Much binding in the Guildhall

The six novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize have been specially bound by an elite squad of bookbinders.

Celebrity authors, with huge advances, festivals and glamorous parties, are commonplace in publishing nowadays. But there is one branch of the business that remains stubbornly unfashionable: bookbinders are the Cinderellas of the trade. They are an unknown and mostly unseen breed. That is, until October each year, when six of them are chosen to bind the shortlisted books for the Booker Prize dinner.

This year the banquet, celebrating the prize's 30th birthday, will be held on 27 October at the Guildhall in London, and attended by over 400 guests from the literati and media, a sprinkling of booksellers, businessmen and MPs and six of these dusty, glue-spattered individuals.

Although modern bookbinding is in danger of becoming a forgotten craft, bookbinders have been working since the birth of Christianity, when old- style parchments were first discarded.

The history of bookbinding is the history of cover design. Although binding techniques have developed, the materials and tools used have changed little. The main change has been in the decoration of the book cover. The first bindings were basic wooden boards, usually oak; then in the early Middle Ages leather became the most popular material used, mostly skins of calves, goats, pigs and sheep. Some books were bound in deer, seal or horse skin.

Today there are three parts to the craft: trade binding (the commercial and mechanical end of the market), restoration and conservation, and, because there are still a few discerning buyers who like their books beautifully bound in soft morocco with delicate gold tooling, there is a third section, Designer Bookbinders, a specialist group which started in London in 1953 and has 792 members.

Designer bookbinders usually work from binderies at home, still using traditional equipment with arcane names such as finishing stove, plough, fillet and laying-press. Their materials, however, are changing - contemporary bookbinders can work in Perspex, polished aluminium, velvet and stainless steel.

Many binders are also painters, designers or illustrators, and often do restoration, conservation and rebinding work as well. Like most authors, they have difficulty making a good living. A simple cloth binding that needs no sewing can cost as little as pounds 25, while a fine-design binding - which is much sought after by the small army of private collectors - can rise to pounds 1,000 or pounds 1,500.

Each year six of this elite group, selected from the 24 fellows of Designer Bookbinders, are let loose on the Booker Prize shortlist. This was the idea of Gail Taylor, an amateur bookbinder and wife of the retiring Booker chairman, Jonathan Taylor.

The six binders chosen to work on this year's shortlist are: Sally Lou Smith, Julian Thomas, Ann Thornton, Sue Doggett, Peter Jones and David Sellars. All have worked on Booker books before, although few have met the authors. When they do, however, there seems to be a deep understanding and appreciation of each other's work. The ultimate accolade was given by Ben Okri to Angela James after she'd worked on his book The Famished Road, winner of the Booker Prize in 1993. When he saw her binding - in graduated tones of yellow and black goatskin with an orange and turquoise band in the middle - he said he wished he'd written a better book.

When the Booker shortlist is announced, each designer receives one of the books in folded sheets. They are paid pounds 1,000 for their work, which includes the cost of materials, and are given just four weeks in which to read, design and execute.

"It is an exciting challenge," says Faith Shannon MBE, doyenne of Designer Bookbinders, who bound one of last year's books. "Working at speed focuses the mind, and the freedom we are given over the structure and design of the book offers an opportunity to show our skill and interpretation of the writing."

The authors may get all the glory on the night, but in their own way the designer bookbinders produce a masterpiece as well. Long after the winner has spent the pounds 20,000 prize money, and the five runners-up have got over their hangovers and disappointment, the authors still retain the most perfect and lasting reminder of their Booker evening - their own book designed and bound specially for them.

The bound Booker shortlist will be on display at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 (0171-412 7000), from 27 November 1998 to 28 January 1999

To commission your own binding, write to Designer Bookbinders, 6 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AR, or contact the Crafts Council on 0171-278 7700

Sue Doggett bound Ian McEwan's Amsterdam: "I've taken the musical stave as a starting point"

Ann Thornton bound England England by Julian Barnes: "I was inspired by Patrick Heron's paintings which gave me the idea of using bright orange and maroon goatskin"

Julian Thomas bound Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe: "A circle of dark green calf represents the planet Pluto, the narrator's fantasy world"

Peter Jones bound Industry of the Souls by Martin Booth: "I've created a design based on three vertical panels representing the three stages of the character's life"

David Sellars bound The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills: "I used red leather to represent blood"

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