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

by | Apr 8, 2019

By Douglas Bonneville

There’s great debate in some circles these days about whether ebooks can and will eventually and completely replace print books. In today’s post, Douglas Bonneville explains why he believes this may be impractical and offers another option as the way of the future. After you read his article, let us know if you agree or not in the comments. We’d love to hear your thoughts.


 
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. Sound confusing? Let’s go back to the beginning so I can explain!

The Prologue

To explain why some books have an analog-digital future, I need to give you a few key details about my history.

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?”.

The Blog

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.

The Book

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. I loved every second of making the book despite some frustrations with the “Book” feature of InDesign.

The PDF book went on sale in 2010 on BonFX.com and sold briskly. It got picked up by a few deal-type websites at a discount for limited campaign releases several times over the years. There is no way to count exactly how many copies were sold due to how it was bundled and discounted, and how I got paid. But through 2018, I sold between 7,000 and 9,000 copies.

The Slow Rude Awakening

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.

What about Amazon and Kindle?

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.

That said, 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.

The KDP Gate Keepers and the Pirates

I got in touch with tech support, and after a bunch of back and forth, during which it was obvious they did not fully understand, or the Latin, I gave up. I settled for the slow attrition of sales of my PDF cannibalized by piracy. No matter how many DMCA takedown notices I sent, they popped up like whack-a-mole. I simply got tired of googling to see where it would pop up next.

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. The whole lot of them are a wasteland of author copyright violations. But, even where sites had removed access to the PDF, their search engine rankings remained, no thanks to Google.

Eventually, my number one rankings for key search terms were eliminated by algorithm changes, people copying my post style and format, and new content on faster “responsive design” websites. My site also got hit with spammy links that needed to be manually removed. Not fun, and I figured, not worth the effort.

My Adventure with LuLu

Despite the piracy, despite the Amazon gaffe, despite losing steam, I still wanted to hold my book in my hands. I took the single-page layout format PDF, designed a back cover and a spine, and uploaded them to Lulu.com, all so I could purchase one copy for myself. But when the book arrived:

  • The interior print quality was spotty—areas of black were ribboned with uneven toner.
     
  • It looked like medium-quality copier output.
     
  • The full color (CMYK) glossy cover was okay, but it had a few odd smudgy areas.
     
  • The CMYK orange on the cover was duller than I expected, though I had designed it properly in CMYK, and had a reasonably-well calibrated monitor. It was simply dull yellow and red toner, not as vibrant or as saturated as it should have been.
     
  • I intentionally put a big fat typo on the side of the book, “The Big Book O Font Combinations” so that I would never settle for having this one copy—a little mind hack that carried me forward for years.

Overall, it was not a high-quality POD product, but it was decent. I put the single Lulu POD copy of my big font book on my shelf and said, “Well, you just sit there for a while.”

Over 9 years, after moving from shelf to shelf, and the occasional shuffle, it got a little worn:

The Long Goodbye

Over the next several years I watched sales continue to decline while pirated copies increased, all while the ranking for the page on my website that primarily drove full-price sales declined.

I even found the PDF for sale on other sites! I found it so astonishing that someone would have the nerve to steal something and then just take the liberty of trying to resell it on another site.

I slowly gave up on issuing DMCA take down notices, but would do one occasionally, more out of a sense of “I’m not done with this fight,” then really thinking another take down would have any effect. Of course it didn’t.

From the Past, the Future Is Born

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.

IngramSpark and Amazon Headed Into the 2020s

It became very clear that a combined digital and analog solution could cover the market. Using both services is a comprehensive solution (head over to Why We Chose Both IngramSpark and Amazon KDP for Print-on-Demand in 2019 for more detail on this topic).

To put it simply: you can sell a paperback through KDP Print on Amazon, and a hardcover and paperback through IngramSpark which distributes to Amazon, B&N, and every other place, at the same time, with no conflict or confusion.

The foundation is getting your own ISBNs from R.R. Bowker (if you are in the US). Once you do that, you are truly set to go digital-analog.

What exactly do I mean by digital-analog?

It’s very simple: use state of the art digital infrastructure and POD facilities to produce a product that will only live in an analog form—as a printed book. It’s weird, but to go 100% analog, you have to go 100% digital. In this new world, gone are the days of:

  • Ordering expensive custom-made Iris prints to view your combined CMYK color separations for the cover of your book before approving it for printing.
     
  • Having to stand at the printer—physically next to the ink-filled offset printing press—to ensure your book pages look great before the pressman burns through a few thousand sheets of paper.
     
  • Needing to order 1,000 copies of a book you are not sure anyone wants, just to get the cost per copy low enough to turn a profit.

So, this time, it would be different.

Revamping the Layout With Adobe InDesign

Excitedly, I dug out all my production files from nine years ago. I had to carefully open each file and re-link everything, after re-saving each file in the latest InDesign format.

Because of how the the font book was constructed, each font chapter would have as many as 20 linked files connected to it. My old font manager had finally stopped working with the current MacOS release, so I had get a new one (Linotype FontExplorer X Pro). And my font collection had grown over the same period of time, meaning the font manager wasn’t sure anymore which version of which typeface was right.

It took a lot more effort than I had hoped. But I got it all sorted.

Another issue was the single-page layout designed for the PDF. I had to convert all the documents that make up the book, opening every one of them again and changing from single-page to facing-page layout mode. Then we had to reposition all the placed assets to align to the new margins.

It was like taking apart a car and putting it all back together again. Lots of moving parts!

All of this updating had to be done using the Book features of InDesign. The Book panel is the master guide for all the documents in the book:

  • If you open documents directly by using File > Open, the Book panel will get annoyed and give you yellow flags on your documents thinking that they are now out of sync.
     
  • The Book panel keeps track of all the documents and their state and most importantly the page numbering on the master pages. When you reorder any document in the book list, it opens all the other files behind the scenes and updates the numbers, and any other items controlled by the master style file. It can get a little dicey, and requires patience and being careful.
     
  • It’s very easy, too easy, to change the one document from which all your styles will be copied from. It’s easy to select another document inadvertently and then spread it’s styles and master pages settings across all your documents…and not know you did it. The list in the Book panel doesn’t ask you to confirm making those kinds of changes, so you have to be vigilant.

For instance, we used an InDesign file for all common elements (lines, boxes, etc.) placed on the master template page for each font header and footer file. So when we edited that master file and hit save, InDesign would then make us open every file that included that master file. This is very powerful, but it creates a ton of work every time you tweak something on the master page. So, master pages are a powerful feature, especially when used in a nested fashion like we were doing, but that power comes with great responsibility, and a lot of Open > Sync > Save > Close mouse clicks!

Here is an example of what things look like under the hood. Each page consists of a master template (the font pair names), a header file (the main font), and a body file (the font being combined), and one other master file with the colored boxes and divider lines. Now multiply times 350! I’ve wiggled the body file out of place, so you can see it’s green outline and center handling circle.

Again, it took more time than I would have liked, but eventually I got the whole thing revamped, reconnected, resynced, tuned up, and ready to go. Three steps forward and two back eventually gets the job done! Now I was ready to get on with the big one, the one huge task looming on the horizon: creating a print production ready combined PDF output of a multi-document, highly complex InDesign Book.

Another wacky setback at the 99.9% mark

It would be so simple to get over the finish line now, right? Using the Book panel, I’d simply hit “Export book to PDF” and wait 10 minutes for it to open all the layout files one by one, the linked files, the fonts, etc, and collate all that craziness into one deliciously simple and small PDF, right?

Not so much!

I hit export, and watched InDesign start it’s magic. I watched the progress info pane as it opened the first chapter, the second chapter, then…CRASH. InDesign disappeared. It vanished. POOF. What happened?

Ok, let’s reboot the app and try again. Chapter 1, 2, POOF again. OK, reboot the mac. 1, 2, POOF. Always the same, POOF, no more InDesign.

Something must be wrong with chapter 2! Resave, update internal assets, clear out 10-20 yellow “update me” triangles in the Book panel. Export, POOF. No luck.

Well maybe I can break the PDF export into chapters and recombine with Acrobat at the end? Fifty chapters of that would not be fun. Let’s try this, let’s try that. I tried many things for over a week but could not get it export to PDF. The thought of doing the chapters one by one and combining at the end meant that if something went wrong, I might have to do all that work again, and again. That was not going to be the solution. Something kept failing, and it was random. A chapter that failed during Book Export, would export fine if only by itself. Every time I isolated a problem file, it exported fine. If tried exporting a different chapter and forward, it would work for a few chapters and then…POOF.

There are a lot of articles on how the Book > Export feature is tricky and at times irksome. There are all kinds of weird issues that crop up for people, as I discovered while searching for solutions to my particular circumstance. It sure seemed that the errors people were experiencing with Book were random and very unique, and even harder to replicate. To come all this way, and burn so much midnight oil, only to get stuck at the very final step was very frustrating.

And then I had a thought. Every old file I had opened had to be re-saved into the new format. But the Book file never did that as far as I could remember. It just opened, and when I hit save, it just saved. What if I just ditched the Book file and created a new one?

I created a new empty Book, and proceeded to add the 50+ source files, and made sure they were in the right order. I also made sure the master style target in the Book panel was set to the right file. Then I ran the Pre-Flight tool and got all “green circles”. Whoah! If you have ever made a Book in InDesign, you know that there is nothing more satisfying than “green circles” during Pre-Flight, especially on the first try. Then…with great trepidation…Export Book to PDF.

I watched the progress pane light up with chapter after chapter. About ten minutes later, the entire 370 pages was done. No crashes. Just a final print-ready PDF.

Relief, and excitement. But really, it was more relief than anything. Basically, there was crud in the nine-year old Book file that upgrading across quite a few major versions in one leap couldn’t clear out.

The review copies

I’ll skip the cover creation drama for another post. In short, KDP is super easy, and IngramSpark, even though they give you a template, is not.

I got the PDFs for the KDP paperback and IngramSpark casebound ready to go, and uploaded them both to each system. I filled out all the metadata, got them both approved, and ordered a copy.

Whatever flag was in the KDP system to reject “lorem ipsum” content was no longer there! My cover and contents PDFs were both approved as valid in mere minutes. With IngramSpark, it took a few hours.

I got the Amazon copy first, and loved the quality. It was marked with a “not for resale” grey band which you can see below.

It was a leap over what I got from Lulu quite a few years ago, but Lulu was still decent.

I got the casebound IngramSpark copy next. It felt great to have that hardcover in my hand. The color cover was great, and the interior paper quality for both was spot on. Not luxurious, but suitable. The saturation of blacks and handling of grey tones on both products was fantastic. I couldn’t have been happier with the result. It’s not coffee-table quality but it’s far beyond adequate.

The world!

Within a few days of going live on Amazon, the “Look Inside” feature was turned on. After flipping the switch at IngramSpark, the hardcover went live and you could see how Amazon integrates both listings on one page, if you’ve done your ISBN homework correctly. Very slick! Finally, B&N went live about the same time. I haven’t checked on on any other online stores that IngramSpark services, but they are of little consequence, really.

The marketing plan going forward

So that was a long story about going from digital to digital-analog, a lot work, and a lot of writing to get to this point. What is next? Marketing.

To keep this nice and short, we are planning on doing email list marketing, direct outreach to influencers in the graphic design niche, and digital advertising.

  • The email list will be built from visitors to our bonfx.com blog. We will be giving away free resources in exchange for an email, while also dusting off our email list from over the years (much of which will be dead, but there should be something good in the 6000 emails we collected over the years).
     
  • For direct outreach to influencer, we will be using Twitter and LinkedIn. We’ve had great luck reaching niche audiences with LinkedIn Pro for other projects. It costs a few bucks but puts you directly in touch with the exact people you want to reach. For us, one type of person is a graphic design professor who could recommend our resources to students, students who buy physical books.
     
  • For digital advertising, we are going to use Facebook and Adwords. We’ve had limited success with both platforms in the distant past, but so much has changed. So we’ll have a bit of a learning curve there, and look forward to flattening that out!

Finally, we will be publishing some ebooks after all! Just not visual resources that really need to be print in order to be of any tactical use. Our other content will serve as low-cost or free halo content and lead generators to get people to sign up for our mailing list. As our list of ebooks and print books grow, we will be updating a global splash page inside of each book. So every time we publish a book, we will go back and update all the other ebook and print books. Try doing that without POD!

What about SEO?

All of the manual marketing of course is in addition to doing solid SEO work on my blog and in the metadata for both Amazon and IngramSpark. It’s very important to get a lot of content packed into your metadata with relevant keywords and as many variants as you can research. You can see how Amazon and Barnes & Noble differ with the same set of data:

  • Amazon: The Big Book of Font Combinations
     
  • Barnes & Noble: The Big Book of Font Combinations

Your SEO affects not only how Google will pick up your book at these sites, but also how they rank inside of those sites. Both Amazon and B&N have their own search engines just like Google, and the same basic concepts apply, are critical, and cannot be skipped over:

  • Get your keywords in your title
     
  • Get your keywords in your title (this is not a typo)
     
  • Get your keywords in your title (still not a typo)
     
  • Get your secondary (or primary) keywords in your subtitle. For example, I used “font combinations”, “font pairings”, “typeface pairs”, etc. Do extra homework here.
     
  • Get your alternative keywords, the semantically related ones, in your short description.
     
  • Get all the same, even more mixed up with supporting and related keywords in the short and long description.
     
  • The long description for both platforms is very, very generous. MAKE USE OF IT!

Bad SEO is a self-perpetuating problem. The less you show up for your intended audience, the less you show up going forward. The opposite is true though. The more you show up in the Top 10 or even #1, the more you tend to stay there.

But you say you can’t get your keywords in your title? I hear you, and that’s too bad. Go for the subtitle. Can’t do that? Go for the body copy. Can’t do that? Maybe you are not in the business of selling books!

SEO Secrets EXPOSED!

Go to Amazon, B&N, Powell’s, and AbeBooks and search for “font combinations”, “font pairings”, “typeface pairs”. Notice what shows up everywhere? That’s no mistake, at least not at the time this article was written. Nothing is foolproof and SEO will change in the future, but right now, the secret of how to rank highly in Amazon or B&N is laid out right there on my book page. Study it closely for free advice!

Here are some quick links to make the search easier:

SEO POP QUIZ:

  1. Why do you think there are no results for the last link to AbeBook for typeface pairs (HINT: overly literal and limited title-based search)?
     
  2. What does that tell you about their search engine (HINT: it sucks)?
     
  3. What does the state of their search engine reveal about the power of Amazon’s search engine and their place in the market? (HINT: good search results = profit!)

You can do this SEO stuff! I’ve really laid it out for you…if you can read between the lines.

The future and the epilogue

So I hope I haven’t bored you. I hope that if you had thoughts of publishing a PDF (with no DRM of course), that they are scuttled, and that my story serves as a cautionary tale. I also hope you learned something about the process of publishing a print version of a book. It’s a lot of work, especially if you are not working with conventional text-centric content.

One thing is very interesting though. I find it very, very fascinating that the web came along in my early days of publishing, and has undergone massive sea-changes every few years, non-stop. When I was developing websites, it was a constant struggle to keep up with the changes. It’s really a matter of never-ending practice and staying current. Many specific skills I learned in web development are obsolete. Some main concepts haven’t expired, but all of the software-specific techniques have. But, essentially NOTHING has changed about creating a print book since the dawn of digital page layout tools. Sure, some of the tool features and nuances have improved, but if you know PageMaker from 20 years ago, you aren’t that far from getting up to speed on InDesign. This means that if you learn to make print books now, in a digital world, very, very little will change for you over the next 10 years, given the slow rate of change with creating analog books. Yeah, the delivery platforms will continue to grow in features and ease, but all the basics will still apply. Take that to the bank…or bookstore…or whoever dethrones Amazon in the future!

And one thing will never change: books will always be printed. Maybe less in some niches. But for some types of books, ink on paper will be there for you long into the future!

Douglas Bonneville has been a graphic designer since 1992. Starting in print design and custom publishing, he moved into web design, user interface, and user experience design. Graphic design and typography resources, including The Big Book of Font Combinations, are currently his main area of creative interest and output. He resides in Rhode Island with his wife Mary, three boys, two cats, and more guitars than he can count.
 
Photo: BigStockPhoto

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7 Comments

  1. Douglas

    No – didn’t know they existed. That said, many of places pirated books show up don’t have contact information. Would be curious to look into that option though – interesting. I wonder how effective they would be.

    Reply
    • Anthony Pacheco

      Hi Douglas,

      The DCMA notice services are adequate. I would not call the service super-effective or perfect, but sufficient enough because the service doesn’t get tired or stop.

      RE: Contact information:

      You don’t need contact information for a sketchy website. You can also send notices to the website’s host. Moreover, if it a sketchy host, you can start making noise at the registrar system level. The WHOIS web service lists contacts for the website and who hosts the site.

      RE: But…

      However, I am wondering based on your description if your sales didn’t fall off just because you saturated the market for that type of book. I’m not an expert at selling PDFs or eBooks, but I know authors who upload their books to the torrent sites with a note that says something simple, and non-accusatory along the lines of “Like this book? Visit my website and join my newsletter!” and “Visit my book page on Amazon!”

      These authors upload their pirate versions because it increases sales in the long run.

      Selling PDFs is tricky, and like Amazon eBooks, making money requires consistent output.

      With all that said, thanks for the article! I’m a big font slut, so I’ll add the print version of the book to my buy list!

      Reply
      • Douglas

        I’ll take a look at these services for sure. A fall off in sales coincided with the spread of piracy, and sometimes the pirate sites came up sooner in Google than my own site of origin for the book. At the same time, my organic listing did slide from #1 to somewhere in the teens. This was the biggest hit. That said, focusing on sales inside of platforms like Amazon and it’s own unique SEO ecosystem, is now the focus.

        In the end, if you can’t beat’em join’em. At the same time, what’s done is done (in the digital realm). I’ll have other ebooks out in the future but am glad to have gone back to print for certain books. But none of the ebooks will be PDFs out in the wild, unless it’s purely promotional, as you gave example of.

        Reply
  2. Nirupam Banerjee

    Print book are not safe EITHER. (Considering the case of Piracy.)

    In fact, I have seen Print books as simple PDF scans in even WhatsApp,

    Reply
    • Douglas

      Yes, this is true too, but for a large book like mine someone would have to be really dedicated to do all those scans. Also, with small type and the need to see detail, a bad scan PDF floating around could almost be an advert for the book. I don’t want to have to think of it that way, but there is some truth in it.

      Reply
  3. Anthony Pacheco

    Curious–did you ever try a DMCA Service–where, for a montly fee, the service goes out and sends notices to the web host on your behalf?

    Reply
    • Douglas

      Hey Anthony, my reply was decoupled from your question :) Please see above for my answer.

      Reply

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