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.

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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.)