In November, publisher Weidenfeld and Nicolson invited We Love This Book to visit Clays in Suffolk with author Shelley Harris to see her second novel Vigilante being printed. We were given a warm welcome and then donned our hi-vis jackets for a tour of the huge factory, seeing machines printing dozens of different books and jackets including a reprint of David Walliams' Ratburger and some new Paddington books. There were machines for adding foil to covers, machines to produce the huge plates that the books are printed from, vast machines printing on to huge reams of paper, gluing books together, trimming pages and so many more tiny processes.
We then saw Vigilante at the last stages of printing where Shelley had the opportunity to load the bound books on to the machine to have their hardcovers attached. Finally we saw the first ever finished copies of Vigilante (with Shelley asking the foreman to sign the very first copy). Shelley said: "The first thing I did when I saw my novel was cry. The second thing was to laugh at myself for crying (and the third was to cry again). Vigilante's innards were piled up in their hundreds next to a conveyor belt, waiting to be jacketed, and the weirdest thing was picking up that batch of glued pages and opening them, to find words I'd written in my spare room months previously. For me, that was the kicker: my solitary, introverted work was now part of an industrial process. I watched the first copy sail along the line being pressed and hardbacked and - in a deft series of tiny operations - jacketed. I picked the first one off, and it was warm: literally hot off the press. Bliss."
Here's ten things we learned about Clays:
1. Clays produced zero landfill waste as of 2014 with all of its waste being recycled, including the large metal plates.
2. Staff have to sign agreements not to reveal cover details and blacked out storage exists for high profile books like the recent Roy Keane memoir.
3. Clays has machines that can foil, emboss and indent book jackets, the only effect they can't do is spot UV printed.
4. Foil plates are hand-set for each cover and down to the skill and experience of the individual to get exactly right.
5. Sprayed edges are the most expensive effect as it has to be done by hand and only around six books (depending on their size) can be sprayed at a time.
6. On the binding line, where the sections of the books are glued together, each section has a barcode printed on which is scanned to ensure the sections are being glued in the right order. If the order is wrong the machine is stopped instantly. The barcodes are later trimmed off.
7. A reprint generally has a three day turnaround but if a prize is being announced the factory is poised for the announcement so the reprint can begin instantly and often Clays are told in advance so they can begin printing earlier.
8. On an average day there are 100 different titles going around the factory and Clays prints on average 140 million books a year.
9. The machine that transports the finished books down a level into the distribution centre is called the "lowerator" - invented for a press day when everything needed naming and labelling.
10. The distribution centre is automated - packaged books are "lowerated" onto "slave pallets" which are scanned and taken by cranes into the store or into lorries to be delivered. The cranes work out their own metrics to maximise efficiency.
Shelley said: "I think the most fascinating thing was learning about the hundreds of tiny processes which produce a printed book. We take the finished product so much for granted that we don't think about what actually making it might involve. Call me a romantic, but I also loved the fact that, for all the hi-tech innovations at Clays the final book itself is still basically the same product that Gutenberg turned off his press in the 15th Century."
For more photos from the day, have a look at the We Love This Book Tumblr.
Vigilante by Shelley Harris is out now from Weidenfeld and Nicolson for £12.99.