Self-Publishing Basics: 5 Book Binding Styles Illustrated

by | Nov 7, 2016

One of the principal ways we differentiate different kinds of books is by the way they are bound. Books with covers made of flexible paper are called paperbacks or softcovers.

Book bound into stiff board covers are known as casebound or hardcovers.

But in fact, there are many more common binding styles and variations on these basics.

The overwhelming majority of print books sold in the United States are paperbacks of one kind or another. Virtuall all the books produced by print on demand vendors, for instance, are trade paperbacks.

However, the trade paperback is not the beginning and the end of the kinds of books or other publications we can produce as self-publishers.

Knowing about different kinds of binding styles might just spark ideas for you about what you can do with your own books. Although there are quite a few ways to bind a book, here’s a guide to the 5 most common.

5 Book Binding Styles Illustrated

Most books are printed on large sheets of paper that are subsequently folded down to the final size, at which point it forms one signature. The most typical sizes for a signature are 16 or in some cases 32 pages, 8 or 16 printed on each side of the paper.

The process of creating the “map” of where each page goes on each sheet of paper is called the imposition process. So if you have a 160-page book, you will need 10 large sheets of paper which, when folded down, will form 10 signatures.

This is the essence of what makes a “book”—the gathering of sets of pages which are then bound together in some manner.

How the signatures are bound, and what kind of cover is used are the ways we differentiate binding styles.

bookbinding

Signatures are gathered into a block to make a book

Saddle Stitched

This is the simplest form of binding, and the one used on magazines as well as booklets. The “stitch” refers to a staple, which is formed on the fly from a roll or spool of thin wire. Book interior pages are folded in the middle to make 4 pages, 2 on each side. Then the entire book, along with its cover, is stapled in the center fold.

A variation on this type of binding is the method used for composition books. In this case, the books are too thick to be stapled, so they are sewn instead through the center fold, and piece of cloth or paper is glued on to cover the spine.

bookbinding

Composition book binding

Perfect Bound

This process takes the gathered signatures together into a “book block.” The spine is ground off, leaving the edges of all the pages exposed. A cover is then glued onto the book block with flexible adhesive.

This is the most widely used type of book binding, and is used on almost all paperbacks and many hardcovers, too. The advantage of perfect binding is that it’s fast and low cost.

The disadvantages of perfect binding are due to the kind of adhesive used. At one time perfect bound books, if opened too far, would start to lose their pages, which would separate from the cover since there was very little glue holding them.

Some glues dried out over time, making the bindings too stiff to open or, if you did open them, they would simply crack.

Advances in adhesive technology look to have solved many of these problems. I recently looked at some books using a newer adhesive called PUR that uses a chemical reaction with the paper to create an almost permanent, very thin and flexible binding, and I plan to use this technology on a project I’ve got coming up.

bookbinding

A perfect bound paperback, showing no sign of signatures

A variation on perfect binding is notch binding. In this style, the signatures remain intact, since the back is never ground off. Instead, notches are cut in the backs of the signatures and glue is applied to attach the cover. Keeping the integrity of the signatures makes this a robust type of binding.

book binding

Notch bound, notice the signatures are still intact

Smyth Sewn

To create a structurally strong binding that will last as long as the book itself, Smyth Sewing is a preferred method. Sewing the signatures together and glueing them to a strip of cloth before attaching a cover creates a strong binding in which each signature is still intact.

Smyth-sewn books often have headbands and footbands, small cloth strips at the top and bottom of the spine that are mostly decorative, hiding the edges of the binding.

You can use Smyth sewing to bind either hardcovers or paperbacks, but it’s most often used for casebound books.

bookbinding

Smyth sewn book with headband

Lay-flat Binding

Perfect bound books have square bindings, and one of the problems with this style is that the books usually will not lay flat when they are opened. This is problematic for books intended to be written in, like journals, or books you will need to refer to often. You want those kinds of books to lay flat on your desk.

Various technologies have been developed to create a paperback that will lay flat, and they usually involve creating a “free-floating” spine that allows the pages to open independent of the cover, solving the problem.

bookbinding

Paperback with a lay-flat spine allowing the signatures to move independent of the cover.

Punched and Bound (Spiral- and Comb-bound)

bookbinding

Spiral binding


Sometimes your book needs a completely different kind of binding. For books that truly lay flat, that can be folded back on themselves, you can use a “punch and bind” style.

For instance, school notebooks have holes punched down the side of the stacked pages, then a wire is spiraled through the holes, holding the pages together. That’s called a spiral-bound book.

Another similar style is comb bound books, and this style also allows you to add or remove pages. For comb-binding, the pages are stacked and punched with a rectangular hole down the side. Then a plastic “comb* is threaded into the holes.

bookbinding

Comb binding

Comb bound cookbooks are popular because you can open them to a specific page and know that the book will stay open there while you go about your preparation.

This is just a peek into the world of different kinds of bindings. Books with special purposes often demand special production, and that’s when these binding styles can come in handy. If you’re curious about the additional cost, or the benefits and drawbacks of various kinds of bindings, ask your printer’s customer service rep.

Resources

Wikipedia article on Bookbinding

Credits

Comb binding: By Digitalgadget – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3873570

Coil binding: By Chav3z17 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7370212

Gluing spine: GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=105593

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

8 Comments

  1. Hennie Mouton

    Great info, thanks.
    Up to how many pages for soft covers are fine with Perfect Bound and PUR?

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Hennie, maximum page counts depend on the printer you are using, and each may have different maximum page counts for different kinds of adhesives, assuming they offer both. (This is also true for print on demand vendors.)

      Keep in mind “perfect bound” is a style and PUR is an adhesive, so not really comparable. You can bind your perfect bound book with PUR or another adhesive.

      Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, that would be great if local print shops knew anything at all about manufacturing books which—despite what you likely tell your customers—they don’t.

      Reply
  2. Luke Yancey

    I know a lot of copy centers will actually bind books with the spiral and comb bound method. Some might even offer the other methods. If you are in need of binding a book, I would consider the purpose of it. If it is a handbook, or only contains a small number of pages, I recommend a spiral or comb binding!

    Reply
  3. Colin Dunbar

    Hi Joel
    Wow, talk about nostalgia :o) Reading this post brought back memories. Thanks for this.
    Colin

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks Colin. Not too nostalgic for me, I’m still creating books like these for my clients!

      Reply
      • Colin Dunbar

        That’s actually great, Joel. It’s too many years that I last created “real” books :o)

        Reply

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