The Book Factory

It’s World Book Day and I’m on a train with David Headley of Goldsboro Books, heading northeast, broad-side to the setting sun.  We’re off to Clays, the UK’s leading book printers, for a tour tomorrow morning.  As we rattle past the steel skeleton of the Olympic Stadium and through a concrete jungle of urban apartments and tower blocks, Dave pops a bottle of champagne to the sidelong stares of a huddle of commuters.  One of my first book signings back in 2006 was at Goldsboro and we cemented a friendship then over a bottle of the stuff.  It only seems right to honour that now, especially since Goldsboro – under the direction of Dave and his business partner Daniel – have just expanded into a shop twice the size in London’s Cecil Court.  Their success is heartening, when both independent and high street bookshops are feeling the pinch of the recession and the industry rocks with the seismic shifts of the digital revolution.  Only last week the trade was dominated by headlines proclaiming digital sales may overtake print by 2014.  But such news seems far away as we sink into our seats with the slipping sun and Essex towns give way to the green levels of Suffolk.

At Diss we wobble off the train and are promptly whooshed off to Bungay, a pretty, unassuming village that forms the hub of Clays’ slick operation.  At Cambridge House, which has been offering hospitality to the book industry for decades, we’re treated to a hearty meal and a roaring fire courtesy of hosts Sandy and Peter.  Afterwards, stuffed and wedged into an armchair, ice clinking in my glass, I’m presented with a visitors’ book to sign.  It is one of a pile, the dates in the oldest going back to 1938.  I turn the pages from the faded calligraphy of publishers’ past to the biro-scrawl of last week’s guests.  Seventy years of signatures, the names of the companies mostly unchanging – Hodder & Stoughton, HarperCollins, Penguin.   And this is only half the story – Clays has been printing books for almost two hundred years.  As I climb to bed I pass a portrait of founder Richard Clay, born 1789.

Next morning, after a breakfast of champions, we’re taken across the road to the site.  As the doors open, Dave – who’s been here before – asks if I have any idea how books are actually printed.  I admit that I don’t and it’s a strange thing to be presented with: the realisation that I’m absolutely ignorant of the process – one of the most fundamental aspects of being a published author – that takes what I’ve written on my PC at home and turns it into something tangible that can be put on a bookshop shelf.  After an introduction to the business, which includes the staggering – and comforting – fact that Clays produces around 180 million books per year, we don Hi Vis jackets and prepare to enter.  Dave grins and tells me to watch out for Oompa-Loompas.  I laugh, but from the moment we step from the clean, corporate reception into a vast maze of warehouse-scale chambers filled with clanking and hissing machines, I know exactly what he means.  We are in a Book Factory and I’m suddenly as excited as Charlie.

The first surprise is how books are put together for printing.  I imagined that each page would just whizz off a printer somewhere, but the reality is a great deal more complicated and more efficient.  Each book, which comes from publishers via a shared electronic system, is arranged on a document that calculates which page fits where when a large single sheet covered in multiple pages of text is folded many times.  Remember those Christmas decorations you made at school – folding a sheet of paper again and again until you had a small, thick rectangle that you’d cut into the shape of an angel and open out into a long row of angels?  Well, that’s the best, or at least most simplistic analogy I can give to something that seemed to me as complex as a Pythagorean equation.

From here we enter a room lit an eerie Sci-Fi yellow to protect the ink, where huge sheets of aluminium pass through machines that look like oversized photocopiers.  The sheets slide out the other side printed with many pages of text.  From here, more machines take these aluminium sheets and introduce ink and water to transfer the words to paper.  The paper itself is the next surprise, as we’re led into a warehouse filled with what appears to be loo roll for giants (see photo 1).  A reel holds 6000 metres of paper, each takes 16 minutes to run through a machine and they get through around 500 a day.  Clays have 15 printing machines, 11 of which are running as we enter.  The noise is tremendous and the smell of ink sharpens the air.  We watch a roll of paper spin round at an alarming rate, the machine slicing, splicing and folding the single sheet of multiple pages into the book’s component ones (see photo 2).  Each sheet provides a section of the book, until all the folded sections are glued in a machine with a barcode reader that understands how it all fits together.

Now the rows of white blocks coming out the other end are starting to look a bit like a book, but still in the embryonic stage and, what’s more, it’s twins!  Imagine two books placed end to end and stuck together – this is what I’m looking at as each one flies off the press and along a crowded conveyer belt (see photo 3).  This process apparently all aids in saving paper wastage, something Clays is passionate about.  At the moment, I’m still mystified as to how it’s going to turn into a more recognisable form, but next we’re on to covers.

Various covers are whizzing out of machines as we enter, each one (back, front and spine) printed several times on single sheets, which will be cut to fit.  We see rolls of multicoloured foil – book cover Bling (see photo 4) and we’re shown handmade brass and silver plates used for embossing authors’ names and book titles.  I think back to when I picked up Brethren for the first time and ran my finger over the raised letters on the cover.  I had no appreciation of just what went into that, or the craft and skill that still exists beyond the functionality of machines.

Next, we’re back to the blocks of doubled books, which are running along in tiny trains, with little wings that flap up and stick the covers on.  On the conveyor belt the finished books – these ones all reprints of Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – rattle along towards a terrifying contraption that makes a mechanical chomping sound as it separates the twins into individual books and deftly slices them into neat-edged novels, finally recognisable.

After a quick stop to look at the digital presses and the distribution and storage warehouse, complete with robots and skyscraper towers of packaged books (see photo 5) the tour is over.  I emerge, wide-eyed with wonder and a newfound appreciation of the whole process of publishing and producing a book.  Leaving Clays and its 700 employees to their work, Dave and I head for the train.

Publishing is changing.  The digital revolution is here and we, as an industry, must change with it.  Without doubt, digital has its place.  It offers benefits for consumers and opportunities for authors, publishers and booksellers, but that mustn’t come at the expense of the written and printed word.  I dread a world without paper books; without all my senses satisfied by the reading experience – the smell of the paper, the glorious colours on the cover, those embossed and foiled letters under my thumb, the knowledge of how far through I am, those spine-creased, dog-eared favourites, the grains of sand still wedged in the pages from last year’s holiday.  My bookshelves are loaded with these beautiful things, each one a world, painstakingly produced.  What on earth would I keep in their place?

As we rattle towards London, Dave reads me the headlines from the trade.  A survey for World Book Day finds that printed books are holding their own over digital formats.

With thanks to David Headley, Vicky Ellis, Sandy and Peter at Cambridge House, and all at Clays.