Just Say No to Perfect Binding

Last summer I spotted a spine that stood out from all the thrift-shop tattered & dull ones around it: Luna Bella Luna - A Portrait of Vesale, Italy (1997). It's fundamentally a book of photos - black & white, duotone & color - by Paul Elledge taken in the northern Italian city, with some fun typography and printer's flowers thrown in. Flipping through, what caught my interest was the imprint: published by Mohawk Paper Mills Inc. Paper companies have long sponsored projects that show off their products, but LBL is interesting for being a showcase also of printing and, more to today's point, binding.

The 96-page book employs five variations/kinds of Mohawk's Superfine paper (an admirable paper for this kind of trade publication, but its use in letterpress limited editions reflects a lack of imagination). It was printed at the Stinehour Press, and while the extensive colophon even includes details about the inks, there is no mention of who did the binding, only that the book is "bound by the lay-flat Otabind process. The ability to open this book at any place, and it will remain open, is due to advanced adhesive binding technology and a patented free-floating cover, of this type of binding."

I'd first read about Otabind on the site of Hyphen Press, an English publisher with a long list of interesting & beautifully-produced books related to typography & design. Even before the disappearance of bookstores, Hyphen's title weren't commonly encountered, and they tended to go out of print quickly. You had to look in shops that specialized in design, architecture etc. Most are issued in softcover (i.e. stiff wrap) with a printed jacket.

The Hyphen site includes a long article by publisher Robin Kinross about Otabind, written in 2007. In it he makes passing mention to softcover being his preferred format, but doesn't explain why. I share a fondness for softcovers if & when they are sewn, and especially when a jacket is added. Perfect binding is an abomination that should never be used. So I was surprised & highly skeptical when I read Kinross' article about Otabind, and the fact that despite relying entirely on glue to hold the pages in (like perfect binding), it also allows the book to open flat (which only happens with perfect-bound books when you crack the spine) without destroying the adhesive connection between spine and page. So, the Vesale book, found in a thrift shop for a few bucks, offered an opportunity to test Otabind's claims.

As Kinross explains in his article (and as a trade binder who offers the process also describes, here), the difference between Otabind and perfect binding lies in the type of glue, how it's applied, and the structure of the cover. Here's another article about it, from a Dutch design periodical (Works That Work) that switched to Otabind in 2014.

Interesting to note in Kinross' article that he seems to prefer a variation in which a book is still sewn, and the sections then glued-up using the Otabind process, which really just means the spine is lined (but with cold glue, leaving it flexible), as it should be anyway. Casing-in (whether in boards or a stiff wrap) still relies entirely on the pastedowns, which is asking quite a bit (e.g. like the topic of last week's post, David Sylvian's new 600+ page opus). The Vesale book, in comparison, had had the section folds sheared off - there is no sewing.

Having experimented with Vesale - holding it up by a single page, flattening it open in a manner that would instantly crack a perfect-bound spine - it does seem to hold up to the claims made for it. There are a few binderies in the U.S. that offer the proprietary process; none I could find in Canada. But I still disdain bindings that rely entirely on adhesive: it's lazy & inelegant. A sewn book can open flat when properly constructed (here's a tip - don't put so many sheets in a signature!).

So that's the story of Otabind. There really is no excuse for publishers to be using perfect binding. One way or another, sew your books.

The koolest Hyphen Press book I have is Morton Feldman Says... It's also one of the scarcest Hyphen titles. Not an Otabind (think it predates the imprints shift to the technique).