The Anatomy of a Book

by Erin Brown

I want to spend this month celebrating the printed book. You remember them, right? They sell them at places called bookstores. Of course, when I drove to my local Borders last week to grab a book I’d had my eye on, the lights were off and a hand printed sign on the door read, “FOR LEASE.” Through the windows (and through my tears) I saw a few empty bookcases still waiting to be broken up for kindling, and I felt a sadness descend upon me. Of course, I just drove down the road to the bustling Barnes & Noble and felt A-Okay again, but you get the idea.

It’s getting much harder for traditional books to survive and thrive in this world of ebook publishing. Amazon just released their study showing that more Kindle eBooks are being sold than printed books. That’s pretty amazing, and illustrates the overall communal shift to ebooks. This is sad for traditionalists, but I hope there will always be a place for printed books in our world (no matter how small). *Full disclosure: I love my Kindle. I used to bring a rolling suitcase solely for books when going on vacation (yes, I’m a dork), so the Kindle does serve its purpose. And there’s nothing better than finishing up a fantastic novel at midnight and being able to instantly download the next book in the saga. However, I’ve managed to balance my love of the printed book with my need for instant gratification quite well.

So in honor of the printed book, I want to share what goes into the anatomy of a hardcover book (I’m a paperback lover as well, so don’t get your panties in a wad about that—but the factors that go into a hardcover are more exciting in terms of palpability). Sure, the writing is what’s truly important, but what about the physicality of a book? The incredible feel of the pages as you turn them, the smell of the ink, the paper, the cut of the edges, the flaps, the gloss of the cover (or the matte finish!). Mmmm…I’m a true junkie. Black tar heroin is fine for some, but I’ll take black Baskerville jacket font any day. The tactile qualities of a book are glorious to a bibliophile like myself, and I pray to the God of Writing (Oghma—who knew?) that we won’t have to bid adieu to them anytime soon.

Although authors usually don’t get control over the minor details of the binding and papers, editors are always involved in the little details. Or we at least get to approve the final details—less work, all the glory, eh? Let’s start with the paper itself, which is made up of leaves: one large piece of paper folded in half to make twopages. Fold the leaf in half and you have 2 leaves containing 4 pages. Fold it in half again and you have 4 leaves with 8 pages. Keep going until you reach the dimensions of the book, or you have created a really cool origami crane. The folds of paper are called signatures. All books used to be made of stacks of signatures sewn together. Now, only the quality ones are sewn. The case of the book is then made with two boards and a spine. Throw in a head, a tail, a hollow back, and you have a book! Or at least an interesting demon to star in your fantasy novel.

And now for the big cover-up: the endpapers! What’s an endpaper, you ask? You might overlook them when opening a book, but they are the papers that connect the book block to the front and back covers. They cover the down and dirty goings-on of what holds a book together—the mull (cheese cloth-type stuff that is glued to the back of the book block), the boards of the cover, etc. These things are simply unsightly, my book-loving friend, so they must be covered immediately, lest they offend. This is where the endpapers come in. Often, it’s just a matter of choosing a color (or non-color) for the endpapers, but sometimes there’s a glorious occasion in which a book is so special that the endpapers deserve some extra “oomph.” A faint design, a texture, a marbleized color swirl! Oh, the possibilities make me giddy (sad, but true)! I once pulled an all-nighter with a designer tweaking the perfect endpapers for one of my favorite authors. And yes, endpapers that are swanky cost more, so don’t get all high and mighty when you’re published, demanding gold leaf endpapers with pearl inlays and caviar swirls.

Of course, there’s also the cover itself. Ebooks still have cover designs, but the feel of a jacket or dust cover in your hands…swoon. A publisher—based on genre, what sells, the budget, and many other factors (did I mention the budget?)—will decide whether your book will have a matte cover, a glossy one, embossing, or full effects (can I get some sparkles, people, please?!) Usually, only big budget books get the whole kit and caboodle, but the next time you pick up a hardcover, look closely at the effects on the jacket. A lot of time, attention, design-work, decision-making—and meetings! Sheesh, so many meetings—go into making every detail of the book jacket count. I once worked on some 3-D jacket art that can only be described as “wicked cool.” Of course, the final printing cost more than my house, but luckily it ended up selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Whew.

There are, of course, many more details that are involved in the production of a printed book—paper quality, the cut of the pages (care for those fancy schmantzy rough edges, anyone?), the font on the spine, the color of the boards—but I hope that you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of the glorious object that is the printed book. No matter what happens as ebooks take over, there will always be a place for the art, and yes, it is true art, that goes into building a printed book. So here’s to all the unsung heroes of publishing—the design team, the book binders, and of course the editors and publishers who sign off on everything (yay, management!)—may you always have a place in the literary world, no matter how small. And just in case, I’m hoarding my collection of marbleized endpapers until the year 2052 when I can auction them off as “literary relics.”  


Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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