“They look great, where can I buy one?”
“Um, Amazon. And iTunes.”
“You mean they’re only ebooks?”
How many times have we had that conversation in the last two years? Though digital reading is now mundanely routine in some form or other, people are still attached to the idea of the printed book. And while many of our readers took the plunge into ebooks through Strelka Press, we still get regular enquiries about printed copies.
Well, we are very pleased to announce that we have launched our print-on-demand editions. We’ve been working on this development for a long time – it took a while to get it just right.
Although we are attracted to printed books, we were reluctant to be tied down to traditional publishing. We launched as a digital-first publisher precisely to avoid the cumbersome infrastructure of print: primarily the task of distributing physical copies to bookshops around the world. We wanted to be lighter on our feet, and we wanted our readers to have instant access.
Print-on-demand publishing is our way of doing printed books while remaining a light-footed digital publisher. We will not have warehouses full of unsold books, because our paper copies don’t exist until you order one. Instead of guessing that we might need 2,000 copies, printing and then trying to sell them, we now have the option of letting as many customers as want the book print their own – it might be 2,000 or it might be 200. We don’t mind, we just want readers to have access to our books in whatever format they prefer.
If you want a printed edition, just click the “print edition” button on our website and you’ll be taken to the retail site of our new printer – try and ignore the fact that it’s called The Great British Book Shop, we got over it – and you can buy a copy there and have it shipped anywhere in the world within 24 hours.
The return of the pocket paperback: ebooks vs print editions
Although epub technology is improving all the time, one of the frustrations of making ebooks is that you have very little control over the design and layout. The fact that readers can choose their own font size means that layouts have to be flexible, as one fluid stream of text that constantly rearranges itself – with resultant widows and ugly line breaks. Our attitude has always been not to be too precious about this. Content over style: the advantages of ebooks – the fact that you can be reading one within 30 seconds of wanting one – far outweigh the limitations. (We've found that the people we know who fetishise books for their looks don’t necessarily read much!)
However, it is with great pleasure that we venture into the realm of real book design. As ever, our collaborators OK-RM have done a beautiful job with these print editions. Although our “books” are actually long essays, they make very satisfying little paperbacks of a standard pocket-edition size. Like our ebooks, which you can read on a smartphone, this suits our ethos of being able to carry them anywhere.
As on our covers, the text is laid out in Lazurski, the Soviet font for publications of a cultural (rather than bureaucratic) nature, which nods to Italian Renaissance type. Matching our newly revised ebook editions, new title pages create a more formal way into the book. And to vary the grain of the text, what are effectively subtitles within the essays are blown up into graphic chapter titles.
We’ve used images differently from the ebooks. Black-and-white thumbnails are embedded in the text, and page references are provided to an old-fashioned colour plate section at the back of the book. The plate section uses a glossier paper to get the most out of the images. We’ve never been overly concerned with images – most of our books have none, focusing on writing instead, but where we have them we want to make the most of them.
How our PODs differ from our ebooks
At first we were sceptical of print on demand – the technology has been around for a long time but the quality fell far short of a real printing press. The good news is that the quality is gradually improving, and we’re working with a printer in Cambridge that does a fine job as long as you accept the constraints.
Technical challenges remain – digital colours are not always accurate, for instance. And partly for that reason, we’ve decided to rationalise our print-on-demand covers into a uniform style of black text on a white background with only the graphic illustration in colour. Ordinarily, a POD book is just a printed version of the ebook, but we’ve decided to make a distinction – they are not the same thing. Covers designed to be vibrant on digital screens are less so when reproduced by digital printers.
For that and other reasons, the PODs have been conceived as a series in their own right. We will keep experimenting with our ebook covers, altering the graphic design with each series. But whatever direction those covers take, our PODs will be more restrained, standardised – something in between the haptic paper fetishism that has renewed book culture and the bright instant gratification of the ebook.
We hope you enjoy them.