or: Why You Can't Afford to Buy (and I Can't Afford to Make) Beautiful, Finely Crafted Blank Books.

After finishing limp leather bookbinding, I got the idea that it would be really nice to just be able to make and sell this type of nice, soft leatherbound notebook. They look beautiful, are a pleasure to use, and it's work that I can do well. They are the sort of object that people want to buy. So I decided to examine the costs involved, hoping that I could make a little money selling blank books with limp leather bindings.

It's not cheap. (Surprise!) Good materials are expensive, but labor is even more expensive. Each notebook takes me 4 to 5 hours to make, and I need at least US$10 an hour to make it worth my time - I could make that much an hour working for other people doing similar things. Granted, if I were doing this as a job, focusing entirely on the binding, or doing a particular style in an edition, I could probably reduce the time a bit. I can't see it taking less than three hours without serious loss in quality.

Given the cost labor and the amount of time involved, it seems silly to skimp on materials. I presently have a reasonable quantity of good, cheap bookbinding leather, thanks to evilrooster and J. Hewit & Sons, but my next order will almost certainly cost more. Good paper is expensive, though for some applications, basic acid-free bond will do, and that is cheap. Endpapers and other materials add up. Though it is possible to do a limp leather bookbinding for less than $50, wholesale, it involves the use of cheap, boring materials.

Labor costs are pretty close to the same for various physical sizes of books - what affects the cost most, other than materials, is length and thickness of paper - a book with more pages requires more sewing. Thus, here are the approximate costs for three blank books with limp leather bookbindings, each one inch thick:

  • 8 x 10 inches
  • 5 x 7 inches
    • leather - $10
    • paper for book block
      • Rives BFK - $9 (104 pages)
      • Rives Heavyweight - $15 (148 pages)
      • Rives Lightweight - $13 (224 pages)
      • generic acid-free white bond - $10 (320 pages)
    • endpapers
      • hand-marbled paper - $7.50
      • machine marbled paper or any number of nice handmade papers - $2.50
    • tapes
      • vellum - negligible
      • leather - $4
      • linen - $7
    • Labor - $30
    • Other unavoidable miscellaneous expenses (thread, wax, wear and tear, etc.) - $2
    • Total cost
      • low - $53.50
      • middle - $63.00
      • high - $71.50
  • 4.25 x 5.5 inches
    • leather - $5
    • paper for book block
      • Rives BFK - $7 (104 pages)
      • Rives Heavyweight - $9 (148 pages)
      • Rives Lightweight - $7.50 (224 pages)
      • generic acid-free white bond - $10 (320 pages)
    • endpapers
      • hand-marbled paper - $4
      • machine marbled paper or any number of nice handmade papers - $1.25
    • tapes
      • vellum - negligible
      • leather - $3
      • linen - $5
    • Labor - $30
    • Other unavoidable miscellaneous expenses (thread, wax, wear and tear, etc.) - $1
    • Total cost
      • low - $44.25
      • middle - $49
      • high - $55

The cost of the leather drops, as one might expect, as does the cost of most types of paper. The lighter weight paper remains more expensive as it requires more labor - more sewing, more time folding signatures. The more expensive papers might be available in rolls, cheaper, but I have yet to find it. The cost of endpapers follows the same logic as the leather - less paper is used, thus cheaper.

The cost of tapes is a difficult question. Vellum tapes are most archival, and antique vellum costs next to nothing. Vellum remains flexible for an extremely long time - hundreds of years - and is easy to pull through the covers. But it is off-white in color. For a bit of decoration, leather tapes might be used. Or, if the asethetic situation requires (or the customer demands) it, linen tapes can be used. They are not too expensive, but they are much more work to pull through the slits in the covers, thus requiring more labor.

The prices for leather are relatively low, but will remain as such until I have to pay more. Double or triple might be a good reflection of normal market conditions for good hides.

$44, $54, and $67, for beautiful handmade blank books. At the low end. Wholesale. Start using better materials, double the prices for retail, and the customer base suddenly gets much much smaller.

The possibilty of selling these books on eBay has been suggested, which would bring down the retail mark-up considerably, especially if each book was made to order. But making each book to order would mean having a large variety of expensive leathers and papers on hand, more than the individual bookbinder would normally keep on hand. A smaller selection would mean lower bids and less interest.

The problem is the cost of labor - handmade goods simply cost more than mass-produced ones.

Of course, if you are interested in this sort of book at approximate prices listed, let me know... I will be happy to make something for you.

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