Print is definitely not dead, and in fact, beautiful print books are having a renaissance. In today's show, I discuss the art and business of bookbinding with Lisa Van Pelt.
In the introduction, Amazon announces Amazon Charts, described as a Bestseller List for What People are Really Reading and Buying, as opposed to the opinion based or merchandiser-based charts. I predict this will be the chart that people chase after next, and there are already a couple of indies on the list as part of Kindle Unlimited.
The Guardian reports on indie authors getting Hollywood deals, including Hugh Howey, Andy Weir, EL James and now friend-of-the-show Mark Dawson. You also can watch/listen to an exclusive interview with Mark and I talking about our self-publishing tips if you're just starting out or if you want to revisit the basics. If you're a little more advanced and you're trying out Amazon Ads, I recommend the Sell More Books show episode 163 where Brian Meeks and Bryan Cohen discuss some interesting tactics.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Lisa Van Pelt is a bookbinder, specializing in designing and producing limited-edition fine press books, cases, boxes, and paste papers, and you can see examples of her work at www.lvpbookbinding.com.
- How Lisa got started in such an unusual career
- What bookbinding is and how you can do it too (without the expensive – and large! – equipment)
- How Lisa sees print books continuing to fit into the marketplace
- The collaborative process involved in bookbinding
- How Lisa markets her business
You can find Lisa at lvpbookbinding.com and on Twitter @lisa_van_pelt
Transcript of Interview with Lisa Van Pelt
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today, I'm here with Lisa Van Pelt. Hi, Lisa.
Lisa: Hi, Joanna.
Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Lisa is a bookbinder, which is very exciting, specializing in designing and producing limited-edition fine press books, cases, boxes, and paste papers, and you can see examples of her work at lvpbookbinding.com because, of course, this is such a visual media.
Now, Lisa, I'm grinning like a crazy person because it's so romantic. It just seems so romantic to be a bookbinder.
Tell us, how did you become a bookbinder and what do you love about it?
Lisa: Well, sometimes, I used to tell people that I just got into bookbinding so that I could have these big huge cast iron pieces of equipment in my studio.
But basically, I got into it because I studied bookbinding, uh, no, I didn't actually study bookbinding in college but I studied architecture in college. And then after college, I apprenticed with a bookbinder in Western Massachusetts which, oddly enough, is a hotbed, no pun intended, of letterpress printers and bookbinders and book-related artists and artisans.
And bookbinding, oddly enough, uses some of the same skillsets as architecture. Designing and building books is similar to designing and building buildings but just on a very small scale.
So that's how I got into it and that's what I love about it, this sort of design element and the actual getting to build what you design. The collaborative process between the bookbinder, myself, and whatever artist or small press, whoever's commissioning the work, we collaborate in designing, the binding, the structure, the materials, all that sort of thing. So that's really what I love about it. It's really just a fantastic way to spend time.
Joanna: It sounds so awesome and I think we should probably just get back to basics. There might be people listening who don't really understand what bookbinding is.
Many people listening will be authors who have CreateSpace or even Ingram Spark print-on-demand. Some people might have done a limited-edition print run but there will probably be very few people who have had a project working with someone like you.
Maybe you could just explain like what's the difference, or what is bookbinding?
Lisa: Of course, bookbinding is…there's a whole spectrum of what people do in bookbinding, and it can go anything from Blurb online or doing in print through Ingram Spark, which is all machine-based. And then there's the trade paperback in the middle and then there's the hardcover trades.
And then there's the hand-bound spectrum of things. I have friends who will get a book, and as a bookbinder, will be able to get a book digitally printed and then hand-bind the cover.
I work with letterpress printers or printers who are printing in some other fashion and they do the printing and then I get the sheets from them and do all of the work of creating, turning those sheets into a book.
And whether that's just the binding or it's the box that's housed in and all of that sort of thing. So along that spectrum, I'm sort of on the far end where rare book publishers are commissioning the work of, say, 1 to 50 copies of something.
So small edition, fine press books that usually end up in institutions or rare book libraries, so kind of a rarefied sort of art form. I make books the way we used to do 500 years ago, basically.
Joanna: Yeah, which is cool. We're going to come back to the death of print in a minute.
You mentioned having massive equipment in your studio. I did one day of bookbinding and I made this little notebook thing, and it was awesome. It was full of crazy equipment. So I'm just really interested.
How expensive are those big devices because not too many people must want them, to be fair.
Lisa: Not too many people want them. They really don't make them like they used to. I mean, you can actually buy the modern-day version of some of the things. Like the two pieces I have are really just massive, I try not to move very often.
The standing press that I have is seven feet tall and it weighs almost a thousand pounds just because it's cast iron. Obviously, they don't make them like they used to for some good reasons. But also, they function really well and.
The cutter that I have which is this massive board shears and it has a four foot blade basically so I can cut very large pieces of material, and I got that from an Amish guy in Pennsylvania who used to collect those things and refurbish them, the machine parts, so to keep them up and running. But it's 100 years old or more than that.
So the newfangled versions, you can purchase, but the old, so those old tools, they make them, still, but the functionality is still the same so it's very non-mechanized. Mostly just beautiful function of old machines. Not that there aren't new or mechanized things they use. I used a hot stamping machine for titling book covers and so…it's obviously electric. I use that to heat-up type in order to do a foil stamping of a title on covers and labels and things like that.
And then I actually use a dry mount press, so that's a pretty new thing, old machinery. And I use that to backcloth in order to use it, backcloth with paper in order to use it in books. And then of course, there's a bunch of hand tools which you got introduced to, you know, the bone folder and all kinds of knives and paring tools for paring leather and all sorts of things like that.
Joanna: That's very cool. It's awesome. I mean, it sounds like tens of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment.
Lisa: Oh, that's right. That was your question. How much does it cost? You know, so the board shears that I use, I don't know, maybe it was a few thousand dollars. That was 15 years ago so.
Joanna: I guess they last a long time.
Lisa: They do. I'll never have to buy a new one. Who knows if I'd ever be able to get rid of it but I may go to the grave with that.
Joanna: Well, I think that's interesting. I guess the reason I asked is because I went to this particular workshop where people could go and rent the equipment and things. We're not suggesting that people would set themselves up with all the equipment.
Often in certain bigger cities, people can go to these workshops, can't they, makerspaces and use them collectively.
Lisa: Exactly, and there are centers for the book in lots of the large cities like San Francisco near where I am, and New York. And outside the United States, there are different types of either makerspaces that just happen to have bookbinding tools.
Or we usually get called, like San Francisco Center for the Book, and they have book letterpress printing tools and also bookbinding tools. You can rent time in the studio and take classes to learn how to use the equipment, all that sort of thing.
Joanna: It's super fun, and I think that's the best way for people to get started, and as I said I think as a business person and as an author, we have to focus on digital because that's where the profit margin is.
But I want to ask you the question that, boringly, everybody asks. Everywhere I speak, it always comes up. In fact, I was at this conference last weekend. It was on the future of the book, and someone put their hand up and said, “Seriously, are ebooks the death of print?” And I sort of banged my head against the wall.
What are your thoughts in terms of the so-called death of print, or what is happening with print? Are we seeing, as with vinyl a resurgence or what do you think is happening?
Lisa: I look at it as ebooks solved a different problem than print. They are, by far, the best mode of getting information and text distributed far and wide for the least amount of production cost.
Just like the trade paperback answered that question back in its day, and now, ebooks are doing that. And so I guess you could make an argument for the development of ebooks, pushing print into…it could push print into a new direction. There could be more of a resurgence of interest in the sort of specialty print objects or beautiful print as I've heard you mention before and so that could push that into more of a specialized type of presentation of the text or artwork.
But just like digital photography didn't make painting obsolete, I feel like they're responding to two different problems or questions or needs or whatever. And obviously, ebooks are not the death of reading because more and more people have more access to reading material through ebooks.
I don't see that the rarefied world that I am in in terms of printing and bookbinding, I don't see that declining because of ebook. Perhaps the trade hardback industry is less robust than it used to be but I'm not sure that that's a terrible thing. But I don't know. I shouldn't make any proclamation but…so that's what I would say.
Joanna: But you're not worried about your business falling apart because ebook is gonna eat your lunch, right?
Lisa: No, no, no. Definitely, we're responding to different part, different world of books. You know, I do that thing where I obviously buy and read ebooks. I sometimes buy the hard copy of the ebook that I own because I like to look at things or, you know, dog-ear pages or things like that. I like the physical nature of the book, still.
So I think for different uses, different types of material. Print, for me, is still the most useful form, but the immediacy of the ebook often gets me to buy both.
Joanna: Yeah, you're an ideal reader. I have some books in print, ebook, and audio. But only non-fiction, actually, which brings me to the question, what are the best types of projects for the limited-edition work that you do, or what are some examples of projects that people would invest that money? I can't see me ever doing like a service like yours for one of my novels, which are fast-paced thrillers that you read and finish, but maybe with a nonfiction book.
What are some of the projects you do and what are the books that suit this kind of work.
Lisa: Small presses or rare book publishers will commission me to do these limited-edition books and they tend to be original artwork paired with prose or poetry. So these are the kind of what in trade language would be the coffee table book.
These end up in the libraries and rare book collections. And so the higher price allows us to focus on the beauty of the materials and the functionality of an interesting binding, or making sure it opens in a particular way and so that you move through the images and the poetry or whatever it is in a particular, not only sequence, but a rate.
It's really controlling the experience. Building the experience of moving through the work of art.
And so that's the sort of book that it would make sense to do. A high and fine binding with because that's the sort of book that a book collector is going to bring into their library or the Getty Museum is gonna put in their collection or something like that.
However, then I was mentioning before that I knew somebody who they digitally print a book for someone and then put a binding on that. Like they work with it in the same way in the sense that they're working with the client and they're designing something that reflects the character of the book, but because it's digitally printed, it really brings down the cost, and so there's that sort of interim different steps along the spectrum that you can use hand-binding.
Joanna: It's really interesting. I know this could be as long as a piece of string, but the people who then sell those books, because you're the craft person and then they are the ones selling those finished products.
They would sell them sort of $50 to $250, like that type of price range?
Lisa: More in the few thousand to five thousand range. It can be as low as maybe a thousand and then upwards of that.
Joanna: Wow. How much bling on that?
Lisa: Right. Well, and a lot of the bling is the artwork inside. For instance, it's a well-known artist and so they're collectible, and that's why we're spending all this time and money on the binding and that sort of thing. But not necessarily all well-known artists and by far, not all well-known artists.
But it's not just the binding that's creating the bling but it's definitely the art and the poetry or whatever is inside. It's definitely a book that I can't afford and obviously, that's exactly why it's not answering this accessibility question.
What I would really like is that in the future of virtual reality, we'll be able to go into libraries and be able to turn through these rare books and actually experience them because right now they're pretty inaccessible to the general public unless you make an appointment with a rare book library and then go see the work.
Joanna: Yeah, and it's interesting because the British Library, they've digitized a lot of, like, the Codex Sinaiticus, you know, and a lot of the really old manuscripts. So you can open it online. You can see it on a browser and you can zoom in.
But what you're saying with virtual reality and that kind of haptic, the touch, that's what I would want because, yeah, sure, I can zoom in and look at it on screen but that doesn't…I don't know what a vellum that's 4000 years old feels like.
Lisa: Feels like, exactly. Or smells like, maybe we could have that, too.
Joanna: Smells like, yeah. Talking of virtual reality, I would love to come and watch you in VR do your stuff. I mean, there's definitely ways that craftspeople can expand in that world, and I think this kind of physical craft is a really good example of how that will help.
Let's just come back because I'm still like, “Wow, seriously, there are books that are that expensive?” So tell us about the materials. I mean, yeah, everyone's like, “Okay, so maybe gold leaf on there, somehow.”
But what are the types of materials you would typically work with or that you get excited about working with?
Lisa: So they run the gamut, of course. There's obviously book cloth and leather and vellum and handmade papers. I do custom paste papers, which is painted paper in designs for specific projects.
One project, I used this very thin metal, not foil thin but thin enough that you could fold it over a board. But basically, I patined it using a blowtorch and so I was like painting with a blowtorch on this metal. Basically, you go to any art store or hardware store you go to, you can figure out, look at those materials and figure out how to use them in a book; wooden covers.
If you can corral a material to a small form, you could use it in a book. And doing that, doing that sort of crazy kind of…try to use this material in a book, that's part of where the cost comes in but also where the design fun comes in as well. Trying to figure out how can we use it.
One of my clients will give me this crazy cloth that are not book cloth. They're not meant to be used as a book cloth partly because they don't function quite as well as a book cloth would. But after a while of making books, you've seen all the book cloths and so if you wanna have a unique and original presentation to your book, you'll go out and find a material that is off the beaten path and try to make it work for a book.
There are artists like Louise Bourgeois, she made a book entirely out of her bed sheet. You know, so unique, very unique to her, and so…you know, people do crazy stuff like that.
Joanna: That is really cool. When I did that bookbinding thing, I was like, “One day, I will print my own paper, put my own words on it, and work with someone like you to make some beautiful product,” because, yeah, it's just so cool.
But I did wanna ask you the weird question. In my book, “Deviance,” I have a character who basically does bookbinding with human skin, which has a name for everyone listening, anthropomorphic bibliopegy, which is skin from human bodies, and my character uses tattoos and makes them. But it's just leather, right? Human skin is leather.
Have you worked with anything really weird like that or know of these strange projects?
Lisa: Well, I haven't. I have not, I admit, worked with anything as exotic as human skin. But it's true that after you've processed it, it would function, I imagine, very similarly to calfskin or sheepskin or goatskin. We particularly use calf and goatskin in the work that I do so that's definitely an example of taking a material and figuring out how to use it for a book to obtain a particular effect. I imagine it does.
Joanna: Creepy effect, yeah.
Joanna: That's what's so cool. Vellum is calfskin, right?
Lisa: Yeah. Well, and goatskin, so it can be either. And they even have things…what's it called? I wrote it down because I don't use it, but there's…it's kind of more in the grotesque, and it's called uterine calf parchment.
I don't use it and I haven't actually heard of it until I started doing some research on vellum, but there's all sorts of interesting, weird, and maybe things you might not wanna use but it's out there and available for use, maybe not on a big scale but on a small scale.
Joanna: On a small scale. I mean, I think it's really fascinating. Like you said, you have to start thinking, well, if you find a material you like, how could you use that, or something that has a meaning.
Cory Doctorow did some hand-bound of his own books and he used some of his own something in the cover so that it really was limited-edition, a bit like the Louise you mentioned. So making that limited-edition personal thing, I think, is really interesting.
And then you mentioned there, obviously, the collaboration process of design.
How much do you get to input into the design and how much are you letting the client come up with something, or do they trust you with things? What's the collaboration process?
Lisa: It ranges. I tend to have a repeat clients. A client will do one or two books a year and I'll do them with them, and some of those clients come with a material. Like, “I wanna use apple green leather on this book. I don't know how, but here it is and see what you can come up with.”
And then I read the text and I figure out what the book is sort of trying to say and/or what I think it's saying to me and then come up with a binding that works with that.
In the green casket realm the title was “Skin of Grace” and it was about a skin, the skin that overlays the skeleton. Not as macabre as that sounds but in that realm. And so I designed a spine where you could see the sewing through the spine and so it was like you are seeing the skeleton of the book through the skin, but literally, the goatskin.
Or, and then sometimes, somebody will come with a book and a real idea for what type of book structure they want. And I'll do things like suggest different materials, suggest maybe a structure. I'll give them the pros and cons of what they want. “That structure can be great for this but it also won't lie flat. If you want it to lie flat, we could adjust it in this sort of way.”
I walk them through what they want and make sure they know the pros and cons of each because everything has an upside and a downside. And then there's the other spectrum where people will say, “I don't know. I want something. I want something really fun or different or whatever,” and then I'll just come with ideas, you know. I'll spend time in the middle of the night imagining new and interesting ways to put a book together and then tell them about it.
Joanna: I love that. I'm like, “Wow, this sounds like a dream job. Maybe I should do this.” And it's so funny because I think maybe anyone who wants to write or is a writer has this attraction to the print book that will never go away and it's a completely separate thing to the business of being a writer which is quite strange.
We'll come back to the business of being a craft person in a minute, but just talk a bit about fonts because fonts are one those things that everyone struggles with in book design, I think.
Are there different fonts for the binding or are you using the same types of fonts everyone else is? How does that work?
Lisa: So the printer who's printing the book, and sometimes, it's the designer, or the book publisher will be involved with the printer in helping them picking the particular font that works well with the text, basically replicating the font that is in the book so as to marry the cover with the text, but of course, all the text.
And similar problem to the book design in ebook, the font; it contributes or detracts from readability. There are fonts that have a lot of space in them, some that have very little.
Usually, the printers and publishers doing these books that I bind, they look for a font that is trying to express the character. They have a little more leeway, right? So it's usually not as text-heavy as a work of fiction or something like that.
And so the readability is maybe that slide bar and the readability is less the important. For instance, I just bound a book that the cover title is calligraphy but I can't read it at all. No. I didn't do the calligraphy. It's gorgeous as a work of art in and of itself but it's not exactly like you're going to read the letters in there.
We have a little more leeway in that but there are fonts that if it's a book about flight, you might choose Centaur because it has a lot of air in it or you could really take it to all these minute levels of reference and style. I'm glad that that is the printer's job because it's definitely a difficult task to choose fonts.
Joanna: Yeah, it's one of those crazy things but, yeah, like you said, it really gives an idea. You mentioned about designing the paper as well, like some of the, you know, what was it, end papers…?
Lisa: The paste paper?
Joana: Yeah, paste papers. I don't know what that is.
What is a paste paper?
Lisa: It's a decorative paper. It's another 500-year-old art where you take starch and paint and put them together. And by starch, I mean like flour. And you make a flour paste and you put paint in there and you're able to paint that onto a piece of paper and make designs in it.
The starch basically makes it so that you can work with the paint and move it around before it dries. And so you can come up with just simple lines or a whole intricate patterns and you can do individual artworks just with paste painting as well.
When I make a paste paper, I'm making something that I can replicate a hundred times, which limits the amount of individuality from sheet to sheet although every sheet is different because it's hand-made.
And so when I make those for a project, usually what I'm doing is I'm making paste papers for the cover. And so just like in designing an ebook cover where you're trying to communicate something about the book through what the cover looks like, that's what I'm trying to do with the paste paper as well.
Joanna: I'm imagining a bit like stirring some big pot and then putting in a big trough, you know. Is that what it's like?
Lisa: You mix up your paint in a bucket or jar or whatever it is, big enough for a large paint brush, maybe as big as a house paint brush would be. The method I use is I dip the whole piece of paper in a water bath and I lay it out on a piece of glass. I sponge off the water and then I paint on the paint that's mixed with paste.
And then I've got that really flat surface and the paper stuck to the glass, and then I can work with the paint on top of it. And then I take it up, put it on the clothesline, forget about it, and move on to the next one. So it is very simple, very simple process and really fun.
That's one of the things, if you go to learn bookbinding, sometimes one of the funnest workshop stuff is painting your paper or making paper or doing stuff like that. Then there's the book structures and all that sort of thing, too.
Joanna: Yeah, wow, that sounds really fun. I think I might be better at that. I'm just not very good at angles. And I remember when I did the little one book that I did, you have to fold everything, and I was just like, yeah, I don't know, like whatever. And you have to do all that properly, whereas the paper bit sounds a bit more like, whoo, you could just do…
Lisa: A little more loosey-goosey, yes. Yeah, yeah, it's really creative, it's really fun.
Joanna: Oh, that sounds really cool. You do so many cool things.
I do want to ask you about the business of being a creative versus the creative side of being a creative. How do you market your services and your work?
Lisa: The work that I do tends to be word of mouth. I have my website online but it's sort of like a business card online, the way it tends to function in my work.
I can go to, in person book events in the Bay Area and meet more of the publishers and the printers and the artists and things like that. And that, it's basically just being involved in the community is another way to get word of mouth work. So it's all sort of word of mouth.
But, of course, I only do five or six projects a year so there's not a lot of need for a lot of clients to make the business run. So other bookbinders might do shorter or smaller projects so that they end up doing more per year and/or you have studio assistants that can help you do more projects and all of that type of thing.
I work alone in my studio and do a small number of projects and so that means the word of mouth that is going right now is what works for my business. And then to ramp it up, you know, to hire more studio assistants and get more work, then it would require probably more, in this sense, more contacting of the printers that I know, what we call in the business shaking the trees. So you're contacting the people you know who are doing projects and sort of getting on their radar and things like.
But then I do things, like I try to connect with other people in my field by having an Instagram account. My Instagram account, I just basically post photos of different steps I'm doing in the process or a finished book or, “It's raining today,” or whatever it is.
I follow a bunch of printers and binders and it's really fun to see their work help inspire me, especially helps being a lone craftsperson off in an orchard somewhere stay connected to the wider world of bookbinding.
The internet has, I think, been a boon for that kind of connection. You can be this craftsperson on your own or with a couple people in a studio and still be able to connect with people in your industry, you know, be inspired by the work they're doing, share successes, and that's a really fun part of how social media helps the craftsperson, I guess.
Joanna: Tell people what your Instagram is.
Lisa: Oh, my Instagram is an odd name. It's Lookielisa, like L-O-O-K-I-E-L-I-S-A. So it's nothing to do with my business name or anything like that but, yeah, so Lookielisa.
Joanna: People can check that out to see some of the things we've been talking about.
There's just one more question I have for you which is really thinking about the handmade and the maker movement. I follow quite a few makers who do the Maker Faire and this rise of the do-it-yourself thing, even down to things like small batch beer which has become really big and etsy. You know, even some of the etsy feels mainstream now. It's really funny.
Lisa: Really does.
Joanna: What do you see for the handmade and maker movement and this kind of art, like you mentioned artisan at the beginning?
What do you think is going to happen with that movement as we move more and more into the technology side on the one hand?
Lisa: I think more of what I was just saying is being able to be that craftsperson, that lone craftsperson or artist, being able to do that while staying connected with the rest of your community.
For my personal experience, it's challenged me to make better things, more interesting designs. Having access to not only historical works but what's happening currently is just a way to stimulate my imagination and make me create better work.
I definitely see that people can learn things without leaving their home, of course. So if you want to become a knitter, you can learn how to knit. You can join a Facebook group and people maybe in your area or not, share all these types of things, and then use that in street protests.
I think it's sort of interesting how the maker movement is using technology and the internet world to both help them learn new skills but also connect to others and then bring it out into the world, like that yarn bombing and…I don't know why knitting is my only example but I don't even knit. But anyway, they're doing some really cool things with it.
I think I would just expect more growth in that area and people connecting more and able to learn more, people providing more information online to share skills. You can build your house watching YouTube and things like that.
But, you know, with the indie publishing industry, indie music, all of these things are much more accessible. You want to learn something, it's very easy to do. You have to commit time and everything but it's easy to access the information and easy to connect with people who then want to also take it out into the real world. People are learning things that they're creating with their hands. Humans just have an innate desire to create.
And so whether it is in a virtual way or not, I do think building something with your hands, making something with your hands, even if it's cooking, doing that is such a human activity and human desire, that I think the access to more information that you get through the digital world will just be a boon to that sort of part of human experience.
Joanna: Yeah, I agree. I see even more people getting into it as if we say the rise of robot outsourcing, for example, what I think will be universal basic income, I think people are going to have more time. It might be forced upon them but…you know.
Joanna: And also people living longer. I think a lot of people getting into this stuff are people who've finished their job and now, they have time to do this. So I think there's a lot of potential and I certainly think, within the office, I think there's gonna be a huge growth with the maker movement as well. So very exciting times, and it's so lovely to hear about your process, and I know people will be very interested in seeing some pictures.
So tell us, where can people find you and everything you do online?
Lisa: Sure. Well, to make it easy, you can type in lisavanpelt.com and that will take you to my bookbinding website where there's galleries of the work that I've done. And you can also sign up to get an email notification when I actually publish my book, who, the protagonist is a bookbinder, so you can learn more about bookbinding that way, too.
Joanna: Oh, I gotta ask. Is the four-foot blade involved in your novel?
Lisa: In the story? Yes. Not in a sort of bloody way maybe, but, yeah.
Joanna: I was like, “Ooh, that sounds like a murder weapon.”
Lisa: So lisavanpelt.com. And also, there are links to my social media, Instagram, Pinterest, which I use a lot in, you know, designing stuff so…and Twitter.
Joanna: Yeah, fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Lisa. That was great.
Lisa: Thank you, Joanna. Thanks for having me.