A Defense of Traditional Publishing: Part Four


Napoleon Bonaparte, is supposed to have said, “Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours,” translated “A good sketch is better than a long speech.” That has morphed into the modern phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words,” which is a fundamental truth when talking of book design.

Another cliché states, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but we do it all the time. We are a visual people and our eyes are drawn to images that capture our imagination. In my opinion, the title and the cover vie for preeminence as the most important part of the presentation of a book to a potential reader.

I wish every author could attend a cover discussion meeting at a major publishing house. In that meeting the art director displays all the cover samples created by a designer in a room full of people (editorial, sales, marketing, and management) and opens it up for discussion. There can be as many as twelve very different designs from which to choose. Often one cover immediately jumps to the front. But there are occasions where the typeface is good on one jacket but the colors are better on another. The art director takes copious notes and has the designer work through it again.

After a final “winner” is chosen the cover is supposed to be shown to the author and the agent (sometimes we get two or three “winners” from which to choose). Then that cover is made part of the sales conference presentation and those sales reps then start showing it to key dealers and buyers around the country. There are many times where the feedback from the key accounts causes the cover to be completely redesigned before it is shipped. This is why you will occasionally see a cover on Amazon.com for pre-order and then the actual jacket is different when released.

Design and packaging is one the major strengths of the traditional publishing process. Thousands of dollars are spent on getting top level designers (some are designed in-house and others are outsourced to the tune of $3,000 to $5,000). And the rigorous vetting of that design within the company and with key accounts is nearly irreplaceable.

At the hope of embarrassment, I believe that Paul Higdon, the Creative Director at Bethany House Publishers, is one of the finest cover design coordinators in the industry. The covers for Bethany House fiction have been industry leaders for a long time. If you want to see him at work, read this interview with Paul and see a cover design being created. It is worth the time to read.

Those who want to forego the traditional publishing route need to remember one thing, don’t let your own personal taste be the final vote. What you think is gorgeous may make another person heave. (A simple walk down the mall observing fashion choices is a case in point.) This is not the place to bargain hunt or be shallow with a comment like “I just don’t like the color pink.”

Even if the book is only going to be purchased online, the consumer will still be attracted by a great cover. But online the cover is the size of a postage stamp which creates an enormous design challenge.

In addition to the cover design, the entire package of the book is critical. Everything from back cover copy to author photo to the interior font to the trim size to the design of the spine to the type of paper on which the book is printed. Admittedly this is becoming homogenized by ebook technology where the reader chooses the font type and size…and the page size disappears. But for now over 80% of all books sold are bound and in physical form, not digital.

Ever wonder why some books are thick and others thin, but have the same page count? That is due to ppi (page per inch). Paper stock can come in a massive variety of weight and thickness and texture. If the spine of a book is designed to fit a width of 0.87 inches (based on standard ppi) but the production manager chooses a thicker paper, the spine art will not fit properly. You’ve probably seen examples of this sloppy work,  but it is rare to find among professional designers and publishers. They work very hard on those details. At Bethany House we once chose a very low ppi for a book so that it would feel very thick despite the fact it was barely over 200 pages long. Along with a hardcover package and a great slip cover jacket, the book “felt” like it was worth more money and the publisher was able to price it accordingly. It was a highly successful project and spawned four other similar titles.

When thinking of the issue of design and packaging, two watershed examples of came to mind. First was in 1989 with the release of The Beginner’s Bible by a little company called Questar Publishers. I was working in the bookstore at the time and still remember the gasp when I opened the box and picked up that book for the first time. I exclaimed, “We didn’t order enough of these!” Immediately went to the phone and ordered another 100 copies. The trim size, interior design, the artwork, the price point, everything worked. The packaging was absolutely perfect. It quickly became the bestselling children’s book in the Christian market and is considered a “classic” today. (Trivia moment: Questar Publishers later became Multnomah Publishers. But then somehow lost the publication rights to The Beginner’s Bible which is why it is now published by Zondervan. Multnomah was sold to Waterbrook in 2006.)

The other example was Jesus Freaks: Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus by dc Talk and the Voice of the Martyrs. Originally published by Albury Press (in 1999) it went on to sell over one million copies. (click through the above link and take a tour via the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon.com) Never before had there been a paperback book with a combination of a die-cut hole in the cover, a complete inside fold-out cover flap, and deckled edges (click for a definition). Each page was designed and did not use a cookie-cutter look with black ink on white paper. It was both ground-breaking and breath-taking. And incredibly expensive to print. Of course much of its success was due to the incredible popularity of dc Talk as the #1 singing group in the industry, but the book itself had an enormous “cool factor” that made reading about martyrs something everyone wanted to do. (Trivia moment: Albury Press was sold, including the Jesus Freaks book, to Bethany House in January 2002. Thus I was able to be the project manager and editor of the sequel by dc Talk called Jesus Freaks II: Revolutionaries which came out in October of that year.)

In both of these examples it was the physical product that helped created the buzz about the book. Of course the content was great, but its packaging took its popularity to another level. This kind of innovation is happening all the time in the traditional publishing world. Some really smart people are pouring their creativity into each project to give a book its best opportunity to capture a consumer’s attention.

Below is a quick two minute time-lapse video of a book cover being designed. Enjoy!

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: Curation

Part Three: Editorial

Part Four: Design

Part Five: Infrastructure



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A Defense of Traditional Publishing: Part Three


I need to clarify what I’m attempting to do with this series of posts. I am not digging deeper trenches and pouring the dirt over a head that is already buried in the sand. Some think I’m defending a dying industry and failing to see the changes around it. This series is merely an attempt to remind us what traditional publishers do well. Their critics are jettisoning all of traditional publishing as antiquated. But I posit that there is good to be found in the things that brought publishing to this place.

Today’s topic is Content Development – or more simply, “Editorial.”

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A Defense of Traditional Publishing: Part One



There has been a plethora of new developments in the publishing industry causing the blogosphere, writers groups, and print media to light up with opinions, reflections, and advice. Some of it has been quite brilliant, other parts, not so much.

I would like to attempt to address the positive elements of traditional (or legacy) publishing as a defense of the latest round of assault.

The source of the overall criticism can be found in the e-book revolution and the invention of print-on-demand (POD) printing. Book Publishing used to be a difficult and expensive proposition but has become a valid do-it-yourself option. Consequently anyone can publish a book, so why be beholden to the major publishers?

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God Gave Me This Blog Post

God gave me this blog post.

By invoking divine inspiration I have guaranteed that you will read this post and possibly give me money to read more.

Sound like a stretch? Then what if I just wrote or said:
“God spoke to me”
“I was led to write this”
“God revealed this to me”
“I have been called to write this”
“I believe this is an inspired post”

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Book Trailers: Vital or Wasteful?

Book trailers, if done well, can be a cool component to the marketing of your project. If done poorly or if done cheaply they do very little to impress a potential reader.

Most authors love to see their work done this way. In some ways if feels like the story has made it to the “big screen.”

But does it sell books? When was the last time you clicked and then bought because of the trailer?

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Count Your Many Phrases

We all have our pet phrases and they can inadvertently sneak their way into our manuscripts. Yesterday I came across a marvelous web site that can help you discover how often your repeat a particular phrase in your article or manuscript.

Using the Phrase Frequency Counter online, you can actually track what phrases you overuse. It is also a great way to pick out those clichés that can creep into your writing.

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New and Improved

After more than a month of work we are excited to announce the launch of our new and improved web site!

Please take a look around and tell us what you think…and if you find any bothersome glitches. Feel free to leave your comments.

Kuddos to Thomas Umstattd and his team at Authormedia.com for their work. They bent over backwards and put up with my obsession over the most minute of details (my ears were burning, so I know they were talking about it…). I know just enough about web design and typesetting, not to be dangerous, but to be annoying.

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Oxymorons can be fun. Two words that can have contradictory meaning are put together to create a new phrase. Or it can be expanded to mean two separate thoughts or ideas that are in direct conflict with each other but when combined create something new.

For example, if you’ve ever worked in a cubicle you can see the humor in the description “office space.”

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What to do about Morals?

In a post written last weekend Richard Curtis, agent extraordinaire, expressed surprise at a new morality clause that has apparently appeared in HarperCollins’ contracts. Read his post here [warning: there is some Adult content and comments included in the post].

What the general market doesn’t realize is that many Faith-based publishers have had a “moral turpitude” clause in their contracts for a long time. Moral turpitude is well defined in this post on Wikipedia. It is understood in the legal community as actions or activities that can get you fired from your job, deported if you are a foreigner in this country on a Visa, or have your contract cancelled if you are an author.

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