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.

Kino-bookshelf

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 Amazon.com 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.

compare-covers

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


Doing just fine

26 April 2013

A lot of aspiring authors put their energies into getting published and assume the sales will look after themselves. They are wrong; as I have said before, all authors need to shamelessly self-promote themselves, especially in today’s economic climate. Nor is it just that you should never trust your publisher to do all the necessary hustling; you cannot even rely on the booksellers to do their job – something that I was reminded of once again the other day.

While attending a conference in the beautiful Dutch town of Leiden this week, I went for a stroll during a lunch break and found myself outside the Leiden branch of Van Stockum, a Dutch bookseller regularly buying our books. Inside, one of the staff was happy to answer my idle questions – for instance, who our customers were likely to be and how the business of selling books was going.

van-stockum

A constant refrain of academic publishers is that library sales are falling without being offset by rising personal purchases (on the contrary) while income from digital sales is negligible. My informant confirmed that library budgets in the Netherlands were tighter and this had affected sales but individual purchases were holding up. That said, a lot of bookstores were in trouble with many closing down.

Why?

Village bookstores have been badly affected by the global economic crisis; there are few book lovers to begin with here and, in the last resort, the latest novel by Donna Leon or a new history of baroque music is a discretionary purchase.

In the cities it is another matter. And that was when the conversation got very interesting. Traditionally, the cities have been full of book-buying students and professionals, housewives and pensioners (among others). Catering to this market, in recent decades we have seen the rise of chain bookstores like Waterstones in England and Borders in the States. Now the chains are in trouble.

Just as in the villages, discretionary spending has dropped and of course more people are buying online; many Dutch readers are quite happy to read the English edition of (say) Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 if the price is considerably lower than the Dutch edition. But where the chain stores are especially hurting is that – in pursuit of rationalisation and greater profits – they chopped their specialist staff, the people who knew what penny-pinching scholars from the Department of This’n’that at Leiden University would be interested to buy. In the good times this didn’t matter; now it does.

We can be certain that the hard times are affecting all, that booksellers like Van Stockum who still focus on quality are nonetheless also feeling the pinch. Even so, university budgets may be down but scholars still need to read books and many wish to have their own copies ready to hand. Selling books, then, is harder than it was but quality bookstores … they’re just fine.

The problem is that’s not enough. Such quality bookstores are few in number. As argued in my last post, it is time for authors to use their personal contacts, Twitter, whatever to point readers towards a bookstore like Van Stockum.


Advances

24 November 2010

The arrival of advance copies of a book is a special moment. Emotionally, the book is out; it is real. This is the moment to feel it was all worthwhile (and to brag just a little).

There is more to advance copies than feeling good and bragging, however. They have several other purposes.

A final check

For the publisher this is a last chance to discover and rectify errors. True, the book is printed so any changes are limited unless reprinting is decided upon. But should this be necessary (or, say, an errata slip inserted in the book), then at least this can be done before the books are shipped all over the world.

Review copies

Sometimes, publishes will send advance copies of the book to a few key journals as well as to the news media. Timing is critical here. Some publications like the Library Journal in the U.S. will only accept new titles for review several months ahead of publication, the idea being that the review is before publication of the book. It may be impossibly early for ordinary advances copies to be used here and instead such early review copies are usually galley proofs but today it is just as easy (if not more so) to deliver an ‘advance copy’ specially printed by a POD printer ahead of the main litho printing.

The news media also want early review copies but here timing is even more tricky. The essential nature of the media is its short attention span and the ephemeral nature of its product (today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper, as we used to say). As such, any news or reviews of a book carried in the press tend to be within a few days of publication; review copies may well have been sent to the journalists only a week before. As such, publishers will only send copies to the media when they are certain that sale copies of the book will be available within a few days. Given the vagaries of shipping times, then, the publisher may judge it wise to hold back on sending such advance copies to the press or instead may send these advances but request an embargo on coverage until after sale copies of the book are available.

Obviously, such time sensitivity and media awareness only relates to those few academic books that are either timely and/or controversial.

Marketing copies

A common use for advance copies is as conference exhibits. For instance, in my own field, a key conference held each year in late March is the General Meeting of the (U.S.) Association of Asian Studies. Among the several thousand delegates attending will be librarians scouting for interesting additions to their collections. Also there will be teachers scrutinizing the latest titles in their field and deciding which (if any) should be adopted for course use in the new academic year. Ensuring that an advance copy is on view at the conference can have a major effect on sales.

For this reason, too, it is common for a publisher’s distributors to want copies of the book ahead of arrival of their shipped copies.

Reference copies

Given the competing demands for copies of the advances, it would be easy for the publisher to end up with none. This happened to me recently when inadvertently our only remaining advances of a controversial new title were exhibited and then sold at a big conference. Afterwards, it was embarrassing that I had no copy on hand when discussing the book with various concerned parties. Reference may not be a glamorous use of advance copies but it is an important one.

Author advances

That said, all things considered, in my opinion the prime use of advance copies is to reward the author with a foretaste of things to come. The hard grind finishing the book is over but equally important is the author’s promotion of her/his book in the months (and years) that follow. This vital contribution to the success of their book is not appreciated by most authors. (More about this in a later post.)

Authors may not get all of their author copies before the main shipment has arrived but it is usual that they receive one or two copies. Of course, any serious bragging at the book launch requires delivery of the main shipment (one point of the launch being to sell lots of copies to those attending) but often these advances are very useful to authors, arriving just in time to be shown at an important meeting or job interview.

Now

But such meetings and interviews are in the future.  It is now that the bell rings at the reception counter of your workplace. A courier stands there with a brightly coloured package. You sign, barely noticing as the courier leaves. Inside you can feel the copies. The Book, it has arrived, your child is born.

Enjoy the moment while it lasts. Getting a few advances from the printer is quick by courier but, as we shall see, shipping the rest of the copies to the warehouse and then out into the libraries and bookstores can take forever (or so it feels). More about that in my next post.

(Post #9 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Printing revolutions

7 June 2010

Most of us have a secret vice, something we don’t usually brag about. Mine is that I balance all the serious, academic material I read on the job by consuming more trashy literature in my spare time – thrillers, historical fiction and (especially) crime. And in a word, that’s what I do: consume – borrow what I can via the Danish library system (quite a lot) and for the rest buy via an internet bookseller. Once I’ve read a book, I pass it on to another or even (and this enrages my wife) throw it away.

This may be a vice but it’s a darn sight cheaper than going to the movies.

You may be wondering, what’s this got to with printing? Quite a bit, as we shall see.

e-This, e-That

Nowadays we hear a lot about the internet revolution and how this is ushering in a new era of e-books, ‘green publishing’, greater consumer choice, etc., etc. Gone will be the days of that dinosaur, the printed book. Gone, too (though this is hardly talked about) will be the bookshop and that creaking edifice, the book trade, which sustains it.

Indeed, it is said, the printed book has only ten five two years of viable life left in it. Game over, enter the Kindle, the iPad or something that will prompt us all to go digital – and go digital all the way, 100%.

There is, however, a wee fly in the digital ointment. Another revolution is also in full swing: a printing revolution.

e

p-This, p-That

The computer and advent of digital communication have brought us the internet but they have not been the only technological developments happening. Globally, there has been a general shift from electro-mechanical to electronic technology. This has had an impact on all areas of life and all types of consumer product (think about modern cars, washing machines and telephones, for instance).

It has also had a major effect on the whole production process in publishing. In an earlier post, I described the changes in typesetting technologies and practices in recent years. Fundamental changes have also affected the printing world but here the transformation is incomplete and indeed several different developments are happening at once. Some of these are:

  • Printing presses are becoming faster, more sophisticated and can print fewer copies than before at an economic price.
  • Introduction of new print-on-demand (POD) technology has made single-copy printing feasible.
  • Some big booksellers are thus experimenting with in-store printing of stock.
  • The globalization of bookselling and entry of non-traditional retailers like supermarkets have driven down book prices dramatically. This is forcing publishers to cut costs, hence they are squeezing printers and other suppliers.
  • Printing prices are falling, not least because publishers have become willing to go offshore to find the best printing deal. In academic publishing especially, there has been a major shift of production and printing to India and China.

Let’s explore some of these points in greater detail.

Traditional book printing

Traditionally, books have been printed using offset lithographic presses in a lengthy process that essentially has three phases:

  • Pre-print: converting the material for printing to a print-ready state. (Once upon a time, typesetting was carried out at the printing works and was part of this phase.)
  • Physical printing of the book pages and cover material.
  • Gathering and binding of the printed sheets and covers into finished books.

Here, the presses must be set up for each new print job. This is time-consuming and expensive but, once done, copies can be printed off at very little additional cost. That means there is a high initial cost to be distributed over the number of copies printed at low individual cost. The more books are printed, the lower the share of initial costs applied to each copy.

Offset printing is thus good value for print quantities of hundreds or thousands of copies. As such, it is still the dominant form of printing carried out today. However, it is ruinously expensive if you only want dozens of copies, or even just a single one.

Enter POD

Major hassles for publishers are reprints (when, say, only a few copies are needed), overstocks and warehouse storage in general. The advent of new, digital print-on-demand technology in the 1990s promised a solution to these problems. Well, the solution isn’t there yet (especially in the early days, the print quality of POD copies was far inferior) but the prospect of a solution is still there.

With POD, publishers do not print books for their warehouse shelves, but only print as and when orders are received. Printing digitally means that there are few set-up costs, so the unit cost is the same whether you print one book or 1,000. Many printers now offer such a digital service but in addition warehouses are now offering such POD services.

The trouble is, though, that – while the unit cost of printing small quantities or even single copies is much lower than for offset printing – it is still too high to be profitable for the initial printrun for most publishers. In practice, POD is therefore mainly used as a service to authors, keeping their books in print indefinitely. But the hope is that in the near future unit prices can come down to a level where POD-only publication becomes a real option.

Printing inside the bookstore

Print-on-demand technology has developed to the point where proponents now talk of placing POD printing equipment in every bookshop. Instead of carrying stock in the form of books, then, bookshops could become ‘content kiosks’ where customers browse through files before placing print orders for immediate execution, a little like today when ordering ‘instant’ passport photos from a camera shop. By the time you have had a latte in the bookstore’s in-house cafe, the book you ordered is ready for collection.

The aptly named Book Expresso machine offers such a service. I described it in operation in an earlier post.

Currently, the initial investment in equipment is huge and beyond the reach of smaller bookshops. It is also quite likely that shops would continue to carry a certain amount of stock for impulse purchases, so we would be surprised if bookshop fronts became as small as passport photo booths. But it could happen, and POD systems are already being trialled in a few major bookshops (at Blackwells on Charing Cross Road in London, for instance) and at least one large library.

The question is, of course, unless that latte is exceptionally good, why people should continue bothering to visit bookshops if the browsing experience becomes limited to looking up a print catalogue? That could be done at home over the net.

The p-book isn’t dead yet

As a result of these printing revolutions and the associated bookselling price war, all of those thrillers, ‘krimis’ and historical novels which I buy are getting relatively cheaper to buy. Indeed – morality and the fate of our planet aside – I can afford to consume and discard them.

Yes, I’m taking away Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to read on our iPod Touch this summer. I also look forward to buying an iPad sometime soon. But for my serious reading, for the meantime at least, I’ll be sticking to physical books. I am not alone here – and that has major implications for publishing and bookselling, whatever the hoopla is about e-books.

More specifically, the knock-on effect is it’s likely your book will be more than just an ethereal digital being. It will be printed, become a physical object, something to fondle and show to your mum.

So, after this long digression, let’s follow that process of physical creation. This starts with the publisher doing a final check before sending the print files.

(Post #2 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Meet the designers (and typesetter)

9 January 2010

In publishing these days, almost everyone looks the same. Yes, clothing and hairstyle may differ (and let’s not forget attitude, accent and class) but everyone works on a computer. Look more closely, however, and the differences become more apparent. What sort of computer are we talking about and which software is being used? Who is the press insider and who the hired help?

Origins

In former times, the differences were clear. Editorial and marketing staff were office types, the former usually middle class (if not upper class) and intellectual, the latter often seen as more common and tainted by money. Increasingly, women were commonplace. In contrast, typesetters rubbed shoulders with the printers and got their hands dirty; they were craftsmen, working class and blokes. They were also part of the industrial elite.

Designers lay somewhere in-between. They, too, learned a craft but design was (and is) one of the creative professions; one should expect to work closely with architects, engineers, artists and other creative types as well as with people in advertising and marketing, areas where creativity is valued.

The computer revolution changed this picture, typesetters moving from setting metal type on-site at the printing works to setting virtual type on screen on big typesetting machines located elsewhere. The PC and desktop-publishing (DTP) revolutions completed the transformation. Today, virtually every designer and typesetter works on a computer. The old days of real cutting and pasting have gone.

Amateurs and distance workers

What the DTP revolution also allowed, however, is a dramatic decline in the use of qualified designers and typesetters in the publishing industry. Partly, this was a result of cost-cutting by presses but the trend is also in keeping with the industry’s origins as a profession for gentlemen, an industry distinguished by the work of gifted (and not so gifted) amateurs.

Especially in smaller presses, then, it is quite common for editorial and marketing staff to undertake design and typesetting work. For instance, though without the slightest design or typographic training, I design almost all of the covers for books published by NIAS Press, typeset the occasional book and in the past have even created customized fonts to meet our needs. Such involvement is not at all extraordinary.

This ‘democratization’ of design and typesetting work has also meant that it can be passed on to low-paid amateurs, of course, and indeed outsourced to ex-industry professionals now working freelance and costing less than if they were on the press staff. Moreover, in recent years, outsourcing of typesetting and other pre-press work to India by Western presses is increasingly common. (Several earlier posts have discussed this issue, most notably this one. Click on ‘outsourcing’ in the right-hand tag cloud to view all of these posts.)

That said, although many presses have cut costs by outsourcing or employing low-cost amateurs and/or by the use of template designs, some presses still find it worthwhile to employ professionals to undertake this work.

I suggest you keep this nuanced picture in mind in the description that follows and in subsequent posts dealing with design and typesetting.

Different types, much in common

In the new democracy of design and typesetting, it is quite possible for the designer and typesetter to be one and the same person; chances are they are different, however – or that the typesetter creates the page design but the cover design is assigned to a specialist cover designer.

This is not surprising; the work has much in common but it is not the same. Typesetters and page designers should obviously care about the aesthetics and accessibility of a text but a central concern is ‘fit’ – how to ensure that the finished book ends up with the number of pages it is supposed to have (and hence keep printing within budget).

In contrast, the cover designer must produce covers that are attractive to look at and ideally also a bit intriguing to encourage potential buyers to pick up the book. At the same time, cover designers must satisfy a number of practical concerns such as that the cover works both when viewed face-out (as it should ideally be seen) and spine-out (as on the shelf of a bookshop or library).

That said, there is much in common between designers and typesetters. Both work with an intimate knowledge and appreciation of spatial relationships, colour and fonts, and both need to be skilled at using images to good effect and at enhancing image quality.

For their work, moreover, both designers and typesetters are likely to use a powerful Macintosh computer running highly specialized software. Because of its superior graphics capabilities, the Mac has long been dominant in both pre-press and printing work. (It was this tiny but lucrative slice of the computer market that allowed Apple to survive during the long years of otherwise utter Windows dominance.) The domination of Abobe Creative Suite as the software package of choice is more recent but with InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, Acrobat and more, use of the package is almost inescapable.

This can be seen in the next few posts, which deal with the page design and cover design.

(Post #3 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Design matters

5 January 2010

The Biblical observation that men do not hide their light under a bushel but raise it high to light the whole house applies equally to the work that already has been done on your manuscript and the work still to come that will transform it into a book.

The purpose of the editing, and indeed of the author revisions preceding it, should be to polish the text and ensure that it communicates its meaning. But thereafter the book design and subsequent typesetting become hugely important – if content is king, it should be dressed accordingly; the book design should illuminate the contents, not obscure them.

Time and again, publishers fail to heed this imperative and the result can be that a major work fails to gain the recognition it deserved.

What should have been a prize-winning study

I still regret one such instance in my career when, due to my failure to keep the author in check, her opus magnum ballooned to an alarming number of words and illustrations. I also designed the book and at first glance it was beautiful. Even so, it weighed in at over 500 pages, a hundred more than it was first announced at. The book went on to almost win an important book prize; arguably it should have won. For me, however, the moment of truth was feedback from Winnie, a trusted Singapore colleague, who complained that she had tried several times to read the book but ‘got tired’.

Was it the design? I believe so. The font size was too small; the number of characters per line was way over the 65 that is the golden mean (more like 89). The result will have been eye strain for many readers. In a nutshell, there was a readability issue. Probably, the book should have been 600 pages long – or edited more assertively.

This is just one way in which a bad book design can get in the way of readers fully appreciating an author’s argument. A layout that is ugly or boring is just as bad, likewise one whose text uses fonts that are unsuitable for extended reading. Also problematic is a book size that is unhandy (too big or too small, awkward or tiresome to hold, etc.).

Enter the queen

Many readers will struggle with a bad book design (often unconscious of what is bothering them) if they consider the contents important enough. Here, however, the presumption is that the work is to hand. But what actually ensures that a reader buys or borrows a copy of your book? Is it the contents? The marketing? Actually, in many cases, what sells a book is its appearance, its initial impact, something that briefly attracts the reader’s eye to that book and guides her hand to take it off the shelf.

Once a copy has been sold, it’s quite different; what you say becomes more important than appearances. But – for a brief moment – the look and feel of your book is paramount. Content may be king, but design is the queen who by appearance attracts the most initial attention.

The cover matters

The internal book design can be important in the purchase decision-making, but only after the book has been picked up. Initially, then, the most important design element is the book cover (or jacket), something that some publishers don’t seem to care about. In a recent post on H-ASIA, Peter Matanle of the University of Sheffield complained that:

… the cover is really important for a book yet some publishers do not pay sufficient attention to this aspect of book design, preferring simply to make it conform to a series or even publisher style. Often there is no information about the book anywhere on the front or back cover beyond printing the main title and author’s name. Often there are no unique graphics on the cover and no endorsements or short summaries on the back cover to entice a reader in.

His explanation for this (bad) behaviour was that:

… the publisher may be more interested in creating its own brand image than in taking care over the content of the volume, and that the publisher is actually not that interested in post publication marketing either …

Actually, I rather suspect that the publisher’s behaviour is largely shaped by the expectation that nearly all copies sold will be to libraries, and they tend to buy on the strength of the book description, the price, etc., not on the book’s appearance. However, with the continued collapse in library market sales, such a policy seems rather short-sighted.

Like it or not, bookshops and individual book buyers matter, and that means that the cover matters, indeed design matters.

Sounds like it time that you meet the designers.

(Post #2 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Announcing your book

2 January 2010

Oops! Before launching into several posts dealing with design and typesetting (starting with the importance of design), it would be smart first to deal with another burning issue: the kick-starting of the marketing/promotion of your book.

Promoting your book is a huge endeavour that I’ll cover in a series of posts after we have finished discussing the production phase. However, at this point (at the end of the editorial thread) it’s probably a good idea to describe the beginning of that promotional process – the announcement of your book – because this is something that happens really early and demands your participation.

Perhaps it doesn’t seem a big deal to announce your book but in fact there’s a lot involved. Moreover, a proper announcement is crucial to a book’s subsequent success.

Why?

Essentially, the success of your book will depend on the interest and efforts of a few key actors in the book trade. They need early but accurate information about your book. These key actors are:

  • Your publisher’s sales and distribution network. Warehouses need to load details of your book on their system so that orders can be taken and shelf space planned for. Whereas warehouses care only for accuracy, sales representatives prefer their information in headlines and punch lines. Sales reps often only visit bookshops every six months hence early notice of new titles is imperative. The same imperative applies for your publisher’s distributors and agents around the globe but they need far more information and packaged in a specific way.
  • Bibliographic data providers. When you order a book from a bookshop, they will do this using information purchased from companies like the UK-based Nielsen BookData and US-based Bowker. If (like Amazon) they have an online catalogue that you can browse, this too is built using such externally provided data. Libraries rely on similar information. As such, if your book is to be visible to bookshops and libraries, then its details must be provided by your publisher to these bibliographic companies.
  • Booksellers. If a bookshop is to stock copies of your book at publication, then it must budget for this purchase (and perhaps plan on where these copies will be displayed). Typically, books are ordered at least three months ahead of publication. Bookshops thus need their information early, briefly, and in a highly standardized format.
  • Wholesalers. For bigger-selling titles, many bookshops are likely to order stock from wholesalers rather than individual publishers’ warehouses. This way they can consolidate orders and maybe command bigger discounts. The warehousing needs are the same, of course. The mega-sized warehouses of these wholesalers need to load details of your book on their system so that orders can be taken and shelf space planned for.
  • Library suppliers. Until recently, library suppliers sent out bibliographic information to their library customers on CD. This required a lead time of six months. The timeliness of data has greatly improved with its online provision but the library purchasing cycle still demands early advice of new titles. Because libraries generally work on an annual budget,  for library suppliers it is crucial that a book is received and paid for in the correct year.
  • Libraries. Not only do libraries want information early so they can plan their budgets, but also they want much greater detail. This is because often the purchasing decision is made by a specialist in the subject and, once made, is normally irreversible (libraries do not have the equivalent of the sale-or-return right enjoyed by bookshops).

As you can see, each of these key actors requires quite different sets of information. At the same time, however, a publisher’s marketing department has only so many minutes in the day. As such, it is likely that your book will be first announced by the following means:

  • An advance information sheet, sent to key customers as soon as possible.
  • An entry in your publisher’s next catalogue (and those of its international distributors and agents), though it may be months before these catalogues are produced and disseminated.
  • Brief details on your publisher’s website, loaded immediately (though not by all publishers – strangely, I feel, some publishers display no details on their website until the book is out).
  • Bibliographic data, sent individually and directly to Nielsen BookData, Bowker, etc. before any information goes out to potential customers.

Timeliness of the announcement is of essence here. More customized and targeted marketing of your book will follow (more about that in a few weeks time).

What is needed to produce this material are:

  • a book description
  • bibliographic details (format, price, extent, publication date, readership, etc.), and
  • a first draft of the cover

This, in turn, will require your input in the following ways, by:

  • completing and returning your author/marketing questionnaire
  • identifying and (ideally) approaching well-known and/or trusted figures in your field, asking them to write an endorsement of your book for inclusion on the (back) cover and in marketing material, and
  • being actively involved in the cover design (though not all publishers welcome this)

I’ll return to this material and your involvement in its production in a few weeks time after finishing the different threads on book production. Meantime, back to the posts on design and typesetting.

(Post #1 of the Marketing & Promotion section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)