Tortoise and hare

1 May 2013

While this may be blindingly obvious, there is quite a difference in sales of a typical history book (slow but steady) and of one focused on current affairs (“up like a rocket, down like a stick”). If you are writing such books, to avoid disappointment, you need to take this difference in sales behaviour in mind – and work to avoid this pattern.

For instance, sales of a recent NIAS Press book on the aftermath of the 2011 triple disaster in Japan – and timed to appear on the second anniversary of the disaster – have shot off like a hare. In contrast, a history of women and power in Cambodia had less dramatic initial sales when published five years ago but it continues to sell, week after week. (I hardly need say that the study is not a tortoise – far from it; this is a bravura work – but the image is suggestive of the sales figures.)


Why should this be?

In part it is an issue of relevance and topicality. As we said in my youth, today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper. Even two years after the triple disaster and with a change in government, the consequent issues facing Japan still remain as do most policy responses. However, in five years time, the disaster won’t be topical anymore (the horror will have lost its potency) and new events will make the book’s analysis less relevant. As such, sales will decline, maybe quite steeply.

In contrast, the issue of women and power in Cambodian history is not exactly a great talking point in the world’s cafes and bars today (except perhaps in Phnom Penh). Why then does the book continue to sell, even to be adopted for various undergraduate courses? Here, relevance and scholarship are at play. As one reviewer said about Lost Goddesses, “this is an exceptional book of considerable merit that will be of interest to a wide range of academics working in history, anthropology, gender studies, politics, religion and Southeast Asian studies”.

In a similar vein, every now and then a copy is sold of a history of economic decision-making in Vietnam, published by us in 1998. Aimed at Vietnam specialists, it never sold many copies but still it plods along. On the other hand, back in about 2001 there was a rash of books published in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis but nowadays I doubt that anyone is buying (or even consulting) these – unless, that is, readers are looking for parallels to today’s global economic woes.

This does not mean that you are condemned by your subject to play the role of the long-lived tortoise or ephemeral hare. Right now you can be sure that many authors are working to complete bright, new studies of the First World War, aimed for release on the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. Their publishers will be planning on massive sales that hopefully continue at a lower but profitable level in the years thereafter (unlikely unless the authors have indeed something new to say).

Likewise, in The Making of the President, political journalist Theodore White told the story of the 1960 US presidential campaign and election of John F. Kennedy. This national bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-winning account revolutionized the way US presidential campaigns are reported and remains to this day (claims Amazon) the most influential publication about the election of John F. Kennedy.

Here, we have it, three factors are at work: topicality, relevance and scholarship/quality. Just remember that no subject is condemned to focus on a sub-set of these three contributors to writing success (history can be topical and current affairs relevant long after the use-by date). Remember, too, that topicality, relevance and scholarship are not the only winning factors – readability and (self-) promotion are equally important.

Doing just fine

26 April 2013

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Making the most of social media

19 April 2013

Many authors I know wouldn’t touch Facebook with a bargepole. Indeed, some of our authors won’t even be photographed let alone appear in an interview on YouTube to promote their books. This is a nuisance in marketing terms but until now I haven’t thought this to be a real problem; shyness doesn’t effect the quality of their scholarship.

Now I am not so sure.

What made me think again was attending the recent London Book Fair, at which I attended what I thought it was a seminar for publishers (the session being called called ‘How to Build Social and Brand Equity on a Shoestring’). It wasn’t, not really; authors were the prime focus of the session. (This was in line with a huge increase in author-centred activity at the LBF and elsewhere, as discussed here and here, and – with regard to self-publishing – here. Self-publishing is also something this blog has explored before, in a series of posts starting here.)


At the seminar, a literary publisher from Cromer in Norfolk was joined by three of his authors to expound on why getting published requires that you ‘get’ social media. Of course, academic authors might argue that the worlds of literary fiction and scholarly discourse have little in common and they are right, to a point. That said, I suspect that authors of all types can learn much from what the panelists said.

Unfortunately, I didn’t record the session but here are some of the points made.

  • Like it or not, social media are unavoidable. Used intelligently, however, they offer the best means for authors to reach the widest possible readership. This is because branding and identification, not the hard sell, is what drives most people to follow an author.
  • There is no point being half-hearted; get your numbers up. For instance, Salt Press may be small but on Twitter it has 86,571 followers while one of the authors present reported that she was linked to over 1,000 (or was it 10,000?) people on Facebook.
  • How on earth do the panelists keep up with such a huge circle? They don’t, not necessarily; it is usually enough to tune into the conversation every so often. Time management is crucial.
  • When questioned if they really wished to expose themselves to a whole lot of strangers, it was clear the panelists were only showing their public persona to the world (or had, say, separate private Facebook accounts). As they also warned, don’t go public with something you would want to stay private.
  • Of course, the key requirement of social networking is that you participate but you would be wise to (mainly) only say things that matter. How many people care if you are waiting for a bus?
  • Social networking is not one-way. Show generosity, for instance by offering advice or pointing people to another author’s work.
  • One way to build such numbers of friends and followers is by searching for interest groups (Twitter’s search functions are especially powerful). However, you need to know what you are searching for.
  • Another way to build a following is to ensure that many of the people whom you meet in person become members of your social network; point them towards your online presence. Collecting other people’s business cards is no longer enough.
  • But to succeed in building a following and then benefit from it, you must understand why people are interested in you, why they follow you. It is unlikely to be your persona only (though this can play a role); more likely it is something that you are seen to be offering them. In short, social networks are all about belonging. People are drawn to you because they have a stake in you or your work.
  • The essence of what you are doing with your social networking is creating a brand. Part of your work here is not only to inform people what you are doing but also to communicate your persona, even the philosophy and principles guiding your work. It may also mean talking about experiences as well as end results. And, just like (say) Apple, your purpose is to build brand loyalty, create a little passion.
  • What is imperative here is brand consistency. Think about the ramifications of what you do and say, and be consistent. Here it is easiest if your public persona and your private self are much the same but as a result you can do much damage to your prospects if you are not true to yourself.
  • Learn, then, to handle mistakes; they are bound to happen and are unlikely to stay hidden for long.
  • Some of the panelists preferred Facebook, others a personal blog; the publisher seems to choose Twitter. What was clear with all of them, however, is that they used multiple channels to present themselves.
  • Social media have great reach but they are most effective when there is confluence between the different channels, when (say) tweets, a Facebook item and a blog post build on each other to promote an event.

Largely, that is what I am trying to do here – with this post on ‘Getting Published’, on related news items on my work website, with a tweet here and there and corresponding entries on a work Facebook page. Sorry but there’s no clip on YouTube.

Just how effective it all is … well, that is another matter. One thing to consider, however: even if there is a problem with the messenger, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the message.


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.)

Final proofs

5 March 2010

Once the text is completely stable, and any illustrations have been sized and inserted, the typesetter paginates the book and produces a second (and hopefully final) set of proofs for checking. In urgent circumstances, it is not unknown for authors to receive only a single set of paginated proof pages, but two proof stages are more common. At the same time, you should get a proof of the finalized cover.

Page-proof checklist

However, the second (paginated) proofs are not yet another opportunity to check your text; by now, as we have seen, your production editor will be pretty intolerant of ‘unnecessary’ changes. While you should keep an eye open for any errors in the text not previously spotted, at this stage the things that you should be focusing on are quite different. Now, you should check that:

  • All corrections marked on the first proofs have been correctly implemented.
  • All figures, illustrations, captions, tables, etc. are placed where they belong (or in close proximity to this).
  • Any illustrations look as they should (in terms of quality, size, colour, orientation, etc.).
  • All footnotes (if used) are placed on the correct page.
  • Chapter titles in the table of contents match those in the text, not only in wording but also in upper or lower case. (The same applies for figure captions, etc.)
  • Chapter titles in the running heads match (or are reasonable short forms of) the real chapter titles.
  • Page numbers stated in the table of contents, list of figures, etc. are correct.
  • Any ‘hard’ cross-references (like ‘see overleaf’, ‘see page 43’, etc.) are correct.
  • Pagination of the book is consecutive (with numbering of the preliminary pages as a separate series using roman numbering).

Of course, any corrections and other changes to these proofs should be marked up as discussed in my earlier post.

Proofing the cover

I have already discussed finalization of the cover in quite some detail elsewhere. Suffice to say here that what you should be seeing now is not some cover concept or even a well-developed draft but the final version. As such, you will need to be proofing not only for errors but also omissions (a promised photo credit in tiny type on the back cover, for instance).

Given the central importance of the cover, it is wise to take special care on the cover proof.

Avoiding the errata slip

Publishers hate having to insert an errata slip in a book, not least because it is time-consuming, expensive and unnecessary (and because it is an open admission that the proofing of that book was inadequate – not a good look).

As such, because this is likely to be your last chance to check the entire book (see below), be rigorous with your proofing. This means, too, that you should look at the whole book – both inside pages and cover – making sure that everything is right. (This is especially relevant because the cover and inside pages are usually produced by different people.) Otherwise you may end up disappointed when holding your wonderful new book in your hands and discovering a silly mistake.

This is what happened to one of our authors a few years back. The title page she delivered for editing had an old subtitle. There was nothing wrong with this (hence it survived the editing and typesetting unscathed); it was simply the wrong subtitle. The new subtitle appeared on the cover of her book and in all sorts of marketing material. It was also the one that was registered in various bibliographic databases.

Unfortunately, neither the author nor anyone at the press noticed the minor discrepancy in subtitle wording until after the book was published. She requested an errata slip. Fair enough, but I was not amused.

Making a ‘right-brain’ assessment

In addition, at this stage it would be a good idea to flip through the book looking at each double-page spread (easiest done in Acrobat or Adobe Reader) and analysing the layout in a more ‘right-brain’ fashion. Are the pages balanced and aesthetically pleasing? Do the page bottoms line up? Do you like what you see?

Of course, it may be dumb me suggesting that you do this ‘right-brain’ assessment now as there is no way that either the typesetter or your production editor will contemplate major design changes at such a late stage. The time for such feedback should have been at the time of the first proofs or even earlier in the design phase (if you were consulted, that is. The whole issue of what you can and cannot expect to change at the proofing stage is discussed in detail here.)

That said, it is your book, your child. If you don’t care about how it is dressed, who else will? And what will your readers think if, when they encounter your book, they are distracted by its appearance and maybe even fail to take it seriously?

A wee bit of assertiveness with your publisher doesn’t harm once in a while.

Finalizing the proofing process

As with the first proofs, your job is to indicate any changes required either on the proofs or in a separate document, returning these (or a message that there are no changes) to your production editor. Usually, there is great pressure for this to be done quite quickly. As before, make sure that you retain a copy of these proofs.

At this stage, however, and before you return the proofs to your publisher, you may have an extra task to complete: preparing an index. If there are minimal changes to these second proofs, then it is normal that they are used for the indexing (that is, if it is the author doing the indexing); this saves time. More about this in my next post, which starts a new section of the production process looking at indexing.

And, as far as you are concerned, that is (almost) the end of the proofing process. (‘Almost’ because you should get a chance to see the typeset index and maybe even the whole book again after any second-proof changes have been implemented.) From now on, you will take a back seat as far as the production process is concerned. More proofing will be done but this will be by (or at the behest of) your production editor; as noted earlier, it is unlikely you will be involved.

Time then (after the indexing) to move on with your life. Indeed, already by now, you may need to start refocusing your attention on the promotion of your book. But that is another story.

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

Design matters

5 January 2010

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

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

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

What should have been a prize-winning study

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

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

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

Enter the queen

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

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

The cover matters

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

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

His explanation for this (bad) behaviour was that:

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

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

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

Sounds like it time that you meet the designers.

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

Announcing your book

2 January 2010

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

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

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


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.)