What to Bind Next: The Rules

I’ve noticed a fundamental problem in the world of design binding. Please correct me if I am wrong.

The problem I perceive is that, other than commissions and set book competitions, binders often do not know what to bind. At the moment, the world of design binding has a very tenuous connection to the much wider world of book collecting. This situation puts the design binder, and the future of designer binding, at a distinct disadvantage. As the pool of collectors of design bindings has shrunk (I have been told that this is the case), the number of book collectors has increased.

I imagine that design binders must constantly experiment and refine techniques in order to execute commissions and show their work with confidence in their craftsmanship and design skills.  Presumably, one’s bindery is also a laboratory. Most binders I know have a shelf of books they want to bind “when they have time,” books that were successful experiments, or books that have been returned once an exhibition has ended. The problem with experimentation and practice, no matter how successful, is that it represents a significant expenditure of time and materials that a binder cannot really afford. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to recoup some of those “losses” by selling your books? I’m sure this has occurred to every binder on the planet.

I may be able to help a bit by providing a different perspective.

What I propose is a set of general guidelines (The Rules) to help a binder select books to bind, and an on-going series of posts on specific titles and editions that might be appropriate. The selections I make will not be based on my personal taste, but on my experience selling antiquarian and collectible books for well over a decade. I know what people buy. We can like the books or not, but we all have to make a living.

The Rules

  • Bind books in English if you live in an Anglophone country
  • Follow the flag: an axiom in the book trade with few exceptions. Ex. US author, book must be published in the US.
  • Is the author still in print? You’re on the right track.
  • Were you forced to read the book in school? This is a good sign.
  • Is the author or illustrator alive? Don’t risk it.
  • Do not bind books on books, collecting, reference books, or anything of the sort.
  • Avoid Franklin Library and Easton Press.
  • Is the book signed or inscribed by the author? Do not bind.
  • Does the book have the original dust jacket? Do not bind.
  • Is the book collectible in original condition?

It is the last item on the list that flummoxes anyone not deeply immersed in the antiquarian and collectible book trade. I hope my series on that topic will be helpful.

Another axiom in the book trade is to buy the best condition you can afford. As binders, you have a distinct advantage over collectors in this regard. You are looking for copies of collectible editions in virtually unsalable condition. No dust jacket (often 90% or more of the value of a modern book); no problem. Original binding a mess, shaken, cocked, sprung signatures, hideous bookplates, or unsightly inscriptions? No problem. You’re a binder. You’re going to take the book apart anyway. You know what you can fix and what you can’t. As long as the text block is really clean, including the edges (no library stamps or remainder marks), and the book doesn’t smell (seriously, this is a deal killer), you are golden. Best of all, because the book is a mess, it will be really inexpensive.

Then all you have to do is design and execute a fantastic binding. You know. In your spare time.


23 thoughts on “What to Bind Next: The Rules

  1. Kate- I’ve been meaning to get to your comments because they are so good.

    Let’s not look at paper quality in terms of fine press vs. trade editions. French fine press books from the 1890s through the 1920s exhibit a wide variety of papers, some of which have survived better than others. On the other hand, many British and American first editions from the 1920s and 1930s (the inter-war years), have stood up quite well. It is the cheaper reprint house editions (such as Grosset & Dunlap) that get crumbly. Let’s not even get started on pulp paperbacks from the 1950s and ’60s. If you look a first editions published by Scribners’ (publisher of both Fitzgerald and Hemingway) in the US in the 1920s-1950s, you’ll find that the paper has held up very nicely. Faber & Faber in the UK, publisher of most of the famous poets in the first half of the 20th century, also (for the most part) used good paper. Jonathan Cape, publisher of Ian Fleming, used excellent paper. The paper Dent used to mount the illustrations in Arthur Rackham’s signed limited editions is a bit crumbly, though the text is supple. Rackham’s books get rebound all the time, but I think it is usually the trade editions. Those didn’t have the “fancy” crumbling paper.

    I hope no body hates you for mentioning branding. In terms of bookbinding, I think that branding is a term that can be interpreted in a number of ways. Just as one can often tell in which trade bindery a book was bound because of what I’ll call a “house style” (intentional or unintentional), one can sometimes identify the work of a particular restorer or binder doing period-style bindings by their tools (there’s one in particular I’d know anywhere), or other stylistic quirks. This is as it ever was. We don’t really know who Queen’s Binder A was, but we can identify his work, right?
    So, yes, over time, a binder often develops a style that is very personal and identifiable like a brand. Is this on purpose? I have no idea. Some binders have a group of styles and techniques they use according to the needs of the project in question. With others, you have no idea what to expect, which is definitely not a bad thing.
    So is a binder’s brand a consistent style? Or is a binders brand literally that, his or her mark affixed to the the binding somewhere? Or did you have something else entirely in mind?

    Adding my voice to Neale’s, for goodness sake, please sign your bindings.


  2. I make stationary which means I am ‘trade’ but the methods and techniques I use in creating a commissioned journal are ‘designer’. I only work on commissioned projects. Although I have just recently designed a book product for retail sale. I don’t sign many of my books but I do have a little printed label I am going to use. A return to ‘binders labels’.


  3. I have no interest in asserting that this opinion ought to be considered either definitive or necessarily complete, but to me it is pretty simple. If the design is typical with no innovation, it would not be designer binding. But if it does exhibit something visual that is new and different, and/or shows innovation, then it is certainly special and a designer binding. With a single, stand-alone item it is pretty obvious where it fits. But when an edition is made, it seems to me that the first was what was special, but the following are not, unless each contributes in some way to an overall appreciation of the collection which exceeds the first alone.
    In my mind, there is no bottom amount or degree to which this new creativity must surpass in order to be counted. It is the value of the object, based on the level and amount of creativity, that should either soar or suffer from that degree.


  4. I think these are great topics to explore. Other than commissioning design bindings, how and where does one acquire them?
    I mentioned Chelsea Bindery below. What they call their “special bindings” are very much part of the tradition of a trade bindery. They sell every kind of binding from plain to fancy. Their fancy bindings are very good.
    What they are not is design binding. How do I know? For one thing, they are not unique, nor even a small limitation. There’s nothing wrong with that. All the great (and not so great) binderies of the 19th and 20th century did this. As little hand tooling as possible, while still looking special is the general idea behind such work. I think.
    So, for me, a design binding is unique work of art reflecting the artists’ individual response to the book.
    So, obviously, I agree with Neale that design binders are artists (and should always sign their work). The best are also extremely accomplished craftspeople.
    So what makes a binder a design binder?
    Anyone care to toss out some definitions?


  5. Neale M. Albert

    I think we should have a dialog on the definition of designer binding. What makes a binding a design binding ? Or what makes a binder a designer binder ? I look on designer binders as artists, not as craftsmen. Niot every person who draws is an ” artist. ” an artists signs his work. Designer binders should always sign their work. Some do, most don’t.

    Another good subject is how to acquire a designer binding. I mostly commission mine, but most people don’t have the patience for this.



  6. You’ve proven the point yourself with your own example. You chose a classic text with legs, thanks to Disney. You are the printer, the artist, and the binder, so you got to make all the choices. You chose well and made a sale. Kudos!
    All my rules have exceptions: you are living proof (not dead yet!). Ouch! Did not mean to make that pun!


  7. Right. Good answer, and point well taken. Though I wouldn’t choose either Wuthering Heights or Huck Finn! In my opinion, the work also needs to be in the contemporary consciousness. I went with Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. I found an English language translation in the public domain, redid the type in a gothic font, added printed illustrations of my own work, and did a gothic structure art binding. Why The Little Mermaid? Its a literary classic, but it already has great contemporary PR, being popular and in the hearts of people who have grown up with the Disney movie. I figured I would get it sold pretty quick after I put it up online, but I never got the chance. It already has a buyer after a recent lecture (where it was displayed as an example). What I am trying to say is that in such a case, while the first edition status may be a major factor in selling some works, a really popular piece that gets a very special cover can stand up there with just as much sales potential.


  8. Randy and Kate,

    I love your comments. They show that I haven’t been as clear as I hoped.

    The book does not have to be American. That was an example. British author: British printing. That’s what follow the flag means. There are many exceptions and judgement calls to be made in this area. This is where I’m trying to help. I have a great deal of experience in this area. I know what Americans, Canadians, and Brits are buying. It’s my job.

    Addressing your sample authors Stephen King and J. K. Rowling:
    Stephen King is a big seller, but I would stick with his first few novels. Carrie is the first. You need the first American edition. Small print run but much easier to find without a dj. Every copy I have seen has had warped boards. It’s normal for the book. It was printed in 1974 and the paper quality has held up nicely.
    Rowling first editions are selling less briskly these days. You can’t get an inexpensive British first of the first book. There were only 500 copies printed, some in hardcover and no dj, some only in wraps. This is a case where I would say that you could consider the first American edition without dust jacket. However, the American edition is published under a different title. It’s a judgement call.

    Both are living authors although King has been around for quite some time and is still going strong.

    Let’s talk about diminishing interest in authors. All things being equal in terms of edition (not a first–assume fine press) and condition, which would you bind: Wuthering Heights or Huck Finn? To me, that’s a no-brainer. Huck Finn every time.

    See what I mean?


  9. I had the same question as Peter regarding the author being alive or not (or for that matter American). For example, I would think the saleability of a book by Stephen King or J.K. Rowlings with a designer cover would be pretty easy to sell. Imagine the potential of a Harry Potter book done in a designer grimoire style!

    Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE the classics. I just wonder how the market will fare as their popularity declines with changes in our modern culture. I wonder how many children are even read Mother Goose anymore. Fewer people seem to care about bibles except as family treasures, and I wonder how long the name Bronte will even be recognized outside of the well read minority. Maybe we should all run out and rebind copies of The Hunger Games? Ack!


  10. K Smith

    Loved the post and I do agree with Peter in terms of finding a good fine press addition–very few people want to buy a book with cheap, yellowing, wood-based paper on the inside. I do have something more to add that may really make people hate me–while it is good to start out with these rules, I think that when you start selling more and more you need to add the rule of branding for yourself: when people start to look at your books do they see you or just another fine binding?


  11. I totally agree that putting a design binding on a book is not the holy grail. Most binders are not into designer binding at all. It is perfectly normal for a binder to spend most of his or her time doing restoration, making enclosures, and repairing Bibles. I’ve seen a ton of repair, restoration, and enclosures in my time in libraries and in the trade. I’ve seen astonishingly good restoration work (shout out to Trevor Lloyd re the forklift incident). I’ve seen horrendous things done to otherwise fantastic books. I’ve seen more enclosures, especially clamshell boxes, by more binders than I can recall. I don’t know how you guys do it. I know just enough to know that it is incredibly difficult. Even more difficult to be consistent. The trade are the main customers for boxes. If you can do a half leather, round spine, raised bands, gilt spine, custom clamshell that fits perfectly, sits square, and doesn’t open by itself, and you can do it consistently and, even better, from measurements, I consider you to be the perfect craftsman. That’s a goal in itself.
    But I’m wandering.
    This blog is about designer bindings and binders in the Americas. My post is really about a situation I see in the United States.


  12. I live in the UK and I learned bookbinding at technical college we were encouraged by our tutors to look and learn about ‘design bindings’ the competitions were always promoted but I was and remain very sceptical about the value of them.
    I think the regular bookbinders in the UK who are making a living at it are doing book repair and restoration. They are fixing a lot of bibles. There is going to be collectors who will get a book bound by a particular binder because they are collecting and some of the new bookbinders in the UK at the moment are incredibly strong. I can see binders who have been working at particular binderies starting up on there own doing really great work.
    But when it comes down to it I don’t believe that putting a design binding on a book is the “bookbinding holy grail”


  13. I am working out my thoughts on this posting because it’s really important. On one level it’s about the ‘trade’ binders versus M.A. in book arts, it’s about the whole culture of the bookbinding competitions and how limiting that is, it’s about the self perpetuating set of standards being promoted by the organisation Designer Bookbinders and at the heart of the matter the problem with bookbinding education.
    I am still working out my response but this is the start of it.


  14. I have to say, I particularly enjoyed your post. As I read the rules, I kept saying, “Yes, yes.” It is refreshing to hear the views of a knowledgeable outsider to the binding profession.


  15. Peter-
    I love your remarks. They get right to the heart of my post.
    If a binder is going to, with great inconvenience, set aside precious bench time to bind a book essentially “on spec,” the book chosen should be an easy sell. Business is about managed risk. Artists who want to make a living as an artist are running a business, like it or not. One way to view art is that its very essence is risk. Any way to mitigate risk without compromising art is a good thing, right?
    The book should be worthy of the binding. Are new fine press books inherently unworthy? No, not at all.
    However, a first edition of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea has a proven track record of desirability. So has the Black Sun Press edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Those are just two examples I pulled out of the air.
    Isn’t it good to know that the book on your bench crying for a rebind is a known quantity in the book market?
    I’m sort of joking when I talk about the author or illustrator having to be dead, but what I really mean is that the edition needs to have a track record of collectibility. A new or fairly new book isn’t going to provide that stability.


  16. And then I said:

    I should clarify that, in the trade, modern doesn’t mean newly published. It covers the entire 20th century. Thus, Ulysses (published in 1922) is a modern first. It is still in print, which means it is a classic. It has stood the test of time. However, I would never suggest binding an edition fresh off the press. That’s where suggestions of appropriate editions to bind comes in.


  17. I’m moving some comments from Facebook so everyone can participate in the discussion.

    Peter Verheyen says:

    Most binders earn their living doing binding… not necessarily “design binding.” Commissions are desert, exhibits on your own time unless also a commission (nice luxury) and then you need to negotiate time away from commissioner… We bind what comes in the door, repairs/conservation treatment, boxes, editions…

    While I agree with some aspects of the “rules,” I would steer away from “trade books” and stick with fine press editions for the most part unless there is a firm commissioner who brings in that in-print modern first they just got from Amazon…


  18. Most binders earn their living doing binding… not necessarily “design binding.” Commissions are desert, exhibits on your own time unless also a commission (nice luxury) and then you need to negotiate time away from commissioner… We bind what comes in the door, repairs/conservation treatment, boxes, editions…

    While I agree with some aspects of the “rules,” I would steer away from “trade books” and stick with fine press editions for the most part unless there is a firm commissioner who brings in that in-print modern first they just got from Amazon…

    Also, risk what by binding something where the author/illustrator are still alive?



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