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Why has it taken so long?

December 21, 2011

When I began the project of writing and publishing A Comprehensive Dual Bibliography of James P. Blaylock & Tim Powers, I had first considered writing only a Blaylock bibliography, perhaps later to be followed-up by a Powers bibliography. I had already been contributing to the bibliography found on the James P. Blaylock website, and I was a longtime collector of Blaylock’s books, so it would not have been much of a stretch at all for me to write a definitive encyclopedia limited to his works.

Book block, prior to attaching to leather cover.

A book block of pages, prior to attaching inside a leather cover.

However, when writing the bibliographic entries for Blaylock, it rapidly became apparent that any bibliography about him was going to frequently mention Tim Powers, since they had famously collaborated so many times. A Blaylock bibliography would also contain many of the same book entries which would appear in a Powers bibliography, and vice-versa.

So, why not do one which covered both authors at once?

The more I thought about the idea, the more it appealed to me. It was going to be a stretch for me to expand my collection to include some of the collectible Powers books I didn’t already own — in order to more thoroughly document them, but that excuse to hunt for more collectible books also attracted me. I knew this would increase the complexity of writing the book, and would increase the time and expense necessary, but I was so focused on how I thought I had most of the bibliography information already at my disposal.

I planned to hand-make the books, using classic bookbinding methods, in order to save on production costs and also to make a beautiful piece of art that would be a collectible as well. I had background and training in a number of artistic disciplines, so I reasoned that while bookbinding would be a stretch for me it would not be beyond my abilities.

I was quite excited when the two authors agreed to allow me to use some of their work and to sign the limitation pages, and I was further excited when a couple of the author’s friends also agreed to write some recollections about them for inclusion in the book.

Unfortunately, I didn’t foresee a number of aspects about the project which would result in some cascades of delays.

I had planned around a year of intensive work on researching, writing, scanning of images, designing, and page-setting of the book. All of that while still working my regular job for a living! That was right around 2004-2005. That first year involved me becoming a virtual hermit — I declined hanging out with friends and family on many occasions and worked eighteen-hour days to cover the day job while working on the book at night. That first year actually went pretty much according to plan, even though there were delays as I had to travel some for work and there are some family/friend obligations that simply cannot be avoided.

The work that first year left me somewhat starved for time with my social network — an eventual mental impact that I increasingly could not deny as I went into the second year. Meanwhile, things changed, changed more, and changed again with my job and personal life — my career in technology was advancing and also could not be neglected. No problem, I thought — I would just juggle everything and it would all work out! And so, the delays began.

But, the major mistake I made — and it was very nearly an unrecoverable mistake — was my naivete in assuming that I could learn leather bookbinding simultaneous with making books intended to be published, while having very little room for error in the overall budget.

Before starting the project, I had visited a couple of local bookbinders to inquire about prices for hand-bookbinding leather covers, and the pricing estimates I’d received seemed too high for me to build into a reasonable price for the books. I had made mental estimates of what I’d thought the market could support in terms of pricing each book, and the cost of leather hand-bound covers simply left no room for all the other costs involved.

I should note at this point that most books are not “hand-made” — most books have the majority of their parts constructed and assembled by machines — even the limited-edition books which are advertised as “leather bound”. In fact, most “leather bound” books have their covers constructed of some kind of vinyl or artificial leather composite — because real leather itself is very expensive. Perhaps all this should have made more of impression upon me, and sounded warning bells, but it did not.

A few more points about the leather and my experiences with it. Leather for this sort of thing needs to be bought at a high grade of quality, “book binding quality” in fact, because lesser grades tend to have more imperfections which would mar the appearance, or are not tanned quite as properly to use on books. As a dying art, bookbinding leather cannot be found in many places — I didn’t find any sources in the United States, so I bought leather via an importer who got them from France.

The leather came in full skins with the rough edges in the shape of a flattened animal. For the size of book I was doing, I needed a pretty good size piece of skin to cover the front, back, spine, and to turn in on the front and back covers. Due to the variations in sizes of animals and the curing process, I got inconsistent amounts of covers that I could cut out of the hides. So, there was inherent expensiveness in all of this.

Leather itself is hard to work with, too. Try predicting how large a piece of leather should be cut before you’ve completely made a book! I did make some dummy books out of blank pages in order to be able to estimate the width of the final copies — this, too, is time-consuming. But, the leather was unpredictable for when it was mounted onto the bookboards.

For the classic method of bookbinding I was using, one must cook up some wheat paste, allow it to cool, and then paste the inside of the leather for around ten minutes until the leather reaches a saturation point of “just right”. Too little and it might not adhere properly, and too much will result in the paste bleeding through to the front, causing unsightly blooms. While the leather is perfectly saturated and wet with the paste, you position the boards for the front and back of the book, put weights on it, and allow it to dry. It’s very messy, by the way, so you’ll end up cleaning. And cleaning. And cleaning. And… You get the picture.

Obviously, your front and back boards for the book have to be perfectly aligned with each other, or else the book will be out-of-kilter when it’s all assembled. Yet, when you paste the cover, the leather then expands considerably, making markings of the positions stretch out. When it expands and contracts in the pasting and drying, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether it’ll do so evenly, resulting in proper sizing and alignment for a finished book!

I only outsourced a couple of steps in making the book — one of those was the step of having the name and design printed on the spine and front of the books. I knew I wanted a gold leaf design, and I thought it would be biting off far too much to attempt to buy the tooling supplies and try to do it myself. So, this meant a sort of printing process to lay down the gold leaf. Prior to making the covers, I’d consulted with a local machined bookbindery outfit, and they’d advised me to only paste down the leather on one side of the bookboards before having them imprint the gold. However, they didn’t apparently know that if you paste down wet glue on one side of a board and allow it to dry, it will contract, warping the boards. So, all of the boards warped and could not be imprinted by them, since printing plates have to come down on a flat surface. Due to printing press set-up costs, I’d had to make ALL of the covers before taking them to have the gold foil printed on the covers — so, there was no way to alter plans or go backward — I’d consumed all of the most expensive material in the project!

This key stumble nearly did me in. I was exhausted and disenchanted with the project at this point, and I nearly threw in the towel. I turned away from the project for a period of time to focus on other things in my life.

Eventually, I looked objectively at the problem and came up with a theory on how to address it. The problem was that the covers had warped due to contraction on one side. If they could be re-dampened and then something else glued on the inside to pull in counter to the leather, it might resist the warping effect. I experimented with various archival materials, and it warped slightly less after drying, but it wasn’t enough. However, I’d kept scraps of all the leather I’d originally cut, loathing to throw away the expensive stuff, and so I tried piecing together bits of leather on the inside — using the same identical material would theoretically result in drying tension which would pull evenly on both sides of the bookboards. It worked!

So, I redampened all covers, pasted the turn-ins of the leather from the front and pieced more leather scrap on the insides. Then, I placed the covers under weights again for hours and days.

The drying process itself caused heartburn for me, all along. Leave the leather too long in a press and it doesn’t get enough air and oxygen to dry without forming mold blooms! So, it couldn’t just be placed under weights and left alone — one had to change out blotting paper periodically to aid in the drying process. This necessitated me having considerably large blocks of time where I could change the blotting paper out. Since I had times when I had to travel for work, the book project had large and frequent delays at times.

There were other steps involved, too — printing the pages out on the right kind of paper (I had some custom-cut to work for the book), turning them over to print the opposite sides (and praying the printer didn’t hiccup in the middle!) — folding the signatures — marking the signatures and poking holes for the threads — sewing the signatures — gluing the spines and gluing the “super” material to the spines — pasting the book block into the leather covers — pasting down the hinges and the endpapers — folding the books and putting them into the book press to take their final shapes — gluing on the gold coins — and cutting and gluing together the slipcases.

(If you’re morbidly curious about the mysterious rituals involved with bookbinding, stay tuned and I intend to publish some of the videos of me working on each of the stages involved.)

The troubles and delays were dismaying — time didn’t stand still in the meantime, so Blaylock and Powers both continued publishing, resulting in a feeling that the book and I were pursing some neverending ideal — should I stop and re-do to incorporate the additional books?  I eventually settled upon a reasonable happy medium by taking some time to write an Addendum of the newer books, and I discovered I could sew the additional signature into the back of the book this year (2011). That compromise had to do!

All the steps were terrifically time-consuming! But, my estimation of the learning curve involved and the innate difficulties of the leather bookbinding were the parts of the whole thing where I went severely wrong.

I’m now nearing completion of the project and am looking forward to finally giving birth to finished books — it’s an endpoint I look forward to, and which I gaze upon with a sort of stunned horror due to the cost to me in terms of time, stress, and impacts to some of my relationships. It was a fascinating project, and I can now see why so many of the famous small presses in the world of fantastic fiction have gone bankrupt. It was also very rewarding to me to work however tangentially with two of my favorite authors of all time — both of which were kind and understanding all through the process (I’m sure they privately had to’ve questioned my sanity — reasonable under the circumstances).

All this to explain why it took so long to publish a bibliography!

It will take me some time and perspective to decide if it was truly worth it in the end. I can tell you right off that it is not monetarily worth it — this was not a project of profit, but one of love — or obsession, if I’m being honest. In my internet marketing/technology career, my billable rate these days is fairly substantial. If you contrast how much time was put into each of these books, it becomes clear that if I’m lucky the cost of materials may be paid-for, but it is not paying me for the time that went into them. I’m not trying to whinge nor am I resentful of this — all of it was done by my own choice, and here related as a humble admission of fallibility.

I do hope that the books will be useful to book dealers, and provide some pleasure to book collectors! All the best works of art have some sweat, blood and tears poured into them, so perhaps these books qualify as art.

My primary hope at this point is that the books will be pleasing!

sincerely,

Chris Silver Smith

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