"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).She then singled out our own recent release, Diving Into the Wreck, specifically, saying:
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"
"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)."
This has caused some huge discussion at the site itself, on my Facebook page, on Twitter, on John Picacio's Facebook page, and in the numerous emails I've been getting from people who have stumbled across it.
A follow up post appeared the next day, it which she very kindly added:
"Let me be even clearer:
I admire Pyr and its publication choices greatly. I think some of the best, if not the best, SF being published in North America is being published by Pyr books. I am not in any way saying the books look or are unprofessional to me.Now, let me say right off the bat that I'm not upset about the first post, I appreciate the spirit in which it is offered as well as the information it contains, and I certainly appreciate the nice things she says in the second one. Furthermore, this is feedback, this is a data point, and as someone who wants to connect the most books with the most readers, I am happy to and obligated to consider all data points. Anything that gets more books into your hands is a good thing. Any potential impediment to that must be considered and evaluated.
I'm saying that the cover-stock, which is in some ways more durable than other finishes ... is causing consumer confusion in my experience."
A lot of what resulted was people coming down pro or anti-matte. There was a lot of good feedback. And also the point raised, most eloquently by Bruce Arthurs that:
"What bothers me about this is that you're asking professional publishers to limit their options....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.'"Now, another interesting factor. It was quickly pointed out that the author of the post is Canadian, and that, due to the generous subsidies and grants that the Canadian government provides for writers (and that I wish the US government would too) there are a lot of self published books in bookstores in Canada due to big government artist subsidies. While this particularly bookseller stressed their store did not stock vanity press titles, it may nonetheless be that there is a particular suspicion of and sensitivity towards self-publishing among Canadian shoppers.
So there is a degree to which I think this may not be as relevant to the American market as it is to the Canadian one.
The other factor that needs discussing is that this is not a discussion of quality but of perception. The matte covers being advocated here frequently curl, scratch horribly, are generally less durable, and, most crucial in my opinion, dull and blunt the artwork. We had a situation once where a blogger criticizes our paper stock, saying it didn't look like the other books on his shelf. We contacted them, asking them to specify examples of which paper they preferred. It turned out they liked the really low-end, low-weight, see through, cheap paper generally reserved for mass market books and now sadly starting to creep into some trade paperback and even (horribly!) to some hardcovers as a cost cutting measure. The fact that our paper was thicker, creamier, more durable and way more expensive was seen as a bad thing.
As John Picacio elegantly put it:
"If someone thinks McDonald's burgers are the best burgers ever, and the way burgers should be made, and then they go to Peter Lugar's in NYC, and hate the gourmet burgers because they aren't like the 'major chain,' then does that mean Peter Lugar's should make their burgers like McDonald's?"Hell no. So there's a very real degree to which I am unwilling to make our books look cheaper, less durable, and, well, uglier if that's what it takes to "blend in." When I select a manuscript for a Pyr book, I want it to be something you will love, and want to read over and over, and I want it packaged beautifully in something that will last.
But, again, it's a data point. If the perception exists among US shoppers, which is where the majority of our books are sold (us being a US publisher), then I need to address it.
So, yesterday, I went to Barnes & Noble to get some more data points. I started in the As and went to the Zs, to see just who was publishing what in trade paperback covers with gloss finishes. The following authors were all published in this manner, and their books had no foil or embossing - just gloss finishes on trade paperbacks. This is not a complete list, not by any means; it's just as much as I could jot down on my iPhone in the five minutes I had before I had to rush home to my family. So, in gloss trade paperback we have: Douglas Adams, Terry Brooks, Stephen Brust, Octavia Butler, Orson Scott Card, Charles De Lint, Philip K Dick, David Eddings, Terry Goodkind, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Robert Howard, Robert Jordan, Elizabeth Moon, Michael Moorcock, Jennifer Roberson, Robert Sawyer, Jonathan Strahan, TH White, Rober Zelazny.
Looking at that list, it's hard to see how anyone browsing in an American chain store, and seeing that list of powerhouse authors published in glossy trade paperback editions, could come to the conclusion that this was a format reserved for vanity press publications. In fact, what I found was that the bigger the author was, the more likely it seemed that their trade paperback editions would receive glossy treatment. Most of the matte finished books I saw were smaller, mid-list authors. There also seemed to be more fantasy published with a gloss finish than SF (but this may be that there is more fantasy published period than SF right now).
Now, in terms of who published it: Pretty much every Del Rey, DAW, and Baen trade paperback I pulled off the shelf was a gloss. Many St. Martins, Tor, Orb, Berkely, Ace, and Roc offerings were gloss (about half of the Tor books, and again, pretty much all of their bigger authors and major releases). Interestingly enough, the only houses that seemed to favor matte finishes over gloss were Night Shade Books and Orbit, though in the case of the latter, most books I saw were matte with either embossing or foil. (Also, I forgot to look at the Lilith Saintcrow and Jennifer Rardin books from Orbit, which I seem to remember now are gloss trades. Not sure. And the Solaris books I have here at home that are in trade paperback are also gloss.)
Now, again, I'm not drawing a qualitative difference between matte verses gloss in general (though I do object to cheap, scratchy, curly matte, and I saw a lot of that). I'm just looking to see if we were an aberration in choosing gloss finishes for the majority of our titles. And what I found was that we weren't, and if what we were publishing these days was primarily fantasy (and it is) then gloss actually seemed like the smart/accepted choice.
But it's a data point.
We're working with a number of new authors, as well as a lot of new illustrators, in 2010 and 2011. We're moving into some new (for us) subgenres, and generally shaking things up (and expanding!). So I'm going to loosen up and play with the look of some of our books in future. I trust you'll let me know how we're doing.
In the meantime, if you want to weigh in here on matte vs gloss, or what makes you pick up or put down a book, feel free to comment. I only ask that you not single out specific artists or publishers for criticism (play nice), and that you identify where in the world you are coming in from, because I'd like to hear if Americans have the same reaction to gloss finishes that this Canadian bookseller has (and, as for British book buyers, there is a very different design aesthetic in the UK verses the US). Thanks!