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.)

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Live update from the Frankfurt Book Fair

26 October 2009

Live update?

I’ve been back from Frankfurt a week now and this is my first post in weeks. So much for the live update that I had planned.

The problem is that the wireless connection on my Macbook Pro is broken, a major hassle that made communication at Frankfurt rather difficult. Must get it fixed (when I can afford to be without the laptop for a few days – sigh).

Recessionary blues

Anyway, Frankfurt was somewhat subdued, far fewer editorial types in evidence than usual and the usual hype over bidding wars for the latest Dan Brown or whatever was unconvincing. Even the end-of-day receptions at different stands seemed ho-hum this year.

But the significant revelation for me was when one of our regular buyers, a guy called Holger, pointed out that the aisles in Hall 8, where as usual our stand was (and where most of the other English-language presses hang out), were wider than usual. So I strolled to the end of the hall and looked. Holger was right. There were about 3 rows of booths fewer than usual. The recession is biting, if only a bit.

Sadly, one of the casualties was The Guardian, whose attendance in its usual slot in row B was in the fair catalogue but at the last minute was replaced by some publisher or other. Normally, the good people from The Guardian dish out free copies of the newspaper, hoping we’ll be tempted to subscribe. Obviously, not enough of us have been doing so.

More e-readers, so what?

Every few days another e-reader is launched. There were a few at the fair. One looked interesting but incredibly the exhibitor had it behind a plastic shield so actually twiddling with it was quite impossible, a huge turn-off.

Just before Frankfurt, Amazon went (almost) global with the Kindle. Interestingly, this did not seem to make the splash at the fair that I assume Amazon had expected. The Kindle has some nice features (not needing to upload its content from a PC, for instance) but increasingly its power-saving e-ink technology is being seen as drab (no colour) and the machine lacks some of the wow stuff you’ll find on an iPhone. And rumours persist of an Apple tablet that blows the Kindle and the other e-readers out of the water.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, despite the ever frenetic hype about digitization and e-sales, I felt there was a general wait-and-see attitude beginning to be noticeable among publishers. Their core profits remain in print sales, despite 400% increases in digital sales here and there (four times very little is not much more, no matter how impressive the increase may sound).

Also, publishers remain wary about Amazon getting to dominate the e-book market. But Google’s ‘land grab’ (as some have put it) in the e-world is potentially more revolutionary. To me, it seems more and more likely that the Google Book Settlement – an American legal settlement but with global effects – will be challenged by the European Union.

And if Apple and Microsoft enter the fray? All hell could break loose.

The Indians are coming

Finally, I found it interesting that this year the guest country was China (you may have heard about the ham-fisted attempts to stifle the voices of dissidents at the fair) but in business terms the Indians made a far greater impression. Not only were Indians selling a profusion of different publishing services (they now dominate globally in pre-press services and maybe have already overtaken the Chinese in printing services) but Indian publishers are increasingly visible – and confident – as buyers as well as sellers of publishing rights. As always, my various Indian visitors were charming, often witty.

In contrast, the Chinese were only interested in selling, and little thought seemed to being put into getting onto the wavelengths of Western publishers, i.e. into tuning into how to open their wallets.

An interesting contrast.


What do publishers want?

25 September 2009

Like everyone else (and especially like their authors), publishers want to be successful. Just how they get there is another matter, one that baffles some authors and leaves others enraged.

Perhaps the best way to approach this, then, is to understand where publishers are coming from and where they are going to.

Environment

I have described the woeful state of academic book publishing earlier (and no doubt shall do so again) and also pondered on the very survival of publishing but here are a few quick points:

  • There has been a dramatic decline in library sales, the bread and butter of academic publishing, in part due to rising periodical subscription charges and IT costs swallowing bigger chunks of libraries’ budgets.
  • Sales to individual scholars have also fallen, in part because too much is being published (thus hard for scholars to maintain comprehensive, personal libraries).
  • No significant new source of income has yet been tapped.
  • Falling sales have prompted publishers to raise prices causing further falls in sales.
  • The recent global recession has seen universities cutting back on their funding for their presses (indeed, some university presses have been closed or sold off in recent years).
  • New print-on-demand (POD) technology is allowing single-copy printing but, though this is excellent for reprints, it is not cost-effective for quantities over 300 copies (and for most books an initial printrun under this amount is not commercially viable).
  • The POD revolution may lead to on-demand ordering/printing for consumers (e.g. using the Book Expresso machine described here), leading to the death of the traditional bookshop and end of the current global book supply chain.
  • There is a proliferation of e-book readers, none of them particularly good yet in terms of reading for extended periods of time but the likelihood is high of an ‘iPod moment’ in e-publishing within the next five years.
  • Hopes of new income from electronic sales are driving massive investment in e-publishing but economic returns to date have been negligible (and, worse, this development undercuts the status of the printed book, currently the prime revenue earner).
  • Demands from funding agencies for Open Access is pushing publishers into offering free electronic content but a viable business model for this is not yet in place.
  • Copyright, the bedrock of the publishing business model, is under attack from several quarters, not least because it is seen as incompatible with the internet and e-publishing revolutions.

Some of these developments will have a huge impact on the future shape of publishing and already today they shape publishers’ perceptions and expectations.

Which publisher?

Another key point – but one that many people lose sight of – is that (unless you are dealing with a really small press) ‘the publisher’ is more than one person.* Each has their own personality, interests and agenda. Over and above that, an author will encounter at least three faces of a publishing house:

  • editorial (focused more on scholarly content)
  • production (focused on costs and deadlines), and
  • marketing (focused on financial returns).

These divergent interests interact, not always coherently, nor to the benefit, comprehension or sanity of the author.

(*Note: Actually, in any publishing house, the publisher is often one person but here we are taking about ‘publisher’ in another sense.)

Ramifications

OK, so these are some of the places where academic publishers are coming from but what effect has this environment (and recent changes to it) had on publishers’ expectations and behaviour? The main effect is that today academic publishers are taking a more hard-nosed, commercial approach to the books they publish than was the case a decade ago. In concrete terms, the key changes are:

  • Increased commercial behaviour.
  • Cost cutting, outsourcing of especially production work to outsiders, and increased workloads and stress for remaining in-house staff.
  • The rising power of marketing departments and corresponding decline in the power of editorial staff to decide what is published.
  • Editors must take the bottom line into consideration when signing up a new title.
  • Each new book project must stand or fall on its own merits (far less cross-subsidization).
  • Demands for author subventions are more common.
  • Greater aversion to financial risk, hence to taking on book projects that look commercially unpromising or expensive to produce.
  • A far greater proportion of book proposals and manuscripts are rejected.
  • A big increase in the number of ‘crossover’ titles (of interest beyond an academic readership) and interdisciplinary titles.
  • Greater willingness to publish purely commercial titles (aimed at the general public) with little or no scholarly value.
  • Reluctance to publish highly specialized studies.
  • Reluctance to publish edited or multi-author volumes (more about this in a latter post).
  • More ‘fad’ and ‘me-too’ publishing as publishers seek to emulate the successes of their competitors.

Hit list

Although these developments have wrought great changes in publishers’ expectations and behaviour, what publishers want from their authors is not all that different than before (though there may be far less flexibility and room for compromise than there was in the past). Here are some of these wants and desires:

  • Publishers want to publish only books that will succeed. This has important implications for what book projects are viable, and hence for how you formulate and develop your book project, find its ‘right’ publisher(s), and pitch it to them.
  • Once a book proposal *is* accepted, the publisher wants the book to succeed. This requires full commitment from publisher and author, and no half measures from either side.
  • Your publisher expects you to deliver the manuscript that was agreed upon (and contacted). If different, make sure that the manuscript is far better than promised (and accept that this is not something for you alone to judge).
  • Your publisher requires you to be a team player working your butt off to achieve the book’s final publication; tasks assigned will be finalized swiftly and efficiently (and without any comment or criticism of the publisher’s own delays and failures!)
  • At all time (not just after publication), the publisher wants you to tirelessly promote your book to its widest possible readership, especially by utilizing channels and contacts not available to the publisher.

All the rest is detail.

But coming later …

That said, a detailed ‘bitch list’ is something that I shall prepare one day soon, possibly together with my assistant, Samantha, who yesterday reeled off a screed of pet hates – top of the list: ‘Don’t inundate me with lots of tiny corrections. Why not instead just send me your manuscript when it’s finished.’


Have publishers any role or purpose today?

28 August 2009

The rise of an intermediary

As related in an earlier post, today’s publishers have their origins in the printers who sprung up in the wake of the Gutenberg revolution. While they may have been hired by gentleman authors to produce, print and publish the latter’s works, it is clear that these printers were not servants; rather they were entrepreneurs at the forefront of developments leading to the industrial revolution and rise of capitalism.

In retrospect, the subsequent rise of publishers to become the gatekeepers of literary and scholarly merit was not unexpected. Theirs was an intermediary role that developed with the expansion of the modern, capitalist economy in a manner much like it did for lawyers, bankers, accountants and many other professions occupying such an intermediary position. As such, by leveraging their position, they enhanced their power and wealth (indeed, one might argue, they functioned and flourished as parasites). Moreover, with the democratization/impoverishment of authorship, increasingly it was publishers who took on the financial (and sometimes political) risk in publishing a work, and who therefore earned the right and power to say ‘no’ to works offered to them. Their authority increased accordingly.

Today, however, we see a decline in the power, status and authority of publishers, not least due to challenges from the internet and printing revolutions. (More about that below and in later posts.)

The classical role

Parasitical or not, academic publishers cannot be simply regarded as leeches on the body academic, drawing off vital fluids to feed their shareholders and rejecting good honest scholarship in the process. Publishers actually add value to the academic books they publish over and above the value of the work. Not only do they act as gatekeepers to select the best texts (as discussed earlier) but also they improve these texts through their own editorial efforts (and those of freelancers), dress them up in a form acceptable to readers (whether as printed books or electronic content), provide them with a voice and a route to market, and handle all the practicalities of matching supply to demand.

Many would argue that the most important service publishers offer to the academic community is through arranging peer reviews (a function is explored in my next post). I’m not sure I agree. Even though an editorial person myself, I rather think that I agree more with Mike Shatzkin, someone with four decades of experience in all aspects of the U.S. publishing industry: ‘the publisher’s main job (and “service” to the writer!) is that the publisher makes the user aware of the work’. (Link)

Current challenges to the classical model

Looking at the situation coldly and clearly, I cannot but conclude that publishers are a threatened species, at least in their classical form. (Perversely, it is another matter for me to transform such rational pessimism into actual belief, however, let alone emotional despair.) This is because our role is challenged from almost every quarter.

  • Times are hard. The terminal decline of the library market has led to a collapse in sales of the traditional monograph in recent decades. Independent bookstores (and now even the chains) are in deep financial trouble, unable to compete with the discounted prices offered by supermarkets and the online behemoth, Amazon. There are too many books chasing too few readers. And, last but not least, university presses are hurting badly as their host universities slash financial support in reaction to the global economic crisis.
  • The business model is eroding. Copyright – which has been the basis of publishing in that it assigns exclusive ownership to a work but allows for dissemination under licence – is under attack from all sides. Alternatives like Creative Commons licensing certainly free up the dissemination of knowledge but don’t seem to provide an economic return on authorship. Indeed, the growth of e-publishing and push for adoption of Open Access make it harder for the traditional publisher to survive and thrive (to consumers, e-content equals free content).
  • The product is at risk. The book and its sibling, the journal, have long been academic publishing’s basic product. The book especially is under attack, its death continually predicted. It is not merely that the printed book or journal may be supplanted by the e-book and e-journal whose e-content is difficult to earn money on. But also with the internet revolution we see a move towards bite-sized scholarship that deconstructs the book while new forms of authorship are developing that are inimical to anyone (except maybe the author) making any money from their output.
  • Publishers are losing authority. As recounted in my earlier post, stories are emerging in public of cronyism, arrogance, blunders, short-sightedness, poor judgement, and much more in the publishing world. Worse, perhaps, is the growing disconnection between author and publisher. How this is causing problems in quality control is discussed here but the rift is wider than that and risking greater damage. This is especially so in general trade publishing where the only link between publisher and author is via an agent (and today even that tenuous link is weakened by the rise of ‘author’ websites whose sole purpose is to more easily identify the talent and filter out all other authors, all 99.9% of them). It would not be surprising, then, if there were a gradual erosion of trust, respect and even liking for publishers by authors.
  • Old measures of quality are being questioned. One of the main arguments in favour of the traditional model of academic publishing is that it entails a reasonably impartial assessment of scholarship and confers academic legitimacy on those works published. However, as will be seen in my next post, new forms of peer review are emerging that challenge the established model. The publisher as gatekeeper is at risk of getting the sack.
  • Publishers face new rivals. Librarians are often seen as fusty creatures wearing cardigans and concerned to keep the noise level down. In fact, however, librarians have responded far more quickly and creatively to the information revolution by offering access to the explosion of gray literature (unpublished and semi-public material), often via specialist portals and other internet-based tools. And with Library 2.0, they are beginning to publish such material in their own right. The dividing line between publishers and librarians has blurred. Now even bookstores and printers are getting into the act by offering tools and services to authors that make self-publication much easier.
  • The self-publishing rebellion is growing. Although the numbers of self-published authors are small and they are mainly found writing fiction, not scholarly works, the rebellion has impetus. Worse, the type of author attracted to self-publishing is often secure in their tenured position and more experienced as an author – in other words, the best and most profitable type of author as far as many publishers are concerned. Self-publishing thus poses a real threat to the future viability of academic publishing as it exists today.

What future for publishers?

Given such serious challenges, one would have to admit that the prospects are bleak for the traditional academic press (and all other publishers, in fact). What responses can be made to this situation?

  • More of the same. This seems the response of some publishers who, by price rises and cost-cutting, seem to have entered an endless spiral of declining value for money. It will be interesting to see just when this devaluation actually becomes plainly visible and publicly discussed by academics.
  • Cover the decline at home by expanding into adjacent markets. This was the response of NIAS Press, a small but significant European publisher in the field of Southeast Asian studies but whose sales focused on the European and North American markets were sluggish. The press improved its financial position (and global visibility) by starting to sell locally in the Southeast Asian academic market, which otherwise is largely ignored or underrated by Western publishers.
  • Diversify from print into electronic products. Every publisher is doing this. The problem is that digitization is not cheap and (as far as we can gather, given that publishers are coy about giving out real hard data) the income earned to date from e-sales has been negligible. Moreover, it is still unclear if this e-content is boosting or cannibalizing the crucial print sales.
  • Publish in electronic form only (or in combination with print on demand). A few presses have taken this route but there may be questions about motivation. For instance, Rice University Press was brought back from the dead but one may wonder if this isn’t to showcase the open-source e-publishing platform, Connexions, which is owned by the university. After the failure of its traditionally organized Pandanus Press, the Australian Nation University has launched ANU e-Press, but only with a hefty government grant. And the recent decision of the University of Michigan Press to go digital (and we should note in partnership with the University of Michigan Libraries) may well be a response to the effects of the current global economic recession; as noted above, other presses at least are suffering severe budgetary cutbacks from their host universities. On the other hand, the launching of Bloomsbury Academic as an Open Access publisher was born out of hopes for profit, not as a response to economic hardship. Flush with the riches of being the originating publisher of the Harry Potter series, Bloomsbury launched its academic list by buying up a few small quality publishers like Berg in Oxford.
  • Offer free e-content and aim to make money elsewhere. This strategy is being tried in many ways, from selling printed books on demand like Bloomsbury, Rice, etc. to selling adverts or even services. It is unclear, however, how much people are willing to pay for something ancillary to the product that they have already got for free. (The same conundrum is starting to bankrupt many newspapers, and perhaps it is significant that Rupert Murdock now talks of the need to move away from the suicidal provision of free content and back to a new form of paid-for content.)
  • Change from ‘horizontal’ to ‘vertical’ publishing. This is the argument of the aforementioned Mike Shatzkin (whose blog makes interesting reading. Essentially, this is niche publishing ‘plus’. Rather than publishing a range of books (or journals) for a broad range of readers, vertical publishing involves meeting the interests and needs of a narrow spectrum of readers and authors. Moreover, different products and services (some of them free) can be offered from the same base material. A crucial requirement here, however, is that the target audience trusts and identifies with the publisher. Shatzkin discusses the U.S. publisher Politico as a case in point, saying:

They are narrow and deep.

They have established a brand that trumps, or soon will trump, the formerly established brands in their niche.

They built an “Internet-first” model, but they have a “spinoff” print product that is a major contributor to their revenue.

They’re (apparently) profitable.

And if you publish a book on politics. I guarantee you’ll be knocking at their virtual door. (Link)

  • Change job from gatekeeper to facilitator. Taking on the role of a committed participant instead of a neutral umpire might be irresistible in certain types of advocacy publishing. Whether it is feasible in academic publishing is another matter. Personally, I hanker after the authority and self-respect that goes with my self-vision of being a publisher.

Consequences

In short, the situation of publishers today is not a comfortable one and their future isn’t exactly rosey. As a result, some scholars at least may well judge that self-publishing offers them a better means to advance their career than does the old, conventional, publisher-based route.

The mechanics of self-publishing are relatively simple today, as shall be seen in a follow-up post, but there remains one tricky issue for academic authors still to be resolved: how to guarantee the quality of published scholarship and hence receive the stamp of quality and approval that a scholarly press confers on its books. This shall be explored in my next post.


Book fairs and why they matter

26 October 2008

I’ve been back from Frankfurt for a couple of weeks or so but only now has there been time to breathe … and think. It’s been a busy time, and the follow-up has only just started. Hopefully all the loose ends will be tied up by Christmas.

Frankfurt is more than a city in Germany; ‘Frankfurt’ is insider talk for the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s biggest publishing trade fair. (The city also hosts many other fairs, about one a week, including the world’s biggest motor show and the largest fairs for plant engineering, consumer goods, etc. Some of these events are bigger than the book fair but that’s not something publishers even think about.)

Frankfurt is big

Held in October each year, the Frankfurt Book Fair runs from Wednesday through to Sunday with an extra day each end for exhibitors to set up and tear down their stands. Entry on Wednesday to Friday is restricted to book-world professionals (publishers; printers, shippers and other suppliers; librarians; booksellers; even authors) but in the weekend the doors are opened to the general public who come streaming in (78,218 on the Saturday alone).

The ‘Messe’ is held at the same place each year, a huge exhibition site within walking distance of Frankfurt’s central railway station. The book fair is crammed into five massive exhibition halls, most of them multi-level. Each is a mini city of aisles and exhibitor booths (over 7,000 in total), many small but some great sculptured adverts to the prestige (or ego) of their exhibitor.

This year the book fair celebrated its 50th anniversary. Supposedly, it was the biggest and most successful fair yet though personally I don’t feel it is as crammed and hectic as it was before the 911 attack seven years ago. Maybe the aisles have got wider? (I certainly haven’t got thinner.)

Anyway, essentially the fair is speed dating writ large. Everyone has appointment diaries broken into half-hour blocks and many people will have reasonably full diaries (on the Thursday, for instance, we had ten meetings, some of them an hour long but most just 30 minutes). Imagine the congestion each half hour, then, as about 20,000 people rush from one meeting to another, often having to move between halls.

Not the only book fair

Frankfurt is the world’s biggest book fair but by no means the only one. There are indeed upwards of 100 book fairs taking place round the world each year. Typically, many are local and focus their attention not just on booksellers but on book lovers, too. This is the case in Copenhagen, where I live.

What distinguishes Frankfurt is that it is mainly a trade fair; for many exhibitors the hordes of book lovers (and shop-lifters) in the weekend are an irritating distraction. I suspect its pre-eminence lies in it dominating the (northern-hemisphere) autumn publishing season. Its main rivals – the London Book Fair, Bologna (for children’s publishing) and Book Expo America – are all spring fairs.

What actually happens?

Frankfurt is an event where the book world comes together and does business. It is a marketplace but much more:

  • It is a key venue where book rights are sold. Here a North American co-edition of your book may be offered or world rights sold to publish the latest Harry Potter book in Greek. While the new Dan Brown may be auctioned for a ridiculously high figure, most of the deals are quite ordinary and involve much smaller sums.
  • It is a giant shop window, one of the few places where publishers are able to showcase their list and hope to tempt booksellers and librarians to buy their titles.
  • It is a shop window, too, for countries. This year’s guest of honour was Turkey (though for a while earlier this year it looked as if German politics would scupper this). Next year it’s China but in a world economy where all things Chinese may no longer be quite so attractive.
  • Even in these days of e-mail and other forms of fast communication, Frankfurt is a crucial meeting point. Not only do publishers meet but also other players in the book world. Here a publisher complains to her distributor about sales in Turkey, there a footsore Indian printer tries once again to tout for business, and over in the coffee bar a literary agent consoles one of her authors whose books no longer seem to be of interest.
  • The fair is a classroom where publishers can keep up with developments (this year the big theme was digitization) though all too often what is on offer at the seminars is thinly disguised sales talk by suppliers of a ‘publishing solution’.
  • This, too, is a place where authors may get to strut their stuff. Most of them are worthy German literati whom I’ve never heard of but I do remember years ago bumping into Boris Yeltsin looking tired and out of place.

Six reasons why book fairs matter to you

OK, so why should the biggest international book fair – indeed any book fair – matter to you? Because, as described above, it is a place where much happens that will affect the lives of authors and readers.

If you are an author, then chances are that your book will have been affected by something or other happening at the fair. You may never hear about it and the effect may not be obvious but book fairs like Frankfurt matter, nonetheless.

  • Your book was going to be printed just outside Hong Kong but costs are ballooning for Chinese labour and shipping while US pre-orders for your book are lower than expected; now printing for the US market will be in upstate New York using new digital technologies.
  • The main bookseller in your study area is to buy lots of copies of your book (printed locally at a special price) and really promote it, copies piled high at the front of all of their bookshops.
  • A special Australian paperback edition of your book has also been agreed to.
  • Amazon’s information about your book is wrong, probably because they get this directly from the printed catalogue of your publisher’s US distributor. Now errors should be a thing of the past with your publisher agreeing to subscribe to a new, centralized system for transmitting bibliographic data.
  • Because its appeal is broad enough, your previous book will also be published in German and Italian; a French buyer is also likely but the Chinese publisher who showed such early enthusiasm is now nervous about the effects of the credit crunch.
  • This book and all of your publisher’s other titles are to be digitized and sold as e-books by mid-2010.

And a few real examples

The above reasons don’t apply to any book that I know but they are valid. However, to give you a flavour of how books are affected by book fairs like Frankfurt, here are a few instances of real matters I was involved in at Frankfurt this year.

  • One book that NIAS is about to publish could do quite well in the country it studies. But how to make a book sell more than merely ‘OK’? We discussed this with our distributor’s local agent.
  • Meantime another new book could do very well in its focal country – but it could also be banned or attacked in the courts for upsetting the local powers-that-be. This was a delicate case because people were very careful what they said but we ended up with reasonably clear idea of the situation and with ideas how to respond if things turn sour.
  • In some markets our books are selling well, in others less so. For one big market especially we met with booksellers and others working in the book trade there to understand what was happening and to formulate a strategy to improve sales.
  • If a book sells very well, chances are it will need to be reprinted. Our problem is that we print in Asia but all too often the reprints are needed in the US or Europe but there are not enough orders for a full reprint in Asia to be economic. Shipping charges are horrendous, too. I spent quite a lot of time exploring the alternatives here. Finding a solution is now urgent; authors hate hearing that people cannot buy their books.
  • One of our recent books is about pirates, real pirates of the skull-and-crossbones type. I sniffed around the national stands of a few countries with a strong maritime background looking for publishers who might be interested to publish the book in their language. No luck this time.
  • Recently, an author approached us with a book proposal. He wants something out fast as he’s up for tenure at a US university but doesn’t seem to realize that this means getting published by a reputable American press; even a quality European press like NIAS Press just won’t do. Normally it would be much too early to do this (because we haven’t yet seen or reviewed the manuscript) but as the proposal and sample were good I aired the idea of co-publication at meetings with a couple of US presses, just to test the water. Interest was expressed; there’s something I can build on later.
  • Indeed, one of the books we published last year was co-published with such a US university press, someone we hadn’t worked with before. One part of my meeting with them this year was simply to make sure that things had gone well as far as they were concerned. It had, and we moved on to discuss a new joint project.
  • While the focus of any book fair is on new books, there is growing interest to give new life to older titles by digitizing them. They are then republished as e-books (even e-chapters). I had several meetings and also attended seminars exploring this issue. The result is that by Christmas we shall have digitized a fair chunk of our books, many more following next year.

No wonder I feel rather pressed at present!