Cover design, brutal realities

16 November 2015

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

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


The same goes for books found on library bookshelves.

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

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

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

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


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

Rethinking ‘thesis’ as ‘book’

12 May 2013

I have long argued that ‘a thesis is not a book’ and in my next post I shall outline my reasons why. Because of this, I have warned PhD students against the practice of ‘publication’ of their thesis by the home institution. Here, typically, the thesis is laid out and printed in book form (fancy cover and all) and may even be offered for sale on a limited basis. Recently, some have been appearing as e-books.


Let’s face it, however; I am still against these fake books (or at least their excessive distribution as library exchange copies) but the battle is probably lost here and in any case it may not matter. Time instead to minimise the damage, accentuate the positive.

Why? There are several reasons:

  1. Brutal reality. While you need to publish with a ‘reputable publisher’ to build an academic career, if at its outset the faculty demands publication of the thesis, this cannot be avoided.
  2. Your faculty may be right. Theft of your ideas and research results is a possibility. Online publication of your thesis is a kind of patenting process but that is only the first step; you need to assert your intellectual rights by publishing material from the thesis (see below).
  3. The market. Too much is being published but more than likely publishers are still hungry for fresh, new perspectives in your field. (If they are not, then your thesis topic may be a dead end; that’s another discussion.)

That said, I am certain there are quite a few publishers out there who would violently disagree with me (the same publishers who would not consider publishing a monograph that includes chapters already published in another form as journal articles; I sometimes wonder if a few of my publishing colleagues aren’t living in a parallel universe). The reality of the situation is something else; the old adage ‘publish or perish’ is true and today that means publish now not at a leisurely future date.

(Of course, you may not be required by your department to produce your thesis in book form and instead your may be tempted by an offer for ‘free publication’ of your thesis. Here’s why you should think hard about this.)

As such, if both initial publication of your thesis and its subsequent publication in another form by a ‘real’ publisher are unavoidable, the trick is to ensure that these two actions are not mutually exclusive. Here are a few thoughts about achieving this.

1) I realise that many students write their theses with a future book in mind; only minor tweaking is needed to produce the finished monograph. However, if you think hard about the differences between thesis and book (listed in my next post), you will have an action list for revision. Be warned: this may involve more than minor tweaking.

2) Think strategically about your career and the publication list on your CV. Regardless of whether or not both thesis and book are to be published, make sure that they have quite different titles and that you reserve the ‘sexier’ title for your book. The same applies for any journal articles, book chapters, etc. More about this here.

3) Even if you haven’t yet finished your thesis, start publishing material from your research now – as journal articles, book chapters, working papers, whatever – at the same time that you work on your thesis.

4) But if the thesis is finished (or nearly there), don’t believe the publishers who say you should contemplate your material and publish this as a monograph in five years time. Yes, you may need ‘distance’ from your thesis to complete the monograph but the clock is ticking on your career. The time is now for mining and reworking material from the thesis – again, as journal articles, book chapters, working papers, etc. – at the same time that you work on your monograph.

5) Don’t forget the discards. There may be all sorts of interesting material that you omitted from your thesis or won’t be included in your final monograph. Be a creative scavenger and rework these discards into articles or even future research and book projects.

One last thing: if you have just finished your thesis, well, the clock may be ticking on your career but take time out to savour your achievement. You’ve earned it!


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.)


9 November 2010

As I noted in my earlier post, today the bindery is often located on the premises of a printing works though traditionally it has been located elsewhere as a separate business. Anyway, wherever it is found, the bindery is a glue-sniffer’s paradise. This is because its whole purpose is to take the printed sheets and covers from the print-shop and transform them into finished books. An essential ingredient in this transformation is glue.

Binding process

In itself, the book binding process is quite straightforward though the mechanics of binding can shade between automated mass-production and the handwork of a master craftsman. The sequence is:

  1. If it hasn’t already been done at printing, each sheet is folded into signatures (usually made up of 16 pages).
  2. Typically, the signature is stapled through its centre fold so as to fasten all the pages together.
  3. The raw book block is formed by collating the signatures. This is often done by using a mechanical hand dipping into storage bins where the signatures are stored or by fetching signatures from a rotating carousel. It is possible to have material such as a colour insert tipped in (hand inserted between two signatures) but this is very expensive.
  4. The gathered signatures are clamped and bound together, then fastened to the cover (if a paperback) or binding material (if hardback). Today, this is usually done by using glue. There are many different types of binding technique (see below).
  5. The book block (or actual book in the case of paperbacks) is trimmed to size.
  6. For hardbacks, the trimmed book block is fastened to the hard case.
  7. The finished books are made ready for shipment. Sometimes they may be shrink-wrapped (especially so if the book has loose items – like a DVD – to be safeguarded from theft or accidental loss). In all cases, the books will be packed in cartons and fastened together on a pallet.

Types of binding

Although a reasonably straightforward process, there are quite a few variations in the above sequence. These mainly occur at step 4 where, essentially, the choice is between different types of binding:

  • Perfect binding (normal with paperbacks), where the folded edges of the gathered signatures are chopped off and the resulting smooth edge is then roughened and glued to the cover; or
  • Sewing or stitching the signatures to backing material (and sometimes to each other), this material in turn (at step 6) fastened to end papers, then the whole package fastened to the casing material. There are lots of different wonderful names used for these techniques (saddle stitching, for instance) as well as for the materials used (e.g. head- and tail-bands, a.k.a. wibbling).

Library binding is a variation of the latter type of binding, in essence a higher-quality piece of craftsmanship using more durable binding materials. However, the squeeze on library budgets has caused some libraries to opt for cheap paperbacks instead (where these are available), the calculation being that, if the first cheap paperback falls apart, a second copy can be bought (and, later, even a third). The accumulated cost is still less than the cost of buying a book (or rebinding it) with a library binding.

Types of covering

As noted above, there are different types of covering. Normally with books, we talk about hardbacks and paperbacks but there is more variation within these two categories:

  • Cloth binding, i.e. the hard case is covered with an artificial cloth material and the spine is embossed (usually in gold) with the author–title details and publisher’s logo. Often this cased book has a protective jacket/dust cover.
  • Semi-hardback (or super-thick paperback) using thick, flexible card over sewn or stitched signatures.
  • Conventional paperback, perfect bound.
  • Paperback with flaps.

In addition, the finished bound books may be enclosed with a protective slip case. This is more common with multi-volume sets (especially reference works) and for those single volumes needing to be seen as a prestigious and/or luxury product.

Finishing up

The last step of the binding process is of course to ship out the finished books. Some of these will go as advances to the publisher (the subject of my next post) but the bulk of the stock will be shipped to the publisher’s warehouse(s), more about that later.

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

Why index?

7 March 2010

An index may be unassuming, loitering at the end of your book with not a lot to say for itself. It is also one of the last things to be made, often under great time pressure. So why bother?

There are many reasons to index your book, not least a wee clause in your contract, something like this:

No, but seriously, if yours is an academic book then really an index is unavoidable for the following reasons:

  • It is useful. The index is perhaps the most-used pathway to searching a book, accessed far more times than the table of contents.
  • The index provides an alphabetic mind map of the contents. It is, then, an intellectual construct, a key part of the scholarly insight that you are offering your readers. This can also benefit you, the writer (see below).
  • It has a direct impact on sales. Library purchasing decisions can be influenced by the presence or absence of an index. Years ago, I was shocked to hear an acquisitions librarian go through his checklist for deciding if a book would be bought. The first question was, ‘Is there an index?’

In addition, if it is you who will be doing the indexing (something that I discuss in my next post and that the rest of the posts in this indexing thread assume), then the act of creating the mind map referred to above gives you a marvellous insight into the completeness of your study. Are there, for instance, any gaps in the information that shouldn’t be there? (You can know a subject so well that you forget to make all pertinent details clear to your readers.)

Ah, but we have a problem here. If it is only now that you realise you have failed to explain the background of this or the meaning of that, isn’t it too late? Well, yes, it is if you are only starting work on your index just days before the book goes to press. Arguably, you should start earlier (something that I explore further in a post later this week).

To conclude, I think the issue is quite clear. Publishing a scholarly volume without an index is a bit like revealing a new work of art in a gallery where the blinds are pulled down and the lights are turned off. It just won’t do.

Time, then, to get started with your index.

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

Cover? Who cares!?

18 January 2010

Fat and sleek, but not for long

Imagine, it is Monday morning in an academic library somewhere, anywhere, and the first post has just been delivered. Among the all the things arriving is a book that has long been awaited. It sits there for a moment, fat and sleek in a splendid jacket. But its impatient borrower must wait; first the book must be catalogued and branded with all sorts of marks and numbers designed to ensure the book is shelved in the right place and cannot go missing.

And what is the first thing the acquisitions librarian will do? He will rip off that splendid jacket and throw it in the bin.

Not wanted, not valued

Have you had a good look at the books shelved in your departmental or campus library recently? If your library is typical, then you’ll see that most of its books are cloth-bound hardbacks. It is all quite drab. The only splashes of colour will be from any paperbacks found in the collection (or, in more recent years, hardbacks with a printed paper case).

So, yes, it’s true; librarians do throw away book jackets – and with good reason, too. Jackets are slovenly things. They have a bad habit of flapping open, sliding down the shoulders of their owners, and falling off onto the floor. No matter how much tape is used to secure them to the book’s cloth cover, invariably the jacket will slip loose and find a place to hide. If it is the jacket on which they have carefully written the book’s classification details, then the librarians have a problem; the book too is now in hiding. No wonder, then, that librarians throw the jacket away and write the classification details directly on the cloth spine of the book.

A dumb attitude

Publishers know this. No wonder then that many put little value in creating a striking jacket design.

Perhaps there is some justification in this attitude in the case of hardbacks, which largely are bought by libraries (though in far fewer numbers than previously). Unfortunately, however, this attitude seems evident in the designs for many academic paperbacks as well. But in my opinion, and as I made quite clear in an earlier post, this attitude is dumb. The (paperback) cover matters, not least because it is a major determinant of buying behaviour among bookshops and individual book buyers.

Taking the time with and investing a little thought into the cover design is thus well worth it, and it need not take that much work or effort either. Preparing and implementing the design is the subject of my next post (with your role in the process following).

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

Meet the designers (and typesetter)

9 January 2010

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


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

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

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

Amateurs and distance workers

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

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

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

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

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

Different types, much in common

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

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

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

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

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

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

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