quotations

Thesis: Necessary, often extensive.

Book: Limited use.

Comment: Also typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality is excessive quoting of the work of other scholars (both in length and frequency). Usually, students can get away with this in a thesis but the same excess in a published work (whether a book or article) could provoke accusations of breach of copyright and ‘fair use’.

Evaluation before completion

Thesis: Feedback from supervisor; final assessment by panel of examiners.

Book: Publisher’s commercial assessment, peer-review process and editorial input.

Comment: The difference in part relates to readership (above) but never assume that the commercial interests of a publisher and the academic needs of an author are completely aligned (far from it). A detailed description of editorial input begins here.

Evaluation afterwards

Thesis: Formal defence.

Book: Reviews published in journals and other external forums.

Comment: As per evaluation beforehand (above), readership plays a part but ultimately purpose (above) is especially important here.

footbridge

Where now?

As you can see, there are differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. However, every thesis is different, likewise every monograph. The question is, then, where does your thesis fit in this matrix and what do you need to do to transform it into a career-building book?

Time to put on your analyst’s hat and start planning. In a subsequent post, I shall follow this process.


Rethinking ‘thesis’ as ‘book’

12 May 2013

I have long argued that ‘a thesis is not a book’ and in my next post I shall outline my reasons why. Because of this, I have warned PhD students against the practice of ‘publication’ of their thesis by the home institution. Here, typically, the thesis is laid out and printed in book form (fancy cover and all) and may even be offered for sale on a limited basis. Recently, some have been appearing as e-books.

Serbo-Croation-kms

Let’s face it, however; I am still against these fake books (or at least their excessive distribution as library exchange copies) but the battle is probably lost here and in any case it may not matter. Time instead to minimise the damage, accentuate the positive.

Why? There are several reasons:

  1. Brutal reality. While you need to publish with a ‘reputable publisher’ to build an academic career, if at its outset the faculty demands publication of the thesis, this cannot be avoided.
  2. Your faculty may be right. Theft of your ideas and research results is a possibility. Online publication of your thesis is a kind of patenting process but that is only the first step; you need to assert your intellectual rights by publishing material from the thesis (see below).
  3. The market. Too much is being published but more than likely publishers are still hungry for fresh, new perspectives in your field. (If they are not, then your thesis topic may be a dead end; that’s another discussion.)

That said, I am certain there are quite a few publishers out there who would violently disagree with me (the same publishers who would not consider publishing a monograph that includes chapters already published in another form as journal articles; I sometimes wonder if a few of my publishing colleagues aren’t living in a parallel universe). The reality of the situation is something else; the old adage ‘publish or perish’ is true and today that means publish now not at a leisurely future date.

(Of course, you may not be required by your department to produce your thesis in book form and instead your may be tempted by an offer for ‘free publication’ of your thesis. Here’s why you should think hard about this.)

As such, if both initial publication of your thesis and its subsequent publication in another form by a ‘real’ publisher are unavoidable, the trick is to ensure that these two actions are not mutually exclusive. Here are a few thoughts about achieving this.

1) I realise that many students write their theses with a future book in mind; only minor tweaking is needed to produce the finished monograph. However, if you think hard about the differences between thesis and book (listed in my next post), you will have an action list for revision. Be warned: this may involve more than minor tweaking.

2) Think strategically about your career and the publication list on your CV. Regardless of whether or not both thesis and book are to be published, make sure that they have quite different titles and that you reserve the ‘sexier’ title for your book. The same applies for any journal articles, book chapters, etc. More about this here.

3) Even if you haven’t yet finished your thesis, start publishing material from your research now – as journal articles, book chapters, working papers, whatever – at the same time that you work on your thesis.

4) But if the thesis is finished (or nearly there), don’t believe the publishers who say you should contemplate your material and publish this as a monograph in five years time. Yes, you may need ‘distance’ from your thesis to complete the monograph but the clock is ticking on your career. The time is now for mining and reworking material from the thesis – again, as journal articles, book chapters, working papers, etc. – at the same time that you work on your monograph.

5) Don’t forget the discards. There may be all sorts of interesting material that you omitted from your thesis or won’t be included in your final monograph. Be a creative scavenger and rework these discards into articles or even future research and book projects.

One last thing: if you have just finished your thesis, well, the clock may be ticking on your career but take time out to savour your achievement. You’ve earned it!


Tortoise and hare

1 May 2013

While this may be blindingly obvious, there is quite a difference in sales of a typical history book (slow but steady) and of one focused on current affairs (“up like a rocket, down like a stick”). If you are writing such books, to avoid disappointment, you need to take this difference in sales behaviour in mind – and work to avoid this pattern.

For instance, sales of a recent NIAS Press book on the aftermath of the 2011 triple disaster in Japan – and timed to appear on the second anniversary of the disaster – have shot off like a hare. In contrast, a history of women and power in Cambodia had less dramatic initial sales when published five years ago but it continues to sell, week after week. (I hardly need say that the study is not a tortoise – far from it; this is a bravura work – but the image is suggestive of the sales figures.)

hare-and-tortoise

Why should this be?

In part it is an issue of relevance and topicality. As we said in my youth, today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper. Even two years after the triple disaster and with a change in government, the consequent issues facing Japan still remain as do most policy responses. However, in five years time, the disaster won’t be topical anymore (the horror will have lost its potency) and new events will make the book’s analysis less relevant. As such, sales will decline, maybe quite steeply.

In contrast, the issue of women and power in Cambodian history is not exactly a great talking point in the world’s cafes and bars today (except perhaps in Phnom Penh). Why then does the book continue to sell, even to be adopted for various undergraduate courses? Here, relevance and scholarship are at play. As one reviewer said about Lost Goddesses, “this is an exceptional book of considerable merit that will be of interest to a wide range of academics working in history, anthropology, gender studies, politics, religion and Southeast Asian studies”.

In a similar vein, every now and then a copy is sold of a history of economic decision-making in Vietnam, published by us in 1998. Aimed at Vietnam specialists, it never sold many copies but still it plods along. On the other hand, back in about 2001 there was a rash of books published in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis but nowadays I doubt that anyone is buying (or even consulting) these – unless, that is, readers are looking for parallels to today’s global economic woes.

This does not mean that you are condemned by your subject to play the role of the long-lived tortoise or ephemeral hare. Right now you can be sure that many authors are working to complete bright, new studies of the First World War, aimed for release on the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. Their publishers will be planning on massive sales that hopefully continue at a lower but profitable level in the years thereafter (unlikely unless the authors have indeed something new to say).

Likewise, in The Making of the President, political journalist Theodore White told the story of the 1960 US presidential campaign and election of John F. Kennedy. This national bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-winning account revolutionized the way US presidential campaigns are reported and remains to this day (claims Amazon) the most influential publication about the election of John F. Kennedy.

Here, we have it, three factors are at work: topicality, relevance and scholarship/quality. Just remember that no subject is condemned to focus on a sub-set of these three contributors to writing success (history can be topical and current affairs relevant long after the use-by date). Remember, too, that topicality, relevance and scholarship are not the only winning factors – readability and (self-) promotion are equally important.


From conference organiser to volume editor

10 April 2012

If you are someone who has organised a conference and is now being urged to edit the ‘conference volume’, you need to be wary of what you are getting yourself into.

Overcoming the prejudice against edited volumes means that the progression from conference programme to printed book is not simple; it is more than a matter of polishing the papers presented.

  • The volume must be given a focus (more of a focus than the conference had, perhaps).
  • Papers need to be selected that generally match this focus.
  • Inevitably, some papers presented at the conference will have to be excluded; no matter how good they are, their subject lies far beyond the volume’s focus and they cannot be adapted to it.
  • Ideally, other papers should be solicited that fit the subject but are missing from the original line-up.
  • All papers must then edited to conform with the overarching focus of the volume.

And that’s just the outline. Within this process are a mass of issues, not least those of managing a complex project, handling many authors (some with experience, reputations and egos vastly greater than yours and no doubt all with many other demands on their working time), performing in the delicate role as first-line peer reviewer and dealing with a publisher. And perhaps worst of all, editors are often given little academic credit for such a difficult and delicate task.

Given the prejudice against edited volumes and the demanding requirements to produce something that brings you credit, not opprobrium, it may be that another outcome for the conference is best. Perhaps your best course of action, then, is to suggest publishing the conference papers online, essentially as a cluster of working papers.

Unfortunately, your bosses may think it makes perfect institutional sense to publish a volume based on the conference programme and this year it’s your turn.

Of course, you may not be forced into the role of volume editor; there are indeed a number of good reasons to offer yourself as editor. Editing a book could be a way for you to build your academic network and gain name recognition in a wider circle. You might feel that your field needs a collaborative volume on a particular subject, and that there is nobody else who can make it happen, or happen well. Perhaps you have to offer a route to publication in order to attract good contributions to a workshop or conference you are convening.

But, whatever your reasons, be aware what you are getting yourself into.


Prejudice against edited volumes

10 March 2012

There is a widespread prejudice against edited volumes in the scholarly world, the idea being they are collections of unedited conference papers with a cover slapped on. In a few cases this is true, the culprits even found among the published lists of certain eminent academic presses.

Such blatant inferiority is not the case for most edited volumes but many do have their issues. A commonly perceived fault is that some editing has been done but not enough; the editors have started with a disparate collection of whatever papers came to hand (papers from a conference being the most common source) and not done enough to bring these bits and pieces together into an integrated whole.

As a result, the mere mention of ‘edited volume’ can prompt many people and the majority of publishers to blindly reach for their nose.

Image

But this judgement is unfair, the charge they are rough and raw is far from the truth for most edited volumes. They may have their flaws but many are actually focused and subtle works. Moreover, often these volumes are the earliest channel for new scholars to bring fresh insights in their field to a wider readership. As a result, a few such edited volumes – especially those that can truly focus many minds together (often from different disciplines) on a single subject – can actually be path-breaking works.

Of course, edited volumes require contributors and editors. As can be seen in my next post, authors may have other ideas. Moreover, the role of the volume editor is not utterly joyful (as seen in my subsequent post).


How much theory?

19 January 2012

Recently, an author asked me for a bit of advice.

I am slaving away on the book, but I need a bit of advice. I have changed the style from thesis to book. That’s no problem, but I am concerned about the theoretical frame. I have a whole chapter on what you might call ‘Critical Strategies’, that is, the 3 or 4 major theoretical underpinnings. I am wondering if you normally ask authors to delete that sort of chapter. Some of the theories about discourse and so on are sprinkled throughout the text. That’s unavoidable, if it is to make sense. Do you recommend I take it out that chapter and simplify the argument, or leave it in and see what your reviewers think?

Personally, I’m not a great fan of theoretical arguments; I often joke and say, ‘Whenever I see a theory I reach for my knife!’

However – whether authors, readers, librarians or publishers – we are in the ‘business’ of academic communication. In so doing, we act within one or more scholarly discourses. Clearly, your own study belongs to a specific scholarly discourse and will be framed by this. Some theory, then, is pretty much unavoidable. As your intended readers are already familiar with this discourse, it is sufficient that you lightly refer to this and indicate how your work adds to the debate. Certainly, it is unlikely that a 100-page review of the theoretical literature to date will be of interest.

As such, I replied to my author as follows:

As you say, there will be some theoretical discussion sprinkled throughout the book. This needs to be put in context at the beginning. However, there is no place for the big cow-pat of theoretical recitation commonly found at the start of theses; you are not needing to prove to any examiners that you know the discourse.

So how much and how little?

May I suggest that you imagine just who your readers are – you could even identify specific, real people – and then consider what would be their interest in your book. More than likely they do not want to be served up with a regurgitation of theories they know backwards but they will appreciate seeing how your study fits (and builds on) the existing discourse.

That at least is my ‘theory’ on theory. The practical reality for each individual work will be different, of course. Some will need to be larded with a theoretical overlay, others will be so empirical they are theory-anorexic. As always, think of the needs of your book and its readers.


Coping with rejection

22 March 2011

It’s been months since you submitted your book proposal and the mail you received today is almost a relief after all the silence. No. The press to which you offered your book (and in which you invested hopes and dreams) says ‘no’; they do not want to publish your book. No solid reasons given. You are not sure they even looked properly at the darn thing (but they do say ‘sorry’ in a nice way).

It takes more than time to write a book. It also takes courage, stamina and self-belief, all of which may leach away in the face of (constant) rejection. And, let’s be clear, rejection is the norm. The spurn rate is much higher with journal articles (many journals rejecting as many as 95% of the articles submitted) but the norm is rejection for a book manuscript, too. Luckily, there is (or should be) more than one press or journal to offer your work to.

How then to react to rejection, and to move on positively?

Is it actually ‘no’?

Of course, ‘no’ can come in different shades of black. Sometimes the rejection will not be outright; you may be invited to ‘revise and resubmit’. If so, you may enter a process of ‘acceptance creep’, a period of dialogue during which you revise your work to meet the publisher’s requirements. In essence, you have a tiny toe in the door and over time you can work and wiggle to get first a foot in the door, then a leg and finally all of you – of your book – through to the sunny side of publishing.

However, if you have received a blunt ‘no’, then you need to move on; there is little point arguing with the publisher. Rather, be pleased if the publisher chooses to tell you in any detail why your book has been rejected; such feedback is invaluable. On the basis of the knowledge of the industry, some publishers also helpfully suggest alternative presses which they think might be interested in your work.

Where now?

If that publisher’s rejection is final, pause a moment. Do not immediately rush off and submit your manuscript to the next publisher on your list. Reflect on the likely reasons that your proposal was rejected.

  • Was this publisher indeed the right one for your book?
  • Was your approach to them handled correctly? If not, what can you learn from this?
  • Was there a problem with the peer review process? It is not unknown that a scholar’s work ends up being judged by a bitter enemy, for instance, or one approaching the topic from an entirely different standpoint than the author’s. Knowing this won’t improve that reader’s report but it will help you face others in the future.
  • Is there something wrong with your text itself? On a sliding scale of fixability, common problems are shoddy presentation/spelling, bad writing and poor scholarship.
  • Is the big problem financial rather than content? For instance, is the readership/market judged to be too small or will your book be too expensive to produce?
  • Or is it (simply, sadly) that you personally are the problem, your authorship isn’t believed in?

Only if you take this time to ask the cruel questions – asking exactly what went wrong – can you move on and do something effective about it. Otherwise in all likelihood you are condemning yourself to another round of rejection.

Responses

How ever much the rejection hurts (and you may want to shrug the whole thing off as a bad dream), for the sake of your writing career you need to be decisive in response. You have several choices, depending in part on what the original problem was.

  • You can abandon the whole thing. This is clean and simple but a drastic, wasteful decision if you have spent months or years working on the book. At the very least, salvage something from the wreckage (the makings of a couple of journal articles, for instance).
  • You can simply resubmit/argue the merits of your proposal to the same publisher. People have succeeded here but personally I think it is a waste of your time and of your creative/emotional energies.
  • More productive instead is to find/approach another publisher. If so, however, then you need to find out in what ways the new publisher is different from the first. What effect will these differences have on your revised proposal? In other words, will you ‘sell’ your proposal to the new publisher any differently? At the same time, you should ask yourself how generally might your proposal be improved, no matter which press you approach?
  • But a quick response may not be possible; you may need to rework the book (or at least rewrite the book concept). In this work, any critical feedback you receive from earlier rejections (e.g. from readers reports) can be worth gold.
  • Improving the economic prospects for the book might be all that is required, of course. Publishers invariably say that subventions don’t affect their decision-making but that is nonsense; of course they do – at least in instances where there is no issue with the scholarship but rather the likely production costs are too high (say, with a book full of colour pictures) or expected sales are too low (the market is too small). In such instances, a publication grant can make all the difference. Indeed, let’s be clear: there are some publishers whose entire business plan depends on such funding (and here I don’t mean vanity presses, either).
  • Finally, you may decide to self-publish. Received wisdom denies any place for self-published academic works (let alone recognition in job and funding applications) because of the lack of peer review. However, the ground is shifting here; we are seeing experiments with ‘soft peer review’, the rise of collaborative writing based on the Creative Commons approach, and other developments resulting from the rise of the internet. That said, self-publishing is not something to venture into lightly. There are many issues and considerable costs or extra work involved, as can be seen in my series of posts dealing with this issue.

In short, you need to gather as much hard information as possible and then do some hard thinking. But, hey, you are a researcher. Isn’t that precisely what you have been trained to do?

Good luck!


Advances

24 November 2010

The arrival of advance copies of a book is a special moment. Emotionally, the book is out; it is real. This is the moment to feel it was all worthwhile (and to brag just a little).

There is more to advance copies than feeling good and bragging, however. They have several other purposes.

A final check

For the publisher this is a last chance to discover and rectify errors. True, the book is printed so any changes are limited unless reprinting is decided upon. But should this be necessary (or, say, an errata slip inserted in the book), then at least this can be done before the books are shipped all over the world.

Review copies

Sometimes, publishes will send advance copies of the book to a few key journals as well as to the news media. Timing is critical here. Some publications like the Library Journal in the U.S. will only accept new titles for review several months ahead of publication, the idea being that the review is before publication of the book. It may be impossibly early for ordinary advances copies to be used here and instead such early review copies are usually galley proofs but today it is just as easy (if not more so) to deliver an ‘advance copy’ specially printed by a POD printer ahead of the main litho printing.

The news media also want early review copies but here timing is even more tricky. The essential nature of the media is its short attention span and the ephemeral nature of its product (today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper, as we used to say). As such, any news or reviews of a book carried in the press tend to be within a few days of publication; review copies may well have been sent to the journalists only a week before. As such, publishers will only send copies to the media when they are certain that sale copies of the book will be available within a few days. Given the vagaries of shipping times, then, the publisher may judge it wise to hold back on sending such advance copies to the press or instead may send these advances but request an embargo on coverage until after sale copies of the book are available.

Obviously, such time sensitivity and media awareness only relates to those few academic books that are either timely and/or controversial.

Marketing copies

A common use for advance copies is as conference exhibits. For instance, in my own field, a key conference held each year in late March is the General Meeting of the (U.S.) Association of Asian Studies. Among the several thousand delegates attending will be librarians scouting for interesting additions to their collections. Also there will be teachers scrutinizing the latest titles in their field and deciding which (if any) should be adopted for course use in the new academic year. Ensuring that an advance copy is on view at the conference can have a major effect on sales.

For this reason, too, it is common for a publisher’s distributors to want copies of the book ahead of arrival of their shipped copies.

Reference copies

Given the competing demands for copies of the advances, it would be easy for the publisher to end up with none. This happened to me recently when inadvertently our only remaining advances of a controversial new title were exhibited and then sold at a big conference. Afterwards, it was embarrassing that I had no copy on hand when discussing the book with various concerned parties. Reference may not be a glamorous use of advance copies but it is an important one.

Author advances

That said, all things considered, in my opinion the prime use of advance copies is to reward the author with a foretaste of things to come. The hard grind finishing the book is over but equally important is the author’s promotion of her/his book in the months (and years) that follow. This vital contribution to the success of their book is not appreciated by most authors. (More about this in a later post.)

Authors may not get all of their author copies before the main shipment has arrived but it is usual that they receive one or two copies. Of course, any serious bragging at the book launch requires delivery of the main shipment (one point of the launch being to sell lots of copies to those attending) but often these advances are very useful to authors, arriving just in time to be shown at an important meeting or job interview.

Now

But such meetings and interviews are in the future.  It is now that the bell rings at the reception counter of your workplace. A courier stands there with a brightly coloured package. You sign, barely noticing as the courier leaves. Inside you can feel the copies. The Book, it has arrived, your child is born.

Enjoy the moment while it lasts. Getting a few advances from the printer is quick by courier but, as we shall see, shipping the rest of the copies to the warehouse and then out into the libraries and bookstores can take forever (or so it feels). More about that in my next post.

(Post #9 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Binding

9 November 2010

As I noted in my earlier post, today the bindery is often located on the premises of a printing works though traditionally it has been located elsewhere as a separate business. Anyway, wherever it is found, the bindery is a glue-sniffer’s paradise. This is because its whole purpose is to take the printed sheets and covers from the print-shop and transform them into finished books. An essential ingredient in this transformation is glue.

Binding process

In itself, the book binding process is quite straightforward though the mechanics of binding can shade between automated mass-production and the handwork of a master craftsman. The sequence is:

  1. If it hasn’t already been done at printing, each sheet is folded into signatures (usually made up of 16 pages).
  2. Typically, the signature is stapled through its centre fold so as to fasten all the pages together.
  3. The raw book block is formed by collating the signatures. This is often done by using a mechanical hand dipping into storage bins where the signatures are stored or by fetching signatures from a rotating carousel. It is possible to have material such as a colour insert tipped in (hand inserted between two signatures) but this is very expensive.
  4. The gathered signatures are clamped and bound together, then fastened to the cover (if a paperback) or binding material (if hardback). Today, this is usually done by using glue. There are many different types of binding technique (see below).
  5. The book block (or actual book in the case of paperbacks) is trimmed to size.
  6. For hardbacks, the trimmed book block is fastened to the hard case.
  7. The finished books are made ready for shipment. Sometimes they may be shrink-wrapped (especially so if the book has loose items – like a DVD – to be safeguarded from theft or accidental loss). In all cases, the books will be packed in cartons and fastened together on a pallet.

Types of binding

Although a reasonably straightforward process, there are quite a few variations in the above sequence. These mainly occur at step 4 where, essentially, the choice is between different types of binding:

  • Perfect binding (normal with paperbacks), where the folded edges of the gathered signatures are chopped off and the resulting smooth edge is then roughened and glued to the cover; or
  • Sewing or stitching the signatures to backing material (and sometimes to each other), this material in turn (at step 6) fastened to end papers, then the whole package fastened to the casing material. There are lots of different wonderful names used for these techniques (saddle stitching, for instance) as well as for the materials used (e.g. head- and tail-bands, a.k.a. wibbling).

Library binding is a variation of the latter type of binding, in essence a higher-quality piece of craftsmanship using more durable binding materials. However, the squeeze on library budgets has caused some libraries to opt for cheap paperbacks instead (where these are available), the calculation being that, if the first cheap paperback falls apart, a second copy can be bought (and, later, even a third). The accumulated cost is still less than the cost of buying a book (or rebinding it) with a library binding.

Types of covering

As noted above, there are different types of covering. Normally with books, we talk about hardbacks and paperbacks but there is more variation within these two categories:

  • Cloth binding, i.e. the hard case is covered with an artificial cloth material and the spine is embossed (usually in gold) with the author–title details and publisher’s logo. Often this cased book has a protective jacket/dust cover.
  • Semi-hardback (or super-thick paperback) using thick, flexible card over sewn or stitched signatures.
  • Conventional paperback, perfect bound.
  • Paperback with flaps.

In addition, the finished bound books may be enclosed with a protective slip case. This is more common with multi-volume sets (especially reference works) and for those single volumes needing to be seen as a prestigious and/or luxury product.

Finishing up

The last step of the binding process is of course to ship out the finished books. Some of these will go as advances to the publisher (the subject of my next post) but the bulk of the stock will be shipped to the publisher’s warehouse(s), more about that later.

(Post #8 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)