Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Book Quality

I was having lunch with an old friend of mine yesterday, and the conversation turned to writing, editing and publishing. This was hardly surprising, since she's a professor of English at a nearby university, and I'm returning to contract teaching after a long stint as a book editor and designer. (I'm not quitting; in my life jobs tend to accrete rather than change. Now I'll be a book designer and editor who also writes books and teaches College Writing.)

I had taken along a book published on CreateSpace, and as we talked she flipped through it. "Beautiful pictures," she said. And they were. Furthermore, the type was clean and crisp, the production values of the book (things like overall print quality, straightness of crops, color balancing, and so forth) were excellent.

"I have a friend who might be interested in self-publishing," she said. "But it's just text. How does that compare?"

I picked up one of the mid-grade paperback books she had brought along to read in slow moments (we're Those Kind of People) and said, "The book quality would be indistinguishable from a book like this."

Those of you in the printing and publishing world know what a milestone this is. For those of you who aren't, consider this:

When I switched from being an editor who designed stuff to being a designer who edited stuff, color tabloid-size prints had to be done on special paper. Letters were fuzzy. And they cost around $20 per page.

When I wrote and illustrated my first children's book the only way I could demonstrate what the finished product would look like was to get color prints, trim them with an e-xacto knife, do some really hinky stuff with various types of tape, do MORE hinky stuff with spraymount or hot wax, trim the pages again, build a cover and do yet more hinky stuff to get it attached. And when I was done, all I had was a "comp"--a designer's composite approximating how the piece went together. No one could possibly have mistaken it for a "real" book. And it cost well over $100, just for the prints.

Getting a sample book printed just like the one I brought to show my friend would have entailed every step of the printing process, up to and including actually going on press--for a single book. It would have cost thousands.

The complexity of that process is, in part, what drives publishers to select the books they will produce with a careful eye to sales and market trends. Producing a single book like the one lying on the table between my friend and me would have involved large investments in both time and money from at least four industries--five, if the book warranted a book tour or marketing campaign.

While printing technology has evolved a great deal, the fact is that producing a book by conventional means still requires a large investment, which means that authors get a smaller piece of the pie, and the books chosen for publication are most often those with either a proven track record, or a provable market appeal.

And that's why the increasing sophistication I see in CreateSpace's book quality and distribution channels is so exciting. I produced a sixty page book with a nice cover, color throughout, and full bleeds throughout (something that's still difficult to get from traditional book printers), and I did it for less than $50 total for two books--my proof, and the copy for the intended recipient. If I choose to print more, I will pay less than $10 per book. That's quality printing, trimming, binding, and shipping. And that's amazing.

So what does that mean? It means that in a world increasingly driven by the bottom-line mentality, it is now possible to publish books and make them available nationwide--or to one person--for the love of it. Never before in history has it been possible to produce high-quality books from exciting new voices so cheaply and easily.

Which isn't to say all of those new voices will be voices worth hearing. As with any major innovation that gives broad access to a formerly costly and complex process, there will be those who see self-publishing as a shortcut, and an opportunity to skimp on the areas of book production where money is well spent--areas like editing, proofreading, design, and marketing. Many terrible books are being produced even as we speak. But here's the thing: there are wonderful books being produced, too. And now we have the opportunity to read them.

Note: The images in this post are spreads from the book used as the example in this post--a book that would have been impossible to produce for less than thousands of dollars not so very long ago. I've reduced the images substantially for use on the web, so pouf goes the quality, but if you'd like to see the actual images email me and I'll send some full-size photos.
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Sherry Wachter has been designing and illustrating all sorts of things--including books--for nearly fifteen years. She has written, designed, illustrated, and self-published two novels--one of which won the 2009 Best of the Best E-books Award--and several picture books. To learn more about book design or to see her work visit her online at Magic Dog Press.


  1. Thank you for posting this. I have friends who've considered spending big money to vanity publishers. The Createspace option seems so much better.

  2. Good points and nice examples, Sherry. Do you have an email link embedded for readers who might want to contact you?

  3. I'm glad to be helpful, Becky. Here's another tip--be careful what you contract with any online book producer for. It's easy to run costs up, and, as with vanity publishers, quality can be uneven. I recommend finding a good designer you can trust who is familiar with CreateSpace's requirements, getting your book ready to print, and then submitting the finished pdf files (you'll need two: one with the back, spine, and front of your book printed WITH bleeds and WITHOUT cropmarks) and one with your book interior, again printed WITH bleeds and WITHOUT crops. Also, you'll want to be sure that no text (not even text embedded in illustrations) falls within 1/8 of an inch of the outside of the page. CreateSpace's printers are programmed to stop. dead. if they see anything like that. It's infuriating at times, but my guess is it saves the bacon enough that they keep those parameters in place.

  4. My blog link's at the bottom of the post, Dani--for those who want to email judge full-size image quality email me at

    (Thanks for the reminder, Dani!)

  5. This is good news about Create Space. I just had two books printed by them that were formatted and submitted by a small publisher, and I am really pleased with the quality of the print and layout. That small publisher is no longer going to do the books in paper, so I will have to find a designer who can do all this for me for my next book.

  6. Thanks, Sherry--good post, great information.

  7. Love the pictures and the way the book is put together. Great info you've given. What are "bleeds"? Even the terminology scares me.

  8. Excellent information, Sherry. A friend had checked CreateSpace maybe two years ago and thought it would cost a large, upfront investment as well as an absurd $25/book. She either misunderstood or CreateSpace has come a long way.

  9. A super idea for a special gift. Thanks, Sherry.

  10. Wow! This is amazing--how far we've come in the publishing world. Thank you for the examples.

  11. Maryann--Ooh! Pick me! Pick me! (Just a thought there).

  12. Re: Bleeds--

    Printers say an image is "bleeding" when the printed image runs off the edge of the printed page. In order to do this reliably, it's necessary to position an image so that at least 1/8 of an inch runs off the page where ever it is to "bleed" to allow the printer enough space to trim the page without having a narrow (or not so narrow) white band on the edge of the paper.

  13. Movingfromtheinsideout: It would be interesting to know if your friend was using CreateSpace for design and editing as well as for printing. That would account for some of the up front expenses. That $25 a book sounds very much like what I heard about BookSurge, which offered hard cover books and more personalized service (they merged with CreateSpace a year or so ago). I suspect prices have come down--certainly none of the books I've produced have run that high. You can also reduce your price per book by paying a small up-front fee (I think it's around $35). Your price per book is then reduced on all orders, rather than just orders several to many copies of a single book. In essence, you're betting that you'll sell enough copies to make that money back. I have yet to have that not pay for itself. It generally takes about ten books.

  14. This book looks so great, Sherry. I always enjoy your posts as I find the book design side fascinating.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  15. Thanks, Elle--you're right about the design side of things being a completely different world. I've recently begun working with my editor not on one of my books, but on designing one of hers, and it's been both fun and eye-opening to be on the other side of the desk, so to speak.

  16. I've self-published both of my novels with CreateSpace. To vouch for the quality of their production, my first one (God's Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana ) won a 2009 Spur award for Best First Novel. The second, Gold Under Ice, has been named a Finalist for Best Long Novel in the 2011 Spur awards.

    Their customer service is excellent, and they fix problems promptly.

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  18. You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with your blog.



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