Why Print Is the Future (And Always Was) for Some Books

From Douglas Bonneville via The Book Designer:

It’s been nine years since I published my first graphic design book, The Big Book of Font Combinations, as a 370-page PDF. What started out great in the digital realm slowly eroded over a period of years due to piracy, plagiarism, the changing nature of websites, and the constantly shifting rules and best practices of search engine optimization (SEO).

Late last year it became clear it was time to let go of the digital past and embrace the analog future. But not just any analog future, I’m talking about the digital analog future.

. . . .

I was always an artist, even from a very young age. I drew constantly and drawing came to define my youth and, later, my career. In middle school I found a book of typography in the school library—a big book filled with all kinds of typeface specimens. I copied and traced fonts right out of that book, and went on to find other books like it.

I had a penchant for drawing words out of made-up fonts. As I headed to art school, I bought an Amiga computer and color printer in 1988 when it was not exactly cheap, because I wanted to use its graphic design and typographic capabilities. The question on that computer, and on all since then, has been, “What fonts do I have?”

After college I got into desktop publishing, learned QuarkXpress at Kinko’s on a Mac Quadra I was never going to be able to afford to buy back then. Then I discovered Aldus PageMaker, and between all the apps and computers I had access to, I was always designing something for someone.

In the mid-nineties I worked with a English professor to start what used to be called a “vanity press”. I worked on books for a variety of academics who had no other alternative to getting their books produced. PageMaker—by this time owned by Adobe—was the go-to application for all my work, along with Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Type Manager. I got really good at book production and printing, mastered the preparation of art for printing, and really enjoyed the whole process immensely.

I got into web design at this time, and it seemed the self-publishing world was being swallowed by the nascent web by 1995. I sold the publishing company and went digital. Again, the question was still, “What fonts do I have?”.

. . . .

After I watched blogging take off, I realized I could contribute some of what I had learned, and started BonFX.com in 2009. One of the early posts I wrote was about font combinations. My early days with the huge Adobe PageMaker manual led me to really, really like how the typefaces Minion and Myriad worked together, not only in the PageMaker manual I was studying, but for all of Adobe’s literature, manuals, PDFs, and so on.

I wanted to create a go-to set of font combinations I could use to jump-start a project. This blog post, “19 Top Font Combinations” focused on combining classic fonts with themselves.

The post was a hit, it got retweeted by some influencers, and suddenly I had a ton of traffic on this one post, and a PDF that was downloaded thousands of times.

. . . .

If people liked the PDF so much, I thought, why not go big or go home? Using Adobe InDesign, I created a huge collection based on the same idea: classic typefaces mixed with other classic typefaces. It turned out it was faster to flip through a book than it was to fiddle with finicky font managers.

I used InDesign master pages to create reusable layers of fonts that lined up perfectly as I reused and stacked them across all the pages. This method made a 400–500 page book very feasible to create.

. . . .

However, all was not puppies and kittens. A couple of years after it was published, I started seeing pirated copies of the PDF showing up in Google. Every single time, it was on one of these shady “eBook” scraping sites with no contact information, hokey-sounding domains, replete with clearly stolen PDFs and eBooks.

No electronic book was safe. 

This piracy affected sales, and just a couple years in, I was very disillusioned, and the follow-up books I had planned on were likely never going to happen.

. . . .

Even in 2010, I could have gone ebook instead of PDF, right? Well yes, but no. Not every type of book works on a Kindle. The Big Book of Font Combinations (BBOFC) was one of those. It is an 8.5” x 11” book where each page would have to be a JPG or PNG image.

At the size of your average Kindle, it would be useless—just a grey smudge across every page. And, even if Kindles were huge (like the discontinued big one Amazon made for a while), it would still defeat the purpose of wanting to create something that was quick to browse. Coffee tables books are meant to be flipped through asynchronously, and to be delightfully browsable. The BBOFC was more like a coffee table book, or a phone book, than anything else.

. . . .

I did work on getting the BBOFC into Amazon’s early print on demand (POD) program. I got the cover designed to spec, reshuffled the layouts, and filled out all the required metadata. None of these tasks were fun or quick.

The PDF version had been produced as a single-page document. The print version had to be set up for facing page spreads with appropriate gutter margins, which meant touching every element on every page to adjust its position—by hand.

After I got all the boxes checked off, all the fields filled in, and all the files uploaded, I was finally ready to hit the “Preview” button in KDP.

“Sorry, your book was rejected due to use of placeholder text”.

What? Yes, the BBOFC was automatically rejected by the KDP pre-flighting check because it contained the following text: “Lorem Ipsum Dolor.” On every page.

“Lorem” is text taken from an old work of classic literature that was written in Latin. For over 500 years typesetters have used it to set blocks of type as they design a book to test things like the look of the typeface, margins, other page elements, and so on. Since font combinations are the focus, not the text, I did not want to see “The quick brown fox…” 370 times.

. . . .

In 2018 while researching the use of POD for fine art and illustrations, both Amazon and IngramSpark came up, and I was hearing very different things about these services than I had heard in the past. Quality was way up, costs were down, people were not just happy, but in some cases really happy. I was intrigued and started to feel hopeful about books once again.

My wife and I got a little excited (again). And then we bit hard. She thoroughly researched the landscape for all the POD solutions and services available, and became convinced that a POD combined publishing solution based on Amazon KPD Print and IngramSpark was not only viable, it was tested, sure-footed, and smart.

Could we kill off “digital-only” for our specific type of book and go “digital-analog” with not only our font book, but with the other graphic design books we had held in our queue so long?

The answer was yes.

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

19 thoughts on “Why Print Is the Future (And Always Was) for Some Books”

  1. I think people confuse their books showing up in a google search on pirate sites for their books ACTUALLY being pirated. The vast majority of those “shady ebook” sites don’t have your book. If you click on that to download the book, all your getting is malware. When you upload your book to KDP, click the little “DRM” button. Don’t share your book via pdf with anyone and you should see a lot less piracy.

    At least, that has been my experience in watching this whole piracy bonanza take place. There are pirates, and they do steal and share peoples books, but it’s just not as rampant as people seem to think.

    • I think piracy is more prevalent than you estimate, but nothing can be done about it by the average author.
      Take this for example: https://www.gofundme.com/f/bring-ebookbike-to-justice
      Here’s a man suing an e-book pirate website and he spent $19,000 already, and that’s just preliminary costs, heaven only knows how much it’s going to cost him to finish The lawsuit, never mind whether he actually get a favourable judgement or not, and there’s no way he’s losing that much money to piracy so it seems like a waste.

    • That’s true. I used to run malware as part of my job, and those supposed pirate book sites were a great resource. Another source of malware was ‘printables’, which are sites that have coloring-book like designs that can be printed, often used by teachers. Many of those sites are fake too.

      If you wonder, and you have the chops, install windows into a virtual machine, snapshot it, and then go try to download your ‘pirated’ book and see what actually happens. In many cases it appears to be a download error, or nothing at all, or a file that isn’t the book, but if you are monitoring the network traffic in and out of the VM you’ll see a very different story, and not a pretty one.

      • The bulk of the “classic” ebook piracy (SCAN and OCR) was driven by lack of availability. It took a lot of time to manually pirate any single book so once commercial ebooks became mainstream the bulk of the incentive for uploaders went away.

        What remains these days is mostly commercial pirates using torrent listings to distribute malware or porn ads and even those guys have moved a lot of their action to video and mobile games apps. It’s a much bigger target.

        On the download side other than the unwary the biggest group are hoarders who are more interested in the size of the collection than any specific title. at lost, they’d be looking for big name tradpubbers. (Grisham, Patterson, King, et al) The odds of losing a sale from a specific download goes way down for small press and Indie authors. But we still see a lot of panicky pieces like this vintage piece from 2011:


        I wouldn’t go as far as Gaiman or Coelho in waving off or welcoming piracy but I do think that one would have to be pretty well established in the business before seeing measurable losses.

        There are bigger issues to deal with.

    • “…The vast majority of those “shady ebook” sites don’t have your book”

      OP here. That may be the case more now, but it was not when this first started happening. I was able to download my book just a few moments ago from one of these sites after a search. It was the number 3 result. Several other links lead to “sign up now” which never works, and “install this extension” or other scams unsavvy freeloaders might fall for. It’s quite rampant. I have found all kinds of books online. Maybe not the latest and greatest kindle-only release from popular authors, but all kinds of legacy material for sure. The lesson first and foremost is of course never release a PDF into the wild. My particular book makes no sense as an ebook due to its page layout and format. The only option at the time was PDF, or printing hundreds of books at one shot, which was not something I was willing to take on, having done this for many other authors when I ran a custom book publishing service in the late 90’s.

      • Back in in 2011 when Carnoy told everybody on CNET how to pirate his book (a “humble brag”, perhaps?) GOOGLE indexed and listed torrents directly. They don’t anymore. Trying to find an ebook pirate torrent these days starts at a disreputable site and gets worse from there.

        Sensible folks buy their ebooks or borrow from the library if the BPH price annoys them.

  2. The OP kind of addresses piracy sites as merely malware sites in part that didn’t make the excerpts:

    “Over time, many of websites that pirated the book disappeared. The ones that replaced them all seemed to want to download a virus or make you pay for an, ahem, membership to their classy pirate sites.”

  3. The discussion of piracy is, I think, something of a blind alley. To me, the real point about ebook versus print is that ebooks work great for pure text of the sort you start reading at the beginning, through to the end. The further you get away from this, the less well ebooks work. The book this post describes on ebook? Nuh uh.

    • It’s a matter of focus.
      Tradpub’s business focus is dead tree pulp so they intentionally conflate all types of books to disguise the ongoing transition of entire markets to digital by holding up the ones that aren’t and likely never will.

      Today’s ebook market is primarily narrative text.
      There’s plenty of business outside that sphere but the sphere itself is plenty big and growing steadily.

      At this point one can choose to either exploit the opportunities digital offers or try to deny its relevance and growth and focus on the areas where it doesn’t (yet) offer opportunities.

      “You place your bets and takes your chances. “

    • My attitude toward digital v paper books has changed over the past few years. I used to think that paper would soon be relegated to the luxury category, like leather bindings and gilt edges. I now think they are likely to coexist for a long time to come.

      The change is driven by conversations with young people about paper v digital. I now regard anyone under 40 as young.

      The biggest proponents of digital are old people with arthritic fingers, bad backs, weak eyes, and bulging bookshelves. (That’s me!)

      From Gen-X and Millennial types, I hear that they read digital all the time for convenience, but choose paper for relaxation. They’re tired of looking at screens all the time.

      From high school students, I get strange looks and “whatever” answers. They simply don’t care. If they like to read, they don’t care if it is paper or digital. If they don’t like reading, digital or paper doesn’t make them like it more.

      This is all anecdotal, of course, but my crystal ball view has shifted to a continued mixed future. With automated print on demand and short runs, a lot of the cost shipping and warehousing paper has dissipated, which is making paper more economically viable. And paper is both recyclable and renewable.

      • And it doesn’t need a battery-powered gadget to read.

        Ebooks make most sense for avid readers, who can justify the expense and appreciate the massless aspects. Print makes most sense for the one to two book a year crowd.

        I would suggest the dividing line isn’t age but volume of books purchased/read.

        The young people being constantly quoted don’t actually buy books. Or read much at all. They most typically don’t get to choose what they read, either. A survey asking people what kinds of books they choose to buy for themselves and how many they read in a given year would be more revealing than the typical “young people prefer print” stories coming from the establishment.

        Take textbooks, chapter books, and library books out of the picture and many of those young ones will fall out of the relevant market altogether.

        • I spend in time in libraries and I also mentor at the local high school.

          Talking to high school kids, some are big readers, some are not. They all have Androids or iPhones and most have a beat up laptop or tablet. I don’t have an impression that the readers among them prefer print, they simply don’t distinguish between print and digital. When I ask what they are reading, I often get a gush of enthusiasm for sci-fi, fantasy and historical fiction. But when ask whether they prefer paper or screen, I get the signal, which teenagers all have mastered, that I asked a stupid geezer question that makes as much sense as asking if they prefer dirt or gravel for lunch. For these kids, digital is like air. They breath it, they don’t notice it. They probably can’t remember ever spending a waking hour without screen time. And yet they spend money on paper books. Digital they seem to regard as free. I think they would buy more paper if they had more money. Just an impression based on less than a dozen kids from a suburban high school. I imagine there are teachers who have much more to say.

          The library is where I meet the big Gen X and Millennial readers. These are 2 or more books a week types. They read all the time. On their phones, their Kindles, their tablets. They read digital because its convenient and cheap. I’ve even been told that they get ebooks from the library instead of Amazon because it’s easier. The Rakuten Libby app is quite a hit. They read paper when they can to get away from their screens, which remind them of work.

          • But how much reading do they do because they have to versus the reading they do because they want to?

            The ebook *business* is about discretionary spending, not assigned homework.

            • To be clear: I don’t question the data. I do question its relevance, especially its predictive value for market analysis.

              • The predictive value is hard to assess. It’s anecdotal, not statistical. All I can say is that when my anecdotal gut and the numbers align, the result was market share.

                • For what it is worth, I see paper equated with reading for pleasure, digital with work and economic necessity. That is not my own experience. I prefer digital for all the old fogy reasons. It astounds me that more digital generations have reasons to prefer paper. One of many failures to understand the future.

                • It could be Baby Duck syndrome.

                  Parents read to kids from pbooks and the first books they get are in print so they associate print with entertainment.
                  Meanwhile, lots of schools rely on Chromebooks during class so they associate screens with “work”.

                  Not unlike how many kids associate “pizza” with Chuckie cheese. They eventually grow up and learn better.

                  (Until they have kids of their own. The circle of life, pizza-style. 😉 )

                  A big problem with analyzing human preferences is that oftentimes what is measured isn’t what meets the eye at first glance. Humans are complicated and self-contradictory.

                • They also haven’t had to move several times. They haven’t lost their favorite book and had to wait for the store to open so they can buy a new one. They don’t have bank accounts, credit cards, or really a need to buy books because they go to “work” in a place that has all the books they want for free. When they hit their 20’s, and if they still read, that will all likely change and they will likely buy a lot more ebooks.

    • On a full size monitor (such as what I am writing this with) – this would be great as an ebook.

      BUT only if done properly. With extensive hyperlinking of content, to allow searching by dozens of font characteristics (including legal things, like that they are public domain, what kind of public domain, a link to the owner when they are not, etc.).

Comments are closed.