Recombinant publishers

I was reading something somewhere about publishing this weekend and came across a mention of Sonny Mehta, chief of Knopf Doubleday, which completely discombobulated me.

Knopf Doubleday?!

You see, three decades ago, I worked in an extraordinarily good little independent book store, a family-owned enterprise founded in 1924. Owners and even long-time customers had stories about the good old days when major publishing characters like Alfred P. Knopf and Bennett Cerf would visit on their western trips.

When I worked there, we were still occasionally visited by authors of note. My favorites were Ray Bradbury, who simply wandered in one day looking for a copy of The Essays of E.B. White, which had just recently been published, while he was waiting for his train to Chicago, and Tracy Kidder, whose first book, Soul of a New Machine, had just been published to great acclaim, and who stopped in for an informal visit to see if we wanted him to sign his books if we had any on hand, which we did, of course, being the excellent book store we were.

The most famous author who visited while I worked there was probably Ann Landers, who arrived in a limousine early one morning before we opened to sign 250 or 300 copies of her latest book before speaking at the convention center. She was disappointed at the “small” number of books we had for her to sign—”I guarantee you, as soon as I finish my talk, all those ladies are immediately going to walk right over here to buy this book!” (Not quite true, though we did sell several dozen that day.) Ms. Landers was astonishing, because from the moment she arrived in the store until she left a couple hours later to go give her speech, she never stopped talking, about the book, about her talk and her audience, about how our order had been too small. (After we opened, a young man who was buying a book saw her in the back and asked, “Is that who I think it is?” “Yes,” I said. “Which one is it—Abby or Ann?”) I’ve always remembered the trapped look on the face of poor Fred, the Doubleday sales rep who got to accompany her on her whole West Coast tour, when we waved goodbye as he followed her out the door back to her limo.

In the late 70s and early 80s when I was a bookseller, there was already much lamentation over mergers and consolidations leading to the decline of independent publishers. There were the big publishing conglomerates—Random House, Harper & Row, Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, Viking/Penguin—and we judged them not only by their books’ content, but by the physical nature of their books beneath the dust jackets. Some publishers (Knopf, Farrar Straus & Giroux, Little Brown) appeared to assume that their books would be kept and valued in their customers’ personal libraries—the bindings were attractive and sturdy, the paper was dense and smooth, and the volumes were satisfying to hold. Others (McGraw-Hill, , Collins, Doubleday) seemed to think their books were ephemera to be kept only as long as it took to read them—the bindings were sloppy and uneven, and the paper was soft and spongey. Mostly, the quality of the content matched the physical form fairly well.

These days, Levinson’s is long gone, and all those publishing conglomerates have split and recombined so often that they’re barely recognizable from the companies I knew back then. The big publishers I used to know are fewer and bigger—and often foreign-owned, like Viking Putnam and HarperCollins. (My own books are now imprints of Three Rivers Press, which sounds like a friendly little independent publisher but should be more accurately thought of as Three Rivers Press/Crown Books/Random House/Bertelsmann AG, mostly decidedly not a friendly little independent house.)

But Knopf Doubleday still jars my mind. It’s like television from PBS Fox.

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Is there a shortage of book designers?

It’s a lot easier to publish a book than it used to be.

Mostly this is A Good Thing, I think. Despite all the lamentations you can find about how print-on-demand (POD) publishing lets just anybody get themselves into print, there are a lot of tiny niche markets for titles that would never be worth publishing under the traditional model. My own Viral Learning, which I published POD (as well as in epub and Kindle versions), falls into that category—it was something I wanted to write for a very specific audience which was already familiar with my previous books and would not have been economically viable any other way.

But the lamenters have a valid point, too. Consider one of the books I’m currently reading. It’s a niche topic aimed at a very specific audience and was not published through a traditional mainstream publisher. The content is good—a thorough look at its topic—but oh, the design!

It’s the same syndrome I first saw years ago, when my kids were little and I first started finding books about homeschooling. Several homeschooling parents (moms, mostly) self-published accounts of their homeschooling experiences. Like the book I’m reading now, the content was solid. The problem was that the manuscript was a word processor dump.

Long word processor files are good for editing—you can print them out double-spaced and have lots of room to make corrections when you’re proofreading—but they’re not great for the ultimate reader.

Consider this book I’m reading now. It’s a nice trade paperback, about 7 x 9 inches, with a great-looking cover, which perhaps raised my expectations for the interior. Unfortunately, the text margins on all sides are less than a half-inch, which makes tracking the whole line across the page far more difficult than it should be. Not only is the text set too wide, but it’s also in a fully justified sans serif font that adds to the tracking difficulty. Less annoying, but still bothersome, are the chapter subheads, which are set equidistant between the text before and after, instead of being clearly attached to the text they announce.

I’ll still read the book—I’m interested enough in the content to keep at it. But it will be more of a slog than it needed to be, because the people who produced it didn’t know or care enough about how the reader would experience the book to make a few easy tweaks to their manuscript before it was printed.

Please, oh, please, you who might make your own book one day: Hire a designer or read a basic guide to graphic design. (Robin Williams’s The Non-Designer’s Design Book is a good place to start.) Your readers will be grateful, though they may never realize exactly why.

A book is a book is a book . . . ?

It’s not that I don’t think a lot about books and reading as it is. I’ve written in Viral Learning about how I thoroughly I think in print rather than images. I’ve been a nearly compulsive reader since I first learned to read, I’ve worked as a bookseller in an independent bookshop, and I’ve written books. Books are clearly a major part of my life.

But over the past few months, I’ve been thinking even more than usually about the nature of books. In one sense, I’m a romantic about books—I’ve always loved the worlds I can disappear into with a good book.  I like trying to notice—and invariably missing—that moment when the letters on the page transmogrify into the world of the story. More mundanely, I like a good binding, the feel of good paper, and the elegance of  book design and typography.

But I’m also a realist about books—they’re often heavy or awkward to hold, cheap bindings and spongy paper are all too common these days, and I worked enough years in that bookstore to know how dirty books are. They collect grime as fast as you dust them, and even brand-new, freshly printed books are covered in paper lint that collects on everything it touches.

Naturally, I’m interested in the onslaught of e-readers—the Kindle and the Nook and the many other new dedicated reading devices. Honestly, skeptical as I was, I wanted to like them—a good electronic reader would have the same sort of appeal as that magic writing-by-dictation machine I wanted for school essays when I was ten. But to say I’m not impressed would be an understatement—I hate that monochrome digital ink and that disconcerting short pause while each new page loads. The technology itself distracts me from the reading.

Unsurprisingly, I was an ebook Luddite and expected to remain one. Real books are . . . books: bound sheets of paper with real ink.

Then I bought my iPhone.

It would be handy, I thought, to have a few books on my phone for when I travel. When I’m working bout committee at fencing tournaments, it’s not uncommon for me to pack half a dozen books, just to make sure I have something I’ll be in the mood for when I feel like reading on the plane or before falling asleep at night. The Stanza and Kindle apps were free and there were tons of classics in the public domain to download, so why not give it a try, even if it wouldn’t be like reading real books?

Holy cow.

Reading on my iPhone is, in most cases, better than reading a “real” book. It took me a bit of fiddling to discover that to avoid eyestrain, I need to adjust the brightness as the ambient light changes. (In Stanza, you can do this within the app with just a vertical finger swipe, so it barely distracts you from the text.) But I can also choose a nice sepia-on-cream color scheme, ragged right text,  and any of more than a dozen typefaces (on Stanza, anyway) in several sizes.

With that kind of customization and the narrow width of the lines on the page, I can see the type more easily and read more quickly than I can from a paper book. I can hold the phone in one hand without needing to shift the weight around every so often, and I can even read in the dark without bothering anybody else (as long as I turn the brightness way down.)

Books on my iPhone take no space on my shelves or in a suitcase or tote, they remember where I left off reading, they let me make notes as I read, and they even let me share them with a few others. There’s also one benefit that would never  have occurred to me to think of: no paper cuts.

Naturally, there are—and will always be—books that are better on paper. Illustration-heavy works are problematic on a small screen; scrolling around an enlarged image isn’t the best way to see a map or chart or photograph. Design-heavy works where the page layout is important are likewise better on paper.

The vast majority of modern books—those composed of long stretches of text—are well-suited to digital existence, though. It turns out that it’s not the feel of the binding in the hand or the turning of the pages or the smell of the paper that gives a book its bookness—it’s the story.