Bell & Bain is the UK’s oldest and largest independent printer of books and journals, and a major industry presence for over 180 years. On arrival, Derek Kenney and Alistair Morgan presented the company’s history, operations and recent developments. Bell & Bain is considered a ‘large small business’, and those running it see themselves at the fore of the the UK’s printing industry, through innovation and adaptability (i.e. by embracing and investing in digital printing and publishing flexibility). They print a wide range of publications, specialising in non-fiction books and journals.
Moving between Bell & Bain’s two Glasgow sites, we followed a step-by-step tour of the printing and binding processes involved in producing paperback books, hardback books and journals, both printed in the traditional lithographic method or digitally.
Every order moving through the production line is accompanied by a work ticket to ensure all processes and changes are tracked and so that every individual with responsibility for a part of the process remains on the same page.
It was fascinating to see the huge metal lithograph plates. Each plate is dyed blue, before the coloured chemical is removed from areas not to be printed. Huge presses convert this information to paper, machines we were told identify and refill their own ink supply. The sheets of paper are then folded, the signatures bound to the cover, and are eventually trimmed.
The low costs of overseas printers attract many UK publishers. Bell & Bain and other UK printers are unable to compete in terms of cost (although the economic impact of Brexit could change this) but they remain competitive by providing added value through high-quality customer service.
Being based in Scotland’s central belt, and having a huge store of paper types, support the company’s ability to provide a quick and reliable service. This speed is a key differentiator between Bell & Bain and foreign competition. Commitments to quality, speed, accountability and responsibility contribute to Bell & Bain’s aim of being the ‘printer of choice’.
Among the most surprising aspects of this business is its engagement with the environmental impact of the paper and print industry. Those in charge approach the issue with due priority, seeking to minimise the company’s impact. Despite my preconception that print was inherently bad for the environment, this visit disproved some of my assumptions and I am convinced that Bell & Bain contribute to building a sustainable printing industry.
Moving away from the misconception that printing on recycled paper is necessarily better for the environment, we learned that using new paper, in this case, promotes a responsible agriculture. Every tree is replanted, while recycled paper can not only be of inferior quality, but the cleaning and bleaching process uses environmentally harmful chemicals.
Overall, the complexity, scale and speed of the processes, machines and labour involved in printing were the most insightful aspects of this industry visit. I won’t be able to pick up a physical book or magazine again without thinking about where it came from and appreciating the hard work involved in producing it.
Bell & Bain’s paper warehouse.