Printing books via letterpress

Is there a way to print via letterpress a fairly substantial book and have the retail price be reasonable along with some profit?

I’m thinking a 100 page book (set in metal or photopolymer), 8” x 10” (spread 16” x 10”), hard cover. Sewn. Maybe 500 copies retailing for $60 (wholesale price of $36).

Anyone have any experience doing something like this?

Anyone have any ideas for how to make it as nice as possible and the least expensive at the same time?

Ideas for paper?

Are there places where we could get it sewn and then do the casing in ourselves?

We have a Vandercook Universal III and could print pages 4-up.

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Need to know, is the book heavy in text or artwork? You can print a great book using metal type over photo typesetting.

The paper should be uncoated stock that is opacity and some weight to the page.

Back in the mid-60’s I worked at a metal typesetting service that printed a book on a Vandercook and printed the pages 4 up as want. The paper was egg shell in color and was a vellum type of stock.

I only print 100 books, you might find a letterpress shop that can print the pages faster.

Happy to help give you more input.

The most expensive parts of the project will be typesetting/platemaking and bindery. I’ve printed a few books by hand on platen presses from hand-set type, but none as large or as large an edition as you propose — but it’s just more hand work! ;-) If you can pick a nice linotype face (I like Dwiggins’ Caledonia a lot) and find the typesetting shop that has it and will do the setting at moderate cost (or work with one of the amateur/small shops that has such equipment), it could be workable. You might need to pick up and return the type to save shipping cost. I’d use a nice uncoated 70lb or 80lb text paper. I’d also suggest using a platen jobber for the production instead of the Vandy unless you have a feed and delivery system for it — the production time will be enormously less with that quantity. Cost it out carefully to be sure you won’t lose money at $60/copy!

Good luck — sounds like a fun project!


It certainly is possible to do what you describe. I have been doing books by letterpress for over 40 years now. My initial foray into the book publishing world come directly out of an interest in new poetry and my purpose was to provide a venue for starting poets to get published. The largest book I have produced came out at 164 pp., and was printed from plastic plates around 1994.

There are some very nice book papers produced for such projects, many of which need to be purchased in carton quantities (750-1000 parent sized sheets). Talk to your local paper wholesaler and see what they might have or would be able to order from the mill for you. I am working on a book right now which uses 100# Mohawk Superfine Text, which has a nice feel and texture.

The binding can surely be handled as you describe with a bindery sewing the signatures and gluing up the backs and you attaching endsheets, making the cases and casing in.
The big decision you need to make is what are your hours worth, particularly if setting hot metal type and doing you own binding.

My own work has pretty much been a private press effort, hoping to just break even with some return for my time, but not depending on the production of these books for much in terms of real income. I’ve been fortunate in having other employment to suppport my printing habits at home.

Everyone’s situation is different, however, and if you are looking at this for its income potential, you need to satisfy yourself that the sales will be there if you price the books at a level to cover your labor.

John Henry
Cedar Creek Press

Before you start printing get with your bindery and see the best way to layout out for pages for folding.

The person at the bindery should be able to draw out a layout for page layout for each sheet that is printed.

Getting with them before starting will save you money as they will show you the fastest way for them to work with your pages to make a book and hold the price down.

As the people stated before this posting, get with your paper supplier and see what paper will work best for your book.

The time spend planning before starting will turn into profit at the end.

This may be stating the obvious, but contrary to the previous comment about still making money at $60/copy—I believe that you should not be losing money at $36/copy, covering material, labor, and profit.

The theme of the responses seems to rely heavily on what you are willing and able to do yourselves and how much you value your time at.

The nice thing about doing a larger edition is that you bring down your overhead per piece on the typesetting/linecasting/photopolymer creation. For example, if this portion of the raw product accounts for a third of the total cost to you (material & labor) at 100 copies, I figure going to 500 copies would reduce your overhead per piece by 27%. (?)

Granted, then you have to be sure that you can actually unload all 500 copies to buyers. Additionally, a larger edition makes the copies that much less rare and perhaps less collectible and special thus less marketable to some. (?)

Do you all still have your linecaster working?

If so, then they wouldn’t have to contract that work out and hopefully save big in that way, assuming that there aren’t too many graphics.

I’m guessing that they are planning to use the Vandercook printing 4-up because their windmill wouldn’t accommodate a 16”x10” piece. Are you set on that size? Would going to a smaller format that the windmill could print 1-up save time and labor?

Bindery sounds like it should be the only big question mark.

We’ve sewn up some blank notebooks with a coptic stitch in the past few years. I actually just put together an 80 page notebook the other day (4 signatures of 10 sheets folded for 20 pages each since both sides are used, with 4 stitches per signature) and it probably didn’t take me more than fifteen or twenty minutes—and I was a little rusty. Increasing signatures or stitches would obviously take longer. All this doesn’t include covering the book though, which is probably a bigger variable.

Before committing to it, perhaps you should grab 25 sheets of anything you have laying around and sew them up by hand and slap a cover on it, timing yourself—round down a little since you’ll get faster and multiply by 500.

So, to come back to the same point, as John said, if you are able to put it all together yourself, then it is a matter of what you need or want your time to be worth.

For instance, if you want 1/2 profit at wholesale, that would leave $18 for everything. If that is half labor and half material that gives $9 each. If the project is going to take you 300 hours of total work, that would pay out $15/hour. Which doesn’t sound like quite enough, but then there is still the profit on top of that. Those numbers aren’t actually based on anything though.

Sounds like a great project! I certainly hope you are able to go through with it and show it off to us.

Thanks for everyone’s thoughtful information. It was nice just seeing how much people shared. I love that.

We do still have our Intertype and at the moment it is working quite well. I would love to use it to make the book, both for the cost as well as what would hopefully would be fun.

I’m hoping we will be writing about this project in one of our upcoming Lead Graffiti informative emails we send our subscribers. I’ll surely post a description of the project here also.

We should know if it is a go pretty soon, assuming we can get our price down to a point it is worth doing which I think we can do. Then there is the issue of selling 500 copies. We think it is a book that could generate that kind of interest, but then in this economy who can tell.

The last book I printed was not too different from what you describe, 7x10 trim, set on Linotype, although there were also second-color line art illustrations in photopolymer, and offset halftones. As I recall, the publisher set the price at about $75, with a run of 400 roughly. However I ran two pages up, easier to make ready even though the auto-cylinder would have handled four-up (I was trying to minimize changes in ink fountain settings for blank and partial text pages). Even at four-up, on a handfed press the time the press-time will be considerable, and maintaining consistant inking will be an effort even if the Vandercook has a fountain.
But also consider that part of your reward here would be money, and part experience (the kind of experience money won’t buy) so I would follow my gut and not just a spreadsheet, as long as there really is some market for the subject. Unsold inventory is taxable!

I was involved in the binding of a couple of smaller books that ran to about 250 copies each. All were bound by hand , two of us doing all the work. We kept the cost down by casing them in in quarter cloth with paper spine labels. The biggest issue for us was the boredom after the first hundred or so. Also a bit stressed as we were on a publishing deadline as many had been pre-sold. That’s OK but if the printing has hold ups the binder is expected to wear the added pressure. Still those 250 copies took us nearly 3 weeks full time work to get through. Your job sounds huge by the standards I am used to. good luck.