Ready, Set, Print

When Harry Potter comes tapping at your door with his magic wand, what Muggle would refuse?
Book manufacturers Edwards Brothers
- who have been in the book business for over 100 years in Ann Arbor – certainly could not. In 2000, Edwards Brothers were one of a handful of book printers to help spread the gospel of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The family-owned company produced 800,000 copies of the Potter book series, which is considered to be some of the most popular books of all time. Over in Saline, McNaughton & Gunn are printing books and down in Kerrytown District, Tom Hollander is binding his own books by hand at his store Hollander’s. These aren’t the only companies in the Ann Arbor area to print, make and bind books; there are handfuls more. It is a hidden industry most people don’t think or know about; book manufacturers are taken for granted. Their names are rarely ever printed on the books they make. From companies that ship millions of mass produced books to D.I.Y book binders, the Washtenaw area has a historical hub for book making that has slid under our reading radar. And that’s a shame; without them, we’d have no book to curl up in bed with.

Although printing books is just flat-out business for an $80 million company like Edwards Brothers, for others, it’s a form of art. So why is it, that the Ann Arbor area is nationally respected for book making? Is it because of the university? Is it because of the cities’ locations between L.A. and New York City (where most publishers exist)? Is it because many of the companies are old family businesses who stay in Michigan despite the economy? It’s a bit of all of the above, Julie McFarland, Chief Executive Officer of book printers McNaughton & Gunn agrees.  "Ann Arbor has a long history of book printing and the concentration of companies here stems from individuals leaving other firms and starting their own companies," McFarland says. Many of them came from Edwards Brothers, who began in 1893. “I believe we were the first in the area,” EB’s President and CEO John Edwards says. "We were able to compete with manufacturers in the big cities (and [their] higher costs). As we grew, others decided to start businesses…."

Between the covers

Book manufacturers are the people who print the pages and pictures of a manuscript and bind them together for a finished product to be sold. Some New York book publishing companies have their own printing company in-house, but others seek outside printers, and the Ann Arbor area seems to be the host of a growing number of book manufacturers and makers which include Malloy, Sheridan Books in Chelsea, Dexter’s Thomson-Shore and the Bessenberg Bindery, who take previously printed papers and bind them into book form.

Edwards Brothers has been a family business since its humble beginnings in 1893. As U-M Law School students, brothers Daniel and Thomas Edwards began copying and selling their lecture notes to other students. The company changed and grew with the times, and continues to evolve in this technology-obsessed society. A true leader in book manufacturing, EB prints about 25,000,000 units a year in Ann Arbor house (they also own facilities in North Carolina and Pennsylvania). When the fourth Harry Potter book was being made, security and secrecy followed the book from publisher to printer to store. EB were chosen to produce a portion of the book’s million copies in 2000. "It takes a number of manufacturers to provide that much capacity in a short time," Edwards says about the publisher needing 10,000,000 units available at once. "We had every employee sign a form that says they would not remove the books; all visitors had to sign as well. The skids were wrapped in black plastic, the truck was locked and the serial number of the lock was captured and then confirmed at the destination." That’s a lot of work for a company, who received no outside accolades for keeping up their part of Potter-mania.

Founded in 1975, by five former book manufacturing workers, Saline’s McNaughton & Gunn earn praise and awards for its attention to detail in their books, to their customer care and even to their employees.  M&G produce roughly 150-200 million books per year (that’s at least 6,000 titles), pulling in $30 million a year. The 210 person company prides itself on personal attention to publisher or author and excels at soft cover books. They’ve also made serious efforts to make their company greener, without sacrificing the final product. M&G even work with authors who don’t have publishers, to help them self publish while M&G print the final book.

Book printers and makers are aware that people are currently more likely to spend their free time on the internet, than to pick up a good book. Book companies are doing what they can to move along with today’s technology while still attempting to keep the honor of old-school book manufacturing. "Our entire production process has changed and continues to change as technology evolves," McFarland explains. "We continually invest in technology and more importantly, our people to ensure they have the skills to meet our customers’ needs." But could the Internet’s continuing dominance over the need-it-now-population mean fewer jobs for printers and binders? Better technology and machines means books are made faster, easier and even more eco-friendly, but with less manual labor. "I think we have a solid future," Edwards affirms. "The analogy I always use is that movies did not replace radio, TV did not eliminate movies. My hope is it creates new customers and that it is good for everyone."

The next evolution

Book manufacturers aren’t merely affected by getting more bang for their buck technology-wise, but the Internet itself has become an all access, 24-hour library. In 2004, mega search engine Google teamed up with the University of Michigan (and four other universities), to take each school’s entire library and turn them into a digital form to be read online. A staggering seven million books are still being scanned at U-M. The Google Digitization Project’s connection to Ann Arbor and U-M was a natural choice; Larry Page, one of Google’s co-founders went to U-M himself. The scanned books, called MBooks, can be found in the U-M system as Mirlyn or via the Google Book Search. The relentlessly shifting digital age of internet and electronic books is still one in motion; still figuring it’s way around. ProQuest, another Ann Arbor-based company who aims to help students of all fields with their online library catalog.

"We hear this …," Hollander says, "… a little bit of backlash from the computer age of everything being printed and mass produced. I think that people want to make things themselves, use their hands. I think there’s a lot of pleasure in it." As technology forces book makers to get in the game or get lost, it clearly hasn’t squashed the artistry and philosophy of the independently run book binders. Binding one’s own journal or book can be considered a craft or art, and Ann Arbor’s D.I.Y. community is coming out to rekindle the love of the book. Ann Arbor’s Hollander’s School of Book and Paper Arts  is home to one of only two sites of the American Academy of Book Binding (the other is in Telluride, Colorado). They offer workshops and sessions in binding and book conservation. The classes educate people how to use leather and hand sewing to bind their own books or restore ones. The national (and booming) personal craft scene has procured interest in hand binding. “I think part of the reason people are interested in doing it is because they haven’t done it,” Tom Hollander expresses. "It’s one of these things that’s basically an old school craft form and it’s sort of been lost."

Hollander by no means can compete with a large book manufacturer, but knows there’s room (and a need) both kinds of makers. In the end, book making all comes down to the words on the pages. Whether it is by E-book or paperback, at least we know people still want to read. For some of us, a computer will never replace the curled pages of your favorite book. It all comes back to working with your hands (as Daniel and Thomas Edwards did) and then holding the final product. "I really think people just like to hold a book," Hollander says of the average reader. "I think they’ve tried looking at a screen and it’s great because you can get a lot more information that way. But when everything is said and done, you just want to sit in a chair and hold a book. I don’t think that will get lost."

Shannon McCarthy is a Detroit-based  freelance writer. She has written for, Eye Weekly (Toronto), Metro Times (Detroit) and Under the Radar. This is her first story for Concentrate.
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