A new edition of Shakespeare’s plays is illustrated with paper-cut illustrations by Kevin Stanton. (Courtesy of Sterling)

In the battle between ever cheaper e-books and old-fashioned bound books, a few publishers are trying a different tack: Print volumes so beautiful to hold that you’ll gladly put your Nook in a crook.

Finely crafted books from artisans and boutique houses have always been available for well-heeled collectors, but it’s curious to see how a large publisher can explore this specialty market, too.

Sterling, a wholly owned subsidiary of Barnes & Noble since 2003, has just started selling a gorgeous series of Shakespeare’s plays. Of course, next to the thousands of versions that have already been published, another edition of the Bard’s work sounds like much ado about nothing. But it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with these Sterling Signature books, which are only $29.99 apiece.

The element that sets them apart is the exquisite artwork of Kevin Stanton, an Air Force brat who spent most of his childhood in Washington.

A recent graduate of the Pratt Institute in New York, Stanton creates illustrations by layering hand-cut pieces of paper of different colors. The effect is something like a stained-glass window but created from the delicate latticework of paper.  

Two years ago, Pamela Horn, an editorial director at Sterling, saw Stanton’s work at a show put on by Pratt students. “I kept it in the back of my mind,” she says. “I was absolutely going to use him in some way someday, but I couldn’t figure out how.”  

Then an idea hit her: Barnes & Noble already owns the intellectual rights to a fine edition of Shakespeare that it publishes in a cheap paperback format. Without the cost of hiring scholars and editors to produce a new text, she could put money into the physical design for a new series.

The first two volumes are “Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet.” They’re large, heavy books, printed on rich cream paper, decorated by Stanton’s images in a strictly limited palette: green and blue for “Macbeth”; red and purple for “Romeo and Juliet.”

“In each of the plays, we have some sort of iconic illustration,” Horn says. “In ‘Romeo and Juliet’ we have this long, trailing ribbon that takes different forms in each act. In ‘Macbeth’ we have clouds as this foreboding imagery throughout.”

But the most striking elements are Stanton’s two-page paper-cut illustrations — one for each of the five acts — hand-glued throughout the volumes.  

Studying the plays with a Shakespeare scholar, Stanton and Sterling’s associate art director, Ashley Prine, settled on which scenes to illustrate. “The problem, of course, is that the tragedies end with everybody dead in a room,” Prine says. “We were trying to figure out a way to represent that. Paper-cutting lends itself to such lovely graphic solutions.”

“I had to look at it like an impressionist painting,” Stanton adds. But producing pages for a book is entirely different from creating a work of art to hang on the wall. After wielding his razor across the pages, testing had to be done. “We had to figure out where it needed to be stabilized so that it wouldn’t come apart. Somebody’s going to be turning this. It’s got to be able to hold up.”

Once finalized, Stanton’s illustrations were digitized and then reproduced by laser in China, where the books are assembled. Paging through the story of Macbeth’s horrid crimes, you might well wonder with Juliet, “Was ever book containing such vile matter / So fairly bound?”

“Much Ado About Nothing” and “Hamlet” are coming in November. Sterling plans to see how the volumes sell before deciding whether to commission more volumes.  

But for Stanton, just 23 years old, the project has already been a midsummer night’s dream.