The Book-Makers

A History of the Book in Eighteen Lives


By Adam Smyth

Formats and Prices




$41.00 CAD

A scholar and bookmaker “breathes both books-as-objects and their creators back into life” (Financial Times) in this five-hundred-year history of printed books, told through the people who created them

Books tell all kinds of stories—romances, tragedies, comedies—but if we learn to read the signs correctly, they can tell us the story of their own making too. The Book-Makers offers a new way into the story of Western culture’s most important object, the book, through dynamic portraits of eighteen individuals who helped to define it.  
Books have transformed humankind by enabling authors to create, document, and entertain. Yet we know little about the individuals who brought these fascinating objects into existence and of those who first experimented in the art of printing, design, and binding. Who were the renegade book-makers who changed the course of history?  
From Wynkyn de Worde’s printing of fifteenth-century bestsellers to Nancy Cunard’s avant-garde pamphlets produced on her small press in Normandy, this is a celebration of the book with the people put back in. 

  • "In a world where digital text shouts louder than ever it is refreshing to be reminded of the imagination and ingenuity of generations of men and women, many of them ignored by regular histories, who helped expand the potential of the printed book as form and object. Their stories reside in the physical volumes they made. Through meticulous study of the material qualities of those volumes Smyth breathes both books-as-objects and their creators back into life."
    Financial Times
  • “Vivid and often-surprising … The charm of The Book-Makers comes from its interest in wear and tear, blunders and errata, the spontaneous and the scrappy, the residual and the recycled – and in edges, of pages and bindings, society and taste”
    Times Literary Supplement
  • “[A] lively account.”
    Washington Examiner
  • The Book-Makers stands as a monument to presses past: a delightful survey of bookish achievements from the fifteenth century to the present, attentive to the printerly peculiarities of each age.”
    New Criterion
  • “Fun and informative… The Book-Makers gives you a lively sense of the way in which books have been made and unmade, crafted, handled and spliced down the centuries.”
    Prospect Magazine
  • “Smyth’s voice manages to reconcile the vividness of self-contained biographies with the flow of a single story.”
    Critical Inquiry
  • “Agile storytelling and chatty erudition together evoke not just the physicality of the book – its beauty, its complexity – but also its innate humanity.”
    Guardian (UK)
  • “Emphasising the human aspect in all its chaotic truth, The Book-Makers is far from your standard Gutenberg-to-Google history of the book… [Smyth] is almost uniquely well-qualified to convey what his 18 makers felt under their fingertips, and why it mattered to them so much. It is, in the truest sense, an enthusiast’s book; one that deserves to find enthusiasts of its own”
    Daily Telegraph (UK)
  • “The skill of a bibliographer like Smyth is to be able to read those ghostly prints and add a whole second story to the words on the page… It is, in the truest sense, an enthusiast’s book; one that deserves to find enthusiasts of its own.”
    Telegraph (UK)
  • “I cannot recommend it highly enough.”
    Spectator (UK)
  • "Agile storytelling and chatty erudition evoke not just the physicality of the book but also its innate humanity."
    Observer (UK)
  • “This really is the loveliest of books and you will never take for granted reading a physical copy again.”
    iNews (UK)
  • “Fierce scholarship and fascinating print nerdery come together here as he illuminates brilliantly a cast of printers, binders, artists, papermakers and library founders. There is a wonderful immediacy to Adam Smyth’s narrative.”
    Country Life (UK)
  • “Lively and enlightening... a must for book lovers.”
    Library Journal (Starred)
  • “By focusing on personalities over objects, Smyth infuses his history of books and printing with engaging human portraits. His use of present tense propels his prose, making books old and new gloriously, vibrantly alive for all readers, not just booksellers and librarians.”
  • “Bibliophiles will savor this sprightly walk down the book’s memory lane.”
  • The Book-Makers is a passionate paean to the book, in all its different forms, as an object.”
    Literary Review
  • “Erudite, insightful and hugely enjoyable, The Book-Makers features an eclectic cast of oddballs, eccentrics and visionaries who have shaped the printed book. A fabulous, first-class read.”
    Giles Milton, author of Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare
  • “Explores in compelling fashion the lives of these fascinating individuals and their roles in making the most powerful objects in human history – books.”
    Richard Ovenden, author of Burning The Books
  • “Evocative and fascinating… We tend to think about books from the point of view of readers: Smyth has written a new, personal history recovering and respecting those who got their hands dirty.”
    Emma Smith, author of This Is Shakespeare
  • “Amazing. From typeface to papermaking to a whole new-to-me democratic world of book interaction like commonplacing and zines, this book is a soul-expanding celebration of the human spirit.”
    Martin Latham, author of The Bookseller’s Tale
  • “Fascinating... Should teach even serious book-nerds a heap of forgotten and precious information about the making of books … As full of surprises as any novel.”
    David Bellos, author of The Novel of the Century

On Sale
May 28, 2024
Page Count
400 pages
Basic Books

Adam Smyth

About the Author

Adam Smyth is professor of English literature and the history of the book at Balliol College, University of Oxford. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books and the TLS. He also runs the 39 Steps Press, a small printing press, which he keeps in a barn in Oxfordshire, England. 

Learn more about this author