The Ancient Egyptians are believed to have been the first to write on “paper”, weaving and flattening stems of papyrus plants to make pages as early as the fourth millennium BC. Jumping forward several thousand years to the 1440s and goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg mechanised book printing with his movable-type printing press.
Today, how books are printed is highly automated, a requirement to meet the seemingly insatiable worldwide demand. In the UK and US alone, hundreds of millions of physical books are sold each year, still outselling ebooks and audiobooks.
So, how are books made on such a large scale? How are books produced on demand versus vast runs? And how are hardcover books made versus paperback? Read on for a full chapter and verse of how books are printed and how books are made.
How Books are Made: From Author To Shelf
The manuscript is complete, the edits are done, the facts checked and the proofs read. It even has a book cover design ready to go. All of this information, all the text and images, are digitised into a printer’s file. But that’s just the start of the story. What’s next? How are books made into tangible items to put on a shelf?
Well, that requires printing and then binding. There are three main methods of how books are printed:
From there, there are various methods of cover printing and book binding, differing in terms of how are hardcover books made versus paperback. Let’s explore each in turn.
How Books are Printed: Letterpress
Dating back to Gutenberg’s printing press, letterpress is a method of printing that uses a raised surface to transfer an inked image to paper. It works a bit like a stamp. There’s a, usually metal, plate upon which is the book text and imagery. This is called a printing plate or press plate. For ease, we’ll refer to the book content as the “image”. Ink is applied to the plate’s raised image which is then transferred onto paper by a press. Letterpress is unique in producing textured indents in the pages thanks to the raised elements.
There have been various technological advances in letterpress printing, such as flat presses being replaced by rollers. What’s more, since the 1960s, phototypesetting has offered an alternative to the painstaking process of hand setting each letter onto the plates. Printing plates can now be set by selectively exposing light-sensitive paper to light, a bit like a stencil. Nevertheless, letterpress is the slowest and most expensive of today’s methods, used only for fine, limited editions and other specialist cases.
How Books are Made: Offset Lithography
In terms of answering “how are books made”, offset lithography printing, also known as offset lithography or litho-offset, is the dominant method of how books are produced commercially today. As in letterpress, offset lithography uses a press plate to transfer the image, but there is no raised type. The plate is flat. What’s more, in offset lithography, the image is first transferred, or offset, onto a rubber blanket, and it is the blanket that transfers it onto paper. The steps are as follows:
Lithography: Composing the Plates
The image is laser etched onto a plate made of either metal, commonly zinc or aluminium, or plastic. Whatever material is used, it is chemically treated so that only the lasered parts, those with the image, accept ink. The plate is mounted into the printing press, which is a series of rollers.
Lithography: Dampening and Inking
The first rollers dampen the plate with water. It then goes through inking rollers when a vegetable-oil based ink is applied. And, since water and oil don’t mix, the ink only adheres to the words and images.
Lithography: The Rubber Blanket
The press plate rollers roll the image onto the rubber blanket, also on a roller. The paper is passed between the rubber blanket and a further “impression” roller, pressing them together, transferring the ink onto the paper.
Lithography: Colour Printing
Colour images are applied in layers in what is known as the CYMK system. This refers to the four colours used, namely cyan, magenta, yellow and black. There will usually be four separate machines for the paper to pass through, each pressing on a different colour until all the layers have been applied.
Whilst there is an expense in making the press plates and the overall initial setup, offset lithography printing is cost effective thereafter, making it ideal for printing in large volumes. This and the superior print quality means the vast majority of commercial books are printed this way. Furthermore, because of the bespoke setup in this method of printing, there’s far more choice in terms of paper type and size.
How Books are Printed: Digital Printing
Digital printing is a process that uses digital files to print books. This type of printing is typically used for short runs or for print on demand or “POD” books. With digital printing, there is no need for a printing plate, which means that setup time is shorter and the costs are lower. Instead, the process is much like using a photocopying machine, with the files downloaded and then printed with toner.
Digital printing has a number of advantages over traditional printing methods. First, it is less expensive for shorter print runs. Second, it is more flexible, allowing for a wider range of book sizes and page counts. Third, digital files can be stored and reused, so there is no need to recreate the file for each new print run.
How are Books Produced? Book Covers
The majority of paperback book covers are printed separately from the pages using specialist printers that may incorporate embossing or coloured foil.
In digital printing, book covers are often printed with the pages and then encased in plastic or another material.
How are Hardcover Books Made?
The process of how are hardback books made, differs mainly in terms of the cover. To make a hardback cover, the front, back and spine designs are all printed onto one sheet. They remain a single unit, even when cut to shape and size. Three pieces of board are then glued onto each of the spine, front and back sections.
How are Books Made? Binding
We have the pages and covers, but to bring them all together requires binding. It’s worth mentioning that the paper in books is not folded as one. Books are made up of several separately folded sections of paper known as signatures. So, how are books made to come together? There are three main binding methods:
This was how books were traditionally bound, with the pages sewn together. Letterpress books in particular might be bound in this way.
This involves essentially stapling the pages together, but with extremely strong steel wire.
This is where the pages are glued to the spine. First, the edges are sliced to produce a level edge. This is then perforated to increase the surface area, making it easier to adhere to the glue. Hot glue is applied to the spine, which is compressed to the perforated edge. The glued book is cooled and then it is ready to go.
Explaining How Books are Produced
And that’s the full story of how books are printed and how books are made. We’ve answered a variety of questions, from “how are books produced” to “how are hardcover books made”. Time for a shelfie.