Dust Jackets: A Series

by Craig Stark

9 April 2012

Part IV: Damage Prevention

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By Craig Stark

Dust jackets, in the two-panel / spine-panel / two-flap format they have evolved into, may seem simple enough as objects go, but there are actually numerous design considerations that come into play, some of which apply directly to what we as booksellers do. Take size. Well, it just needs to fit the book, right? Certainly in the top-to-bottom sense, yes, though there have been instances when dust jackets have been too short or too tall for the book they were applied to. Too short and guess what fades? A narrow strip of exposed board cloth or paper. By the way, there is a notorious instance where a too-short dust jacket on a very collectible book determines a critical issue point. Know what the title is? If not, why not test your research skills? Finally, you don't need much of an imagination to visualize what happens to the edges of dust jackets that were trimmed too tall.

But dust jackets have another dimension - length - and here's where things get very practical - and perhaps this hasn't even crossed your mind as an issue. Designers more or less agree that the flaps should extend over ½ to 2/3 of the width of the boards. Why? Anything less and the jacket tends to slide around too much when you're reading the book. The more surface friction you can create, therefore, the better.

Another factor affecting "slide" is the paper itself - both its surface and its thickness. Obviously, a slippery surface won't do, so if coated or laminated paper is used, it makes sense to apply the coating to the outer surface only. This doesn't always work out well in the long run, however; from many years working with solid wood, I can tell you that there is one cardinal rule that you don't want to break: Whatever finish you apply to one surface should be applied to the other - or you risk deformation as moisture is absorbed, dried and re-absorbed unevenly on opposite surfaces. This is especially apparent on laminated dust jackets, perhaps because the lamination is significantly less porous than the paper it's applied to. In what was likely an effort to create a more durable surface, publishers have unwittingly produced dust jackets that warp over time, sometimes dramatically. And, as the edges curl, they are much more subject to tearing. Oh - and don't even get me started on de-lamination.

Funny thing, what I've noticed recently is that many recently issued dust jackets have non-coated surfaces outside and coated surfaces inside. What's up with this? I will add that the coated surfaces are also textured, and this seems to reduce slippage, but it remains to be seen how this will play out over time as the texture is inevitably rubbed smooth. One wonders if they got it wrong again.

And what about thickness? If dust jacket stock is too thick, cracks tend develop at the folds. There exist books whose dust jackets, consequently, are difficult to find without separated flaps. Too thin, on the other hand, and the paper crinkles with use. And crinkled paper is more slippery as well, not to mention subject to tearing. Also, grain occasionally figures into this. All paper has grain, and if the folds on a dust jacket run perpendicular to it, guess what happens?

We also have the related issues of dyes and inks. Some are fugitive, and sunlight and/or fluorescent light are distinctly punitive. Damage is cumulative and irreversible. Take a look at this baby:

Believe it or not, the spine panel on this dust jacket began life a deep pink. Which is too bad because this sort of flaw could devalue an otherwise collectible first US printing by half, easily. When I acquired it, I applied a Brodart sleeve to arrest the fading, but obviously there wasn't much left to arrest. If somebody didn't know better, it might be assumed that the spine panel was designed to be white.

Fortunately, this copy of the UK first - also issued 54 years ago - didn't meet the same fate:

Which brings me to the fix, something that will potentially forestall any and all of the above issues - UV-resistant, acid free dust jacket covers. Use them. Please. Let's look at how they address each issue in turn.

Dust jackets cut too short.

The exposed strip of cloth created by this situation can be protected by slipping the dust jacket into a sleeve and over-folding the sleeve so that it covers the cloth as well.

Dust jackets cut too tall.

Fold the sleeve just as you would a sleeve for any other dust jacket - to cover it. When storing it on a shelf, slide the sleeve upward so it's flush with the edges of the bottom boards, leaving the top of the just jacket proud of the top boards. This should all but eliminate damage. When shipping, make a cardboard sandwich large enough to overlap the overlapping dust jacket edge.

Insufficient dust jacket length.

If a dust jacket's flaps do not extend over at least two thirds of the pastedowns, I either cut the sleeve so that the sleeve extends this distance - you can buy sleeves of different widths and lengths - or, if the sleeve that would otherwise fit this dust jacket isn't long enough, I'll step up a size so that it does. It's difficult to estimate how much additional life this will give to both the dust jacket and the book, but clearly it would be significant.

Deformation due to coated or laminated surfaces.

Again, the use of a captive sleeve will all but prevent damage to warped dust jacket sleeves and to some extent discourage the warping itself.

Over-thick dust jackets.

Even here there is benefit to using sleeves. They reduce the degree of moisture absorption and drying cycles, which can lead to a brittle dust jacket - and a greater tendency to split.

Over-thin dust jackets.

Both crinkling and slippage are greatly reduced by sleeves.

Fugitive inks and dyes.

UV-resistant sleeves will filter out well over 90% of UV rays, and it's safe to say that my Wodehouse first would be sporting a pink spine panel yet if the original owner had installed a sleeve.

Sleeves can also be applied to jacketless books and should be if you otherwise aren't keeping light invasion to a minimum in your shops and inventory rooms. And of course sleeves will keep your books clean.

One word of caution about using sleeves: The idea isn't to achieve a perfect fit - that is, fold the sleeve so that its edges are in contact with the dust jacket edges. Give the dust jacket and sleeve some room to expand and contract because you can bet that they won't expand and contract at the same rate. An over-tight sleeve will almost always damage a dust jacket, sooner or later.

Where to go for sleeves? Two recommended vendors are Brodart and Gaylord.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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