Ch. 20 – Wise saws and modern instances


Sawing is not something you readily associate with book-making – sewing, certainly, but taking a saw to a book has a suggestion of destructive violence about it; yet if you are dealing in volume production, sawing is an essential step before sewing can take place.

It is also, I have to confess, one of the elements I never mastered fully – unlike all the rest, it was always a chore, though I think it need not be.

The idea is simple enough – by clamping the unsewn signatures together, spine upward, and sawing across them at several points, you create the holes you will then use for sewing; and because you do them by making a cut across all the signatures at once, you guarantee that they will be aligned, which saves a deal of marking out and individual hole piercing with an awl.

As mentioned already, I had anticipated this stage by printing lines across the spine of each signature to indicate where the cuts should be made. Those worked well enough; the difficulty was all with the saw. I tried several, starting with a neat little model-maker’s tenon saw with a reinforcement to keep it rigid:

fine-toothed modelmaker's saw

model-maker’s saw – probably the most successful, though a coarser cut might have improved it.

As you can see, the saw is quite fine, and creates lateral slits rather than holes; it also takes longer than you think to penetrate all eight sheets of paper in the signature, so that even after what seems an inordinate amount of sawing, and the growing feeling that you might have inflicted permanent damage, you unclamp it nervously only to discover that you have not actually penetrated the inmost sheet.

round abrafile

round ‘abrafile’ blade that flattered to deceive – those cuts look deep enough, but mostly were not

I did switch to what was effectively a round file in a jigsaw frame, and this flattered to deceive – it cut satisfactory trenches across the spine, and seemed to have made rapid progress so that you felt sure this was the answer, only to find on unclamping that again you had not sawn deep enough.


coarse-toothed jig-saw blade


I tried both a standard jigsaw blade – quite coarse – and at the other extreme a fine piercing saw (which I used to cut a vee with two cuts, so doubling the labour) and even at one point a full-sized tenon saw, though this really called for a fixed vice (for the rest I simply held the clamp on my knee).


an experiment in mass production – here we see ten books, in two sets of five, clamped for sawing to ensure that the holes for sewing are aligned. The signature numbers, at the top end of the spine, can be seen towards each end of the clamp, indicating that one set of books is turned the opposite way from the other. The guide lines for sawing can be seen – from the left, for the first signature, the thread goes in at the top end; then come the numbers; then the thread emerges (line 2) and re-enters (line 3). The pecked line marks the centre and was a needless distraction, better omitted. The thread re-emerges at line 4, goes in at 5, to emerge finally at 6 and link to the next signature, where it follows the same path in reverse. The mass sawing was not as efficient as I hoped and it proved easier to saw fewer copies more often than set up ten to do all at once.

I hit on the idea of sawing several copies at once and made a suitable apparatus but setting it up proved too laborious (the thickness of several copies made it hard to exert an even pressure across all of them and those in the middle tended to sink a bit under the pressure of the saw).

The model-maker’s saw was probably the best overall, but I think I would want one with a thicker and perhaps coarser blade next time, and a better designed-clamp that ensured the signature protruded by precisely the amount you need to saw through. (On reflection, much of the tedium was caused by feeling sure, as you were sawing, that you had certainly gone far enough and possibly too far, only to discover (having undone all the clamping) that you had not gone far enough – so a more precise clamp or press would help)

In the event, I found that imperfectly-formed holes could be corrected fairly speedily at the sewing frame using the needle, though occasionally at the cost of stabbing your fingers, since you went in from the rear but had to take care to emerge at the right point in the middle sheet.

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Ch. 18 – Keeping in trim

There are certain things about a book that catch your eye; there are others you only really notice in their absence. Endpapers are an instance of the first kind: an attractive endpaper can lift a book out of the ordinary. The second kind are small details of finish: the curve of the spine, for example, that I discussed in chapter 16.

When I finished my first proofs, one such detail leapt out at me – the unevenness of the pages, chiefly on the fore-edge (i.e. the opposite side of the book from the spine). I had been aware of this from the outset, but it was only seeing it in the finished article that confirmed it as something that must be attended to.

The cause is simple: since every signature is made of a number sheets folded together – eight, in my case – it follows that the thickness of those sheets at the fold must be reflected in the fore-edge, which viewed from above will be shaped something like an arrow, > , with the middle pages as the tip and sloping back to the outermost. The difference is only that of a few sheets of paper, but once the signatures are bound together, the effect is multiplied – and in short, it gives the book an unfinished look.

The  solution that first came to mind was a guillotine, but the problem is capacity. Most guillotines will deal with only a few sheets of paper or a certain thickness of card, nowhere near a book, and generally not even the 16 sheets of my folded signatures. I had bought a guillotine, mainly with a view to cutting board for the covers (which in the event I got pre-cut) and possibly cutting endpapers, though I had some notion that I might trim each signature before sewing them together, even if that did add up to 900 separate signatures.

In the course of my researches I discovered  that a guillotine is one of those items on which you can spend  almost any amount of money – some can be had for under a tenner; others will cost you hundreds of pounds. However, one thing that did not greatly vary was their capacity, which tended to be a fairly low number of sheets at a time, certainly nothing approaching the thickness of a book.

So my mind turned to other means: how did actual book-makers do it? The internet is a wonderful resource, and one of the side-pleasures of this enterprise has been the interesting places my research has taken me. I must pay tribute to the many generous souls (mostly American, it must be said) who have taken the trouble to put useful and informative stuff out there, mainly on YouTube. Some are better presenters than others, it must be said, but there is a generosity of spirit about them all, and many strike me as true craftsmen, who love what they do and just want to share it.

I learned that the standard instrument in the trade was the plough, which the ever-reliable Jim Poelstra over at affordable binding equipment has a useful take on; or there was this man, Jesse Aston at Sea Lemon,  who struck me as the genuine article; and finally there was this, ‘Byzantine bookbinding: foredge cutting’  which probably appealed to me most, because it was messy and untidy, both things I can manage.

If you don’t have time for the videos, the gist is that you clamp the book vertically between two boards, ensuring that the front board has a true edge to act as a guide and that the book is supported fully at the back. You then draw a sharp blade of some sort along the edge (towards rather than away from you) and aim to cut only a few pages at a time, being sure to clear away the off-cuts as you go (which you can save to make your own paper, if you wish, an idea that appealed to me).

With this in mind, I added a paring knife to my Hewit’s order. This beautiful but lethal-looking article is actually meant for trimming leather, but I reckoned it would serve my purpose too. And it worked, up to a point, but it was hard to do consistently well and easy to do badly and it took a long time, which when multiplied by a hundred, made me think that my solution must lie elsewhere.

coming next: Gargantua, The Chinese Guillotine.

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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. 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.



Ch. 4: WYSINWYG: the great Adobe Acrobat booklet-printing mystery

What you see is not what you get…

Adobe Acrobat will print booklets, putting two A5 portrait pages on each side of an A4 landscape sheet, with appropriate pagination (i.e. if you print  an eight page booklet – which will require  two sheets of paper – then one sheet will have pages 8 and 1 on the back, and pages 2 and 7 on the front, while the other will have 6 and 3 on the back and 4&5 on the front, so that when the sheets are folded together,  the pages will be in sequence).

pagination-copy  hmm… a bit rough, but I hope you get the idea.

This is exactly what you want, since a book is constructed out of a sequence of booklets (called signatures) that are then sewn together; and the pagination is far and away the trickiest part (to get the hang of the sequence above – the simplest possible after a single-sheet leaflet – you may still have to resort to physically folding some sheets of paper and numbering them,  just to see how it works*.  When you consider that a book signature may consist of multiple sheets – my first proofs had six, my final version eight – giving 24 and 32 pages respectively – you can see why you would want a computer programme to work out the pagination and printing sequence for you.

(If you really want to hold it in your head, then the reverse of the outermost sheet will always have the last number in the sequence (which will be even) on the left – e.g. 32 – and the first on the right, which will be odd (e.g. 1) while the obverse will have a low even number on the left (e,g 2) and a high odd number on the right (e.g. 31). Only on the obverse of the innermost or centre sheet (when they are folded) will the numbers be in sequence, because the pages face one another (e.g. 16 & 17 in an 8 sheet/32 page signature).

This is handy to remember for print instructions – a signature always starts odd and ends even: e.g. 1-32, 33-64, 65-96, 97-128 etc. It is also a useful check when sewing, since the page where the threads are visible will be the centre one and should have sequential numbers, e.g. 16-17, 48-49, 80-81, 112-113 etc.)

Adobe Acrobat does all that for you, but it does something else as well:

A rather tricky combination

The picture above shows the same page: the left hand is as it appears on screen, the right hand (stuck to the screen with blu-tack) as it prints. Though the screen image is set at 100%, the printed page is slightly larger, yet as you can see, the area occupied by the text on it is smaller – note how the chapter heading aligns with the first line of the screen version, yet the last line of text is farther from the foot of the page than on the screen, as is the page number.

Although we are supposed to live in the age of WYSIWYG – ‘what you see is what you get’ – Acrobat shows you one thing then prints another: it shrinks the text slightly, and inserts a border all round. The difference is slight but noticeable and very annoying when you have spent time getting the page to look the way you want only to have it come out different. You can waste a lot of time trying to find a way round it, as I did, but your best bet is to get onto some online forum discussing the matter. First, you will have the bitter joy of finding that you are not alone  –  solamen miseris socios habuisse dolorismisery loves company, as Mephistophilis observes to Faustus – and, eventually, usually some way down the thread, a rueful Adobe person will chip in with an explanation:
‘The issue, regrettably, is that Acrobat is performing as designed.’

In other words, it just does that.

My first venture in bookbinding with McAvinchey was a one-off edition for my daughter’s birthday, irritatingly bedevilled by the problem described above. It was that which persuaded me to make a second visit to a printer’s, this time a local one.




cloth-bound cover


Miss Isobel Flaws samples the prose


overgenerous margins imposed by Adobe Acrobat

*and in fact it was only on looking at my own video that I realised I had given an erroneous account in the opening paragraph of the first version I published, where I had the centre pages as 5&6 when they should have been 4&5 – which shows how easy it is to go wrong.

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Ch. 3: A visit to the printer’s

Robert Smail’s Printing Works is well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Innerleithen. It is now a living museum, run by the National Trust for Scotland, where you can try your hand at letterpress printing

Smail's bookmark

bookmark I printed at Smail’s. The reference is to Celestine & The Hare

From 1866 to 1986 it was a typical family-run printing business of the sort to be found in many Scottish towns and it still retains much of the original machinery from that period in working order. It was there in May 2017 that I went on a one-day bookbinding course


proud bookbinders at Smail’s – note the beauty of the endpapers

I had made books before, in an impatience to see my work in print, but my efforts were entirely uninstructed, using whatever materials were to hand, and had many flaws.

20180204_130101a selection of some I made earlier

The course at Smail’s gave me a much better grasp of the basics of construction. It also introduced me to the seductive world of bookcloth and buckram and ornamental endpapers, as well as the name of J.Hewit & Sons, leather manufacturers and suppliers of all things necessary to the craft of bookbinding.

So although I did not realise it at the time, it was here that the seed was planted that led eventually to making McAvinchey.

next chapter: WYSINWYG: the great Adobe Acrobat booklet-printing mystery

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Ch. 2: We happy few – a dedicated band


a dedicated band

There is a world of difference between telling a story and telling a story to someone. It can be likened to shouting at the sky and having a conversation: you might well manage to remain coherent and intelligible while doing the former, but you’re more likely to manage it in the latter.

So I owe a debt of gratitude to the members of the Top Secret Literary Project, the private Facebook page on which The McAvinchey Codex was first published, in weekly episodes; and likewise to Derek Shupert, who brought us together in the first place, through his notable contributions to the Zombie Infected Horror Suspense Novel – a genre he may have created, and has certainly advanced as no-one else has done. The Top Secret Literary Project in question was an hommage to Derek’s oeuvre, in the form of a Literary Zombie Infected Horror Suspense Novel; but The Salon of Death, a Norfolk & Goode publication by Vernon Abercrombie Bell, may be, like The Giant Rat of Sumatra, a tale for which the world is not yet ready*.

Thanks to the gallant men and women of the Top Secret Literary Project, I achieved in nine months what I had signally failed to do in the previous ten years or more – I brought The McAvinchey Codex to completion. The question now was what to do with it.

Find out more tomorrow!

*however, if you are particularly keen, you may find it here – but be warned, it is not for the faint-hearted. Derek’s oeuvre can be had, at a price, via the online retailer that threatens the very existence of bookshops everywhere.

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Chapter 1: How did it happen?


photo: Shaun Bythell

Well, here I am in the Bookshop, Wigtown, at the height of the Wigtown Book Festival, Scotland’s Literary event of the year (and I say that as one who has appeared more than once at the Edinburgh Book Festival). Those red books on the table, in the case and in the basket, are mine. There are one hundred of them in total, though not all of them are in the picture.

When I say they are mine, I do not mean merely that they belong to me, nor that they are copies of a book written by me – though in fact they are – but that I made them in their entirety: they were typeset, printed, sewn and bound by me. They are, if you like, the ultimate in self-publishing.

The book is called The McAvinchey Codex, and purports to have been written by one Auberon ‘Bron’ Dawn, from which the more astute among you might guess that it is a parody of Dan Brown, the American writer.

This is the story of how it came to be made.


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