To Make A Book
(Circa 1960)

In which we take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship of old school printing.


Before computer typesetting, before Photoshop, before iPads and epubs, and Amazon CreateSpace, it took a small army of artisans and craftspeople — not to mention leviathan machinery — to make a book. In most cases, the “presses” to which publishing house names refer have long since been outsourced to external printing agencies, but printing remains, for many publishers, an integral part of the house’s genesis. In fact, Stanford University Press used to be just that — a press, whose printing apparatus predated its publishing mission by thirty-odd years.

Born in an on-campus woodworking shop in 1892, the earliest iteration of the press printed the Stanford student paper and a handful of book-length articles penned by faculty. By the 50s this lean operation had ballooned to encompass a publishing division and a modern, efficient printing plant, ranking seventh nationally among university presses with respect to title output.

In the late 50s and early 60s the press published annual reports to the University, describing its mission and process. These reports featured center spreads detailing how a manuscript moved though the printing plant to emerge a finished book — typeset, bound, and redolent of new-book-smell.

Press reports from 1959 and 1962

While many of the underlying processes and stages of book printing remain the same, the journey from a manuscript to a printed book has undergone numerous changes — some drastic (read: digitized), some more nuanced. Below we share some of these trade secrets along with photos of the book-making process from Stanford Press, circa 1960.

A book designer creates a “master plan” for the book — choosing the type and other page styles that will characterize the book’s contents.

Once a manuscript had passed muster in Editorial, its first stop in Production was at the book designer’s desk. At the time these reports were written, celebrated printer, typographer and designer, Jack Stauffacher was the head book designer at the press. The job of the book designer was to convert the raw materials of manuscript, type, paper, ink, cloth, and illustrations into a cohesive master plan for the book, with the goal of devising an easy to read, physically attractive look, appropriate to its particular purpose and subject matter.

Then the edited manuscript was set into metal lines of type, which would eventually be inked and pressed to paper to create the printed pages. Type was set using linotype machines, which generated metal “lines o’ type” called linotype slugs. The slugs were corralled into page make-ups, and the page make-ups were in turn locked into an iron frame (called a form). The form arranged multiple pages — anywhere from 8 to 32 page make-ups — in such a way so that when the printed sheets were folded the pages would fall into the right sequence in the finished book.

Proofreaders would pore over a battery of proofs throughout this process, checking the type’s arrangement both before and after it was organized into the page make-ups — and again after the entire book had been printed once through. Galley copies — a term used loosely in publishing today to refer to preliminary book proofs — take their name from the galley proofs of the letterpress era. These proofs were printed from the slugs before they had been arranged as pages — they were long, unnumbered sheets made from printed linotype and constituted the first round of proofs, the galleys. They were so named because of the wooden boxes (called galleys) in which cold type used to be set — “arduously,” our Art Director, Rob Ehle reminds us — by hand. Today publishers may still print “galleys” for a final proofreading exercise before going to print, but today’s galleys are more like the final book’s prototype, rather than long lines of continuous barebones text, and are just as often used for promotional and review purposes, as for copyediting.

In letterpress printing, after the type was combed over for accuracy, the form, consisting of a whole tray of pages, was automatically inked and moved back and forth under a revolving cylinder carrying sheets of paper to create the final printed pages.

For text-only books this form of letterpress printing — the mechanized progeny of Gutenberg’s original process — was sufficient to produce a quality end product. But for books containing illustrative material, a newer, more modern method of printing called photo-offset printing, or photolithography was called for, in order to seamlessly integrate images with the text. Stanford Press’ printing plant was among the first on the West Coast to dabble in these modern offset methods — integrating photolithography into its printing apparatus as early as 1934.

In photo-offset printing, typed page proofs and illustrative material were pasted onto sheets of paper with painstaking attention paid to the layout’s composition. This layout was photographed and a printing plate was created from the negative by a chemical process. That printing plate was then inked and pressed to a rubber cylinder; the rubber cylinder in turn, was rolled over reams of paper, with the still-wet ink, thus “offsetting” text and images onto the paper sheets.

Left: a compositor assembles the text and images to be photographed; the negative of the photograph will be used to create a printing plate. Right: a printer supervises the printing process.

Once printed — either by the letterpress or offset method — the physical book had to be assembled. Because most books have too many pages for all of the pages to be seamlessly sewn together, the pages are subdivided into smaller sections called signatures. The folding machine would fold the large printed sheets into these subsections. The signatures were then gathered from a collating table and arrayed in the correct sequence, by hand. Books are still assembled using signatures, this way (though not manually) which is why when you peer down at the top of a book, you will notice that the pages seem to be bunched together in chunks (oftentimes most noticeable near the spine of the book).

Left: a folding machine folds the pages into signatures. Right: the signatures are assembled in order to be sewn together to form the final book.

Finally, the signatures were sewn together on a machine that stitched through the inside fold of each signature and hooked the thread to the surrounding signatures, thus binding all of the pages together. A lining machine applied glue and a strip of cloth to the spine of the book’s pages, before being enclosed by the book’s casing, which was accomplished by gluing the book’s end sheets to the cover.

And voilà: a book — lots of them in fact, 150,000 copies a year in the printing plant’s heyday. Though today digital printing reigns king, the methods of yore die hard for some of the luddites in the Stanford Press office. Director Alan Harvey is the proud owner of a few midcentury-era presses, including a Heidelberg and aVandercook press; Digital Media Specialist, Kalie Caetano religiously subscribes to a literary magazine whose founders machine sew the binding of their own volumes; and Advertising and Direct Mail Coordinator, Ryan Furtkamp, recently rehabbed a Royal typewriter he inherited when the press moved to its new HQ in Redwood City. The evolution of typesetting and printing methods have undoubtedly streamlined the laborious processes of old (for which we may very well be grateful) — and yet, there’s no fault in embracing the nostalgic awe with which you can’t help but be struck when you consider the meticulousness, the exactitude, and the artistry of the pre-computer era of book-making.

This post originally appeared on the Stanford Press Blog as part of the 2014 University Press Week blog tour.

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