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.


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.)

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.


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.)

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.)

2010 starts tomorrow

30 September 2009

Tomorrow is October 1st, time for a new year on the copyright page.


It would be reasonable to assume that the copyright date on a book matches the calendar year in which a book is published, wouldn’t it? Well, yes. However, this isn’t so. (Nor is this date the same as the release date.) Rather, a convention among publishers is to use the next year’s date in the copyright notice for any book published on or after October 1st.

This practice confuses many authors when first they encounter it but really the answer is simple. Moving books from one warehouse to another (or from printer to warehouse) can take weeks. Add to this the time to deliver a book from warehouse to bookshop – and for a customer to then come in, find and purchase that book – and, before you know it, more than two months have elapsed. Suddenly it’s January and that brand new book now looks like last year’s book.

Perceptions matter – as simple as that.

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.


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.)


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.’

DIY or working with partners

6 September 2009

The refuge of the poor and miserly is to do it yourself. There are limits, however; none of us would contemplate a DIY approach to brain surgery. Self-publishing is a lot simpler – and has less lethal consequences than brain surgery if you get it wrong – but here too some people will decide that the DIY approach is not for them.

So what hired help is available for self-published authors?


To some people, the publishing world may seem to be run from an office suite on Fifth Avenue (it isn’t) but the work is done elsewhere, much of it by freelancers. Hence, one approach to outsourcing (some of) your self-publishing work is to hire the appropriate skilled practitioner to do a specific job – a copyeditor to clean up the text, for instance.

The problem with this approach is that, unless you already know the person and the quality of their work or take the time to do a thorough investigation of potential candidates, you could as easily hire a substandard copyeditor, typesetter, etc. as an exceptional one. On the other hand, if you get it right, the results can be out of this world. One small problem: the cost of using such freelancers can also be out of this world.

Author-pays presses

The alternative approach is to go to a single provider. In this respect, authors are particularly well served these days; a whole new industry catering to their needs and dreams has been spawned by the internet. There are several companies that offer assistance to self-publishers, usually employing print-on-demand (POD) technology to do so. Among them are, mentioned in an earlier post.

It varies what such author-pays presses (or ‘POD publishers’) offer and what they specialize in. Some offer a standard package of services whereas others allow you to pick and choose services from an à la carte menu. All typically offer to print and sell your book for you, charging a flat fee for printing plus a commission on any sales that they facilitate. Quite a few companies also offer editorial and typesetting services. Their prices are not necessarily lower than those of freelancers but convenience is one of the attractions of such presses.

As with freelancers, standards vary between companies so you need to enter into such arrangements with your eyes open.

Vanity publishers

Is there a difference between such author-pays presses and the vanity presses of ill repute? Yes, but you need to watch out for the differences. Essentially, author-pays presses offer services to self-publishers in return for payment; the author stays owner of his/her work. If you want ten copies of your book, you will pay this much for the printing and shipping. If someone else orders your book, you will be paid the difference between the sale price (including shipping) and the printing cost minus a sales commission.

Contrast this with vanity presses, who usually masquerade as orthodox presses and expect the author to hand over their manuscript for ‘normal’ treatment except that it is the author who pays (indeed, pays a premium price for any work to be done). Moreover, a vanity press usually takes ownership of the author’s work in exchange for the false prospect of eventual royalties.

Doing it yourself

For many self-publishers, however, actually doing everything themselves is an essential (and existential) part of their role. There can be painful financial outlays, much work, and huge frustrations involved in designing and producing your own book. But also the project brings excitement, the work taps previously unknown wells of drive and creativity inside you, and there is much pleasure and satisfaction to be had from knowing that the final product is yours and yours alone.

As detailed in my previous post, however, there are also costs in doing it yourself – real costs in time, effort, equipment, software and training.

Many would argue that these are worth it.

Decision time

But enough digging, let there be no more comparing of apples and oranges. Now, finally, the time has come to make a decision, the subject of my next post.

Requirements and costs of self-publication

6 September 2009

Not easy, nor cheap

Due to technological developments in the last 25 years, it is far easier today for private authors to prepare, typeset, produce (in printed and/or electronic form) and promote their own work – in other words, to dispense with the services of a publisher altogether. Easier, but not easy.

Self-publishing is not something done in five minutes nor is it about saving money (though an attraction for some authors is the potential to earn more by getting a bigger cut in sales). If you are venturing down the self-publishing route, be aware that you can face a lot of work and considerable costs achieving your goal.

That said, what you face here are different trade-offs: between doing the work yourself and hiring someone else (the subject of my next post), and between producing a high-quality product and turning out something that is (and can look to be) done on the cheap. Obviously, the publication format (discussed in my previous post) also has a huge effect on effort, costs and which skills are required.

In the costs stated below, $ = U.S. dollars. These rates are approximate and based on charges I have encountered for hiring freelancers. But they may also be close to the fees charged by the author-pays presses discussed in my next post.


Whichever format you settle on, there is editorial work to be done first of all. Anything that you put effort, money and your name into demands respectful treatment. This means that the work you eventually publish – whether in printed or in electronic form – is a coherent piece of scholarship, written tautly and without typos (though in my experience completely avoiding typos is probably impossible).

Therefore, once you have finished revising the text to your satisfaction, it needs to be scrutinized, to be sweated in an editorial purgatory, so that what actually is published is to the satisfaction of your readers as well. This is vital to the success of your work.

There are two kinds of editing involved: substantive editing of your text, focusing on its structure and argumentation, and copy-editing of your finalized (maybe restructured) text, focusing on its language – e.g. finding any typos and inconsistencies – and ensuring that it complies with accepted conventions. (You may find it useful consulting a publisher’s house style; many – like that for NIAS Press – are freely available on the publisher’s website).

Doing this editing yourself requires superhuman detachment from your text; most of us lack this. As a substitute for substantive editing, revisit the readers reports commissioned by the publisher(s) who rejected your work, if you have them, and seek feedback from colleagues capable of commenting fairly and fearlessly on your work (they are often hard to find). And, as for copy-editing, try to recruit your life partner or best friend – or, better still, one of those special people (often your departmental secretary or a maiden aunt) with the uncanny gift of spotting other people’s errors at fifty paces; sadly, all too often, such geniuses only spot these errors after publication.

Doing it yourself is free, though you will be wise to reward the help of Auntie Mame with serious chocolate or other forms of sincere appreciation. A freelance editor will cost you $1,500-$5,000 depending on rigour and how much substantive editing is included in the copy-editing. (I have not heard of any freelancers only offering substantive editing.)


Most scholars using Microsoft Word or another word processor think that this is all that is required to lay out the final pages for printing. This work is definitely something they can do themselves. Think again. The design (or layout) of your book and the typesetting of the actual pages is skilled work that only really succeeds if it is invisible.

Laying out a book using a word processor is a particularly vicious form of torture. Word, for instance, may be full of features but things like the subtle adjustment of line and letter spacing are beyond its abilities.

Laying out the book yourself might cost you nothing but you would be wise to have the following things:

  • a reasonably powerful computer with a large monitor
  • a scanner (if there are illustrations to be digitized)
  • a laser printer (printing hundreds of pages on an ink-jet printer invites bankruptcy)
  • desktop publishing software including a typesetting program like InDesign, an image processor like Photoshop, and a PDF generator
  • manuals/courses on how to use this
  • fonts that you are licensed to embed in high-resolution PDF files

In addition, you will need to:

  • ensure that all of the elements of a book are present and organized correctly (e.g. the copyright page is on page iv).
  • ensure that these include all mandatory information (e.g. an ISBN)
  • adopt a standard book size (anything else is horribly expensive)
  • determine the likely extent of your book (so as to avoid unpleasant surprises – see my later post for a detailed explanation and instructions on how to calculate book length).
  • use a layout and graphical format that is printable (e.g. nothing too close to spine or edges, any images at high resolution, any colour in CMYK format)
  • carefully consider if colour is to be used (and if so where)

Alternatively, you can hire a freelance typesetter to worry about all of these and many other issues. It is common to pay either a flat fee for the entire job or on a  per-page basis (typically $6-$10 per page but inclusion of illustrations, colour, non-Latin text and other potential hassles will undoubtedly drive the price up).


Text corruptions can happen when a Word file is converted for typesetting, without this being picked up by the typesetter. For example, recently I converted a Word file to plain text, then brought it into a web page that I was making. Only at the last moment did I discover that all of the superscript ‘th’ letters (in usages like ‘19th century’, which Word automatically converts to superscripts) had vanished.

Here, sharp eyes are needed. Yours are free but have they already looked at the text far too often to notice all the errors and last remaining typos? A proof-reader will cost you $2-$5 per page.


No scholarly book expecting to be taken seriously (and bought by libraries) can omit an index (though it is another matter how ambitious your index is).

Good indexes are tricky to prepare. Please feel free to consult our indexing guidelines on the NIAS Press website.

The rates quoted to me by professional indexers have varied wildly – $2-$20 per typeset page.


Many publishers won’t let their authors get anywhere near the cover design, so crucial is it regarded to a book’s commercial success. Now you are responsible for producing something that doesn’t immediately scream ‘amateur’ to every bookshop you approach; what is needed is a cover that whispers ‘pick me up’. It must also meet certain technical and legal requirements (e.g. meet printers specifications and include a bar code).

The problem is that you can get a cover designer to do a proper job for about $500. But, if your book is to overcome its self-published origins in the nasty book world out there, then your cover needs to be inspired.


This is not something that you can do yourself; you are going to have to pay someone else to print your book.

Printing used to be the big barrier to self-publishing because with lithographic printing a minimum of about 1,000 copies of a book had to be printed. This required a huge investment (and a lot of spare space to store the books). Nowadays, however, the digital printing revolution has brought numbers down to single-copy printing at acceptable prices (and of an acceptable quality); self-publication of printed books is now within the reach of most budgets.

If you use an internet-based POD printer like Lightning Source, then you will be guided through the complexities of printing but will need to rigidly conform to their specifications. Set-up charges may be $75 and then you must pay for each printing order, each page printed and shipping (with a 300-page book costing you about $7 per copy), and often an annual file storage charge of $10-$20 charged.

If printing quality is an issue (because of the importance of your illustrations, for instance) and you have the belief and budget to print a minimum of 400 copies, then you are likely to get a better deal, better quality and much more human treatment by approaching a short-run printer. But be warned. ‘Real’ printers can be funny blokes; theirs is an utterly different world than yours. Many of the things that you find crucially important, they will find incomprehensible – and vice versa.


You can of course avoid the perils (and costs) of printed publication by going down the e-route. (This option was discussed in my previous post.) However, I would suggest that you will still need to typeset your e-book and, while you avoid dealing with printers marks, bleeds and all such arcane stuff, instead you will need to meet the requirements of e-books (introducing hyperlinks, for instance). Be aware that PDF is not the only game in town (there are over 20 competing and incompatible e-book formats) nor is a computer screen necessarily the only display medium (the Amazon Kindle and iPhone being two other major destinations for e-books).

If you would rather have a professional guide you through the e-jungle, the journey may cost you thousands and thousands of dollars.


An alternative to a proper e-book is to self-publish your work on a website (or even as a blog, wiki or via another Web 2.0 channel like Twitter). Though feasible, the divergence in form of a ‘proper book’ is now so wide that increasingly you will find it hard to gain any recognition for this work.

If you can do all the work yourself and have free access to/use of your institutional website, then web publishing can be almost cost free. If you set up your own website, of course, then you will have to pay small but ongoing charges for the URL registration/maintenance and for a web hosting service. Bare-bones blogs like this one are free to set up and run.

Marketing and promotion

It is not enough to produce your book; you also need to bring it to the attention of its potential readers. Many books have been written on this subject and this blog post is already much too long. Suffice to say, you will need to draw upon all of your hustling skills to bear. By all means produce a flyer, issue a press release, buy advertising space in and send review copies to appropriate journals, and cold-call different bookshops – all the sorts of things that publishers do. But the best use of your time will be to exploit your own connections, to reach out directly to other scholars in your field – via notices to mailing lists and attendance at conferences, for instance.

None of this is easy and I seriously doubt you can afford the services of a publicist.

Sales and distribution

Traditionally, getting copies of your book into the hands of readers and getting them to pay for it has been a huge problem with self-published books. This remains so if you are only looking at the old sales channels – bookshops, library suppliers, etc. – who remain suspicious of book trade outsiders. Likewise, it is difficult to sell directly to libraries as these prefer to order and pay in bulk via a library supplier and try to avoid dealing with individual publishers.

But the internet revolution has opened up whole new possibilities to reach the individual reader, your prime target. Today, it is possible to sell your book directly via Amazon Marketplace, eBay, Abe Books, etc. or indirectly via one of the above-mentioned author-pays presses. And, while it is still not cost-efficient to accept credit card payments directly from individual customers, nowadays internet-based financial services like PayPal make this relatively easy. Amazon, PayPal and the others will charge you for their services but the commission is not a lot.

Note that all of these companies help you process any sales but the actual sending of copies sold to the customer is still something that you will have to do unless your book is being printed and shipped on demand by an author-pays press. (While the business of book trade warehouses is to hold stock and process and orders, I cannot imagine that it would ever make financial sense you to use such a warehouse or for them to take you on.)

It is even possible for you to handle all aspects of sales, not just the dispatching of orders. This would be by having a website with an inbuilt retail module (shopping cart, payment processing, etc.). However, such an advanced website would not be cheap to develop; it would also be a bit of an overkill for the sake of a single book.

Legal requirements

Be aware that as a (self-) publisher selling to a public audience, you will be obliged to comply with various commercial regulations. These vary from country to country but you should expect to:

  • register an ISBN for your book (normally, a small charge)
  • deliver gratis copies of your book to your local legal deposit office(s)
  • register for sales tax

For many countries, this list is much longer.

And there’s more

This has been a very long post to write and yet the above points are not the only ones you need to consider. Moreover, space requirements – and a crass desire to sell more copies of our book (which includes perhaps twenty times as much information as found here) – have limited how much detail is included in the information presented here.

But now, decision time is looming. There is just one more thing to ponder, just who is to do all this work: you, a freelancer or a author-pays press? This is the subject of my next post.

Why selling isn’t cheap

2 November 2008

The other day I finally sent off a budget calculation to help one of our authors apply for funding. There were several things in the funding agency’s Excel spreadsheet that confused and irritated me. But what really got up my nose was being asked to state what the likely warehousing and distribution costs were and then finding out that the spreadsheet’s ‘Total Expenditure’ figure ignored these costs.

Perhaps the omission was an error, perhaps not. Whatever, I plead guilty. I changed the formula in their spreadsheet to include the missing costs. And I told them I’d done it, so I won’t be surprised to get a snooty response any day now.

This experience got me thinking about what it costs us to sell our books and how most people haven’t a clue just how much this is. They probably don’t care, either, and nor may you. However, if you are an author earning royalties on sales of your book, then it does matter. And if you are a reader keen to continue getting access to high-quality, peer-reviewed research results, then it matters that academic publishers can afford to produce them. In short, go figure.

So let’s take a wee tour of the economics of warehousing and distribution.

Warehousing? Distribution?

Of course, I’m assuming you know what I mean by warehousing and distribution. Here’s a quick explanation for those who don’t.

Occasionally, someone turns up at NIAS Press and asks to buy a book. We try to oblige but frankly the hassle of processing such sales through the university accounts isn’t worth it. More to the point, we don’t have a lot of space at the Press and certainly not enough to store all of the books that we print. And can you imagine the added cost of posting all of these sales copies round the world? Danish postal rates are not cheap, I assure you.

No, 99% or more of our sales are handled by external agents and in one way or another they want to get paid.

For our European sales, we have a warehouse just south of Oxford (actually there are two warehouses, each the size of a football field, and we don’t own them; a company specializing in warehousing does). Our books fill a tiny corner of all of this space; the books of many other publishers, some of them big, well-known academic presses, fill the rest of the space.

The warehouse stores our books and holds all sorts of inventory details on its system. If an order comes in for a book that isn’t available, its staff will record this order. But if a copy is in stock, it will be picked, packed and sent to the customer, who will be invoiced at the same time. (Let’s not get into details about which customers pay up front and who only has to pay after 30 or more days.)

The warehouse does much more than this, too, but what it doesn’t do is market and promote our books. This is done by the Press itself.

Outside of Europe, we use distributors. Not only do they have their own warehouses (handling the storage and sales described above) but also they market and promote our books in their territory.

Fees and commissions

For all of their good work, our warehouse and distributors are paid. Just how they are paid is a bit complicated but the main thing is that we pay a percentage on each sale. Just how much is none of your business (however, you’ll get an indication of the all-up cost down below).

For our distributors outside of Europe, there is one (large) commission on every sale, and that’s about it. This covers all of the many costs incurred by the distributor all the way from warehousing through to payments to the sales reps who go round visiting all of the bookshops.

Our warehouse charges a far smaller commission because it isn’t paying for sales reps let alone all of the other ways in which a book is marketed and promoted (catalogues, advance information sheets, flyers, adverts and bibliographic registration to name a few – more about this another day). But in addition there is one or another processing fee on each sale plus various other administration fees calculated monthly and (let’s not forget them) charges for storage.

And that’s not all.

Bookseller discounts

Obviously, the bookshops don’t buy their books at the price they sell them to you. They get a discount. Typically, in Europe this is about 25% for a normal bookshop and 30–35% for major customers. Then there is Amazon who usually won’t accept less than a 40% discount – and publishers give them this. Who can afford to be invisible on Amazon?

In North America, the discounts are a little higher, in some parts of Asia higher again. And if you want your book in an airport bookstore, the discount demanded is usually higher than 50% (not least because the rents charged these bookstores at a place like Heathrow are astronomical).

These are typical discount rates for academic books. Those for ‘trade’ books (sold to the general public) are much higher, often more than 50%. At times the discounts get suicidally high.

Sending back the pizzas

On top of these discounts is the cost of returns.

Think for a moment about your local supermarket. On its shelves and in its fridges and freezers are thousands of products with a limited sell-by date. Stocking such a supermarket requires the flair and instincts of a gambler. You need enough but not too much stock. And every few days, if you are round the back entrance at the right time, you might see the result of all those failed gambles: big rubbish bins being wheeled out to the garbage truck. Amongst all the stuff being thrown out will be loads of old frozen pizzas.

Imagine instead if your supermarket could send all those pizzas back to the pizza factory and be credited their value against any new pizzas ordered. Your supermarket might be pleased with such a scheme but I doubt the factory would be, especially if even those pizzas whose boxes have been knocked about a bit (and frankly are not saleable as a result) also qualify for a full credit.

This is the bizarre situation experienced by all publishers. Booksellers have a right to return stock within a certain period for a full credit. And they do so, typically a few days before they must pay for these books.

The rate of return for trade books is horrendous, from memory it being about 50% in the United States where the situation is worst but not a whole lot better elsewhere. This is not because bookshops are greedy or ripping off their publishers but is due to the pressures of competition and the difficulty for most booksellers to make a profit. Essentially, then, if a trade title doesn’t take off and sell lots of copies within six weeks, chances are that most copies will be returned to the publisher.

Many small publishers have gone bust as a consequence. Their initial print run has sold out, sales look brilliant, a second bigger printing is ordered and – just as this is delivered – thousands of returns come flooding in. Crunch!

Thankfully, return rates for academic titles are much lower (the main culprit again the US booksellers). Nonetheless, several times a year I see our US monthly sales figures hammered by credits for returns. It hurts, and it costs.

Reality check

Let’s work all of this through with an example. Here, the book published is a $30 paperback.

750 copies printed in China at $5 per copy $3,750
Shipping to 3 warehouses $1,600
Total printing/shipping costs $5,350

500 copies sold (75 free copies, 175 unsold) $15,000
Average bookseller discount 33% $5,000
50 copies returned (including discount) $1,000
Distributor’s commission 50% $4,500
Net receipts (residual income to publisher) $4,500
Author royalty (5% of net receipts) $225

Loss (prior to inclusion of editing, etc.) $1,075

Note: A huge amount of expenditure prior to printing is not included in this equation. Peer-review, editing, typesetting and marketing are just the big-ticket items.

The bottom line

What does this mean? Several things, actually.

  1. It costs to sell a book, quite a bit actually. At worst (as in the example above), it costs more to sell a book than is earned on the sale. Too many sales like this, of course, and a publisher will be toast unless income can be earned in other ways, too.
  2. The profit margin on books is pathetic. Until a few weeks ago, I’d have said that publishers would make more money investing in the share market. Maybe not now, but I hope you get my point. In short, publishing is a mug’s game (though one that many mugs like me willingly devote their lives to).
  3. It is also a mug’s game for authors, or at least for those expecting to earn not just fame but also fortune. Receiving a royalty of $225 on $15,000 of sales (as in the above example) looks utterly unfair but it is the going rate. Normally, author royalties are paid on net receipts (the publisher’s residual income) not on the retail price. Here, the going rate for academic presses is only 5–10% and often a royalty is only payable after (say) 500 copies have been sold.
  4. Everyone bitches about prices with certain commercial academic publishers like Routledge and Brill attracting particular criticism. But it is also clear that publishing a $30 paperback and selling only hundreds of copies is a suicidal strategy unless income can be earned elsewhere than sales.

Which brings me back to the funding agency. Their support is vital if the book we have in mind is to be feasible. So maybe I shouldn’t be p*ssing them off by altering the formula in their spreadsheet.

But what really irked me with the people at this research council was not so much that they failed to account for warehousing and distribution costs in their expenditure analysis; rather it was that they were oblivious to the realities of academic publishing today and indeed commented that our book looked quite profitable and seemed hardly in need of a grant.

Time to give them a reality check perhaps, if I dare.

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!