Huib van Krimpen, Dutch typographer and writer (*1917 – †2002) wrote an essay about what it takes to turn a manuscript into a book. That was in the 70s, and while some production methods have changed since then, publishing is still a trade involving many skills. In the course of developing our post-digital publishing process, we reprinted the article – set on a Mac and printed on a Heidelberg letterpress machine from polymer plates. No negative film, but direct to plate with our laser imagesetter.

When we designed and produced the first titles in the new Suhrkamp Letterpress series, using the same process, we sat down with our friends there and wrote down how we make books today. Each of the seven titles published by Suhrkamp has a leaflet inserted which shows what it takes to go from manuscript to a bound and printed book. Readers are usually not aware of what goes into making a book, so a little explanation should help.

170823 P98A Suhrkamp Letterpress Leporello 0003

Authors will usually say that they write books. But while that is common usage to describe what authors do, they themselves write a text document – whether a novel or a thriller, fiction or non-fiction. It may be intended to be published as a book, but before it becomes a physical book, it takes a lot of other people and skills to make that text into an object. 

First would be a literary agent or publisher. (Self-publishing is another story, although a lot of the design and production issues would also apply there.) An editor at the publisher will read the manuscript, form an opinion about its quality and decide whether that title would fit into their programme. They’ll also make an assumption about the potential sales in order to plan the amount of books to be printed, possible marketing activities, lecture tours and other promotions. 

Once the publisher has decided to go ahead with the work, they have to get the author to sign a contract, check whether other people’s rights may be involved (possibly for images or quotes) and discuss potential license arrangements for other languages or media.

Once the final text version has been agreed between publisher and author, an editor will check it for grammar, style and spelling. This could take a few rounds between author and editor. Meanwhile, marketing and distribution issues need to be resolved. Will the book be published at a forthcoming book fair, a trade show or some other event? When will advance copies go to the booksellers and the press? Copy needs to be written for advertising, the back cover, hand-outs. The author’s CV will be distributed to the press, together with a blurb about the book. A website should be dedicated if the title appeals to a wide audience. Even a short trailer for digital channels could be on the cards, as well as posters and other promotional material for a lecture tour. And how about appearances on Talk Shows? The publicity department gets busy seeding the information.

Sales and distribution acquire ISBN and EAN codes, register the title with the national library and fix a price for the book that will reflect production cost as well as the author’s fee, the publisher’s profit and the marketing expenses.

Designers are given the manuscript to come up with a design for the cover, early enough to use the motive for promotional purposes. Good publishers will also hire a designer for the book’s layout. Some book designers do their own typesetting, others pass that on to a specialised type shop which – more often than not – is part of the printing house which will eventually produce the book.

The layout of the pages and the cover design will be run by the author as well as the marketing department who normally has a million things to change. Once the first round of typesetting is done, a PDF is sent to the author, the editor and eventually a proof reader. Typographic errors are marked  and sent back to the typesetters, while author and editor may want to change the actual copy. Typeset pages look and feel different from a Word manuscript and could require changes to make the copy fit into a certain page count. Books are usually printed on sheets containing 8 pages recto and verso, so the final page count should be a number divisible by 16, like 128, 160, 320, etc.

170823 P98A Suhrkamp Letterpress Leporello 0002

Printers these days ask for single-page PDF documents which they will assemble into 8- or 16-page signatures. Quality and weight of the paper has to be decided between the designer, the printer and the bookbinder – early on because not every type of paper will be in stock at all times. The printed pages – mostly still black and white – have to be collated, folded, inserted, stitched and glued between the covers. Those are usually printed in full colour and often enhanced by embossing, foil stamping or pretty and useful details like headbands to make them stand out.

The bookbinders finally shrink-wrap the finished volumes, package them onto pallets and ship them to the distributors whence they are sent to the shops.

After all these trades and competences have contributed their skills, the long journey from manuscript to finished product is over. Now it is truly a book, an object, not just to read but also to hold, treasure, store or pass on.