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An open letter to Trade Publishers

Dear Trade Publisher or Small Press publisher:

Please do not print trade paperback large format books with flat glossy covers anymore.

As a bookseller, I watch what people pick up and put down. I listen to their comments on covers and cover art (and blurbs; those are sometimes funny, and yes, I know full well that the authors don't write them).

One thing that I've noticed happening more and more often in the store when people are browsing and chatting in front of the New Release Trade paperback shelf is that a customer will point at a specific book and say:

"Is this self-published?"


"Wow, there are a lot of self-published books here."

In fact, none of the books at which they're pointing are self-published.

I finally realized this weekend that the reason they're asking is because of the cover stock used on those specific trade paperbacks. If the trade paperback has a flat, glossy cover, they ignore the art, the type and the cover design. If it's flat gloss, with no foil, no embossing, no textures, they are now assuming that the book is self-published; they won't even pick it up.

I have no idea where this assumption comes from because with very few exceptions, we do not shelve or attempt to sell self-published books; we just don't have the space. But the fact is: more people are now asking if books that are entirely traditionally published are self-published because of the cover stock used.

If the cover has terrible art or terrible type, but is printed with a matte finish without any of the other frills (i.e. no embossing, no foil, no textures), they don't ask the question at all. It doesn't matter what the cover looks like in terms of composition.

At this point, due to the wonders of PoD technology, they're assuming that any cover that is glossy stock is self-published.

I'm certain that not all of our customers make this assumption; I know they don't blink twice about glossy stock on mass market paperbacks. But with the trade/large format paperbacks, there is a growing assumption, and I find it troubling.

The British trades are frequently bound with glossy stock. This week, there were two novels by relatively unknown names -- and the new PYR title by Kristine Kathryn Rusch -- which were pointed out, and which were instantly classified as "self-published" (the latter, I've had four people ask about in the last two weeks).

I know, again, that not everyone makes this assumption. But the fact that more and more people are asking me, specifically, about them implies that more people are thinking this way. And if people are thinking it and asking, I can pretty much count on the fact that people are also thinking about it and not asking.

I realize that there are many self-published writers, some of whom will no doubt read this. I understand that there is a prejudice against self-published books. The assumption that the books are somehow inferior or garbage, however right or wrong, exists in my customer base, and as a retail employee I accept the fact.

So... what I'd like, at this point, is that publishers choosing a trade/large format paperback for their releases choose a matte finish cover stock for everything, because the customers who are not even picking the glossy cover-stock books up are making the subconscious association between cover stock and publishing venue now and I'm not about to put small notes on every single book to the effect of "Yes, I know this is printed with glossy stock but No, it is not self-published."

It would help if some of the self-published authors were more open about the fact that they're self-published, but a number "create" small presses which have "published them" in order to avoid the perceived stigma, and because of those cases, it becomes harder for the consumer to differentiate between small press and self-pub. The easiest way of doing this for those consumers, at the moment, is cover-stock.

Thank you for your attention,

Bookseller in December


( 73 comments — Leave a comment )
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Dec. 6th, 2009 09:54 pm (UTC)
Fascinating. Thanks for sharing this observation. I have zero power over publishers (and I'm still in mass market anyway), but it's always interesting to hear this sort of thing from the bookseller perspective.
Dec. 6th, 2009 09:57 pm (UTC)
I have zero power over publishers

Oh, I know -- it's why it's not an open letter to authors *wry g*
A different perspective - ext_218373 - Dec. 11th, 2009 10:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: A different perspective - msagara - Dec. 11th, 2009 10:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 6th, 2009 10:01 pm (UTC)
Hunh. That would never even occur to me (the self-published thing), nor would I care. If a book is interesting to me, it's interesting, no matter who published it.
Dec. 6th, 2009 10:03 pm (UTC)
If a book is interesting to me, it's interesting, no matter who published it.

Many, many people pay no attention to publishers at all, fwiw. And clearly, had it been an obvious problem, it would be something to discuss with sales reps, who are really good at passing that information up the chain.

But because it's happening more frequently -- and in at least one case from a customer who avoids even using the internet for email, let alone information -- it's cause for concern on a retail level.
Dec. 6th, 2009 10:11 pm (UTC)
Goodness, that's interesting. I don't like that format and often don't buy books in it because they don't fit on my shelved very well, but I do see how the link to self-pub would arise. I have no idea if book buyers here think that way -- probably not, as, as you note, a lot of UK publishers do a glossy trade edition before a mass-market.
Dec. 6th, 2009 10:15 pm (UTC)
Although, she added, I have noticed that some AMericans tend to assume that if they haven't heard of a brand (which tends to be the case with most British brands) they assume it's either bad or in some way minor. I've seen this run the whole gamut from universities (a student once explained to me very carefully how we shouldn't expect any US institution to take any UK university apart from three seriously 'because the others aren't any good, are they?' I was astonished (I tend to forget the US thing about 'State' vs Ivy League) another colleague laughed in her face) to chocolate bars ('Oh, it's a fake Hershey bar'). Mind you, we Britons have our own snobberies.
(no subject) - msagara - Dec. 6th, 2009 10:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Dec. 6th, 2009 10:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 6th, 2009 11:11 pm (UTC)
I have to admit - I've bought several PYR books, but there's something about the them that does give a dubious first impression. Maybe it IS the cover stock, though that hadn't registered specifically - just a vague feeling of 'is this a real publisher? is this book going to be schlock?' And that's despite having read and LIKED several books they published.
Dec. 6th, 2009 11:39 pm (UTC)
I've been enormously impressed with the quality of the fiction they've chosen, especially the SF. So it's doubly painful when people make this assumption.

And I'm assuming, as well, that the matte stock is probably more expensive (it certainly retains fingerprints more readily), which is its own difficulty. I just think, given everything else, that it's becoming a necessary investment =/.
(no subject) - touchstone - Dec. 6th, 2009 11:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 6th, 2009 11:15 pm (UTC)
I wonder if it's particular to SF/F readers? (As I recall, you work at a SF/F bookstore.)

I can't think that there are more self-pubbed SF/F books out there than any other type, but maybe there's greater exposure at cons and such. And yes, the trades do tend to have glossy covers.

Maybe it's a case of enough people in the SF/F fandom being burnt by bad self-pubbed titles* (which are often trade paperbacks) and enough of them having glossy covers that you're seeing the start of the inevitable reaction.

(*I know not all self-pubbed titles are bad. But a lot are.)

I think this also shows that readers do notice quality in fiction and do steer away from bad books. (There's the democracy of the marketplace right there.) Sadly, it sounds like a marker being used for "bad book" is now "trade paperback with glossy cover."
Dec. 6th, 2009 11:17 pm (UTC)
I'm one of those customers who would make that assumption about such a book based on cover stock. If I see something with a flat, glossy cover, I think eep, self published, run away!.

And you're right. It's due to the book looking like a PoD book, which I tend to have a large bias against, I admit.

Dec. 6th, 2009 11:41 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this.

As I said, we know it's not self-pubbed, so it's not something at the forefront of our thoughts -- but I really do think it's a bit of an issue, and in particular, an issue for people who are perfectly willing to pay the money for the more expensive format (i.e. instead of choosing a mass market instead).
(no subject) - lianthe - Dec. 7th, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 12:13 am (UTC)
Looks like some readers have experienced the "wave of the future," and they don't like getting all wet.
Dec. 7th, 2009 12:22 am (UTC)
I've actually caught myself making this assumption for certain trade paperbacks, though I didn't realize it was a glossy vs. matte issue. (I think it's glossy plus bad cover art that pings my buttons.) Thanks for the post!
Dec. 7th, 2009 12:43 am (UTC)
It's never occurred to me that a book in a bookstore would be self-published. I've been taking for granted that self-published books are also self-distributed, and therefore the bookstores don't deal in them.
Dec. 7th, 2009 12:57 am (UTC)
Has there been a gradual increase in the number of comments, or did the Harlequin brouhaha have an impact?
Dec. 7th, 2009 01:04 am (UTC)
In my experience with my LJ and the comments it receives, I'd say that comments about some aspect of publishing/bookselling -- or my experiences with either -- are generally higher than those about other things.

Unless I ask a question, in which case people are generally kind enough to answer it :).
(no subject) - mtlawson - Dec. 7th, 2009 02:03 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Dec. 7th, 2009 02:11 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 01:25 am (UTC)
You know, yes. I have this same subconscious association. It occurs to me less in a bookstore and more at work. I work in interlibrary loan, and I'm in charge of receiving borrowed materials. We occasionally purchase items rather than borrow them from a library if there are few lenders available and the price is right. I always look three times at glossy trade paperbacks to make sure they aren't self-published when they're returned from patrons, to see if I really should send them on to cataloguing or not.

How did that become such a knee jerk association so quickly? I so rarely actually encounter POD books, but I instinctively know that's what one looks like.

(Just went over and thumbed around my copy of Jenna Starborn, which is trade paper with a glossy-ish cover, a trade paperback from Britain (Jaine Fenn's Principles of Angels), and a POD from Anthology Builder. The other qualities are paper weight, "flippiness" of the pages, and the crackability of the spine, but they are secondary to the glossy covers. I can tell Jaine's is not POD because it's slightly more flippy and less stiff in the spine than the POD, but not by much, and I would question it if I didn't know. Jenna Starborn I have no questions about, but maybe it's too old/not glossy enough.)
Dec. 7th, 2009 02:05 am (UTC)
May I copy this to the various author's mailing lists that I'm on, and the editors with whom I work? I think they'd find it fascinating.
Dec. 7th, 2009 02:12 am (UTC)
Please feel free to do so; it's an open letter :).

(no subject) - mouseferatu - Dec. 7th, 2009 02:29 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 02:56 am (UTC)
Michelle, by coincidence, this happened to me (as a book customer) only a few hours ago. I was browsing a Clearance section, nearly bypassed a book that I assumed was self-published... and then the title caught my eye. I took a better look and realized it was a novel recommended to me a few months ago by my mom, and published by Poisoned Pen Press, a respected mid-size mystery publisher.

I realized it was the formatting--exactly the formatting you describe--that had made me assume the book was self-published. I also realized that I'd bypassed a number of books in the previous 10 minutes on that same unconscious assumption: the formatting instantly convinced me they were self-published, and I shoved them aside. So I went back and looked. Three of the books I'd bypassed were also Poison Pen Press releases. I don't know about the other two. I didn't recognize the publishers' names... so my suspicion lingered that these might be self-published books DISGUISED as books that someone had acquired, paid for, edited, and published.

Laura Resnick
Dec. 7th, 2009 03:39 am (UTC)

I've had this reaction myself. I play "spot the self-pubbed novel" in the huckster's room at conventions. (I'm head of production for a publishing company, so it really is a fun game for me...)

The POD tech has improved immensely. There are basically two digital techs competing in the POD world, but the in-line color laser printer now prints on 10pt cover stock and it looks nearly as good as offset printing. Even I have to look closely to tell the difference. (At least I can still do it without putting on my glasses.)

Regular publishers are confusing the issue by doing some short-run reprints digitally (POD tech, but ordering copies into the warehouse rather than literally printing on demand). A book may not be moving the 2000 copies/year that justify an offset printing, but if it's selling 1000 or even 500 (or, in the case of a small press, 20 or 30 copies), publishers have become more inclined to use POD tech and capture that long tail without cluttering up their warehouses.

(Note: Rather than clutter up your comment thread further, I've posted a little tech info about matte finishes over on my blog.)

In a glass-is-half-full kind of way, this phenomenon of readers passing over what they think is self-pubbed is not a bad thing. It means that readers actually desire gatekeepers to sort out the chaff before it gets to the bookstore.
Dec. 7th, 2009 03:53 am (UTC)
That's fascinating. I wonder if our customers think the same thing.

Me, I tend to assume crappy computer art means the books are possibly self-published & probably crappy. I wish small presses which put out good stuff would *stop using crappy computer generated art.*

(Most of these books are glossy tpbs, of course.)
Dec. 7th, 2009 04:07 am (UTC)
That's fascinating. I wonder if our customers think the same thing.

I wouldn't have known if people hadn't asked, to be honest. But because they have, I now wonder how many others are or were thinking the same thing =/
(no subject) - anisosynchronic - Dec. 7th, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 05:10 am (UTC)
heh.. my general assumption on flat glossy covers is "Damnit, I missed the first edition of the paperback.." I love matte covers, though. I'm much more likely to pick a book up with a matte cover to read the back, regardless of cover picture. Possibly because I can easily read the title under harsh big name bookstore lighting.

It is an irritating assumption, and sad that it's growing, that glossy=private press. It's even more upsetting that private press=automatic literary fail. :/
Dec. 7th, 2009 09:01 am (UTC)
I didn't have this issue when I worked working in bookstores two years ago. What was an issue (again with TP, but also with HC) was the edging of the books. For a few years they used the ragged edge look a lot, and many of my customers wanted "better quality".

We carried several very small press erotica books I considered PoD due to discounting rates (though they fit the order stats of every other book we carried, so they technically weren't). I had them shelved in their own sections due to explicit content. I honestly never had anyone ask about self published books. I'm curious what has changed so much in the last two years.

I know my personal peeve is bad cover art (CGI, blurry, none), or no blurb at all on the jacket.

Edited at 2009-12-07 09:02 am (UTC)
Dec. 7th, 2009 09:12 am (UTC)
This is a relatively new thing, at least in our store; two years ago, no one asked me either. I'm honestly not sure what's changed to make the awareness or the hesitance more open.
(no subject) - threeringedmoon - Dec. 7th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Dec. 7th, 2009 02:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tobemeagain - Dec. 7th, 2009 07:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kyrielle - Dec. 8th, 2009 03:49 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Dec. 8th, 2009 08:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 04:57 pm (UTC)
This is one of those things when people talk about how low-tech books are I try to dissuade them and point to the opposite. Printed books are very high tech, the interface is highly intuitive (once you learn some basics) which makes them seem low tech. But the viewer is constantly making value judgements on the piece which affects their overall experience of the books (quality of cover/paper/printing/typeface/reading tech/layout/etc). And this is one of those things you lose with eBooks, that wealth of sensory input a printed books brings. Until these small things can be translated into the eBook realm, printed books are highly superior pieces of kit (one of the major ones is knowing where, relatively, in the story the reader is, with a printed book this is easyly estimated by how many pages/heavy the book is in your left hand as compared to your right hand).
Dec. 8th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC)
(one of the major ones is knowing where, relatively, in the story the reader is, with a printed book this is easyly estimated by how many pages/heavy the book is in your left hand as compared to your right hand)

Oh, thank you! I thought I was the only one that mattered to.
(no subject) - errolwi - Dec. 10th, 2009 04:46 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 05:56 pm (UTC)
This is very frustrating as a lover of books. I actually rarely give the cover a glance in a bookstore, as I've already seen it online for months. It's weird to feel this disconnect. I actually feel more drawn to the smaller presses, and so I've had a similar reaction. But those glossy covers are PULLING my eye toward the shelf as I've come to associate those with the high quality of Pyr publications. The heft of a book after I pick it up will trigger that "Is this self published" reaction more than the glossy cover.

I'm far from the average book consumer though. hmm.
Dec. 7th, 2009 08:46 pm (UTC)
Can I ask a question? I don't actually care whether or not you're the average book consumer. But what I think you're saying is that you distrust the larger publishers, so you're drawn to the gloss stock because it's emblematic of small or indie publishers?
(no subject) - mentatjack - Dec. 7th, 2009 11:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - alleypat - Dec. 7th, 2009 07:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC)
What bothers me about this is that you're asking professional publishers to limit their options.

Doesn't this mean that the terrorists, err, self-publishers have won?

The "tells" I generally see to distinguish self-published from professional books aren't the glossiness of the cover stock. Poor cover art, and clunky typography and layout are a much greater factor. They're not always "bad", but they're almost always "off".

Those tells aren't always restricted to self-publishers. Some of Baen's books make me cringe, and before them, Meisha Merlin's covers.

If you have a self-publisher with a good eye, you can come up with a cover that looks as good as a professional cover. Will Shetterly just put out MIDNIGHT GIRL on Lulu.com, and I think the cover could stand up against most professional YA covers.

-- Bruce Arthurs
Dec. 7th, 2009 08:35 pm (UTC)
What bothers me about this is that you're asking professional publishers to limit their options

Professional publishers will not, of course, limit their options. But yes, it occurs to me, I am asking them to do exactly that. A cover is meant to be something that draws the eye; imnsho it's the most important advertising most books will get.

But if some element of your package is causing a subset of people to avoid even picking the book up, then that's something that should be factored in to the choices made when considering a book's overall production.

I don't think of this as a case of terrorists/self-publishers winning, per se, since it seems to me that people are now more aware and more adverse to things that remind them of self-published books.

Oh! Better way of putting it: you don't put crappy type-faces in different sizes all over a cover because it looks unprofessional. The design esthetic is part of the way in which people instinctively 'judge' an overall book. if, as I suspect from what I've been asked by people who definitely buy a lot of SF/F, people are now equating a certain cover stock with 'unprofessional', then it should be a factor in the choice the publisher makes.
(no subject) - zingerella - Dec. 7th, 2009 10:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - estara - Dec. 7th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Dec. 8th, 2009 12:23 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - estara - Dec. 8th, 2009 12:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - burger_eater - Dec. 7th, 2009 11:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Dec. 8th, 2009 08:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
Baen etc - jjmcgaffey - Aug. 2nd, 2010 06:20 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 07:42 pm (UTC)
That is... a really bizarre trend. Makes no sense whatsoever to me. I wonder where it came from?
Dec. 7th, 2009 08:08 pm (UTC)
Hm. I haven't read any of the responses to this post, but I must say, I am looking right at a copy of Rusch's Diving into the Wreck and feel that whoever thought that it looked like it was self-published must be on crack. Seriously.

Full disclosure is that I work for the parent company of Pyr, Prometheus Books, but even if I didn't I'd wonder what the heck those people were talking about. All the Pyr books look fantastic, if you ask me. *shrugs*

That said, it is too bad that self-publishing has such a stigma attached to it. I would think with the right people behind it, even a self-published book could be made to look very professional. (I know most aren't, but still...)
(no subject) - msagara - Dec. 7th, 2009 08:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - radiosilents - Dec. 8th, 2009 01:42 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Dec. 8th, 2009 03:05 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2009 09:02 pm (UTC)
An open letter to Trade Publishers
Two thoughts:

One big sign at the front of the store saying "We Do Not Sell Self Published Books" (or similar wording if this isn't OK for some reason) would seem to help dispell the erroneous assumption.

Self publishers will no doubt use the info from your blog posting, now, to be sure to vary the matt, texture, etc. of their covers. C'est la guerre.

Dec. 7th, 2009 09:56 pm (UTC)
Thank you
This feedback and discussion appreciated - Lou Anders
Dec. 7th, 2009 11:37 pm (UTC)
I tend to agree
I haven't had time to read all the comments but would like to second your sentiments, msagara. I'm not sure where the prejudice come from, but to tell the truth, I find myself doing the same thing.

This being said as a professional retail bookseller, and one who follows enough of the industry to know better. I don't like it, I don't try to do it, but I often do.

I will follow a particular publisher's output because I know they generally publish what I like. But I also know I have the tendency to not even pick a book up from an unfamiliar publisher/author because of that trade glossy cover. I don't think it's intentional, but it's there.

I will even avoid buying such a book that looks like it might be worthwhile because in my mind: glossy cover = poorly manufactured. I'd prefer hardcovers any day, but would buy matte finished trades, over glossy trades, over mass-markets every single time. Again, even if I know better.

I think we are all creatures of the marketing departments to some extent. Just my two cents.
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