Archives for the month of: September, 2011

I had never thought this needed saying, but of course as time passes certain obvious things get forgotten — or more accurately not known because they predate your working life.

Restricting ourselves to the twentieth century, in the beginning books were published in hardback with jackets. In the thirties the serious paperback was “invented” by Alan Lane when he founded Penguin Books. In the academic market, books were published in hardback (almost always with a jacket) into the seventies and later. I believe that CUP’s initial batch of paperback reprints in 1965 or 1966 was their first publication of serious paperbacks. The pattern became that university press books would be published in hardback (with a jacket) and after a few years, at least two, might be reprinted as paperbacks. At some point, someone came up with the bright idea that we might publish simultaneously in hardback and in paperback: the hardback (with a jacket) being intended for the library market and the paperback for individual sale. Now in those days, lots of libraries were still buying lots of books, and you might be printing 1000 or even 1500 hardbacks and 2 or 3 thousand paperbacks. Gradually however libraries filled up and the quantity of hardbacks you could print fell off. This meant that it became harder and harder to afford to print the jacket, and eventually it was dropped. As a compromise publishers came up with the idea of dressing up the plain, unjacketed hardback with foil stamping on the front cover — usually the author’s name and the title of the book. Incidentally, this was actually the way schoolbooks tended to be presented in my youth. I can’t remember exactly when this change to stamping the front cover took place but I would guess it was in the eighties. So this has been the pattern for two or three decades: hardback without jacket but stamped on front and spine, and simultaneous paperback with of course a cover design.

The market has now evolved to a point where we are printing so few hardbacks that it has become uneconomical to do even the minimum of embellishment. Now we move to printing the paperback as before, and simultaneously setting up the hardback for print-on-demand right from the get-go. This has raised the question of what the hardback cover should look like. With print-on-demand you cannot stamp on the front cover; you cannot use a die which you have designed; you have to use a generic stamping wheel which stamps the title of the book one character at a time onto the spine. (When you are making one book at a time, there is obviously no way you can afford a stamping makeready.) There is a limit to the number of characters you can use, and nobody likes the look. So print-on-demand hardbacks tend to get a preprinted case — this doesn’t cost any more that the wheel-stamped unjacketed book would, so why wouldn’t you use it? According to colleagues, you wouldn’t use a preprinted case featuring the same design as the paperback because that is not what the market has traditionally required; you have to make the hardback look different, and duller.  As none of these people was working in academic publishing in the eighties, all they know is the compromise solution which we worked out then, so they think that’s how it has always been! But the tradition of the early  and mid century was the jacketed hardback, and the print-on-demand book carrying the same cover as the paperback actually looks a lot more like that.

We can’t know what happened before we ourselves were around, and, conscious of this, I apologize in advance for any misinterpretations of pre-1965 book publishing reality (and of course post-1965 too).

Sooner or later you will be asked this question if you work in book publishing.

It is possible to get a book published without an agent, but if your friend has written a blockbuster trade book (or any kind of trade book) having an agent will be a good idea. Although it’s not 100% true, it can be said that trade book editors talk to agents rather than aspiring authors.  Academic editors will almost always deal directly with the author, an academic. It’s probably best to assume your friend’s book falls into the blockbuster trade category and not get into a discussion about how narrow you may actually suspect their topic is. Tell them how to find an agent, and leave it to the agent to apply the discouragement — if that’s what ultimately in required. Of course you might reflect that you are probably not the best person to judge just what topic will or will not make for a great trade book (unless, that is, you are actually employed as a trade editor).

You can tell your friend to go to a bookstore and take a look at books similar to the one they have written. Look at the Acknowledgements or the Preface — authors will often give acknowledgement to their agent, especially if that agent has provided help “above and beyond”. If someone your friend admires likes this agent, your friend will probably like the agent too. And the existence of the book in itself demonstrates that the agent is interested in that sort of book. When writing an enquiry to an agent the aspiring author should not send a copy of the manuscript. At the most they might enclose an outline of the book. The letter of enquiry must include a sentence or two pointing out why the book needs to be published — the “hook”. However, most agents will give some direction on their website as to just what they’d like to see in a submission.

The Association of Authors’ Representatives maintains a website which has a search function, and provides lots of information about the process in general. (Click on the yellow link to go there.) AgentQuery has a “Quick Agent Search” which allows you to narrow down the search by type of book, and will say whether an agent is currently looking for new clients or not. If your friend is the sort who doesn’t think they’ve done enough if they haven’t been to the library and dug though huge reference books, direct them to the Literary Market Place, which lists lots of agents.

The experience of being rejected by an agent can be every bit as traumatic as being rejected by a publisher.  Just remember that agents don’t have endless capacity, and that their rejection of your book (or your friend’s) doesn’t mean it’s no good: just move on to the next name on the list and try again.