Book designer and self-publishing guru Joel Friedlander talks with Wetmachine about the future of publishing

As part of our continuing series of interviews with movers & shakers in the rapidly changing world of publishing, Wetmachine today talks with Joel Friedlander, proprietor of Marin Bookworks and creator & curator of the fantastically helpful and interesting site The Book Designer. Joel’s a long-time self-publisher and consultant to other self-publishers. He knows a lot and he’s funny and helpful. See my questions and his answers below the fold.

Joel joins Jane Friedman, head honcho emeritus of Writer’s Digest, and Mark Coker, creator of epub publishing powerhouse in Wetmachine’s “Whither Publishing” interview series.

Q: It’s become a tradition around here that I start off interviews of publishing luminaries with “Dirk’s Question”, named for my friend the novelist Dirk vN, who always says: “Ask him what the fuck is going on.”† Can you summarize the trends you see in publishing?

Unfortunately, no. Rather than trends I see reactions to pressures of various kinds. Technological pressures, financial pressures, demographic pressures. Advances in printing technology and advances in wireless reading platforms have had huge impacts on publishing. The recession is exerting pressure on producers and consumers alike. At the same time other people are making massive profits in the same province of books, educational content and entertainment. When change is this dramatic it’s hard to see trends in the events that continue to unfold around us.

Q: Your website is called The Book Designer and yet you blog about electronic publishing, in which authors/publishers have less and less to say about the design of their books, because the target delivery device is not defined.† A cell phone is not the same thing as a large computer screen or a kindle, any yet your ebook may end up on any of them. What does it mean to “design” a book these days, when the concept of “book” is so fluid and the variety of reading devices so great?

As I write this, printed book still far outnumber ebooks, and books that are published only in e-formats are rare. Most ebooks start off as print books, so book designers are still busy.

Ebooks are growing and everyone knows that the move to electronic delivery of text is unstoppable. Economic pressures are also pushing this transition

The problems that designers face with ebooks are primarily a result of the primitive nature of the tools available to us to create the files that will be read on these devices. I’m mostly a print guy, and have no particular expertise in EPUB or other ebook formats, but it’s obvious that better software standards and better interpreters on the hardware end will make a huge difference about how we can design these books.

Even now there’s a big difference between ebooks that are produced without much thought, or through automated processing engines, and ebooks that are crafted by knowledgeable and attentive designers. Just look at Elizabeth Castro’s EPUB Straight to the Point for a well-designed ebook built for EPUB format.† The best of the translations from print to ebook display their origin in print typography while still being flowable and readable on various screen sizes. The EPUB version that Joshua Tallent created for my client Lisa Alpine is a good example, where the artwork used in chapter openings was carefully preserved and really does a good job of translating the print design into electronic form.

So the short answer to your question, John, is that while we have entered a dark age for design on ebook formats, it looks like there’s a light up ahead.

Q: To elaborate on the point above, not only are platforms varied, but they are limited — the kindle is black and white, and doesn’t even offer a sans-serif typeface. Should one design one’s books to this least common denominator? (see below for some two case studies.)

No, I think you should design your books so that they communicate what you have to say in the best possible way. That’s the basic problem of design. After you’ve reached that stage you should look around at the hardware platforms available and pick the ones that will adequately convey your work—both the content and the container designed for it—while doing it the least amount of violence.

What this means is that publishers have to become discriminating about how they “repurpose” their content. If what you’ve created will not translate into the Kindle platform, for instance, I would skip Kindle for that product. You might want to create a text-only version of your product, or a text-only introduction to a longer and more complex work, and then offer that on Kindle.

If you have a book of beautiful color photography, or a book about how to match your clothing to your personal style, or any book in which color is intrinsic to the message, then why publish that on Kindle? You can publish it beautifully for the iPad in PDF or EPUB formats and have a great translation from page to screen.

The ease of manipulating text also means that hybrid products can be created as ancillaries to a main product, or as extensions. For instance a history of medieval Europe would be as readable as any other book on a Kindle, and could contain links to another part of the product viewable on the web or downloadable to another platform like iPad for viewing color photos of art from the period. Lots of new ways to purpose, distribute, and link content together are out there, just waiting for someone to show how to make it commercially feasible.

Q: Recently sales of my books in ebook format have outnumbered paper sales by about 50/1. How widespread is this trend? Is this an outlier data point, or are other writers seeing similar ratios? Are ebooks really finally taking off to the point that paper books are irrelevant?

I have only anecdotal evidence, but I’ve heard similar things from other novelists. It seems that fiction has the edge here, and readers of genre fiction appear to be the most avid consumers of ebooks aimed at a mass market.

But as far as I know, the vast majority of books being sold are still print books, not ebooks. Although the share of market commanded by ebooks is rising sharply, from the 2009 total of about 4% of all books sold, there’s a long way to go before ebooks overtake print books.

Q: I’ve been the publisher of my novels for eleven years, with some measure of success. It’s hard to see why one would need a publisher if one is mostly doing ebooks. And yet I just signed a deal with Underland Press, giving them the rights to my novel Acts of the Apostles –which I decided to do mainly so they can get my (printed on paper) book into bookstores. Part of the deal is that I give them a big chunk of ebook royalties. Am I nuts?

Yes, John, you’re nuts. Or maybe just under the spell of that hoary old image of browsers in the bookstore, happily coming upon your books and rushing to the counter to buy them and take them home for their very own.

It’s a powerful image, and one that a lot of self-publishers work hard to shake. I think it’s more difficult for self-publishers to make a profit from bookstores sales now, than when I self-published in the late 1980s. Then there was a robust community of independent bookstores and you could, with the right book and marketing, bootstrap yourself into national distribution. My book was carried by specialty bookstores all over the country, and when I had published several books I was able to get a proper distributor to improve our reach.

But where are those stores today? Sadly, most of them are gone and book retailing has become much more concentrated, dominated by the superstores and discounters. So what’s the point now of trying to push books into bookstores? Most self-publishers have no idea what the problems of this approach are, how much time can be eaten up even if you’re successful in shipping STOP orders, chasing paperwork for Baker and Taylor, chasing retailers to pay minuscule invoices that they’ve pushed to the bottom of the pile, and trying to cover the “float” time between selling the books and actually getting paid for them.

For the vast majority of self-publishers this will be a waste of time and energy and there’s a good chance they will end up burned out and operating at a loss. This is particularly true for people using digital printing, where the unit costs, which are fine for online sales, are a disaster when you have to account for the entire distribution chain with distributors, wholesalers, retailers each getting their necessary profit. It’s one of the reasons there are some book projects that are simply impossible to produce at a profit.

But seriously, John, for you it might be a good move after 11 years of doing it yourself. If you don’t try it, you won’t know. And by now you may well have a big enough audience to make it work. There’s nothing worse in publishing, in my mind, than going to all the expense and trouble and actually getting the book out there and then having them all come back a few months later with a big fat return charge against your account.

Q: Is there any kind of self-published book that does better than others? Does nonfiction do better than fiction? Self-help do better than memoir? Or is it random? How much of a book’s success in the marketplace comes from the book itself, and how much from the marketing skill of the author/publisher? (Or luck, or other factors?)

Great question. It’s almost a truism that nonfiction works much better for self-publishers. A nonfiction author is, in a sense, an information marketer, and for people who are experts in their field, who know the people with influence in their niche and the ways to reach likely buyers, it can be extremely profitable to self-publish.

Of course there are lots of books that don’t lend themselves to self-publishing, like the little gift book I mentioned above. But books like† What to Expect When You’re Expecting for instance, which have a huge national market, would be virtually impossible to self-publish to the same effect since self-publishers simply can’t get either the media coverage to spur sales nationally, or the distribution necessary to complete the sales cycle.

Self-help is another natural for self-publishers. Memoirs can be very difficult to sell unless you’re a celebrity or a hot news item, in which case you probably won’t be self-publishing anyway.

The easiest kind of book to self-publish is the how-to. Here you’ve got a great match between the potential buyer and what the author has to sell. Not only that, marketing these books online gets more efficient all the time. The ability to research keywords, or terms that people are using to search for the solution to a problem they have, allows self-publishers to become expert marketers within their niche.

As far as success in the marketplace is concerned, I think you need quality content, positioned properly within its genre or niche, and an author who can publicize herself. Everything needs to fall into place. You don’t have to hire a cover designer for $3,000 for every book you publish. But you ought to be aware what other people in your field are doing, what their books look like, how much they sell for, and how they are publicizing them. In some cases the famous $35 ebook cover that Mark Coker is always going on about is perfect for the job. In other cases it might kill your book for potential buyers.

Q: Gaze into your crystal ball. Five years from now, what percent of books sold on Amazon will be self-published? And what percent of paper books sold in bookstores (if there are any bookstores left) will be self-published?

I have to polish the darn thing first, John. Oh, here we go: In 2015 I see that Amazon will have about 60% of its books self-published. Of these, only 6% will sell more than 3 copies. And bookstores? Gee, I’m not seeing any here, John. All I can make out is a massive Target store, with their new program for 2015: One self-published title in each store.

Q: Case study #1 : my book Cheap Complex Devices. This is a book full of typographic and design jokes. For example, because the book may have been written by a self-aware computer with a buggy floating-point processor, none of the page numbers are integers. But ebooks don’t have page numbers, so that joke goes out the window. There’s a place where the book “resets” itself with a “full bleed” image of binary gibberish — a “core dump”. But “full bleed” is another concept that doesn’t migrate well to ebooks. And there are all kinds other typographical jokes. How would you have advised me to port this book to ebook format? (Mark Coker of Smashwords said that I should “trust the words” and not get all hung up on design. I expect your answer will be different?)

You can easily make Cheap Complex Devices into an ebook without a problem. Use Adobe’s PDF format and your book will look better than it does in print, bleeds and typographic jokes intact. This is what I mean by matching the platform to the book.

[Ed: The PDF version of Cheap Complex Devices has been available for years; I’ve recently ported it to kindle. It’s not quite as cool as the PDF version, but everybody who buys a copy of the kindle version gets a free PDF if they want it — jrs]

Q:† Case study #2 : my book The Pains. The paper version of this book is printed on high quality glossy stock and has 12 full-color illustrations. It’s the story of a disintegrating man in a disintegrating world, and so the typeface I used is a “distressed” type that is a bit hard to read, but it suggests that the book itself is disintegrating. How would you have advised me to port this book to ebook format?

I would have strongly advised you to not print the book on “high quality coated stock” because you’ve created a “low quality reading experience” since 99% of the book is text. You’ve made the text pay a huge price to accommodate the color illustrations. I would have looked for a different solution from the beginning of the process to create a book with text that’s a pleasure to read, illustrations that look great, a book that’s enjoyable to interact with physically, and would have saved a ton of money besides.

But that’s not what you asked, is it? In this case I would agree with Mark Coker. Forget the distressed typeface, all you’re doing is making a point at the expense of your readers. I don’t advocate that. I would embed the “disintegration” theme in the actual work itself, and use a standard type treatment. I might have added a graphic element to the pages to try to communicate the theme visually, but save the distressed type for headings. [Ed: Now he tells me! –jrs]

Q: Please take a moment to advertise your services. You have a consultancy that specializes in helping self-published authors achieve success. Give us an idea of some of the kinds of things you do. Any particular success stories you’d like to brag about?

I love working with authors and bringing their books into existence, satisfying what is for some a lifelong aspiration to publish a book. I still get a thrill from the first copies of a book I’ve worked on, and that’s one of the reasons I’m still designing books.

In the future I’ll be concentrating more on reaching out to a wider audience. I recently wrote an article presenting the idea that we’re entering a “golden age” for self-publishing. I want to be part of that in helping people understand how it all works, helping them take the steps that will create a successful publication, and generally in following the upheaval, new technologies, new business practices and new opportunities that are opening up for self-publishers on an almost daily basis.

Also, I really enjoy interacting with readers on my blog. I’ve offered to attempt to answer any questions left in the comments, and I’ve been really gratified by the community of people who read I would encourage people to sign up for the† blog subscription to make sure they don’t miss any posts. There are so many new things happening in publishing, and so many new ways to profit from them that it’s going to be exciting to explore them together.

Thanks for a great series of questions, John, and for taking the time to make this interview possible.

Joel Friedlander is a self-published author and a book designer. He blogs about book design, self-publishing and the indie publishing life at† Joel is also the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, where he helps authors who decide to publish get to market on time and on budget with books that are both properly constructed and beautiful to read.

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