Books: Burning Questions … and Some Answers and More Questions

Books: Burning Questions was the name of the panel discussion at the Design Exchange in Toronto on August 11, 2011 and the panelists (most from the Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario—see the Books: Burning Questions info from DX) brought their industry insights, concerns, and hopes. What is the future for print books? for e-books? for book publishing in Canada? for graphic designers, publishers, authors, readers, and editors? for the brick-and-mortar bookstore? for online sales?

Although there were more questions than answers, here is some of what I took away plus my elaborations and ramblings—in note form and no special order, but numbered so that anyone wanting to comment can refer to a note by number. In a year or 2 or 4, I hope to look back on this and update with certain answers. (What are the chances all will be clear then?)

  1. Formats have multiplied—to hardcover, paperback, mass-market paperback, coffee table book, and other print variations, add simple text-only e-book, e-book video, e-book with music, e-book with hyperlinks, and much more.
  2. E-books open up new possibilities that will work well for some projects. The question is What is right for the content? for the reader? for the technology as it stands now? for the method of compensation?
  3. The technology and the platform choices have not yet settled.
  4. The business model is not yet clear.
  5. Trade fiction and especially long-form narrative will likely not be well suited to forms that go beyond the print editions and simple text-only e-books. Readers do not (or may not?) want distractions from text.
  6. Of the paper options, it could be that hardcovers will be fazed out for most book types.
  7. Some books will always be better suited to print formats.
  8. Some dual-run books (e-books and print) might offer the e-books for basic prices and print editions at premium prices for a premium design.
  9. Publishers and sellers need to be careful about under-valuing the e-book (the content) because the buyer has already paid for the platform.
  10. Some books might suit only e-book formats.
  11. Some books are well-suited to enhanced e-book formats, to tie-ins, and to hyperlinks.
  12. E-books enhanced with video, music, etc., might become an option for some books. Think choose-your-own-adventure style genre books and videogame-inspired book-like things. However, is this turf that publishers want to wade into? Is this more the turf of documentary makers? (Think 8-track? Think CD roms.) Should publishers ally themselves with multi-media specialists rather than try to be all things in themselves?
  13. Tie-ins could mean having the music that relates to a novel being made available as a CD or MP3/Ipod download. Maybe this means making alliances with music companies and other specialists so that each produces their speciality.
  14. Because e-books now give design variability over to the reader (type size, type font, landscape or portrait orientation), the design for e-books often needs to be minimal—cover and not much more.
  15. Designers must design for buyers’ purchase methods – e.g., if fewer books of a certain sort are being bought in brick-and-mortar bookstores (spines out or face out) but based on online searches, adjust the design focus to the cover and the cover icon (often now the cover made small as a recommended book for what other readers have bought also). Perhaps publishers market by choosing better-searchable titles.
  16. If video clips and trailers are what will sell a certain book online, put energy into those.
  17. We have to be careful to think of the wide range of books and readership. What will work for one type of book (and one specific book title) will not apply to all books. The Books: Burning Questions discussion was primarily about trade fiction and art/photo books, but there are many additional books and book types to be considered.
  18. Some books are well-suited to e-book formats – e.g., some non-fiction books (e.g., Just Kids by Patti Smith?), various educational books (think a textbook on virology), and encyclopedias.
  19. By and large, authors need to focus on the writing. E.g., a novelist shouldn’t feel required to dream up visual links for a novel. However, some books and authors are well-suited to the creation of text/visual/sound creations and a collaborative approach.
  20. The trick will be publishers deciding which format or formats will sell which book projects. I imagine a a publisher who is unafraid to say that one book should be dual e-book and print, another book should be e-book only, another might work as an e-book with tie-ins with a music company, another will be a v-book if it can be shopped out to a specialist production company. When will this expertise develop? When will the format options and business models settle down? Unfortunately, it’s likely to take a while.
  21. Authors and publishers need to examine the business model, who does what, how and where books will be sold, and how those involved will be compensated.
  22. Print-on-demand and online e-book sales open up new possibilities for authors but very, very, very few self-publishing authors will get the easy publication and high sales they imagine.
  23. Print-on-demand and online e-book sales have resulted in a glut of book titles.
  24. Just as books that are traditionally published need editors, so do books that are self-published.
  25. Self-publishing authors need to factor in professional editing, design, and marketing.
  26. As ever, the reader has to choose the books that are high quality and address their needs and wants. The customer will let the industry know.
  27. Designers need to know how to talk with e-book technical specialists about newer formats just as they have known how to talk with traditional printers about print publications. However, a book designer should not need to become the technician.

Again, the above is what I took away from the discussion and my own rambles. The panelist and others in the audience will have their own conclusions and additions to this list. If you’d like to leave a comment about your own take on the discussion, please do. Thanks!

© Laura Edlund 2010