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Book Printing: Unique Book Binding/Finishing Formats

My fiancee recently brought home from the thrift store two intriguing books for the grandchildren. The first is The Slant Book, written by Peter Newell, and the second is How Does the Show Go On?, written by Thomas Schumacher.

What makes both of these books particularly interesting to me is their unique binding methods. Both are striking. I’ve never seen anything quite like them before. In addition, the uniqueness of each reinforces the theme of the print book. That is, the special effect is not gratuitous. The form reinforces the meaning.

The Slant Book

One of the attributes of every print book I’ve read until now has been the quality of squareness or rectilinerarity. Abutting edges have always been set at a right angle: 90 degrees. Trimming knives I’ve seen at book binderies have also been set at a right angle. It has been a given, an expectation.

That said, I was intrigued to see that The Slant Book is more of a rhombus. Opposite sides are equal and parallel (the bind edge and face trim; the head trim and foot trim), but the angles themselves are not 90 degrees. The book tilts upward. The top of the spine is at an an angle greater than 90 degrees, and the bottom of the spine is at an angle less than 90 degrees.

This brings up a lot of questions for me, and the Internet was not forthcoming with answers. First of all, I wondered how you would put it in a bookcase. Since I am somewhat obsessive compulsive, this would be the first question that comes to mind for me. The second was, How did they do that? After all, trimming knives are set at right angles to one another on all of the finishing equipment I’ve seen.

The first question was easy enough to answer, assuming that the face trim margin of the book would stick out above the line of equally tall books, while the spine was flush with the spines of the other books on the shelf.

To answer the second question, I had to make assumptions based on experience. After all, Google came up dry. To start with, opposite sides of the book were parallel. Therefore, it seemed to me that to cut both the print book block and the binder’s boards (The Slant Book is a case-bound volume), either a single guillotine cutter or two parallel knives of the three-knife trimmer could be used.

In addition, and to keep control of the precise placement of the book during its trimming, perhaps a wooden jig of some kind had held these print books in exactly the same position for each trim. As to the printed litho paper laminated to the boards and turned over the edges, plus the fabric covering the spine and extending about an inch onto the front and back covers, this might have been done by hand.

Granted, the work would have required precision. After all, I’ve seen badly bound books that neither open nor close easily because of imperfections in the binding angles, paper grain direction, or any number of other reasons. Because of this, I was very impressed—as well as perplexed.

From the point of view of the content, I was also more than a little bit amused. The illustrations, and even the backward slanted type on the left-hand pages, made the format look not only intentional but also most appropriate. Starting on the cover, the characters of The Slant Book go slip sliding down the incline, from a runaway baby carriage to a police officer knocked off his feet to a push cart full of trinkets. Even the cover expresses this slantedness, with the characters seeming to run forward quickly due to the inclined cover surface.

The book format and the cover and text content work together perfectly, hand in hand.

How Does The Show Go On?

The second book is aimed at an older audience. You could say that adults might appreciate it as much as children, given the full-color treatment both on the cover and throughout the text, along with the flashy photos of Broadway, the playbills, and the tickets.

Again, what sets this print book apart is its binding. Like the first book, the second is case bound. This is also a square format, but with a vertical split right down the center of the front cover. I’d call this a “barn-door” effect (similar to a gatefold but with equal emphasis given to the left and right panels that both open outward). The photo on the cover is a theater stage, and the panels opening to the left and right reveal the first page of the book, much as a rising theater curtain reveals the scene of the play being presented.

How was this done, you might ask. The left panel of the case-bound cover is a shortened front cover binder’s board with the litho-printed stock laminated to the chipboard. It begins at the half-way point and extends to the left, toward and around the spine and then fully across the back of the book. Then it continues vertically (another small binder’s board) up across the face trim of the book. Finally it comes back to the center of the print book, where it vertically meets and abuts to the first half-panel.

So the entire cover creates a wrap. A little box with no top or bottom. Just sides. It’s absolutely perfect for a print book whose contents are all about revealing and then showcasing what’s on the stage. Interestingly enough, even the full-bleed photo immediately under this unique cover creates a sense of movement. Half of this photo is the pasted down endsheet for the cover (a photo of wooden running and jumping creatures with horns–perhaps gazelles), and the other half is the loose flyleaf (a continuation of the image on the left) covering page one of the text. Again, form follows content. The image is revealed, but it is also made up of two traditional print book binding components: the endsheet and the flyleaf.

True to form, the interior of the book (even though this is an article on binding) also includes some striking finishing techniques. For instance, a full-size, bound theater playbill is tipped onto a hanger and glued to a book page. It looks exactly like one you would receive when shown to your theater seat. Later in the book, and also tipped onto a hanger glued to a book page, is a small pocket folder containing theater-related drawings. There’s also an acetate sheet–with printed hair and moustache–attached above an image of a man without the hair and beard (that is, you lay down the clear acetate, and the actor’s costume facial hair is attached to this face). And the list of intriguing finishing operations goes on. Each provides access to an element of theater. Each is a discovery.

In all cases, the physical approach to the book and the binding and finishing techniques used complement the content of the book.

What We Can Learn From These Print Books

  1. In your own design work, use both the page design (type, color, and imagery) and the physical properties of book design (materials, folding and cutting operations, tip-ons) to reinforce and enhance the meaning of the book. These should be intrinsic to the design and theme, not pretty add-ons.
  2. Always involve your commercial printing supplier early. For books like these, choose your printer first and then work with him to realize your vision.
  3. Expect to pay a lot for these enhancements.
  4. Remember that there’s a reason books are still with us, even if we have access to eReaders. None of these special treatments could have been done on a digital, screen-only product. All of them are tactile, and all engage the reader actively and physically (for instance, you have to pull the inserts out of their pockets to read them).

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