Packages and presents

August 7, 2008

What does the word ‘package’ mean to you? A mysterious box, gift-wrapped with pretty paper and tied with an elegant ribbon? Today I’m thinking excitedly about packages – and hoping some might appear later. Sssh, it’s my birthday, and somehow I never get too old to be pleased about that!
But publishers have something else in mind when they use the word ‘package’ – as they do quite a lot. Because to a publisher the package is everything you see, touch and feel as you hold a finished book. It’s the culmination of the entire vision that the editor – and all the rest of the team – had for the work. The package can comprise many things, including (and always most importantly) the jacket. Illustrations, format, dimensions, paper, and typeface (including spacing on the page) will also be considered. Sometimes much more esoteric and individual specifications come into the mix: whether to include extras like a ribbon bookmark, coloured edges to the paper, head and tail bands (the funny little coloured bits you see on quality hardbacks where the paper abuts the papercase on top and bottom). All these bits and pieces go into the costing mix and produce a set of figures that will help to determine the profitability of the book, where it should be printed, how fast reprints can be produced – and often what its retail price should be. The decisions can be very difficult to make. Add too many bits and pieces and you can radically diminish profitability; add too few and you can lose that ‘standout’ potential on the shelf that could help to achieve higher sales. It’s a balance, and somewhere there will be a senior person muttering, ‘If you DO add …… [fill in the blank] are we REALLY going to sell 5000 more???’ These are the fraught conversations that happen very frequently in publishing offices around the globe as editors, production executives, sales people and art departments come at issues with different agendas and equally strong feelings!

Sometimes, and in a perfect world, the entire vision for the book will be thought through on acquisition. That’s a very clever thing to do because then the publisher can offer a very accurate sum for rights in the book – a sum based on projected sales and incorporating all costs and overheads. But more often the vision appears more gradually, and through many meetings and discussions between departments. Often there are false starts as one aspect doesn’t look quite right and has to be rethought – even at a very late stage. Chief priority (and often bugbear) is the jacket, which more than anything else creates the image for the book. There are so many possibilities: jackets with flaps, paperback covers, double covers, different ‘finishes’ (glossy and shiny; matt and smooth; sparkly foil, embossing, fuzzy textures, holographic – even ‘scratch and sniff’!), all of which are used to create different effects, but which come at a high price.

The first step on the jacket journey will be when the editor comes up with a ‘brief’ for the Art Department – usually months before publication. The brief will give an outline of the book’s content, some thoughts on style, age group, genre. From this a designer will come up with a range of possibilities, often very different, which will then be spread out on a table and scrutinized, pondered, and discussed (argued over?) at length. One ‘look’ may then be chosen, or the designer may even go away to produce more samples. But at some point a course will be set and suddenly the book’s ‘personality’ will begin to take shape. More discussions will take place over typography and finishes – and sometimes, even at the last possible moment, the whole thing will be ditched and begun again. It’s such an important thing that one seriously negative comment from a key buyer can mean a hasty rethink. The old saying, ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ has got it all wrong. Books are absolutely judged by their covers!

Lots of knowledge goes into the creation of the ‘package’. What else is out there in the market. What your competitors are doing. Whether you want the book to aim straight at boys or girls – or both genders. Whether it’s an upscale literary work that is all about the text – or whether there’s a particularly marketable ‘hook’ that suggests a strong look. Whatever the range of factors, the decisions will always aim at making the book stand out from the pack, convey a strong sense of content – and yet still be capable of competitive pricing (because if the book is priced too high you’re doomed anyway!).

So that’s a little introduction to packages, though there is much more to be said about the process. Meanwhile, I think I hear the postman at the door. Maybe there’ll be a package – and maybe it will be for me! Have a happy day, everyone.