It only took me twelve years as a published writer to get round to seeing one of my own books being printed. But when it came the experience set off all sorts of thoughts about books, how we see them and what their future might be.
From the outside, the CPI Mackays factory on a small industrial estate outside Chatham looks just like any other factory. In fact from the inside it looks just like any other factory. Long rows of clean, modern machinery shunt products along the production line, partially hidden at just about every stage by glass-sided covers. It’s only when you peer through those glass sides that you recognise what’s happening, and even then only if you’re towards the end of the line. At the beginning there are just large sheets of paper, printed in rather complex arrangements, page 4 next to page 286, upside down beneath pages 5 and 285 so they can be stacked with the rest of the book and folded over and back and round and together. (I made those page numbers up by the way – the origami of it all still defeats me.) Actually you end up with paired copies of the book, printed together on the same paper, one copy upside down, back to front and top to bottom. Exactly 0.5mm of glue is added to their spines, the books’ covers are added and the conjoined twins are sent to a circular saw that neatly separates them. Then the uncut pages sticking out at the edges are trimmed. Finally, plopping out at the rate of one pallet-full every four minutes, comes something you can recognise as the product that has so much emotional resonance for readers and writers alike: a book.
In a way, the experience mirrors the process of getting published in the first place: it’s episodic, messy, compromised. For it really to be ‘dream come true’ territory you’d have to go straight from ‘wish I could have a book published’ to ‘wow, here I am in Waterstone’s looking at a pile of books with my name on the cover’ in an instant. But of course life doesn’t work like that. You have to write the thing, send it to agents, get one of them to accept you, work on editing the book with them, wait while they send it to publishers, get one of them to accept you, edit the book some more with them, nod politely as they design possible covers that you may or may not like. You look through a proof copy of the book, which is just a pile of A4 paper where the words are set out properly and in the actual font that the book will have and with page numbers and everything else in place, but which is not actually a book, spotting all the typos and other mistakes that can creep in at any stage of the process, or at least hoping you and the proof reader have spotted them all. Eventually you receive a box of finished copies of the book from your publishers, which is good but still isn’t actually seeing it in Waterstone’s. It all forms a gradual approach to the dream, which stops it being the dream.
But as I say, that’s life. Sooner or later you look back on the experience, and savour the fact you got there at all. Chatting to Paul Steed and James Taylor of CPI Mackays as they walk me round the production line, what comes across more than anything is their pride in manufacturing a product that people love. If people didn’t love books this factory wouldn’t have printed 20 million copies of Fifty Shades of Grey last year. It wouldn’t have started a print run of a book about William and Kate’s wedding within two days of the wedding itself. It wouldn’t be staffed by people who get in touch with publishers to report errors in the text or on the cover that are spotted even as the book is about to start printing. ‘We’re a fresh set of eyes,’ says James. ‘If we can help, we do.’ You’d be amazed how ten people can all read the same proof copy of something and fail to spot a mistake, only for it to leap out of the page at person number eleven.
Years of experience in the business mean both men instinctively see books, and indeed magazines, as physical products. ‘Whenever I pick up a magazine in the newsagent,’ says Paul, ‘I have to check each of the three dimensions to see everything’s as it should be.’ And James once spotted that a hardback book his wife had bought had its cover the wrong way up. ‘The jacket matched the pages inside – it was only the actual cover that was wrong. You’d only have noticed by taking the jacket off. Which of course, being me, I did. I told my wife she should take it back to the shop, she might get some free books.’ But also they love reading for its own sake. James has been known to start leafing through a book in the factory then have to take a copy to finish reading it at home. Paul mentions that lots of people he speaks to still prefer ‘proper’ books to Kindles.
He would say that, of course – but it’s my experience too. Chatting to people in recent months I’ve noticed the phrase ‘feel of a book in my hand’ more and more. E-readers are the future, no doubt, but they’re not all of the future. The cabbie who drove me to the factory from Chatham station is typical: he uses his Kindle to avoid lugging ten books away on holiday, but at home he prefers conventional books. What you might call a two-track approach.
Standing in the factory, seeing not just my own book produced but other titles too (Sophie Kinsella and Graham Norton are among my comrades in print today), I experience a real certainty on the issue. It sounds corny, but something magical definitely happens in that final stage of the process, where what was previously just a folded pile of paper and cardboard becomes an actual book. In Finland they plant whole forests simply to supply the worldwide demand for paper used in books: looks like those trees are going to be farmed for some time to come.
Walk the Lines by Mark Mason is published in paperback today.