In The Nature of the Book, his landmark study of the printing industry in early modern London, Adrian Johns delivers a rich recreation of what it would have been like to live and work at the center of the Anglophone publishing world. Johns, a historian, takes us back to the narrow streets and lanes around St. Paul's, where printers, publishers, booksellers, and customers all congregated. Every day, tradesmen, city officials, lawyers, clergy, and even authors moved freely back and forth across the thresholds of the pressrooms there; paper, ink, candles, rags, bread, and ale flowed in, and printed sheets issued forth. Printing, the reader soon learns, was about much more than just books. As Johns writes:

Any printed book is . . . both the product of one complex set of social and technological forces and also the starting point for another. In the first place, a large number of people, machines, and materials must converge and act together for it to come into existence at all. . . . But the story of a book evidently does not end with its creation. How it is then put to use, by whom, in what circumstances, and to what effect are all equally complex issues.

He concludes: "A printed book can be seen as a nexus conjoining a wide range of worlds of work."1

Today the office cubicle has replaced the busy transom of what used to be literally a publisher's house, and the plasma screen has replaced the compositor's case. But it is still true that printed books conjoin wide ranges whole worlds of work. Could a similar archaeology of today's bookwork be attempted? Where would one even start? (Certainly not in the reading room of the Fitzwilliam Library at Cambridge, which is where Johns did much of his research.) What is bookmaking today as industry, craft, and trade amid a culture of convergence in which the vast majority of books are products published by subsidiaries of multinational media corporations?2

After all, any author can tell you who published their book. But how many can tell you who printed it? Or where it was printed? Or where the paper and the glue came from? Or anything about the ink? What about the person who designed the cover? Who were they? Who did the copyediting? Who oversaw the color separation process? Or loaded pallets of shrinkwrapped copies into a shipping container? Or worked the machinery in the paper mill?

And yet to pretend these are exclusively questions pertaining to the publishing of books is parochial. In a neoliberal global economy, it is not obvious that the making of books is operationally different from that of other commodities. The air of exceptionalism that so animates Johns's study vanishes here. In the indifferent parlance of a quarterly report, books are now just "units." A shipping container is a shipping container, regardless of what it contains.3

Book history alone, then, is not enough. Drawing on a recent complex of disciplinary engagements in infrastructure and logistics which themselves draw on media studies, the environmental humanities, postcolonial theory, transnational geography, security studies, and more this essay instead proposes a combination of network analysis and site-specific research I call bibliologistics. Bibliologistics is a book history of the present, one that understands that books individually and in aggregate leave traces in ecological, economic, and many other registers. In what follows I delineate some of the precepts of bibliologistics and then take the reader on a journey to a single locale, one (not nearly so evocative) contemporary correlate to those twisty London alleyways.


Deborah Cowen's The Deadly Life of Logistics will be our first essential text. Cowen delineates logistics as "The entire network of infrastructures, technologies, spaces, workers, and violence that makes the circulation of stuff possible."4 Logistics is further defined by flows, and the flow of material goods pretty much all the stuff you and I consume is maintained through securitization, whether covert or, when necessary (against piracy in the Gulf of Aden, for example), through state power projected by assets like a naval frigate. In Cowen's narrative, the decisive event in the history of logistics was the post-Second World War rise of middleware systems underwritten by theories cribbed from military science, enfolding the production and distribution of products into the same circulatory space. No longer were factory and warehouse distinct domains.

This is why so-called just-in-time production is the hallmark of the new logistical regimen: flows of goods can be managed and calibrated such to ensure that warehousing expensive, wasteful, and invariably a security risk is kept to a minimum, even as consumers receive an uninterrupted supply of whatever it is they demand. (As this essay goes to press amid a global pandemic, the fragility of just-in-time logistics is made manifest to us each time our online shopping carts come up empty.)

In publishing, we might imagine print on demand as the most obvious manifestation of logistical thinking. Here, though, a product is only brought into being when a customer asks for it, usually entailing some delay in delivery. Logistics done right, however, means that the product is always already there, in stock but not overstocked. The better indicator, then, would be the industry's tendency toward ever-shrinking print runs, with the rise of offset-quality digital printing meaning that runs in hundreds of copies or less are now viable. (NB: This may mean that your prestige university press book is essentially a print on demand publication. Don't tell the tenure committee.) Warehouse space is reduced to a minimum, and the book can be printed and reprinted as necessary.

Some may suggest that Robert Darnton's famous communications circuit, first offered in 1982 and bedrock of the field of book history ever since, does much the same work as Cowen. To an extent, I think this is right, and it is salutary that book historians have long recognized that books participate in far-flung networks of production, distribution, and consumption. On the other hand, we must ask whether Darnton's circuit is really adequate to his claim that "With minor adjustments, it should apply to all periods in the history of the printed book."5 The salient feature of the communications circuit is that it is indeed a circuit, from author to publisher to printer and distributor to retailer and reader and then back to author because, as Darnton tells us, authors are also readers and readers shape the expectations for what the author will author next. His exemplar is an 18th century Montpellier bookseller named Pierre Rigaud who oversees every aspect of the procurement of copies of Voltaire's 9-volume Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, dealing separately with printers (two of them), shipping agents (many of them), rival bookmen, and even Voltaire himself, as well as the actual customers in his shop who are the book's readers. Whether by word of mouth or stroke of the pen, none of the agents and actors in the circuit are beyond Rigaud's reach, which is the point of the example.

Rather than the circuit, the governing figure in logistical science is the supply chain. Not a closed loop, but an extensible and modularized self-correcting self-renewing just-in-time array of actors and agents, who, much like the packets of the Internet Protocol, communicate only with an immediate predecessor and successor. Miriam Posner, another authority on logistics, is especially good on this: "It's not like there's a control tower overseeing supply networks. Instead, each node has to talk only to its neighboring node, passing goods through a system that, considered in its entirety, is staggeringly complex. Supply chains are robust precisely because they're decentralized and self-healing."6

Books are no exception. Indeed, one of the most common origin stories about Amazon has it that Jeff Bezos started with books because books as objects were amenable to just the kind of modularization supply chains demand. The New York City-based Book Industry Study Group, serving some 200 entities throughout the publishing world, overtly adopts the language of logistics to define its mission: "Representatives of member companies rely on our committee structure as a way to discuss and resolve pain points in the book publishing supply chain."7

Now imagine, if you will, a scenario in which, at Christmastime, booksellers start running out of popular books because printers can't print them fast enough. Several factors have converged: paper from overseas is in short supply and more expensive to ship; workers are demanding higher wages; several major printers have closed their doors. Demand for some titles has exceeded expectations, forcing the remaining printers to pull other books off press to fulfill last-minute orders. Suddenly, books, at least certain books, are hard to come by, and the stockings of deprived readers dangle empty from the fireside. This Dickensian vignette is not some detail out of Johns, but a summary of reporting in the New York Times from December 2017. "The industrywide paper jam has been building for months a result of shrinking and consolidation among printing companies, the collapse of one of the major printers this summer, global paper shortages and a tightening job market that's made it difficult for printers to hire additional seasonal workers," the Times wrote.8

Among the titles impacted were Lisa Halliday's novel Asymmetry, Richard Powers's The Overstory, and Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers; and for nonfiction, David W. Blight's biography of Frederick Douglass, Samin Nosrat's cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, and Ben Reiter's Astroball. To meet demand for one title in time for an author's book tour, employees at W.W. Norton reportedly gathered printed sheets by hand and had them bound by an artisanal binder. The Times quotes Dennis Abboud, CEO of ReaderLink, the main book distributor to Target and Walmart: "The capacity is so tight that if you get a book that takes off like [Michelle Obama's] Becoming, you have to stop what they were printing and print more Becoming, then whatever they were printing is late. Then the train is really off the rails."9

The implications for bibliography and book history should be obvious, whether it's idiosyncrasies like hand-gathered pages and boutique binding in a trade book or the impact on sales and SalesRank (and the author's subsequent selling capacity) from a title's unavailability during the holiday season. To account for such anomalies in the context of book history requires what we are terming bibliologistics. But as helpful as the analyses are from Cowen, Posner, and others, terms like "supply chain" also risk obscuring the material realities of what are in fact, actual places employing actual people, not so different in their way from the characters populating Johns's rollicking retellings. What does the current book supply chain look like up close?


At the print production facility, you can smell the ink in the parking lot. A massive water tower emblazoned "Kendallville" looms overhead, and the American flag flies out in front. We're expected, but the door we're supposed to enter through is not immediately obvious visitors are not a frequent occurrence here.

To get to Kendallville, Indiana, population 9682, you fly into Fort Wayne and then drive about 45 minutes north on State Route 3. Like many other places, Kendallville owes its existence to a confluence of natural resources and critical infrastructure. It was founded as a trading and transit center in the mid-19th century along what had been an overland buffalo migration route belonging to the Potawatomi, who were dispossessed by the 1833 Treaty of Chicago. Main Street was laid down as a plank road in 1848. Soon after, rail lines crisscrossed there. Today, an industrial park on the east side of town takes advantage of access to nearby I-69, I-80/90, and the Norfolk Southern.

LSC Communications, one of the largest commercial printers in the United States, maintains two facilities here, one for offset printing and one for digital printing. LSC is a fairly recent corporate creation, spun off from the venerable printing firm R. R. Donelley, based in Chicago and perhaps most famous for its printing of the Sears Catalog until 1992; Donelley was also known for its Lakeside Classics editions of American literature, now highly collectible. (LSC in fact stands for Lakeside Classics.) LSC acquired the Kendallville plant from a competitor, Courier, in 2015; this pattern of mergers and acquisitions is part of what the NYT article documents as contributing to instability in the industry. Before Courier, the plant was known as Murray Kendallville; it opened in 1985 and specialized in printing paperbacks. Indeed, there has been printing in Kendallville almost as long as the town has existed: the Noble County Star began there in 1849, serving surrounding communities with job printing and a weekly newspaper.

Unlike the pressrooms of Johns's London, the doors to the plant in Kendallville (once we find them) are locked and monitored by surveillance cameras. Everyone must present ID, sign in, and surrender their electronics. (I imagine such measures are standard throughout the industry.) The environment inside is noisy, and earplugs are mandatory. Visitors must keep within yellow-ruled walking lines. The floorplan of the plant reflects its workflow. Paper and ink are stored at the back of the building, in giant rolls and barrels. "There are three things you need to print," I'm told. "Paper, ink, and water." These ingredients are fed into one of four enormous ManRoland Lithoman IV offset presses, each a $15 million piece of hardware. (The plates are kept wetted down with water to keep ink off of the areas with no image; there are 110 gallons of water in the press at any given time.) Each Lithoman is capable of printing tens of thousands of sheets (and thus hundreds of thousands of pages) per hour. Printed sheets are dried, folded, cut, and sorted, before being shunted off to separate areas of the floor for binding and casework on equally imposing machines. Software and sensors constantly monitor and correct the print job in progress for color levels and registration. Nonetheless, our guides are deeply knowledgeable about paper stock, coating (sealant), ink, and so forth. They know things the software doesn't, like how to compensate for the ambient effects of an Indiana summer and a Midwestern winter. Everything is about throughput: sheets printed per hour, pages cut and bound per hour, boxes and pallets stacked per hour. A motivational sign reads SAVING 1 MINUTE AT A TIME.

Although the printer is only one point in the supply chain, there is some reason to think of it as exceptional: the printing plant is the place where the digital entity that is the book in the form of a digital file is transformed through processes involving wetting, drying, staining, stretching, pressing, folding, cutting, stitching, and gluing into the physical commodity of the codex. The complete book is made here: pages, inserts, binding, jackets, and cases. Print-ready PDFs come into the building over fiber optic, and actual books leave from the loading dock, shrink-wrapped on pallets. (At the digital printing facility down the road there is a Norfolk Southern railhead directly into the building.)

On the day I visit, one of the presses is printing a title under embargo, meaning physical security has been tightened even more than usual. This is a common enough occurrence. Every once in a while, the embargo may be for a high-profile title like, say, James Comey's memoir or a new Harry Potter. More often than not, though, it's for a textbook, or else perhaps a book connected to a computer game or entertainment franchise. As was also true in the era Johns writes about, what printers fear most is piracy, and textbooks and game books are prime targets. (And as Cowen repeatedly details, supply chain security is the singular obsession of logistical thinking.) Here in Kendallville a guard stands nearby the pallets of finished books, which I can see is indeed a tie-in to a popular videogame. The book has a release date on Amazon three weeks in the future, which makes looking at it there in the present a little uncanny a sign of how much I have been conditioned not to think about where things come from before they arrive on my doorstep in a cardboard brown box with a smirk on the side. I wonder, were I to buy it in three weeks' time, would I receive one of the same copies I'm gazing at now? Brushing up against modern supply chains exposes exactly that kind of wormhole in space and time.

I wanted to go to Kendallville because I wanted to see how books were made. I've spent my professional life working with them, but at some point I realized I didn't really know. Not just technically, although that's part of it: how many of us can explain what, exactly, makes a print-ready PDF print-ready? The more interesting question, though, is not why readers don't know more about how or where books are made, but why don't readers or authors need to know that anymore. As Johns teaches us, in the hand-press era, knowing who printed a book really meant something: it went directly to the question of the edition's authority and credibility. Authors, for their part, were sometimes known to work closely with compositors, as Johns also details. An author visiting Kendallville, by contrast, would be unheard of, let alone a hapless historian or bibliographer. I can't shake the feeling there is something indulgent, or nostalgic, or nebbishy, about my desire to see the site of production something misdirected, a kind of naiveté holding out hope that mysteries would be revealed, as if my two-plane Avis-assisted itinerary were my Blakean descent to the printing house in hell to see the means by which knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation.

When I return home, I order a copy of the book I saw being printed, anticipating that its "Printed in the USA" tag will be enough to close the affective loop and complete my memory of the plant visit. I am disappointed though when it arrives, because the copy I receive bears the note "Printed in Canada." Why didn't Kendallville do the entire run? Did the turmoil in the printing industry have anything to do with that, or did the supply chain bend and flex for other, indeterminate reasons? How many other sites were involved in this one book's making?

The sense of arbitrariness I felt in Kendallville (what am I doing in Kendallville?) seems confirmed by this anomaly, a reminder of the inscrutable nature of the supply chain. As Cowen notes, "commodities today are manufactured across logistical space rather than in a single place."10 Bibliologistics, as a project, must, it seems to me, confront such anomalies and antinomies, the allure of site specificity versus the ultimate modularity and replicability disposability of those self-same sites, which is the very logic of logistics.

Indeed, in October 2018, there were public reports that LSC had been acquired for $1.4 billion by its Wisconsin-based rival Quad/Graphics. As an industry publication noted at the time, "LSC adds 59 manufacturing and distribution facilities to the 55 Quad/Graphics currently has in a print industry that is already seeing volume declines. An estimated $60 million in cost savings from the deal will come from capacity rationalization with another $50 million from administrative efficiencies and $25 million from supply chain management. The two sides did not address specifically where the cost savings would come from or which facilities might be included."11 In other words, Kendallville would have become one of over 100 sites in a new, consolidated company, and without question a potential candidate for the chopping block. In the event, the merger was scrapped in July 2019 following a federal anti-trust lawsuit, with LSC receiving a reported $45 million in the process.12 But it will surely not be the last time the plant is vulnerable. Whatever site-specific knowledge my visit there has won risks irrelevance if it is shuttered (surely the least of anyone's problems when measured against the livelihood of those who actually work there).

In the "Memorable Fancy" wherein he visits Hell's printing house, William Blake writes of the Fifth Chamber whose "unnam'd forms" cast metals into the expanse.13 This line is usually held to refer to pressmen, typically anonymous. But then as now, printers' devils have names. If bibliologistics can help center some of these lived realities against the infernal optimization the supply chain demands, perhaps it is worth pursuing economy class airline seats, rental cars, and all.

Portions of this essay also appear in modified form in my Books.Files: Preserving Digital Assets in the Contemporary Publishing Industry, an open access research report available here. I am grateful to the expert LSC employees who hosted us in Kendallville and to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation which funded the larger Books.Files project.

Matthew Kirschenbaum is Professor of English and Digital Studies at the University of Maryland. He is the author, most recently, of a Mellon-funded research report, Books.Files: Preservation of Digital Assets in the Contemporary Publishing Industry.


  1. Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 3.[]
  2. For one recent approach to these questions, see the aforementioned Books.Files: Preservation of Digital Assets in the Contemporary Publishing Industry (College Park, MD and New York, 2020).[]
  3. Stephanie LeManager, at the conclusion of Living Oil: Petroleum Culture and the American Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), makes this point memorably, subjecting her own monograph to analysis that reveals the energy costs to print, ship, and warehouse a single copy: 6.2 kWh. This, it turns out, compares favorably to the energy required to cook and serve a fast food cheeseburger, with fixings. So now we know: books are not only officially better for the planet than burgers, but also can be costed out using the same metrics.[]
  4. Deborah Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 1.[]
  5. Robert Darnton, "What is the History of Books?" Daedalus 111, no. 3 (1982): 67. In "The Digital Publishing Communications Circuit," Book 2.0, 3 no. 1 (2013), Padmini Ray Murray and Claire Squires update and amend Darnton to account for developments such as the rise of literary agents, self-publishing platforms, digital publishing, and e-reading devices. As their title implies, however, they don't substantially deviate from the governing figure of the circuit.[]
  6. Miriam Posner, "See No Evil," Logic Magazine 4 (April 2018).[]
  7. See []
  8. Alexandra Alter, "Bottleneck at Printers Has Delayed Some Holiday Book Sales," New York Times, December 23, 2018.[]
  9. Ibid.[]
  10. Cowen, 3.[]
  11. See; available via []
  12. See[]
  13. See The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.[]