Check It Out: The First-Ever 3D-Printed Book Cover

The limited edition of 'On Such a Full Sea' brings publishing into the future (or, rather, one possible future)

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On Such a Full Sea 3D cover

Everybody knows what a book looks like. Even as e-books become more popular, the basic idea is the same as it’s been for centuries: a rectangular block. And Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea is no exception—on the inside, at least. On the outside, however, the novel is something entirely new.

The book will be available Jan. 7 in limited edition with what the publisher, Riverhead Books, is calling the first-ever 3D-printed slipcover, the result of a collaboration with the 3D-printing mavens at Makerbot. The white slipcover, into which the book fits neatly, features the letters of the title rising off the surface at an angle, and the idea all along was to do something unlike anything ever seen in the world of publishing, Riverhead’s art director, Helen Yentus, tells TIME: “I didn’t even think we’d be able to do it, because it’s such a new and innovative technology.”

In the end, each individual slip cover took 15 hours to print. Some test prototypes took up to 30 hours. Yentus has been a book-cover designer for more than 10 years and is used to being able to sketch any flat design and immediately see the idea on paper, but she had to learn from scratch what the printer technology was capable of doing. (One trick, she admits with a laugh, was asking her designer father to show her how to use AutoCAD to see what her ideas might look like.) The finished design was made for a special-edition run of 200 signed copies for sale—a number partially decided by how many could physically be printed in time for the shelf date.

Not that the difficulties of the technology weren’t worth it to the designer already, even before the book gets to readers. “You get used to the six-by-nine rectangle where everything is flat,” she says. “Even now with digital we’re still designing in that same six-by-nine rectangle, it’s just much smaller. It’s really exciting to be able to think of coming off the page.”

But all that time and effort wasn’t just because the sleek look of the finished product was thought to be a good match for the book that’s inside, in which Lee (the author of Native Speaker) imagines a futuristic America—and it certainly wasn’t just for the heck of it. It wasn’t even just because being the first of anything is good publicity.

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It’s hard to hold the On Such a Full Sea 3D cover without comparing it to the experience of holding an e-reader. The 3D case is thick, it has pointed edges, consumers would need to display it face-out or on a coffee table because it won’t fit neatly into a bookcase and, even though the book inside looks pretty much like any ordinary hardcover book, the slipcase is something different. It’s also way more expensive than most novels: the non-limited hardcover retails for $27.95 and the Kindle version is $11.99, but the 3D slipcover goes for a whopping $150. 

That hefty price tag is one direction in which the publishing industry could move, at a time when the future of the physical book remains in question: providing fewer readers who are willing to pay more for each purchase with a reason to splurge for the physical object rather than the digital version, turning books into luxury objects. It’s not exactly a new idea (it’s how high-end publisher Taschen has been doing things for years and it’s also how books worked in the early days of printing), but it’s a new way of making it happen. And, as 3D printing becomes more common, it may well be a popular one. In a statement announcing the limited edition, Lee, the author, commented that the slipcover “re-introduces the idea of the book as an art object”—and art is something people are willing to pay for.

Though Yentus says she can only speak for her own observations at Riverhead, she’s noticed an uptick in money and effort being spent on special effects and special projects. It’s a trend that, if it continues to grow, bodes well for the industry.

“A couple years ago, we thought this was the end of print and we’d just be going cheaper and cheaper and cheaper until [the physical book] disappears, because you could just get the e-book. With these special editions, I can’t say 100% but I do think that we are trying to create a physical object that people would want to keep and have, probably as a response to the growth of the e-book,” she says. “There’s a lot of pressure to innovate. For us, at least in my mind, this has turned out to be a really successful result of that search.”

(MORE: Reinventing the Book for the Digital Age)