Read as Jason Thompson talks about his career as a Bookbinder. Find him at www.ragandbonebindery.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
On paper I am a bookbinder. However my day-to-day work encompasses computer work such as ecommerce development, digital media, social media as well as photography, print and web design, and product development. In addition, as the owner of the company I make business critical decisions, hire employees, and serve as contact person for accounts payable & receivable. I have published two books on bookbinding.
When I started the business, I was a bookbinder in the traditional definition. I designed books, sourced materials, bound books, packed them up, contacted customers, billed, shipped, swept the floors and locked the doors at night. As the business grew, I hired additional bookbinders. Once we began attending trade shows, I partnered with my wife and together we work in the administrative side of the business. We still help out from time to time on the production floor binding books. I enjoy the few times a year when I get to work on a special project or help out with large orders.
How would you describe what you do?
I work in an office. I may work around books and bookish pursuits, but the work itself is in front of a computer.
What does your work entail?
Ecommerce development: working on the back-end of our ecommerce site, setting up products, category pages, custom pages, graphics and coding. Design: Print design for custom books for our company and select clients and web design for social media and special clients. Book design and writing.
What’s a typical work week like?
The week begins with processing design requests from my sales team and personalization requests from our customers. Mid week I may work on promotions (email blasts, website sales, etc). I may have photo shoots scheduled. We own a small mill building with the bindery on the first floor and a live-in loft on the second floor. I use the loft as a photo studio on days I need to shoot for the website. Additional tasks may be to edit photos and upload content to our ecommerce site. Fridays are half days when I clean up loose ends and contacts from the week.
How did you get started?
I am self taught. I began by binding just a handful of handmade blank page books in the corner of my bedroom and selling them on the streets of Harvard Square in Boston. I would bind as many books as I could and a few days later pack them up, lay out a blanket and sell journals to Harvard University students. I would use the funds from those sales to buy more materials and to pay rent and buy food. As a young man I was eager to create a business using my skills as a bookbinder. I was not aware of other companies to follow, however it was an easy move from selling books in the streets to selling in stores. Within a few years I rented my first studio in an old rum factory in Boston and hired my first employees. The business took off once we began attending trade shows, hired sales reps and focused exclusively on wholesale customers nationwide.
What do you like about what you do?
I like the fact that my wife and I are in charge of our destiny. We have said many times, we may not be rich, but being able to raise kids in a creative environment and to take a day off whenever we need to is worth more than money. Additionally, we succeed or fail on our own efforts. We always worry about business, but we never worry about being laid off or the company failing.
What do you dislike?
All the computer work. It would be nice to work with my hands more often. I also don’t like the fact that the economy has been so bad for so long. It would be nice to not have to hear from so many customers who are closing up shop.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
We draw a salary from the company just like our employees.
How much money do Bookbinders make?
Compensation for bookbinders varies as to where you work. Our bookbinders make on average $27K – 34K. We offer health insurance, paid holidays, sick days and a paid vacation over the December holiday break. We pay by the hour for studio workers (bookbinders) and salary to our sales team. Our sales team average 40K yearly.
Bookbinders in other binderies generally work alone or with one or two assistants. They have small studios and offer repair work and/or custom bindings. In that situation, bookbinders can work either as a hobby, or can make a substantial living if their work is known by buyers and collectors. The cost of materials can be minimal for repair work, same goes for custom bindings or book art work. Compensation for most bookbinders represents their skill and time.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
In the beginning I made more money than I do now. As a young man, I did not have a mortgage, car payments, health insurance, a family or employees. The money I made selling books to individual buyers and to stores more than covered the cost of materials and overhead. I think many bookbinders work solo for this very reason. The cost to keep a bindery running is minimal – once you buy the tools & equipment (book presses, etc) they will last a lifetime and materials are inexpensive. As long as you can find customers to provide repair work, or to buy your bindings or art, it can be easy to cover the cost of the studio & materials.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
No experience necessary to work in a production bindery. We offer on-the-job training. However there are schools to learn the fine art of bookbinding (North Bennet Street School).
What is most challenging about what you do?
The economy, finding new customers and keeping materials in-stock. Additionally, the Internet has not been good for bookbinders. As we move into a digital age, libraries, book collections and books in general are also moving into the digital world. This means less repair work, less collectors and less interest in books in general.
What is most rewarding?
Success on our own and being a part of the bookbinding community. Offering a decent wage to our employees. Working in a creative environment.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
If you’re creative, love books and enjoy working with your hands, bookbinding can be a rewarding occupation. Try making books on your own – there are plenty of tutorial sites & videos on the internet as well as books from the library (I recommend any book by Keith Smith). Look for binderies in your area and ask for a tour and/or a job. Try it out before going at it on your own.
How much time off do you get/take?
I work 30 hours a week and take two vacations a year. I also leave the bindery three times a year for trade shows throughout the US.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
That all we do is repair bibles! Bookbinding is much more creative than a few binding repairs. Many bookbinders create books and book art in addition to repair work. They are artists who show their work in galleries and museums. Additionally, many bookbinders collect, buy and sell fine bindings.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
To grow the bindery, expand our online presence and increase our market share among wholesale clients.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
Bookbinders are a friendly group. We love to share and love books!