I worked in publishing for a long time before I became a full time writer, and during those years I saw behind the scenes of a lot of cool places – aircraft hangar sized distribution centres, recording studios, backstage areas of famous gig venues, editing suites, and many others. But I never saw the inside of a printers.
Several of my colleagues did, and the members of the Production department (who, if you don’t know, are the brave men and women who actually make sure a book exists, by setting texts and covers, getting files to printers and making sure that they get into warehouses and therefore into bookshops when they are supposed to) went reasonably regularly, as the printers know full well who sign off their invoices, and like to keep them on side. But I never went. So when Nick, my editor at HarperCollins, asked me if I wanted to go and watch The Rising come off the presses, and sign a few copies while I was there, my reaction was, I suspect, a bit more enthusiastic than he was expecting.
As a result, on Tuesday I met Nick and Deborah (whose unenviable job it was to see that all 704 pages of The Rising were printed in the right order, on time and looking lovely) at Liverpool Street, and we boarded a train bound for Diss, in distant Suffolk. I’d been there before, as it’s the station you get off to go to the Latitude Festival. Only this time, instead of a coach ready to ferry us an hour into the middle of nowhere, there was a nice, clean taxi waiting to take us to Clays, one of the oldest printers in the country.
The first thing that was unexpected was the actual place itself. I was expecting to come across some vast grey metal building in the middle of nowhere, perhaps flanked by an industrial estate or two. Not so. One second we were driving through the very pretty little brick and stone market town of Bungay, the next we were pulling to a halt and being told we were there. We made our way into the sleek, shiny lobby, and were met by Vicky, the HarperCollins account manager who had also made her way up from London that morning, and shown straight through into the factory (after having donned hi-vis vests, of course!).
It’s pretty big, as you can see. This is part of the distribution section of the operation, where everything gets labelled and stacked and moved into the warehouse. A computer scans the barcode, and either sends the books towards a lorry, to be delivered to wherever they need to go, or towards the three storeys of shelving, to wait their turn. We made our way onwards, keeping out of the way of fork lift trucks, until we reached our destination; the casing area, where hardbacks have their hard backs, their boards, wrapped around their pages.
These are copies of The Rising, printed and trimmed and bound together.
And these are the boards, all stacked up neatly and ready to be fed into one of the many immensely dangerous-looking machines that seemed to fill every inch of the entire building.
So – in this machine, the bound pages get given a curve at the edges. I think I had always thought this was just some natural result of the glue, or the binding, but no – it’s created right here, by holding the pages in clamps and curving them over a metal slide. After this, boards get given the same curve at their spine, then get given the folds just beside the spine that let it open easily. Cold PVA school glue gets smeared along the spine of the bound pages, then the boards are set into place. Finally, they go through a heated section of the machine, and emerge, warm to the touch.
They zoom along a conveyor belt from one machine to another. In the next one, the final one, the dust jackets are folded and wrapped around the still-warm boards.
And that’s that. They’re now bound, boarded and wrapped in their dust jackets.
The finished copies are stacked in sets of the number they’re going to be wrapped. In this case, six.
Then they’re wrapped into individual shrink-wrapped sets, and stacked up ready to move on into the warehouse…
I’ve never really had a moment quite like the first time I saw a hardback of Department 19 last year, and I doubt anything will ever top it. But seeing copies of The Rising flying through the machines and emerging fully formed was pretty awesome – it was the last stage of my scrappy Word document’s journey from my laptop to the shelves of bookshops, and one I’d never seen before.
From here, I was escorted to one of the offices and settled in to sign some copies. We did about a thousand in just under two hours, which I was pretty pleased with, and then we headed over the road for lunch. Clays have a very grand house opposite the printing press, where the managers of the works used to live, which they now put people up in when they come to visit, and where they hold parties for the staff. We had a bit of lunch, before Vicky asked us if we wanted to look round a bit more of the factory, as we had time before we had to head back to Diss. I’m a bit geeky, as most of you who are reading this will probably not be shocked to hear, so we headed back across the road, for a whistlestop tour of the actual printing areas of the building.
This is the finishing area, where effects like foil, embossing, debossing and lamination are applied to covers – you can see the rolls of foil in the background. This area was warm, it’s fair to say. Really quite warm indeed.
This is one of the actual presses running at full speed, which is far, far faster than the eye can follow. And was noisy enough to make your head swim.
These are the reasonably sizeable rolls of paper which supply the press. They were shoulder-high on me.
And this is what is being printed (although these are samples, on thicker paper). There are forty-eight pages on these sheets, which are printed from a single thin metal plate. Apparently, you can print about 100,000 pages from each plate before you need to make another one. Which is a hell of a lot.
The upshot of what was a pretty brilliant day was this – the first hardback copy of The Rising anywhere outside of the printers!
The rest are on their way to Glasgow, to the HarperCollins distribution centre, and from there’ll they go out across the country in about a month’s time. Then on the 29th March, it’ll be out there for anyone who wants to read it to do so. Which is the point of the whole thing, really, and the moment that most excites me – from then on, it’s not mine anymore, it belongs to whoever wants to pick it up. Which is awesome. Terrifying, but awesome.
Thanks very much to HarperCollins and Clays for showing us around and looking after us so kindly. I had a blast…