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.)

hare-and-tortoise

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.


How much theory?

19 January 2012

Recently, an author asked me for a bit of advice.

I am slaving away on the book, but I need a bit of advice. I have changed the style from thesis to book. That’s no problem, but I am concerned about the theoretical frame. I have a whole chapter on what you might call ‘Critical Strategies’, that is, the 3 or 4 major theoretical underpinnings. I am wondering if you normally ask authors to delete that sort of chapter. Some of the theories about discourse and so on are sprinkled throughout the text. That’s unavoidable, if it is to make sense. Do you recommend I take it out that chapter and simplify the argument, or leave it in and see what your reviewers think?

Personally, I’m not a great fan of theoretical arguments; I often joke and say, ‘Whenever I see a theory I reach for my knife!’

However – whether authors, readers, librarians or publishers – we are in the ‘business’ of academic communication. In so doing, we act within one or more scholarly discourses. Clearly, your own study belongs to a specific scholarly discourse and will be framed by this. Some theory, then, is pretty much unavoidable. As your intended readers are already familiar with this discourse, it is sufficient that you lightly refer to this and indicate how your work adds to the debate. Certainly, it is unlikely that a 100-page review of the theoretical literature to date will be of interest.

As such, I replied to my author as follows:

As you say, there will be some theoretical discussion sprinkled throughout the book. This needs to be put in context at the beginning. However, there is no place for the big cow-pat of theoretical recitation commonly found at the start of theses; you are not needing to prove to any examiners that you know the discourse.

So how much and how little?

May I suggest that you imagine just who your readers are – you could even identify specific, real people – and then consider what would be their interest in your book. More than likely they do not want to be served up with a regurgitation of theories they know backwards but they will appreciate seeing how your study fits (and builds on) the existing discourse.

That at least is my ‘theory’ on theory. The practical reality for each individual work will be different, of course. Some will need to be larded with a theoretical overlay, others will be so empirical they are theory-anorexic. As always, think of the needs of your book and its readers.


Use of cross-references

5 February 2010

It should go without saying that the pagination of your manuscript will never match that of the finished typeset book. This means that you cannot insert actual page numbers in any cross-references within the text. Instead, you should refer to entities like ‘Chapter 3’ or ‘Table 5.1’.

Indeed, although a few well-placed cross-references can be useful, they should only be used where there is a significant benefit to the reader. Having to flick backwards and forwards through the book may be OK once in a while but more than that is annoying.

Moreover, cross-references can be counter-productive. All too often, they distract your readers, taking them off on wild-goose chases to remote regions of your text. The danger is that your readers will lose the thread of your argument or, worse, lose patience altogether with your text, perceiving it to be badly structured.

Finally, remember that cross-references can be plain wrong. There is a risk that the text that you are referring to has been moved – or even deleted.

In other words, handle with care.

(Post #17 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Font issues

31 January 2010

If your text is of the plain vanilla variety (using Times, Arial and other similar fonts), then there should be no font-related problems in the typesetting of your book. However (and here note that this is a Western publisher speaking), if you use any non-standard text like that listed below, then you will need to start talking seriously with your editor – indeed, you should have done this months ago.

  • Text with diacritics or special accents (Vietnamese, for instance, uses multiple accents over a single Latin character).
  • Other special fonts or character sets (ornaments, for example)
  • Non-Latin script (e.g. Cyrillic, Arabic and Chinese).
  • Mathematical and scientific symbols (many based on Greek letters).
  • Formulas (often a complex arrangement of super- and sub-scripted Greek letters and other symbols and markers that must be precisely placed but still run into the main text).

There are dangers in the use of such special text, three that I can think of right off-hand:

  1. The big danger is that everything turns to custard in the conversion process (an issue I shall return to in a few days time). This can be a result of incompatibility between fonts and/or between computer operating systems, something I have discussed in an earlier post.
  2. Moreover, just because you got this Chinese font free with Word, it doesn’t mean that it can be used by your publisher without paying a heft price; this issue, too, I have explored elsewhere.
  3. And finally there is the issue of readability (something I have also written about earlier and enraged a few people as a result); I would argue that every insertion of special text creates a ‘speed bump’ in the smooth reading of your text.

Please think very hard before using such special text and, if you must use it, then consult with your production editor at an early stage.

(Post #12 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


What is typesetting?

22 January 2010

With the design phase now completed, your manuscript and the design brief will be sent to a typesetter, who will take your text and illustrative material, setting it out on the page ready for printing.

An art and process

There is a lot more to typesetting (and its sister, typography) than you would think. Both have their origins in the Gutenberg revolution and each, in their different ways, were concerned with the presentation of textual material in type format ready for printing. In earlier times there was a big difference between them. Typography was the art of designing, setting and arranging type whereas typesetting was the process (or craft) of actually setting the type.

Note the class difference: typography wore a beret and twirled a designer’s pen, typesetting wore an apron, punched type and had ink on its fingers. As we shall see, however, the differences between the two have blurred in recent years.

Together, typography and typesetting combine an art and process that only really succeeds when invisible. In many respects, the layout of your book is comparable to the background music added to a film. Its primary duty is to make your text clear and accessible, but ideally it should also enhance the meaning with mood and style. Though stylish, the layout must also be durable (indeed timeless), transcending fashion. Much creative energy goes into this art, which is the subject of passionate debate among its practitioners.

At the forefront of the publishing revolution

The differences between typesetting and typography have narrowed (even blurred) due to the digital revolution and advent of desktop publishing (DTP), which has virtually obliterated other forms of typesetting in recent years.

At the sharp end of publishing – in the production of books, journals, etc. – the old, quite laborious and expensive process of producing print-ready material by hand-setting individual lines and pages of type (a job for well-paid tradesmen) has given way to on-screen, WYSIWYG page composition using personal computers and (usually) lower-paid semi-clerical staff.

In parallel with (and a precondition for) this transformation was the development of things we all take for granted today (everyone, not just publishing professionals) – the personal computer, DTP software, new digital fonts (see below), laser printers using the Postscript programming language, and PDF (which renders Postscript into a viewable, WYSIWYG format). An even more recent addition has been the arrival of text mark-up languages like XML; originating from the old pre-DTP typesetting systems, these are still esoteric, even for many publishing people.

For a while, typesetting came in-house for most publishers and many of the old, specialist typesetting firms went bust. In recent years, however, further cost-cutting by publishers has seen this typesetting work move out to local freelancers and further afield to places like India. (I have described this development elsewhere in greater detail, if you are interested.)

At the same time that the process of page layout has been transformed, a parallel transformation has been seen in typography. Here, there have been huge advances in typographical design, not least the development first of scalable, digital fonts followed by an explosion of new designs and more recently the digital capture and standardization of all the world’s varied alphabets and scripts in the form of Open Type fonts.

These advances have been an essential feature of the digital revolution in publishing. Without them, there would be no #e-publishing, no e-readers like the Kindle, probably no iPhone or other smart phone, and indeed even the PC, Web, etc. would be far more limited things than they are.

Key concerns and tools

According to Wikipedia, ‘Traditional typography follows four principles: repetition, contrast, proximity, and alignment.’ The same could be said for typesetting; they are classic requirements of a good design and layout. In essence, then, when laying out your book, your typesetter will be concerned to:

  • Fit your text and illustrations into the agreed page extent.
  • Place text and illustrations in an effective and appropriate combination.
  • Apply a layout that is uniform and predictable.
  • Implement a design that is elegant but also clear and readable.
  • Deliver the print-ready PDF files on or before the agreed date.


Given the sophistication of today’s DTP software (programs like Adobe InDesign, for instance), the typesetter of your book will have a vast array of tools at his/her disposal to ensure these goals are met. There are too many to list here but among them will be:

  • a selection of appropriate fonts in different sizes and styles;
  • paragraph and character styles, assigning uniform values to text (font, size, colour, alignment, etc.) that can be globally changed in an instant;
  • hyphenation, character spacing (kerning) and line spacing (leading), allowing fine adjustments to how much space an amount of text actually fills; and
  • much more (e.g. alignment and rotation, linking to external files, layering, use of colour, etc.)

Such is the world of the typesetter. But, as shall be seen in my next post, this esoteric world about to impinge on your own.

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


Preparing the page design

14 January 2010

With finalization of the editorial process, your text is almost ready for typesetting. Often, however, a design brief is first drawn up, either by your production editor or by the typesetter, specifying how the book should be typeset. As noted in my previous post, the central concern here is ‘fit’: the finished book should end up with the number of pages it is supposed to have.

I shall not get into the specifics of copy-fitting and casting off here as I’ve written about these (and how to calculate book length) earlier. Suffice to say that the target number of words per page will play a decisive role in the page design.

Strangely enough, there is often no co-ordination between the design of the cover and the inside pages; the former lies largely in the world of the marketing department, the latter in that of production. For this reason, the cover designer and book (page) designer are usually different people.

This may make sense from the publisher’s perspective but it does signal a strange failure to take the reader into consideration. As I have written earlier, content may be king but design is the queen whose appearance attracts the initial attention and prompts the curious reader to pick up the book. Moreover, if the discord between the appearance of the cover and inner pages is strong enough, this will affect the reader’s receptiveness to the author’s argument (even if only subconsciously).

In short, aesthetics matters also.

Of course, some attention will (or should) be paid to aesthetics but just as important is enhancing the presentation and accessibility of the text. Why? Because the success of a book demands that consideration be given to:

  • identity (if part of a series, a standard design may apply)
  • readership
  • purpose
  • suitability
  • credibility
  • readability, and
  • attractiveness

Some of the elements that the design brief thus specifies are the:

  • trim size (physical dimensions) of the book
  • layout of elements (not least the appearance of chapter starts, the composition of double-page spreads, and the placement of notes)
  • fonts/typefaces and sizes for body text, headings, captions, notes, etc.
  • treatment and placement of illustrations, and
  • use of colour, if any (and, if so, its placement)

At this late stage, it is not unknown for the design brief to highlight problems in the text that have escaped notice throughout the earlier evaluation and editorial phases (the need for a series of explanatory illustrations in a ‘how-to’ book, for instance).

Just how the page design is translated into reality depends very much on who has prepared the brief and how much interest the publisher’s production department has in creation of a unique ‘personality’ for the book (indeed, because of the time pressures book designers work under, the temptation to apply ‘the standard treatment’ to your book will be strong).

Whichever the approach, it is not unusual for a single chapter to be typeset according to the proposed page design, then feedback then requested from the different interested parties (including, with luck, the author). Eventually a design is agreed and typesetting of the book can proceed.

(Post #4 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Design matters

5 January 2010

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

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

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

What should have been a prize-winning study

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

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

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

Enter the queen

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

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

The cover matters

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

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

His explanation for this (bad) behaviour was that:

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

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

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

Sounds like it time that you meet the designers.

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


How many charts and tables in a book?

28 September 2009

An author asks:

About the tables and charts in the book, do you have any rough rule of thumb on how many tables and charts would be sufficient or too much? In the dissertation, I had 8 charts and 14 tables and I am looking to cut those numbers considerably. Also, do you have any general advice on what kind of tables and charts to keep and what to discard?

Many years ago, we published a study of entrepreneurship in Vietnam that included over 200 tables. This was quite a nightmare to typeset and not exactly easy reading. I’d never do this again and doubt that many other publishers would be game to take on such a mammoth task, either.

Mind you, ultimately, it all depends on the field and subject. This was an intense economic analysis, a type of study in which masses of charts and tables are almost expected. In contrast, one would expect a political or historical study to have far fewer charts and tables. As such, ‘merely’ 8 charts and 14 tables may be OK for such a study. The question is, however, is that number OK? Accordingly, ask yourself

  • What is the purpose of this table or that chart?
  • Can its meaning be worked easily enough into the text instead?
  • Is a table really the most effective way of presenting your information, or is a chart/graph a better communication tool?

In line with my ongoing obsession with readability, I would argue that you only include those charts and tables that illuminate the text. In addition, avoid like the plague any charts or tables that are oversized and/or have excessive detail, also those that are only meaningful if reproduced in colour (more about these points in later posts).


How to calculate book length

20 September 2009

In an earlier post I discussed broad issues relating to word count and book length but didn’t actually explain how the length of a book is calculated. Let’s take a quick tour of copy fitting, casting off and related issues here.

Which side of the equation?

When we talk of copy fitting, generally we think of a publisher’s production editor or typesetter looking at fitting the delivered amount of text, tables, illustrations, etc. into a specific number of pages. (This is why, as recounted in my earlier post, so much fuss is made about authors delivering a ms according to what was specified in the author contract.)

However, in your case (especially if you are self-publishing your book or a bit worried about having hassles with your publisher), it may be smarter to look at the equation from the other side – to calculate the likely number of pages resulting from the setting of X thousand words, Y tables, Z illustrations, etc. This is also known as casting off.

More than word count

Obviously, a prime determinant of book size is the word count. No matter how much you adjust the other variables, if the ms is only 50,000 words in length instead of 95,000, then you have a problem if the book was announced as being 288 pages in length but the most it can be stretched to is 160 pages.

However, other variables do enter the equation, among them:

  • page size – academic books tend to follow a 9″ x 6″ (228 x 152 mm) format but the smaller traditional British Demy octavo format is also used a lot.
  • font/typeface – some fonts fill a lot more space than others but obviously here as elsewhere readability and what publishers want are also important considerations.
  • font size – this varies depending on font but usually it is between 10 and 12 points for body text, a bit smaller (sometimes much smaller) for notes.
  • letter spacing (kerning) – you should assume this is set at 100%.
  • word spacing – best to ignore as this is not easily adjusted.
  • line spacing (leading) – usually 1.2 times the font size with any deviation from this needing to be handled with care.
  • amount of normal text vs notes – as the font size for normal text is a bit bigger than for notes, the number of notes can have a significant effect on chapter/book extent.
  • number and size of tables and illustrations – calculate in terms of half and whole pages including captions. (The related issue of oversized tables and illustrations will be discussed in a later post, likewise problems with image resolution.)
  • word length – MS Word only counts the number of words not their length, nor does it care if your language is full of bombast and excess syllables. But, apart from being harder to read (the subject of forthcoming posts on readability and simple English), such ‘flab’ demands much more hyphenation of your text and even then the result will be looser text filling a far greater extent than the word count would imply.
  • chapter breaks – these can fall awkwardly (e.g. just before a new part that must start on a right-hand page) hence why it is more accurate to calculate the length of a book by its constituent parts than in the whole.
  • elements of the book – all of these constituent parts must be considered (e.g. space allocated for an index, something not delivered with the main ms).
  • sections – most books are printed on large sheets of paper folded and cut into 16-page sections. Part of the typesetter’s art is in ensuring that the number of blank pages at the end of the book is as low as possible.

Feel overwhelmed? If you do, then you are not alone. However, the above list is for typesetting nerds not ‘real’ people. For your purposes, many of the above elements can be safely ignored or incorporated into a simple procedure, as you shall see.

Making your estimate

If you have a page-layout program like Adobe InDesign, then it is a simple matter to calculate how many pages your manuscript will fill by creating a dummy book and then tweaking its layout parameters. Otherwise, you can make a pretty accurate calculation of the length of your book by following the steps below.

  1. Create a map of your book, listing all of its elements in your first column. This map can be made on paper but it is relatively easy (and ultimately will save you a lot of time) to put it on a spreadsheet. (I will make available a sample Excel template for free download when I can sort out where to store such a file. Meantime, a screenshot of such a file is at the end of this post.)
  2. On your map, define additional columns that later will hold the following values – in column 2: word count; 3: number of tables and illustrations; 4: calculated extent; 5: adjusted extent; 6: end page number
  3. Determine the average number of words per page. Usually, this is about 400 for a standard academic book but only about 350 if the page size is Demy octavo. Changing the font, font size, leading, etc. will change this number a bit but, for your purposes, it is best to stick to these standard values.
  4. Assign actual extents to those book elements where this is known (e.g. the first 4 pages of the prelims are standard and – depending on if you have a dedication, how detailed are your table of contents, and if you have lists of tables and illustrations – you can also safely guess the next few pages). For the index, you can probably only guess at this stage but here too you need a value. Enter these fixed values in columns 4 and 5.
  5. Count the number of words for your preface, chapters, bibliography, etc., putting their values in column 2. Make sure that you include footnotes and endnotes (if using MS Word, by checking the appropriate box). Normally, it’s enough that you count these notes but obviously a lot of notes will skew your page calculation.
  6. Count the number of tables and illustrations for each chapter (and other element in your book), putting their values in column 3. Although they may be much smaller, the assumption here is that each table or illustration fills an entire page. We’ll adjust for this in step 8.
  7. Calculate the (unadjusted) extent of your preface, chapters, bibliography, etc. To do this, divide the word count by the words per page set in step 3, add a whole page for each table or illustration, then round up to a whole number of pages. Enter these calculated values in column 4.
  8. Assess your calculated extents and put adjusted values in column 5. Reasons for doing this may be that some tables and illustrations are smaller than a whole page in size, there are a lot of endnotes (which will be set in a smaller font size), the chapter is followed by a part divider starting on a right-hand page, and the last page looks to be only a few lines long which could easily be saved in the typesetting.
  9. Calculate a running total by adding the adjusted values, putting the end page number for each element in column 6 (i.e. the end page number for Chapter 4 is calculated by adding its adjusted page value to the end page number for Chapter 3). The final page number (effectively, the book’s grand total) will appear in the bottom row, that for your index.
  10. Calculate the final extent (and number of blank pages at the end of the book). To do so, get the number of sections by dividing the grand total of pages by 16, then round up to a whole number of sections, multiplying these by 16.

Ten steps – it’s a simple as that.

Where now?

Is the likely extent of your book too long? Too short? In most cases, if the variation in length is only about a section (16 pages), then it probably won’t matter. Your publisher’s production editor or typesetter may swear a bit and try to tweak the book design so that all the material does exactly fit the announced book extent. But, if s/he fails, it is more than likely that your publisher won’t even blink at this slight variation.

However, if your book is likely to be significantly over or under its contracted/announced extent, now is the time to start sweating and thinking hard about how to retrieve the situation. Serious chocolates for your editor may be in order, but this may not be enough.

Extent calculation for the book, "Getting Published". (Note that pagination restarts after prelims.)


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.

Editing

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.)

Layout/typesetting

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).

Proofing

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.

Indexing

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.

Cover

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.

Printing

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.

E-Book

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.

Website

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.