Thursday, December 10, 2009

Matte vs Gloss

Earlier this week, a Canadian bookseller and blogger published "An Open Letter to Trade Publishers," opining that the use of gloss finishes on trade paperback books caused some shoppers to mistakenly assume these titles were self published efforts from vanity press. She writes:
"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"
She then singled out our own recent release, Diving Into the Wreck, specifically, saying:
"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.

I'm saying that the cover-stock, which is in some ways more durable than other finishes ... is causing consumer confusion in my experience."
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.

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!


John D. said...

>>...this is not a discussion of quality but of perception.

That sums it up quite nicely, I think.

If I wanna know if it's a vanity work, I look at the publisher, not the finish of the cover.

I don't think I have a preference between matte and glossy finish for trade paperbacks. Both Pyr's glossy cover for THE QUIET WAR and Tor's matte cover for BONESHAKER look awesome. When it comes to covers, I'm more interested in the artwork itself than the finish.

Regarding paper: keep doing what you're doing. Higher quality paper last longer is certainly appreciated by this reader.

The Mad Hatter said...

When it comes down to it the finish should compliment the art.

One reason that many big name authors have gloss is they have a higher propensity to being returned and if it is gloss it therefore has a chance of being resent out by the publisher than a skuffy looking matte which ends up pulped.

Pyr seems to have a lot of Steampunk related books and the majority of recent titles in that area have had interesting things done to the covers that have attracted me. George Mann's Newbury & Hobbes comes to mind. Tor did an amazing job with the US release of The Affinity Bridge and I just got Snow Book’s edition of The Osiris Ritual which was amazingly intricate with its mix of matte/gloss/foil it was something to behold and admire.

I'd keep the same paper through as I want my copies around for years. But now that you mention it I met one of your sales people at BEA a couple years back and commented how heavy The First Law books were. I may have sprained my wrist reading Last Argument, but it was worth it.

I'm in the US.

Ted said...

Minor side note: besides being a Canadian bookseller and blogger, Michelle Sagara is also the author of over twenty novels.

Unknown said...

Just for reference, I'm currently reading Alan Deniro's Total Oblivion, More or Less. I believe it is a matte cover. Is this correct?

I don't appreciate the way it curls up, particularly on thinner TPBs.

Are all MMPBs glossy?

Kat Howard said...

I honestly can't remember ever picking up or putting down a book because of cover finish. I look for authors I like, titles that have been recommended to me, and after that, if it has a title that clicks in my brain that day, I'll pick it up to read the back cover or the opening pages. If I'm still in doubt, I'll look at the publisher. If it's a house I trust, I buy the book.

Joe Abercrombie said...

Finally, a convincing reason for the success of the First Law.

Joe said...

This is fascinating (to me) conceptual conversation.

Looking around at my bookshelves, I've got both gloss and matte around from most of the publishers you mentioned and neither paper stock choice to me is a turnoff or looks unprofessional.

American reader here.

I do suspect, though, if most of the respondents on this post (and on Facebook) will be readers who are in some way plugged in to the industry. We've got bloggers and writers here and we know who the publishers are and probably who most of the lesser known writers are.

Outside of one particular anthology of non living animals by one particular publisher, we know what's professionally done and what isn't (which is to say that one particular anthology is perhaps the only professionally published book that I'm aware of that I would mistake for self-published).

But what you say might be right - it's a matter of what national marketplace you're coming from.

As a plugged in American reader, I think I'm less likely to be turned off by a cover (though likely to be turned on by an awesome cover), but I don't have a preference between gloss or matte. You mentioned, Lou, Night Shade as a Matte publisher and Pyr is obviously a Gloss publisher and I mention each simply because I think both are examples of extremely high quality cover work. Choose between them? No thanks, I'll take both.

Andrew Timson said...

In general, I think that I prefer (good) matte finishes. By the time I'm done reading a glossy-covered title, there's definite fingerprints on the cover, which aren't as noticeable (or maybe not even there?) on matte covers.

That said, it does definitely depend on the cover art/design. There's a mass-market tie-in series from Pocket that has mostly-matte covers but with some really effective spot varnishing. Best of both worlds, really. :)

Martin said...

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."

That is a rare and refreshing sentiment from a publisher.

Carl V. Anderson said...

I myself think this is more of a quality of the artwork/presentation of the book rather than the finish. As John D. points out, Boneshaker, a matte cover, is an absolutely beautiful looking book. On the other hand, I have all three Robert E. Howard Conan trades and couldn't imagine them without the glossy covers, which really makes the artwork stand out.

I may be naive here, but I would tend to think that most American genre fiction fans know enough about publishers to be able to discern what is a vanity press book and what isn't.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've never taken into account a book's glossy or matte finish. It's the cover art itself that matters.
Good for you for not compromising your standards!

Holley T said...

I have to agree with most here and say that I always check the publisher for that information. I see trade paperbacks from many publisher in both glossy and matte and have never given a thought to the decision behind the choice. Seems odd for her to get all het up about it...

Warren Ellis said...

Lou: very interesting stuff, but I wish you'd expanded your capture in the bookstore. What if that disgruntled shopper who thought all the glossy books were self-pub was only in the sf/f section of the bookstore?

Which is unlikely, I grant, the idea just amuses me. That said, it might have been instructive to see how many glossy covers there were in general fiction.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Warren,
You're the second person to suggest I look beyond genre category and see what I find. As the first was a buyer for a major chain, I think I'll be doing that this weekend. (The buyer himself made no distinction between gloss and matte in his purchasing decisions).

ces said...

Lou already knows what makes me pick up a book, so I won't repeat myself.

Gloss versus matte? When I started developing my own photography film & printing it, in black-&-white, I printed 2 copies of each photo - one on heavy glossy paper & one on heavy matte paper. I quickly learned that you couldn't, for example, say that all landscapes should be printed on matte & all cityscapes on glossy.

The choice of which paper to use for a book cover, and whether or not to use foil or raised type or other techniques, is dependent on the art cover. That paper which makes the artwork looks absolutely gorgeous is the one that should be used. And definitely use the highest quality heaviest paper you can!

I have never found that glossy or matte lasts longer or stays new-looking longer. Of course, I love books books & am careful when reading them, so fingerprints for example aren't a problem.

Having said all this, I do tend to slightly permaprefer matte finishes on photos, book covers, art prints, etc. as I find the matte finish more elegant looking. But it says nothing about the quality - or source - of the photo, book cover, art print, etc to me. (Let me put in a plug here - I do prefer the larger-size paperback books to the smaller size. And leading that allows the lines of print to not bump into each other.)

Thank you so much Lou for refusing to compromise - keep it up! Your books are always top-notch quality!

Jessica Strider said...

I've never noticed people in the bookstore where I work avoiding PYR (or other) titles because the covers are glossy. I've seen them avoid books that have bad cover art or are poorly designed (by larger and smaller presses). While Canadian chain bookstores may carry more books by smaller presses (which get subsidized by the government) then those in the US, they don't carry that many self-published books. Certainly not enough for readers to concern themselves with wondering if glossy = self-published.

I think the real problem here would be more with bad looking covers, not the quality of the paper or the glossiness.

Then again, Bakka Phoenix is a specialty, independent bookstore, so maybe it's clientele is different then what I'd see and they'd be more apt to question the nature of publication more than other readers.

Lou Anders said...

Went to B&N this past weekend and just looked at what was on the front table right as you walk in. Now, being front table this is hardcover, but it was still interesting.

Jeff Shaara's WWII historical novel - gloss. Jonathan Lethem's new one, matte. Patricia Cornall and David Balcacci's latest- gloss. As was
Steve Berry's The Paris Vendetta, as was Charlaine Harris' latest.

John Grisham got matte with spot gloss, but George Carlin just gloss.

Dan Brown, of course, is matte, gloss, embossing, yada yada yada.

Andre Agassi's bio was gloss. The new Stephen King and Sarah Palin both gloss. But Margaret Atwood got matte.

Michael Connelly and Clive Cussler are both gloss.

From this small sampling, I'd say that biographies and mysteries were pretty much universally gloss. Historical works, and that category of "Not SF" tended to be matte.

"Important" literary books tended to be matte. But most books on the front table were gloss or gloss and embossing.

clay griffith said...

Interesting. Sitting here at the office, I must admit I can't even picture the difference between matte and gloss. And I worked in bookstores for 20 years. Maybe I'm not very observant. To me, self-published books are betrayed by sloppy cover design and the use of blurry photos or clearly amateurish artwork (usually a friend of the author's). Design and use of space on the cover is much more tell-tale than paper finish. But as I mentioned to Lou before, I think we should all go back to 1980s die-cut and hologram covers! I love flipping a book so the picture of the cat becomes a skeleton! cat-skeleton cat-skeleton. Money well spent.

Jessica Strider said...

Looking around the general fiction section yesterday, there's quite a mix of glossy and matte covers.

I wonder if she's referring to the new idea of some publishers using POD copies for older books rather than doing small print runs? At least, I assume these are POD copies. The covers are glossy but look more like photocopies than conventional covers, and are by major publishers (ie, they LOOK self-published because the covers don't have a professional look to them anymore.) There are only a few titles like this, the first one I noticed being Michael Marshall Smith's ONLY FORWARD (once we had a POD version and a normal version - they're identical except for the quality of the covers). I've since seen it done with other titles in sci-fi and fantasy.

Lou Anders said...

Having been making numerous trips to the bookstore since the initial post, I'm really flummoxed.

Photo Paper said...

This was very well written. In my opinion, it always comes down to preference in the situation at hand. I myself am a big fan of glossy because, to me, it enhances the quality so much more. But it is what it is.