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.