In November, I spent three days at the Miami Book Fair in a booth talking to writers and would-be writers about publishing. For my efforts, I sold about twenty books; not really worth the effort in terms of time vs. money, but certainly a worthwhile experience from the standpoint of talking to writers and hearing what their interests and goals are. One thing impressed me over everything; put hundreds of thousands of paperbacks in one place and it all blends together into a gigantic literary flea market.
There was a single glimmer of shining hope that floated over the cacophony of the exploded confetti factory —McSweeney’s. Started by author Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s offers a variety of whimsical offerings. Beyond great writing, they offer great book design ranging from classic to innovative to absurd; unusual binding, interesting boxes, experimental typography, design work that implies the contents is worth reading. Hold that thought.
As a designer, it got me thinking a great deal about the relationship between the cover and the writing—and I don’t mean what’s on the cover. I mean the whole package from the binding to the artwork.
Consider the paperback book as a packaging form. It certainly offers a number of advantages. It’s cheap to print in volume, lighter to ship, consumes fewer resources (printing is a high-pollution industry) and ultimately gets the writing to the reader cheaper. For self-publishers, printing paperback books and bypassing hard cover editions means less up-front investment. Also, we see big publishers shipping countless paperback books to bookstores, and we want to be just like them, don’t we?
I’m not so sure. Trade publishers start with a hard cover editions because they’ve hand-picked the author and the book, and can predict (usually) with some certainty a certain level of reader interest from people who want the book on the day of its release, and who are part of a fan-base that wants and is willing to pay for a deluxe first edition. Self-publishers generally don’t have this fan-base so they go straight to soft-cover books, but in doing so, are challenged that much more to differentiate their work from the pool of poorly written, designed and edited books that have stigmatized self-publishing.
For nonfiction books, paperback binding is often ideal. Nonfiction provides solutions to specific readers with specific needs. It’s a practical product, easy to cost-justify, and there’s little to be gained by making it fancy beyond whatever competitive advantage the design might make to a reader evaluating the books side-by-side in a bookstore (a decreasingly likely scenario). Nonfiction readers know it’s what’s inside that counts.
Fiction writers have a different set of marketing problems. We’re selling stories. Stories are valuable and important. At our core, what are we but the sum of our stories; our experiences, our thoughts, our imaginings? Ultimately, if someone or something is interesting, it’s because there’s an engaging story involved. But let’s face it; there are a whole lot of great people with great stories out there. When we perfect-bind (soft cover) those stories and add them to the enormous heap of existing books, how can we keep from blending into the landscape?
As I get ready to release Waves, my second novel, I’ve already received a printer’s proof of the 5×8 paperback version, but I won’t release it. I now have a hardback version I completely re-typeset and redesigned in 6×9 format. I researched great typefaces to use with the book, and used some wonderful old book-alchemist’s formulas for determining the margins. It feels better. It reads better. I spent a lot of time producing the original version, and it’s as good as the trade books you’ll find in a bookstore as far as production quality goes, but none of those books comes close to the great book designs of the pre-digital era.
High-quality books can be produced at low cost. Cloth binding and foil stamping and creme paper are available from Lightning Source as a print-on-demand product for a few extra dollars a book. Because the majority of my sales are direct, I’m hoping the whole package from cover design to binding to typesetting will create higher expectations about the quality of the writing inside. It’s more than just another book; it’s a piece of art. I can’t do some of the fancy things I’d love to do with metallic inks and embossing yet, but I suspect it’s only a matter of time. For now, I’ll content myself with seeing just how far I can push POD technology in its current form.
Certainly, this effort won’t eliminate the need for other forms of marketing. There’s still the matter of getting the book in front of people, but I’ve been able to keep the price at $20.00, and I have packaging that honors the writing in a way contemporary book design seldom does.