Making a book (in Japan)


Just recently, my third book to be published in Japan arrived at my door!

Every time seeing a new book completed is just a moment of many complex feelings: joy and relief, feeling of accomplishment, and also giddy anticipation for seeing the books on bookstore shelves. This is the end of a long, arduous process, sometimes spanning years, which includes making the book’s contents but also deciding everything about the looks and design with the publisher.

I wanted to show you a small glimpse of what this second stage involved for me this time:

I know that the bookmaking time has come when, a bit unexpectedly, a substantial package arrives from the publisher. My suspicions are confirmed when I see that the package contains books that are completely unrelated to what I’m trying to put together – these are just some random books of other authors that have something the publisher wants me to look at. They use the same paper, the style of the cover or the binding is similar, or the number of pages and size is more or less the same as my planned book. At the same time, an e-mail from my editor arrives explaining why he sent me “Grow Your Own Potatoes in 10 Days!” and what I should look at in each of the books.

This first step is very useful. I can check for myself how the paper of the cover or the book’s insides looks after it’s been printed on, whether the print shows through the paper, or if I like the size and weight of the volume, and so on. All this before anything is decided or ordered. Lately, my editor says that it has become quite challenging to order some types of paper or the waiting times are pretty long, so it’s good to decide such things well before the publishing date.

The next thing that arrives is the dummy book. This is always exciting because it’s an entirely blank book made to the correct size and using the paper and binding method that was chosen for the finished thing. It’s basically the finished book without anything printed, and it looks like a nice white sketchbook.

With this in my hand, I can further confirm if I like the used paper, size, and shape of the book, as some smaller refinements are still possible. For example, even standard book sizes (like A5) can be made just a bit wider or skinnier – there’s a bit of leeway that can be used when final cutting the printed books. 

Around the same time comes the first book dummy print, usually in a huge envelope. This is also a very exciting event because it’s the first rough copy of the whole book’s contents, printed one spread a page on big sheets. The sheets include not only what I created but also the looks made by the book’s designer and the additional edits and contents provided by other involved people, like the editor or translators, etc.

I guess this step could be done digitally (and usually, I also get a PDF with the same contents by e-mail), but nothing really shows how the printed books will look, like having everything printed at the final size. It’s easy to check if the text size is not too small or too big, if the illustrations’ placement is well balanced, etc. I don’t know why, but even though I have a big display and can just display the PDF at the same size, it just doesn’t work as well, somehow.

Even though this is just a very rough laser-printer copy, it’s also possible sometimes to catch some problems with graphic files that were missed when displayed on the screen. Again, I can look at the files in Photoshop for days, but somehow only when everything is printed do I spot some one-pixel left-over edges or file backgrounds that were not perfectly white, etc.

In the meantime, depending on how the book is made, I also receive color sample charts. This happens when colored papers are used for the cover, inside the book, or for the asobigami sheets at the beginning and ending of the book. In the case of my current project, I was sent a set of samples like this to decide what combinations of colors I liked for the cover and the inside sheets.

The obi – which means “belt” in Japanese – is another element that has to be decided. This is the strip of paper that usually contains some additional information about the book when it’s new and on the shelf of a bookstore. If you ever bought a Moleskine notebook – these come with a colorful paper obi explaining what type of notebook you’re buying. In Japan, a lot of books, even paperbacks, have dust jackets and the obi, which usually contain some blurbs, recommendations, a synopsis of the story, a list of the author’s other works, etc. I really like the obi because I can take it off, which leaves me with a book with a much more cleanly designed cover (compared to English paperbacks where all this info is printed on the cover itself).

In my books, I sometimes use the obi more creatively: for example, making the actual book cover plain and classy and putting the illustration and information on a very wide obi. I did this with my Tokyo at Night book, for example, and decided to use it in this project too! When it’s “stripped down” to its bare cover, we wanted the book to look a bit like a sketchbook, so all the usual cover things went onto the obi.

After I get the white demo book, I can try to print some of my obi illustration ideas, cut the paper to size and try putting it on to see how it will look – having a good, big printer that can churn out A3+ size prints at our home studio is very useful in bookmaking.

Apart from playing with the obi, I have to, of course, finish the book’s contents. I check and re-check the printed dummy for any mistakes or things I would like to change and mark them all in the PDF, send it back to the publisher, and wait for an updated version. Depending on the scope of the project, this can be a very slow and time-consuming stage. It’s hard enough for me, but I can’t imagine how tough this must be for novelists who have to go through their 800-pages book for the 30th time to check if all the commas are in the right places. Ugh!

While I’m trying to tie the contents up, the test prints for the cover, the obi, and the inside pages arrive. Test prints like this, done with the printing method and paper that will be actually used for the final book, are difficult, time-consuming, and quite expensive, so I only get a few shots to fix things.

This time I got a few versions of the main cover to decide which combination of inks we should use for the main vivid red tone. Next were two prints of the obi using different saturation levels, and finally, just a few pages from inside the book. 

It’s economically impossible to test-print the whole book, so my editor sends just a few pages representing possibly the widest variation of contents so we can check a lot of things with only a few more challenging test sheets – some bright illustrations, some very dark ones, white text on black background, etc.

It’s good that we do this because the first test came very “bluish” overall and big adjustments to the print settings had to be made – the second test came out very nice!

At this stage, I’m still tweaking the contents a bit, sending PDF files to some friends and collaborators for proofreading, etc., but a day comes when the last-stage check prints arrive. This is a bunch of sheets printed in a very weird way – similar to the final printing process – so they are quite difficult to handle, but they represent how the final book will look inside.

The hunt for any small mistakes begins! This time this print was almost perfect.

And that’s it! Now only a few weeks wait for the freshly printed books to arrive at our studio – I usually get only one copy to myself and a few dozen to sign and send back (these will be sold in a few chosen bookstores around Japan). Now I can see how the actual finished book looks for the first time! An exciting and VERY stressful moment!

Luckily, with my current book – O-Kura dashi everything ended up looking amazing!

You can read more about / buy my new book here: https://mateuszurbanowicz.com/works/kuradashi/

1 thought on “Making a book (in Japan)”

  1. I found a cheap way of producing a paperback-style book of my art using the free Scribus program to create a 60-page book in pdf format and had it printed by a UK digital printer printed.com who can print them in batches of 10 upwards at a cost of less than $10 each.

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