Ch.11 : Costing not less than everything

I was determined from the outset to keep track of my expenditure: there is a curious sort of excitement in working to a budget, and the magic figure of 100 books meant that any purchase could immediately be reckoned ‘per book’ which had the effect of reducing large numbers to gratifyingly small ones – thus, Gargantua the Chinese Guillotine (who deserves and will get a chapter to himself) added a mere 60p a book, since his retail cost of £80 was reduced to £60 thanks to the Am*z*n vouchers I was given for feeding the downstairs cats for a week (kindness does pay).

I’m a writer, so I invent names for things which may well have names already. In my scheme of things ‘recovery cost’ was what I would need to recover from sales to cover all my expenditure, including hardware; my aim was to keep that below £1000, i.e. £10 per book. The other was consumable cost, the amount I would have to spend in the making of each book – the unit cost, if you like, which would be a truer index of profit per book, since I got to keep all the hardware and could use it again.

Of course, my time did not come into the costing. As I said, I’m a writer – if you have taken over ten years to get something into publishable form, costing your time will only depress you. No doubt I would have taken my time into account had I been working for someone else, but here I was working for myself; besides, I could set my time against a couple of things I wasn’t having to do. The first was stand in a queue behind various middlemen and women – shopkeeper, distributor, printer, publisher, (agent) – who reduced the 8.99 the customer paid in the shop for my first book to 67p by the time it reached me (as a matter of fact, my first three books were unagented. I can only say that I gained no benefit from having one for my fourth). The second were the anxious days and hours spent in hawking my finished manuscript about various people (publishers, agents) and waiting for some sort of response, which genuinely is time wasted when you set all your unsuccessful efforts against the single successful one you may eventually get, if you are lucky.

So here is a list compiled, by the look of things, when the process was fairly well advanced – i.e. most of the actual buying had been done – then dressed up to look pretty:

Screenshot 2018-02-27 10.35.52

As you can see, this includes some expenditure that proved unnecessary – the ‘beech boards’ from IKEA were a typical ‘magpie’ purchase – two handsome-looking chopping boards that I thought might served as an aid to pressing books at various stages. I did use them, but in the event they exuded oil, so that any paper next to them became stained, so I abandoned them and used Encyclopaedia Britannicas instead. The bulldog clips were intended to substitute for a vice or press to allow the signatures to be sawn, but in the end a purpose-built frame and clamps proved more useful. The paring knife, a lovely thing, served to persuade me that hand-trimming 100 books was not going to be practical, so I bought the big guillotine instead. I had bought a small guillotine, not listed here, for about £15, but it proved too flimsy to be of much use.

So, the figures above suggest a ‘recovery cost’ of £8.43 per book and a consumable cost of £4.90, well within target, and including some things I need not have bought as well as some surpluses such as boards, tape and thread, where I bought more than I needed for economy. The only thing I underestimated was glue, but there again I had initially bought costly specialist stuff from Hewit’s but might as well have bought a larger cheaper quantity from Wickes, as I did latterly.

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Ch.10: The Singular Delight of Endpapers

Ah, Endpapers!

They are lovely, as you can see here  

Hewit's Enpapers

a sample of endpapers from J. Hewit & Co

and here

However, you pays for what you gets: the Hewit’s range pictured above come in at £3.96 per sheet (inc VAT) where a sheet is 480mmx680mm: with each book requiring 2 A4 size sheets* (210 x 297) then you will not get more than four endpapers per sheet, with a fair bit of unavoidable wastage. That means that for 100 books you will require 50 sheets. Even with a bulk discount, you will still pay 3.24 a sheet, or £1.62 a book. A total of £162 makes endpapers the costliest item after the printer (£210) – and of course that is a one-off that you get to keep, whereas endpapers, as a consumable, are a recurring cost.

It is at this point that you begin, for the first time as a writer, to have some sympathy with publishers, and to realise that the streak of hard-hearted meanness that you complain of in them is in you also. You agree that the endpapers are beautiful but the cost makes you suck air in through your teeth. £1.62 a book! Surely that could be brought down a bit?

So off you go, scouring craft shops. You find that there are no end of books of fancy papers to be had at reasonable cost – and in the right size, too – but the patterns are all too big. This may be a matter of personal taste, but for me an endpaper pattern has to be on a small scale: once it gets beyond a certain size, it doesn’t work. Even eBay, generally a good bet for craft stuff (though quality cannot be guaranteed, so caveat emptor) yielded nothing to suit.

Fortunately I am married to a wife who (as our children remark) is able to lower the price of goods in any shop simply by entering it. She it was who found the remaindered packs of decorative paper in the bargain bin at Hobbycraft Dundee at a pound a shot so furnishing enough for 75 books at a cost of £30, or 40p a book – a substantial saving on £1.62, leaving a lot more of my £10 production target to spend on other things.

Of course, this saving was achieved at a cost of another sort: the papers were mixed, so there would be no uniformity across the production run, and although they were each attractive enough, some were more striking than others; but when you are doing a limited run of handmade books, singularity becomes a plus-point, making each rare volume rarer still.

book endpapers

a variety of McAvinchey endpapers, one incorporating flower-petals

In the picture above, the blue example illustrates how the remaining 25 books were supplied with endpapers – I encoded a relevant phrase using the ‘ornaments’ range of the Hoefler Text font that I had used to print the book and simply repeated it across a sheet of paper., which I then photocopied on to a mix of blue, green and yellow paper. Since rather simple coded messages play a big part in the book, it struck me as a cheap and cheerful solution – if you didn’t have aesthetic satisfaction from your endpapers, they would at least afford some intellectual diversion:

2018-02-26 10.26.01

I think my final word on endpapers is that they are something I would like to experiment further with in producing my own designs; in the meantime I keep a weather eye out for bargain lots of suitable paper from any source. Bookmaking does rather make a magpie of you.

* strictly speaking, your endpapers should be slightly smaller, to allow a small margin of bookcloth all round, otherwise you may have to trim them in situ, which can be fiddly.

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Ch. 9: Costing a book – estimating quantities

Though there is an attraction in doing things from scratch – like making your own paper from recycled trimmings – you also need to be practical, especially if your aim is not a single one-off, on which you can lavish time and attention, but volume production, where you wish to maintain a standard of quality but within a budget and against a deadline.

My visit to the printer’s to ask for an estimate had been in the third week of July; the e-mail with the estimate is dated 19 July. By 24 July I had ordered the printer and had begun calculating what else I would need in earnest. My aim was to have one hundred books made by the time the Wigtown Book Festival started on 22 September. I had no idea if I could do it, but deadlines ‘concentrate the mind wonderfully’, as Dr Johnson observed (though, to be sure, he was talking of ‘the prospect of being hanged within a fortnight’).

The most obvious saving of time seemed the choice of format. A4 paper is readily available and folds down to A5. That is (a little surprisingly) not a standard book format, but it certainly struck me as the most convenient to go for. I saw no point in cutting down paper that had already been exactly cut  for me.

Book signatures are always a multiple of 4, since there are two pages on each side of each sheet, though you may well end up with some blank pages at either end. My initial proofs used 11 signatures of 6 sheets/24 pages each, giving a total of 264 pages. However, a combination of re-editing and re-formatting, plus the incorporation of some additional introductory pages, saw the final edition change to 9 signatures of 8 sheets/32 pages, giving a total of 288. As it turned out, reducing the number of signatures proved a boon in the production process – with 2 fewer per book, you are sewing 200 signatures fewer overall, a considerable saving in time and thread.

Paper comes in reams – 500 sheets – typically in 5 ream boxes, or 2500 sheets per box. 100 books of 288 A5 pages, in terms of sheets and reams, is 100 x 9 (number of signatures) x 8 (sheets per signature) = 7200 sheets, not far short of 3 five-ream boxes (7500 sheets), so that is what I priced and ordered, from Purelypaper, a supplier I found entirely satisfactory. (Though in the event, I would have been better to order 4 boxes to give myself a better margin for wastage, since the supplier had a minimum order of 5 reams, and I found myself having to finish the last few volumes with locally bought paper which did not match)

The general advice is that books should be printed on off-white or natural paper, as opposed to the shiny white stuff that is the standard copier fare, since it is easier on the eye. I was struck by the number of people who remarked on the readability of the typeface I had chosen for The McAvinchey Codex (Hoefler Text) and I wonder how much of that was actually due to the choice of paper.

It was the availability of natural white paper at a reasonable price that led me to Purelypaper, but I was also pleased to discover that they supplied pre-cut board. My original intention had been to order large sheets of greyboard from Hewit’s and cut it myself, but I quickly realised that having pre-cut boards would be a huge saving in time and effort, to say nothing of the fiddle and anxiety of ensuring a standard across 200 A5 boards marked out and cut from 760×1020 mm sheets. Board is sold by weight, and A5 is cut to order, so I ended up ordering a pack that contained the ominous number of 666 sheets, which was far more than I needed but I was sure I could use for future projects (you could see that I had begun to believe in what I was doing…)

My actual estimate for what I needed was 200 boards to supply front and back covers, plus another 20, reckoning five spines from an A5 sheet. The thickness I chose was 1900 microns, which was perfectly adequate (a sample of thinner board had struck me as too flimsy). Board was not something I was willing to take a chance on, since it has to have certain qualities – chiefly flatness and stability: it should not warp with time. ‘Greyboard’ is the standard item and the one I ordered was ‘Eskaboard’.

The two remaining elements in costing the cover are the bookcloth and the endpapers. They are also the most attractive, as befits the finishing surfaces inside and out. For bookcloth, I settled on Hewit’s, since I could collect it in person. As you will see from the link, there is a considerable range of prices for this seductive material, but the best choice seemed to be their Edinburgh Bookcloth at £7.07 per metre in a variety of gorgeous colours. I bought samples of mid-green and red, though I think I had decided on the red, a splendid pillar-box shade, as soon as I saw it.

In terms of quantity, I arrived at an estimate of ten metres.

The first thing I calculated was how many covers I could get from a width. A roll is 1100mm wide and the cover would consist of two A5 boards and a spine with some space between them and a margin all round to allow the cloth to be folded over. A rough calculation suggested 150+150+30 for the boards plus spine – 330mm, which would allow for three covers of 366mm, leaving 36mm to play around with for the two gaps between the spine and the covers and the overlaps at the edge – 9mm per gap, which seemed on the tight side, at least for the end margins*. On the other hand, 30mm for the spine seemed generous, and if I squeezed six out of a sheet at a shade under 25mm apiece that would give an extra 5mm to play with, and since 150 was a slight overcalculation, there was another 4 mm to be gained per cover. I certainly could not get more than three per width, but dropping to two would be absurdly wasteful, so three it was.

The next calculation was height: each board is 210mm, and the cloth would need to be folded over top and bottom. 250mm seemed a good figure for initial calculation, with a generous top and bottom margin. That would give 12 covers per metre (four rows of three) so 10m would be enough for 120, leaving room generous room for error.

That settled the cloth and boards, but the endpapers were a different matter, as we shall see…

* I have just measured the spine-cover gap on a spare cover near by – 9mm on each side.

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Ch.8: Costing a book – necessary hardware

Samsung Xpress Laser Printer

compact desktop printer amid the creative chaos – the end of the sewing-frame can be seen on the right

A printer we have already discussed: clearly it is the heart of the business as far as producing the book itself is concerned. My choice (after some research) was a Samsung Xpress M2885FW, a monochrome laser which did duplex (i.e. double-sided) printing. Laser is more economical than inkjet and gives better quality print. Monochrome is cheaper to run as you only require one toner cartridge as opposed to the four that a colour printer requires. An additional cost with this model is the imaging unit, which requires renewal every 10,000 pages. A factor which influenced my choice was that ‘compatible’ toner cartridges were available at less than a third of the cost of Samsung originals from the excellent Stinky Ink . These (which proved entirely satisfactory) come with a timely warning not to update your printer’s software, since it will almost certainly start blocking non-original cartridges. I will deal with detailed costs for printing in due course, but if you are printing 100 books at 288 pages each, then saving on ink is  a major factor.

A key piece of hardware is a sewing frame. Specialist bookbinding equipment comes into that category of things on which you can spend as much as you wish – much of it  is seductively attractive, but very costly. I am grateful to Jim Poelstra for his excellent website, Affordable Binding Equipment, which persuaded me that making such equipment was well within the range of the enthusiastic amateur. After some further searching I found this straightforward design on the Eden Workshops website, which I gratefully acknowledge.

My own sewing frame was assembled from scrap MDF & wood and some threaded rod, nuts and washers bought from Wickes for under a tenner. It is no thing of beauty but it functions perfectly well.


The other necessity is some form of press, not for printing, but to compress the book at various stages: first, to flatten down the unbound signatures, and also to clamp them for sawing – which is the easiest way to prepare the holes for sewing; next, to compress the book once the signatures have been bound together; and, finally, when it has been cased. Again, there is no shortage of such presses – most specialised to a particular function – to be had, at a cost; very pretty some of them are, too; but in the end I made do with a machine vice and some boards, a few loose weights, and numerous volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

I should also mention Glaister’s Encyclopaedia of the Book, a volume I bought some years ago, which proved a handy resource for acquiring some understanding of the terms and processes employed in bookmaking, as well as being of great interest in itself. You can doubtless find much of the information online if you search, but here it is all gathered together in attractive format, ready to hand. There is much to be said for books.

In the next chapter, we will turn to the question of estimating quantities.

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Ch.7: Costing a book – the general shape of the thing

The basic elements of a book are two: the book itself and the case or cover that serves to protect it; bookbinding is the craft of making then joining one to the other.

The case is the simpler of the two. It consists of three boards – front, back and spine – which may be hinged together to form a whole (I followed this practice) which is then covered in material, typically bookcloth or leather. PVA glue is used to stick the various components together.

The process of casing in is illustrated with admirable clarity in this YouTube video by Jacqueline Poutasse which I found very useful, particularly in constructing the basic cover:


The book itself is more complex, being composed of a number of folded sections or signatures sewn together. Though it need not be, this can be done on a special frame, using tapes, which is the method I used, guided by this excellent YouTube video from Bookbinders Chronicle. I would commend all their Bookbinding 101 series, not only for content, but as examples of how instructional videos should be made:

From this, we can deduce that the ‘consumable’ elements that are required to make any book are: paper, ink (toner, in the case of a laser printer), thread, glue, board and bookcloth (or suitable binding material). To this you may wish to add (as I did) tapes (for sewing onto) and mull (a sheet of muslin glued to the spine of the book once it is sewn together) and decorative endpapers. These three elements all combine to make the hinge by which the book and the case are joined. The endpaper is the main element and serves to conceal the other two. It need not be decorative – plain paper will serve – but it is one of those features that greatly enhance the appearance of a book.

These are what must be costed for each book – and that involves working out the quantities needed per book, e.g. how much bookcloth do you require per case? – but some investment in tools and equipment is also required. I have already mentioned the printer, and here we have seen  the desirability of a sewing frame (in fact, I would call it essential, if you wish to produce in any quantity – mine allowed me to sew five books at a time, a useful unit of production). Applying pressure is necessary at various points in the process and you might want to consider the variety of presses on offer, if only to drool over them, but they are not cheap; alternatives can be found, as I will describe in due course. Such things as needles and pastebrushes you might have to hand, but they can be had from the delightful emporium that is J. Hewit & Sons, along with anything else you might need (provided you can afford it).

Another item you will require for large-scale production is a heavy-duty guillotine, an article I will discuss separately – but avoid anything flimsy: rigidity and weight are positive advantages here.

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Ch. 6: The Joy of Numbers

Mathematics has always been a bit beyond me, but I take a simple pleasure in arithmetic. I remember, in the course of a long solo cycle from Fort William to Mallaig in the pouring rain, amusing myself by ringing my bell at intervals and betweentimes calculating how far a single turn of the pedals in my top gear would take me, and from that how fast I could go if I pedalled at 60 rpm.*

shadow of a bicycle with river in the background all at an agle upwards

life is an uphill struggle at times

The printer’s quote of £225 for the makings of 20 books gave me a figure to work with. Suppose I could make 100 books for that price? That would bring the unit cost for printing down to £2.25 a copy, leaving  £12.75 change out of a selling price of £15. Surely I could supply all the bindings for that and still have some over? I might even make a reasonable profit…

The question of profit per book is one that exercises the minds of most writers, largely because it is so small. The royalties on my first book were 7.5% for the first ten thousand copies rising to 10% thereafter, which amounted to about 67p a copy, rising to 89p. It does not take much calculation to realise that you would need to sell a lot of copies to earn a living at that rate.

gratuitous picture of my first book in a variety of tongues (I like the Italian cover best)

What if, I asked myself, I could make a book, all in, for £10? Then I would have £5 clear profit per book – such unimagined wealth that I could afford to cut a deal with my friend Shaun Bythell for the use of his premises and access to his sales network and still have something to spend on drink.

So, the new target became £10: could I make a book for that, if I aimed at a total production of 100 copies and (optimistically) sold them all?

I knew what £225 would buy me from the local printer – twenty books, unsewn and unbound. It occurred to me that quite possibly I could buy a monochrome laser printer for that – one that did duplex printing – and so print as many copies as I wanted.

It did not take me long to discover from the resources of the internet that I could have one for £210 which met all my requirements, being economical in operation and capable of printing double-sided.

£2.10 per book would buy me a printer; that left £7.90 for all the rest.

All I had to do now was work out what ‘the rest’ actually was…


*The basic calculation is no. of teeth on front chainwheel (say 48)  over number on rear sprocket (say 16) times wheel diameter (28″ in my case) times π (which I usually took as 3 for ease of multiplication) –  3×28=84″ or 7′ times 3 = 7 yards per revolution, so 420 yds a minute, a bit under a quarter of a mile (but remember that you’ve rounded π down) so about  15 mph – by which time you are a good bit further on your journey. This calculation was rendered all the more diverting by my peculiar gear set-up, which involved a Sturmey-Archer five-speed hub fitted with a double sprocket, allied to a double chainwheel – an arrangement which necessitated no fewer than four separate levers to operate, and a great deal more arithmetic to calculate – for instance, the top gear on a Sturmey-Archer 5 speed is 3/2 or 150% of the middle or direct gear, so with the set up already quoted, 84″ would be geared up to 126″ or 10′ 6″, giving ten and a half yards per turn or 630 yds/minute, about 21.6 mph.

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Ch. 5: A visit to another printer’s – making it real

The Bookshop, Wigtown, in November light, by Sghaun Bythell

The Bookshop in November – Photo by Shaun Bythell

Some time towards the end of July it occurred to me that it might be a merry jape to turn up at my friend Shaun Bythell‘s magnificent emporium, The Bookshop , in the course of the Wigtown Book Festival, clutching a number of handbound editions of The McAvinchey Codex and purporting to be either the fictitious author Mr Auberon ‘Bron’ Dawn or (if my American accent could not be plausibly sustained) his agent on this side of the Atlantic – in fact, I even had my daughter take a picture of me (suitably attired) for use in a press release:

Screenshot 2018-02-16 18.04.32

I had been stimulated by making a special edition for my daughter’s birthday but also reminded of the tedium that attends printing booklets on an inkjet printer that only prints one side at a time; add to that my experience with Adobe Acrobat’s mysterious (and insuperable) impulse to shrink text and it is no surprise that I decided to hand on the hard work of printing the innards to a professional, while reserving the enjoyable book-binding element to myself.

There was, as it happens, a printer locally, a long-established business that had been there since I was a boy (and probably well before) and it was only a short walk away; but although it was easy to reach, I had to steel myself to go.

I am a dreamer by nature, but I lack the bold spirit, and most of my dreams have remained just that – dreams (and now I am old – be warned, young reader!). To take the step of visiting a printer and outlining my idea to him – an idea that my saner (or more timid) self considered a bit mad – was to make the whole thing more real and less easy to go back on; which of course was why I had to do it – to commit myself.

So off I went across the Inch (Perth is famously the smallest town in Scotland, since it lies between two inches – the North and the South Inch, large expanses of grass) and told my dream.

Swans swimming on S. Inch Pond Perth

The South Inch, Perth

I outlined what I was thinking of, and asked for a range of quotes; I reckoned that the unit cost would drop beyond a certain point, so that a longer print run might be considerably more economical than a short one.

Lucy’s birthday edition ran to 240 pages, made up of 10 signatures or booklets of 24 pages each, i.e. six sheets of A4 with two pages per side, or four per sheet. I explained that I intended to bind them together myself into a book, so all that was required was for the booklets to be printed, folded and trimmed, but not stapled; I reasoned that a printer would be set up to do the folding and trimming to a better standard than I could.

(If you fold six sheets of paper together, you will notice that the fore-edge is uneven – the inmost sheet will protrude beyond the rest, with the next slightly less, and so on: the difference between the outermost and the innermost being five thicknesses of paper. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough to notice, especially when you bind several such booklets together. My notion was that by having the printer trim them beforehand, I would end up with a nice even fore-edge when ten were bound together to make a book)

The printer’s quote, which came a day or so later, was this:

     25 Booklets = £60
     50 Booklets = £90
    100 Booklets = £135
    200 Booklets = £225
Of these figures, only the last was of any real interest to me. 200 signatures equalled 20 books, and £225 meant a cost of £11.25 per book. I reckoned that I could reasonably ask £15 for a handmade edition (doubtless I could ask more, but I wasn’t sure of the standard I could reach) so that the question then became whether I could supply all the rest for £3.75 a copy, or a total of £75 (and even then I would only be recovering my costs).
It seemed unlikely, so I e-mailed back asking a quote for 500 and 1000 booklets, the equivalent of 50 and 100 books, in the hope that the unit price might be less. Perhaps he was not really interested; I also wondered if he had hoisted in that I wanted multiples of 10 different booklets, which I was sure must affect the cost. In any case, he made no reply.
But the visit had served its purpose: the dream, having been given public expression, was now a step or two nearer to realisation. Rather than allow myself to be put off by the cost, I fell to pondering how else it might be done.