How Books Are Made

Trailer: Books, love, and family

How Books Are Made is a podcast about the art and science of making books. It’s for book lovers who believe that details matter, on paper and on screen: from the feel of the paper to the shapes of the ligatures, from hyperlinks to accessibility.

In this short trailer, Arthur Attwell describes some of his favourite books, not for their content but for the way they have been physically made: an enormous production from 1902, a marketing marvel, a Wonderland ebook, and the book that nearly injured his mother to get him married.

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This episode was published on 8 August 2020.
Supported by Electric Book Works: publishing reinvented for the digital age.


Hello and welcome to How Books Are Made, a podcast about the art and science of making books. I’m Arthur Attwell.

I have here a few of my favourite books, ones I love not for their content but for the way they have been physically made, and how they came to be at all.

The oldest one is The Home Hand-Book of Domestic Hygiene and Rational Medicine by JH Kellogg. It was printed in 1902. I picked it up at a church book sale years ago. It’s a huge tome at almost 1700 pages, with colour plates. It must have been enormous task to set every letter in metal by hand – I reckon over four million letters. And the colour plates that seem washed out to me now are only that way because in 1902 most printers were printing with only blue, red, and yellow ink, not the cyan, magenta, yellow and black we use today – that was only made popular a few years later.

The smallest is a copy of Adam’s Navel by Stephen Jay Gould, which is just one of my collection of Penguin 60s. You might remember them, a range of tiny, 60-page books containing classic pieces of literature from Penguin’s list. I love these books really because they were a triumph of book marketing.

Then, here is an iPod I bought ten years ago, and which now lives at my 7-year-old son’s bedside. It still works well, still a marvellous piece of hardware that sits in my hand like a large jewel. It has a wild and wonderful edition of Alice in Wonderland on it, where the pictures roll and fly and fall about as you turn the pages and shake and tip the iPod. At the time, it was a stunning example of what ebooks might become. Sadly, it was an outlier for book publishing, and was perhaps more a precursor of mobile-phone games today than ebooks, yet it’s still clearly a book.

Behind each of these projects are individual people whose names never appear on book reviews, and who never win literary prizes. They make these books and make them possible. Their job is a kind of intellectual acupuncture: knowing exactly how to craft paper, code, text and images so perfectly that we don’t even notice when they slip into our minds in just the right way to do their work.

I’ll confess that my favourite book here is one I made myself, called Billet Doux, a love letter. Before I proposed to my wife Michelle, I asked our closest friends and family to write something about us, and gathered all their stories in a book. It looks like something you’d find in a store, 160 pages, printed and bound, with a beautiful cover, a barcode and a real ISBN. After the prelim pages, each page includes a circular decoration, which has been cut out to make a space for an engagement ring.

I printed four copies. And on the day I was going to propose, I went to my parents’ house, because I needed my Dad’s drill to cut the space for the ring. My mother held the pages open as I stabbed a whirring hole-cutter at the book, and promptly set it on fire. There were actual flames leaping from the thing. I grabbed the second copy and tried again.

My mother, calm as ever, her fingers only inches from the blade and the smoking pages, watched me destroy two copies before, finally, on the third attempt, I managed to cut the hole without incinerating everything.

A few hours later, I am pleased to report, Michelle found the ring, read the book from cover to cover, and said yes.

Making books, and making books possible, is not a way to get rich. It is a way to create practical art, and for some of us to make a living from it. Someone’s got to see the potential of a book, and visualise the finished product, someone has to design the pages, someone has to make the printing plates and build the servers. Someone has to tell people about it.

Perhaps the biggest reason I keep making books is that the people are lovely, and on this podcast I’m going to speak to them to find out how they make books, and make books possible. I’m going to revel in my favourite details of paper stock and ligatures, e-ink and web servers. Maybe I’ll finally learn how the heck to market books, which is something I’ve never mastered.

Thanks for spending your time with me. I do hope you subscribe, so that you can join us. You can be a part of the show if you send us your own book-making stories, topics and conundrums, and you can do that at

How Books Are Made is supported by Electric Book Works, where my team and I make books all day, every day, in sunny Cape Town, South Africa.