How "proper" books become proper books

Last week, on a week-long residential course for writers of memoirs, I was asked (as I often am) how to get a book published.

We were in Yorkshire, at Lumb Bank, once the home of the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes.

I found myself replying, to the woman who asked me, “You could start by binding the pages together by hand, as I do.”

She didn’t look pleased. In fact, she looked a bit sick, and shook her head forcefully. (If you’re reading, you know who you are!)

What I was trying to say was this:

Publishing is a kind of spectrum

At one end, there’s the mass market publication model, with books published in many languages. At the other end, there are books that are created by hand, in limited editions.

They’re all books.

When you’re starting out, it’s easy to believe that the only way to publish is with “proper” publishers. But that can lead to frustration. Many writers, if they don’t find an enthusiastic publisher, conclude that their work is worthless. And give up.

My own approach is to make my own books before anybody else can. And sometimes I continue making my own books even when that particular title has been published “properly”.

For instance, I once hand-stitched a unique copy of my book Sew Your Own, with a pop-up page showing me at my sewing machine:

Handmade Sew Your Own fully open

Most people don’t go to such lengths. And that’s fine. Most readers don’t want it. Happily, they can buy the ordinary paperback.

But the point I’m making is that no book needs to remain forever at one particular place on the spectrum. And you can move from self-publishing towards being published by others (if that’s important to you).

You can imagine, I’m sure, how much more compelling your book will be to publishers if they see that you have already thought about how it will work as a book. If you’ve thought about the blurb, the imagery, and the kind of quotes you might like on the cover. Plus, what it’s actually like inside.

If you can’t quite picture it, watch this short film I made, showing how I created my own books by hand, so that I could experience them as books

…and how they THEN went on to become “proper” books, from proper publishers.

Now, if you watched the film, you may be wondering: How to lay out a hand-made book? It’s complicated, because the pages need to be printed in a particular order.

Depending on how many sheets you use, you might need to print pages 1, 2, 11, and 12 on the same sheet of paper.

Pages 3, 4, 9, and 10…

And pages 5, 6, 7, and 8.

It did my head in trying to work out how to do that. Nowadays, my desktop printer will arrange the pages for me when I select “booklet” as the output format. And online printers will do the same if I upload a PDF with the pages in the normal order.

Thank you for looking.