Monday, March 6, 2017

How to get your books bound by the best bookbinders in the world

How serendipity led to Inside the Book playing a leading role as the set book in a new bookbinding competition. The Open•Set bookbinding competition is now a traveling exhibition and opens on Wednesday, March 8, 2017 in the University of Iowa Special Collections galleries, Iowa City (details below). I was one of the jurors and I am pleased to offer you an overview of the competition together with some insight into how my book came to be bound by some of the best bookbinders in the world.


Sol Rébora, 1st place, SET book, Inside the Book
📷American Academy of Bookbinding
I was pleased to meet Lang Ingalls, the chief organizer of Open•Set at a party in New York following the 2015 FPBA Manhattan Book Fair. She asked if I had any books in unbound sheets for a new competition . . . coincidentally I still had almost half the edition of Inside the Book.
"The OPEN • SET competition is a NEW triennial competition that formed in response to the burgeoning interest and palpable momentum in finely crafted design book bindings in the United States. Sponsored in part by the American Academy of Bookbinding, it is designed to encourage both new binders and professionals. OPEN • SET offers prizes and acknowledgement in two categories: Participants may choose to bind the SET book or a book of their choice, the OPEN category. Entries are limited to one book per category. Binders from all levels and cultures are invited to participate, as the competition is not limited to citizens of the United States nor to students or affiliates of the AAB. All entries will be reviewed by a blind jury of three professional binders. The three-member jury for the competition is: Eleanore Ramsey, David Esslemont, and Cathy Adelman."
Eleanore Ramsey, David Esslemont, and Cathy Adelman at
San Francisco Center for the Book Open•Set opening 📷Laine Tammer
My fellow jurors Cathy Adelman and Eleanore Ramsey both revealed an acute sensitivity and perspective in their appraisal and judgment – it was a pleasure to work with them, and we reached a consensus of opinion without recourse to distasteful argument.

Patricia Owen, 2nd place SET book, Inside the Book
📷 American Academy of Bookbinding
I am grateful Lang Ingalls and the American Academy of Bookbinding for not only choosing Inside the Book for their first competition, but also inviting me to be one of the jurors. Lang's vision, hard work, management skills and generous hospitality are unequalled and I congratulate her and the Academy for curating and presenting the Open•Set exhibition. It is, I think, quite simply, a stunning display of contemporary bindings.

The competition attracted entries from around the world from both professionals and new binders. We selected fifty books for the traveling exhibition including three prizewinners in each category and nine highly commended bindings.

Benjamin Elbel, 3rd place SET book, Inside the Book
📷 American Academy of Bookbinding
In the SET category we chose first: Sol Rébora (Argentina); second: Patricia Owen (USA); third: Benjamin Elbel (The Netherlands). We highly commended for tooling: Samuel Feinstein (USA); onlay and inlay: Susan Hulme (USA); use of materials Adeline Koh (Singapore).

In the OPEN category we chose first: Mark Esser (USA); second: Sofía Mendizabál (Argentina); third: Zigor Anguiano (Spain). We highly commended for titling: Jan Camps (Belgium); onlay and inlay: Coleen Curry (USA); endbands: Sol Rébora (Argentina); unusual materials [scalpel blades]: Sialia Rieke (USA); design: Dominic Riley (UK); unique structure: Luke Hornus (UK).

I doubt if anyone here knows the work of the dour and eccentric Scottish poet Ivor Cutler. His stories, such as ‘Gruts for Tea’ and ‘The Soup Tureen’ have long been favorites of mine. I met him once, at a book fair, and do you know what I said? "Hello, Billy, tea time, Gruts for tea" – I began reciting his poems, to his utter horror!

An ardent socialist, his own books were the most humble and unassuming productions you can imagine – more like chapbooks. At the time I was working for the Gregynog Press and suggested we might publish his work and showed him our finely-printed, leather-bound books – he was horrified and walked away muttering “this is so embarrassing, so embarrassing, I don’t understand . . .”

I tell you this story because when I saw the Open•Set exhibition in San Francisco, besides the pleasure of seeing the bindings again, now old friends so to speak, it was so embarrassing to see my name displayed alongside every single set-book binding. I’ve grown used to that now and feel honored and humbled to be bound by some of the best bookbinders in the world.

The opportunity to handle the books was an honor itself. How few people will enjoy that privilege? The best bindings in my view are those that are thoughtful, that function well and are appropriately dressed – bindings that stimulate both the aesthetic and haptic senses. In many cases the best bindings are happy books and this exhibition is full of happy books.


Inside the Book tells you how to make and publish a book in the twentieth, not the fifteenth century. Unlike the University of Iowa Special Collection’s Scriptores Historiae Augustae (the model for Greg Prickman's "Atlas of Early Printing"), only ten copies were offered in sheets. As a bookbinder, I knew there was a small market for unbound sets.

I did not intend the books to be kept in barrels under bookseller’s counters gathering grimy schmutztitels. My book was issued in a regular cloth binding together with ten copies in my own special “design” binding. However, due to my pecuniary state in 2002, I bound only half the edition – no wonder I was pleased to meet Lang Ingalls.

The lesson here is: although serendipity may intervene, you would be wise to bind the whole edition at once. This is even more important for those who are binding themselves, not only does it makes economic sense but also avoids that unfortunate circumstance where one asks, “how did I do that?" or "what am I to do now my chosen endpaper or book cloth is no longer available?”

Special binding by David Esslemont
But the curious thing is, Inside the Book and the Agustin History now have more in common than you would think. For example, both books can be found in many different bindings – in the case of Inside the Book, at least one hundred copies. Admittedly this is a far cry from the number of variant bindings of Lucile of which there are literally thousands, albeit from different publishers.

Also, there are questions surrounding the authorship of the History, with suggestions the authors were all fictitious. The careful reader will discover too that Inside the Book contains a work by a fictitious author. Like Lucile's author Meredith, Desmond Levista is in fact a pseudonym, just whose is up to you to find out.

The University of Iowa Libraries' copy of Scriptores Historiae Augustae,
printed in 1490, with a contemporary binding and foredge decoration from
the Pillone Library. 📷UI Special Collections
No coincidence either that I quote Thomas Carlyle in my Introduction: "The best effect of any book is that it excites the reader to self activity". In Sartor Resartus he reviews the fictitious Diogenes TeufelsdröckhSartor is a fascinating book and a long-term Solmentes project.

The idea for Inside the Book came about in 1998 following a panel discussion at an Oak Knoll Book Fest, in New Castle, Delaware at which Joel Silver, now director of the University of Indiana’s Lilly Library explained what kind of book he wanted to buy for his library. I noted he wanted a book that would be of interest to faculty, staff and students. During the flight from Philadelphia to Minneapolis I mapped out the contents of such a book and drew a sketch of the binding.


If anyone can cook, anyone can make a book is the premise that underlies the text.

At its simplest all you need is some kind of stylus and a substance on which to make marks, perhaps a pen and some paper. Raw materials, raw vegetables and fish or meat will make a meal. You can fry an egg on a hot rock. Food will cook in hot embers. The form of the book is constantly evolving and today there are many different ways to make a book. Although the digital book bears little resemblance to the medieval manuscript, they do in fact have a lot in common, they are still perceived as marks on a surface even if they are pixels. Maybe books of the future will be transmitted directly to our brains as data bits, bypassing the visual necessity of reading, who knows?

Inside the Book aims to inspire and offer the basic ground rules or tenets for making a physical book but it is not just concerned with designing and making the book. I also introduce the reader to the dirty world of commerce. I believe, if you offer multiple copies of a book for sale, then you are involved in publishing and publishing is a noble profession and it requires both editorial expertise and business acumen. Marketing and financial planning are essential parts of the publishing process and these topics are covered also, and I believe should become a standard part of the curricula of Book Arts courses.

Since Inside the Book is out of print, and the revised second edition and e-book are not yet available I encourage you to look for it in a library. I hope you’ll read it and enjoy the first chapters of the biblio novel by Desmond Levista that I used for specimen page settings. If you’re interested in reading about more about the creative process of writing and producing Inside the Book, take a look at another book: Ink on the Elbow, where in the course of our daily email correspondence over a period of four years, Gaylord Schanilec and I talk in detail about the books we are making. I still have a handful of bound of copies for sale.

I hope you enjoy the exhibition, and remember, if you want to get your book bound by some of the best bookbinders in the world: put aside 100 copies in sheets.

From March 8 to April 19, the exhibition will be at

Special Collections and University Archives
The University of Iowa Libraries
100 Main Library (LIB)
125 West Washington Street
Iowa City, IA 52242-1420
(319) 335-5921

Then travels to:

TELLURIDE • April 24 to May 20 AhHaa School of the Arts
117 North Willow Street, Telluride, Colorado
BOSTON • June 8 to July 19 North Bennet Street School
150 North Street, Boston, Massachusetts
AUSTIN • July 26 to August 26 Austin Public Library
710 West César Chávez Street, Austin, Texas

Links
Open•Set exhibition opening at UI Special Collections
Open•Set competition and exhibition (American Academy of Bookbinding)
Inside the Book, David Esslemont
"Gruts for tea", Ivor Cutler
The Atlas of Early Printing, Greg Prickman
The Lucile Project, Sid Huttner
Ink on the Elbow, David Esslemont and Gaylord Schanilec



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