Cover design, brutal realities

16 November 2015

Nowadays, it is rare that an academic book is seen in an actual bookstore (and, if it is, not for long). Price is a factor here (see below). There are exceptions, of course, one of them for NIAS Press being Chris Hudson’s Beyond Singapore Girl, which continues to resonate (and sell) especially in the Singaporean society it analyses.

But as discussed elsewhere the brutal reality for most books found in any bookstore is to appear spine-out – as can be seen in this line of books recently photographed in a Kinokuniya bookstore in Singapore.


The same goes for books found on library bookshelves.

Very few books are displayed cover-out in all their glory. In bookstores, normally full-frontal display is reserved for bestsellers or those other titles being heavily promoted (sometimes publishers pay booksellers for such special treatment, not least a premium location inside the store).

Since academic books rarely appear in bookstores, do covers matter then?

Arguably, yes. Bookstores and libraries are not the only places where books are visible. Physically they also will appear in conference exhibits, on display at the author’s home institute and certainly in her own office. But in a host of other places, a book’s cover is visible – in marketing material (catalogues, flyers, etc.), newsletters and (not least) face-out on the virtual bookshelves of all of the online bookstores.

Compare the listings on of the same book by Chris Hudson with a book from a different gender series from another publisher. Personally, I know which book I would rather show my colleagues, friends and family.


We’ll say nothing about the price (though obviously this matters, especially if the book buyer is an ordinary person with limited funds).


16 June 2010

There are many types of printer, as we have seen, but your book is being printed for the first time. Chances are, then, that it will be printed by an offset printer, taking form in a rather scary, noisy place where huge lithographic printing presses tirelessly grab, ink and eject thousands of enormous sheets of paper every minute of the working day. Hell’s kitchen is not where the work begins, however, not where the print files for your book arrive from the publisher. No, the first stop is paradise.

Behind the double doors

More than likely, your print files will be delivered to the printer via the internet (though not by e-mail; the files are usually too large). But let’s pretend in your case that everything is on a DVD coming to the printer by courier.

Today, it’s Hasan making the delivery in his brightly painted courier van. He knows where to go, skirting the tumult of the print shop, dodging a fork-lift truck loaded with paper, and arriving at reception. Mrs Khoo is on the phone and, seeing the envelope and its contents description, silently begs that Hasan deliver it directly upstairs to the pre-press department. He doesn’t mind; Mrs Khoo looks just like his auntie.

The din of the printing presses follows Hasan up the stairs but, at the top, there are double doors. Behind them, all is hushed and a shoe rack reminds Hasan to remove his shoes; this is a clean zone sealed off from not just the noise but also the dirt of the outside world.

In front of him is what looks a bit like a gamer’s paradise: a series of rooms in which he glimpses big-screened Macintosh computers and all manner of other strange equipment. Nor are the people here like the solid, chunky guys wearing overalls you see downstairs; no, frankly, they look like office workers. Indeed, some of them could be the kids you see downtown in the video game arcades and internet cafes – nerdy types.

Welcome to the pre-press department.


Hasan has gone now, together with his shoes, but your book files remain and already they are being loaded onto the pre-press server.

Essentially, from this point, the PDF files delivered from the publisher are prepared for printing. A key process here is imposition, whose purpose is to remap the linear sequence of pages onto giant sheets of paper that ultimately will end up as 16-page signatures. This mapping is complicated because the original pages must be scattered, turned and placed on the sheet so that, when it is printed on both sides, folded and trimmed, the 16 pages appear in their correct sequence and orientation. The following diagram probably explains this better.

Just how the whole process is achieved depends a bit on how sophisticated the printing company is. Twenty years ago it was common for the typesetter to output to film, which was then manually imposed (or ‘stripped’) on a light table to create the sheets. (Indeed, camera-ready copy was also common at this time, i.e. laser-printed pages were cropped and stuck together inside a sheet-sized frame and then filmed.) Today, however, digital processes exist that quickly and accurately automate the imposition process.

Once the sheets have been created, the final printing plates can be made. Again, traditionally this was done via an intervening step using film but increasingly the direct computer-to-plate process is used. Whatever, the end result is a metal or paper plate on which a mirror image of each book page is etched and then – by the application or repulsion of ink – reproduced as a positive image on paper during printing.


The above description implies there is only a single plate used to print each side of the signature. But, if pages are coloured (i.e. more than black, white and shades of gray), then additional plates are needed. These days, typically four plates will be used, one for each of the CMYK process colours (cyan, magenta, yellow and black [key]) on which the printed colour spectrum is based. Otherwise or in addition, spot colours (specially mixed to a specific hue) may be used.

Should multiple colour plates be needed, then colour separation of the PDF files received from the publisher will need to be done as one of the first steps. Here is an example of how this might look:

Not so fast!

Once the printing plates are ready, your book is ready to print – yes? Well no, actually, because I’ve rather jumped ahead of things. At the time the signature files are created, specimen proofs are printed off and sent to the publisher for approval. I’ll describe these printer’s proofs in greater detail in my next post.

(Post #5 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Meet the printer

14 June 2010

‘My book is at the printer.’ Now, that sounds nice. There is a solid promise to your book; no longer is it a vague wannabe that may or may not come to something. One might almost imagine the book taking shape in the hands of a big, burly, hairy-armed midwife.

‘Printer’, however, is a relative term. In fact, your book could be printed by quite different people in a variety of ways and places. Let’s take a brief look at these.

One or many

The solitary craftsman working at his printing press is a rarity; he exists but is more than likely to make a living from printing business cards, letterhead paper, etc. I doubt that many books are printed by such a person in these modern times. No, your book (and the books of any author you can think of) will be printed in a factory employing many people – maybe hundreds of them – carrying out a multitude of tasks. Along the way, in this series of posts, you may meet some of them.


It is rare for an academic publisher (indeed any book publisher) to have an in-house printing operation – that is something more common for very short-lived publications such as newspapers or magazines. One major reason for this is that different books need different printer set-ups, so there is a clear incentive for publishers to shop around for each individual project to find the printer most suitable in terms of technical ability and price.

One of the last academic presses with a significant in-house printing operation is Cambridge University Press (CUP), which indeed tried to chop this a year or two back but abandoned the attempt after a huge uproar.

(Note the name ‘press’ and the assumption that printing is an in-house publishing function. Once upon a time, it was the reverse; publishing was an add-on offered to authors by their printers. There’s more about this here. Times have changed; printing and publishing have gone their separate ways. In the process, however, publishers – who, let’s face it, are in some respects mere purveyors of promise – boosted their credibility by retaining the solid word ‘press’ in their name. This is why, when we talk about ‘a press’, we refer to a publisher and yet, when a book goes to press, it goes to a printer. Quite confusing.)


A major reason why CUP wanted to severely scale back on its in-house printing operation was the fact that it has outsourced much of its book production to India. This is something i have discussed often before (here for instance) but, briefly, although there are numerous printers in Western Europe and North America, a large number of Western publishers choose instead to have their books printed either in cheaper places like Eastern Europe or Asia. This is because of the huge financial pressure they are facing and because they find that the prices charged by printers in developing economies are low enough to more than outweigh the extra cost of getting books shipped great international distances to their various warehouses. Nor is this just a Western phenomenon; for instance, it least one Singapore publisher I know has looked at moving part of their printing offshore.


Some printers are set up for printing large quantities, producing books in their thousands or even tens of thousands, although that is admittedly a rare occurrence for an academic book in the humanities or social sciences (but not at all unreasonable for, say, a medical textbook). Other printers have set themselves up to be able to offer competitive prices on the smallest of printing jobs, down to just a few hundred copies, or even single copies in the case of digital printing (see below). Yet others have invested in machinery that enables them to provide really high-quality image reproductions for books on art and design, or to handle extra-large sizes, or to print on unusual papers.

Nor are all printing functions necessarily undertaken under the same roof. It is common that a printer may only print the (black and white) body pages of books while another specializes in printing high-quality colour covers and, somewhere else, a book bindery takes these two components and binds them into finished books.

Litho vs POD

Finally, there is the difference between traditional offset, lithographic printing and the new digital, printing on demand – something explored in my earlier post on printing revolutions.

No doubt the initial printing of your book will be in the hundreds (if not thousands) of copies. As such, in the posts that follow we shall be looking in greater detail at traditional printing processes. Perhaps you will also notice that the printing works described is a big, all-in-one operation located somewhere in Asia.

Let’s take a ride, the first stop the pre-press department.

(Post #4 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

What is typesetting?

22 January 2010

With the design phase now completed, your manuscript and the design brief will be sent to a typesetter, who will take your text and illustrative material, setting it out on the page ready for printing.

An art and process

There is a lot more to typesetting (and its sister, typography) than you would think. Both have their origins in the Gutenberg revolution and each, in their different ways, were concerned with the presentation of textual material in type format ready for printing. In earlier times there was a big difference between them. Typography was the art of designing, setting and arranging type whereas typesetting was the process (or craft) of actually setting the type.

Note the class difference: typography wore a beret and twirled a designer’s pen, typesetting wore an apron, punched type and had ink on its fingers. As we shall see, however, the differences between the two have blurred in recent years.

Together, typography and typesetting combine an art and process that only really succeeds when invisible. In many respects, the layout of your book is comparable to the background music added to a film. Its primary duty is to make your text clear and accessible, but ideally it should also enhance the meaning with mood and style. Though stylish, the layout must also be durable (indeed timeless), transcending fashion. Much creative energy goes into this art, which is the subject of passionate debate among its practitioners.

At the forefront of the publishing revolution

The differences between typesetting and typography have narrowed (even blurred) due to the digital revolution and advent of desktop publishing (DTP), which has virtually obliterated other forms of typesetting in recent years.

At the sharp end of publishing – in the production of books, journals, etc. – the old, quite laborious and expensive process of producing print-ready material by hand-setting individual lines and pages of type (a job for well-paid tradesmen) has given way to on-screen, WYSIWYG page composition using personal computers and (usually) lower-paid semi-clerical staff.

In parallel with (and a precondition for) this transformation was the development of things we all take for granted today (everyone, not just publishing professionals) – the personal computer, DTP software, new digital fonts (see below), laser printers using the Postscript programming language, and PDF (which renders Postscript into a viewable, WYSIWYG format). An even more recent addition has been the arrival of text mark-up languages like XML; originating from the old pre-DTP typesetting systems, these are still esoteric, even for many publishing people.

For a while, typesetting came in-house for most publishers and many of the old, specialist typesetting firms went bust. In recent years, however, further cost-cutting by publishers has seen this typesetting work move out to local freelancers and further afield to places like India. (I have described this development elsewhere in greater detail, if you are interested.)

At the same time that the process of page layout has been transformed, a parallel transformation has been seen in typography. Here, there have been huge advances in typographical design, not least the development first of scalable, digital fonts followed by an explosion of new designs and more recently the digital capture and standardization of all the world’s varied alphabets and scripts in the form of Open Type fonts.

These advances have been an essential feature of the digital revolution in publishing. Without them, there would be no #e-publishing, no e-readers like the Kindle, probably no iPhone or other smart phone, and indeed even the PC, Web, etc. would be far more limited things than they are.

Key concerns and tools

According to Wikipedia, ‘Traditional typography follows four principles: repetition, contrast, proximity, and alignment.’ The same could be said for typesetting; they are classic requirements of a good design and layout. In essence, then, when laying out your book, your typesetter will be concerned to:

  • Fit your text and illustrations into the agreed page extent.
  • Place text and illustrations in an effective and appropriate combination.
  • Apply a layout that is uniform and predictable.
  • Implement a design that is elegant but also clear and readable.
  • Deliver the print-ready PDF files on or before the agreed date.

Given the sophistication of today’s DTP software (programs like Adobe InDesign, for instance), the typesetter of your book will have a vast array of tools at his/her disposal to ensure these goals are met. There are too many to list here but among them will be:

  • a selection of appropriate fonts in different sizes and styles;
  • paragraph and character styles, assigning uniform values to text (font, size, colour, alignment, etc.) that can be globally changed in an instant;
  • hyphenation, character spacing (kerning) and line spacing (leading), allowing fine adjustments to how much space an amount of text actually fills; and
  • much more (e.g. alignment and rotation, linking to external files, layering, use of colour, etc.)

Such is the world of the typesetter. But, as shall be seen in my next post, this esoteric world about to impinge on your own.

(Post #8 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Preparing the page design

14 January 2010

With finalization of the editorial process, your text is almost ready for typesetting. Often, however, a design brief is first drawn up, either by your production editor or by the typesetter, specifying how the book should be typeset. As noted in my previous post, the central concern here is ‘fit’: the finished book should end up with the number of pages it is supposed to have.

I shall not get into the specifics of copy-fitting and casting off here as I’ve written about these (and how to calculate book length) earlier. Suffice to say that the target number of words per page will play a decisive role in the page design.

Strangely enough, there is often no co-ordination between the design of the cover and the inside pages; the former lies largely in the world of the marketing department, the latter in that of production. For this reason, the cover designer and book (page) designer are usually different people.

This may make sense from the publisher’s perspective but it does signal a strange failure to take the reader into consideration. As I have written earlier, content may be king but design is the queen whose appearance attracts the initial attention and prompts the curious reader to pick up the book. Moreover, if the discord between the appearance of the cover and inner pages is strong enough, this will affect the reader’s receptiveness to the author’s argument (even if only subconsciously).

In short, aesthetics matters also.

Of course, some attention will (or should) be paid to aesthetics but just as important is enhancing the presentation and accessibility of the text. Why? Because the success of a book demands that consideration be given to:

  • identity (if part of a series, a standard design may apply)
  • readership
  • purpose
  • suitability
  • credibility
  • readability, and
  • attractiveness

Some of the elements that the design brief thus specifies are the:

  • trim size (physical dimensions) of the book
  • layout of elements (not least the appearance of chapter starts, the composition of double-page spreads, and the placement of notes)
  • fonts/typefaces and sizes for body text, headings, captions, notes, etc.
  • treatment and placement of illustrations, and
  • use of colour, if any (and, if so, its placement)

At this late stage, it is not unknown for the design brief to highlight problems in the text that have escaped notice throughout the earlier evaluation and editorial phases (the need for a series of explanatory illustrations in a ‘how-to’ book, for instance).

Just how the page design is translated into reality depends very much on who has prepared the brief and how much interest the publisher’s production department has in creation of a unique ‘personality’ for the book (indeed, because of the time pressures book designers work under, the temptation to apply ‘the standard treatment’ to your book will be strong).

Whichever the approach, it is not unusual for a single chapter to be typeset according to the proposed page design, then feedback then requested from the different interested parties (including, with luck, the author). Eventually a design is agreed and typesetting of the book can proceed.

(Post #4 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Why is my book late, and why does it take so long to publish?

22 December 2009

A grumpy publisher might reply:

It’s probably late because you delivered the darn thing several years late with several vital bits still missing, and now you expect your publisher to bring the book out, all squeaky clean and beautiful, in a matter of days or (let’s be generous) weeks. Sorry, it can’t be done.

Now that is a grumpy response and, for most (but not all) authors, completely unfair. Now to a more considered reply, one that will take several weeks of posts to complete.

Not science, and involving more than a handful of tasks

Let’s be honest: publishing isn’t science, let alone exact science. Any publisher worth her salt will thus add a bit of fudge to the timings of each of her book projects. And yet time and again it all goes wrong: delays happen despite the best-laid plans and added fudge.

What is it, then, that makes so many publication dates just wishful thinking? Is it the publisher, unable to organize his way out of a paper bag, or what?

Well, ‘what’ mainly (though some publishers have a fearsome record of super efficiency, others a dismal reputation for blundering chaos). The thing is that publishing a book is incredibly complicated, involving something like 100 different processes. Many of these are interdependent, meaning that if something slips here, then delays happen there and there and there as well. At the bottom of this post is a rough picture of this process.

Tracking the process

In the series of posts that follow, I aim to offer a blow-by-blow account of the publishing process. This should cover the following areas (which I’ll update with hyperlinks as posts are completed):

  • Editorial (starting here in the editorial department but proceeding to discuss types of editing and your role in it)
  • Announcement (how books are first made known to their potential readers)
  • Design (of book pages and cover, initially looking at why this is important)
  • Typesetting (looking at what it is then exploring issues related to the typesetting)
  • Proofing
  • Indexing
  • Printing
  • Shipping
  • Sales and distribution
  • Marketing and promotion (especially your role as the author)

Hopefully, this will give you an appreciation of what is happening (or about to happen) to your book and the role that you are expected to play in the process.

So hold onto your hats: our first port of call is editorial.

Production timeline given to new NIAS authors. (Note that right-hand times relate to typesetting only, left-hand to other tasks.)

Review of ‘Getting Published’ just received

9 December 2009

Today, I was gratified and embarrassed to read a lengthy review of our book recently published in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing.

There was much to be pleased about in this review by Steven E. Gump, not least this comment about our introduction:

The opening chapter offers a behind-the-scenes look at the various players in the publishing industry and a brief but particularly fascinating section on the state of the global academic book industry (15–9). This chapter should be required reading for all aspiring academic authors.

and this about the importance of (self-) promotion:

One way in which this book stands out from other academic writing guides is that it describes how academic authors can themselves add value by actively promoting their books (chapter 10): ‘you should not leave everything to the unseen multitudes in the [publisher’s] marketing department who are working hard to push your book to the market. As an author, you should get actively involved by creating a corresponding pull ’ (160, original emphases). True, such ideas are not new; but I am pleased to find them receiving such in-depth coverage and attention in a book for academic authors.

But Steven E. Gump is also known for being a stickler for consistency. Here, sadly, he detailed far too many instances in which a word was spelt this way here, that way elsewhere, commas wandered a bit, etc., etc. He’s right; these errors shouldn’t have slipped through. Like all authors, I wanted a perfect book and (as usual) we didn’t quite get there. The final comment, then, is probably fair:

Textual inconsistencies aside, though, I recommend this book for academic authors, especially those in the humanities or social sciences, wanting an insider’s view of academic book publishing in the early twenty-first century. For first-time authors, reading this book will clarify a complicated, lengthy process that is only beginning when the manuscript is finished. Authors will be reminded, too, that, despite hurdles encountered along the way, ‘everyone in the academic book industry … is there for the express purpose of making the most’ of their manuscripts–of making each book accepted for publication a success (19). Just be sure to do as the authors say, not necessarily as they do.

Quite. And I’m quite sure that – given how most of my posts seem to be written before dawn – Steven E. Gump would find many more errors strewn through this blog, too.