Like most other moderately successful children’s authors, I’ve had my share of books going out of print. My response over the years has been to immediately request a reversion of rights, and to encourage the book’s illustrator to do the same. My idea was, with emerging technologies, I might one day be able to reissue the books myself.
So, when my picture book The Sea King’s Daughter went out of print in both hardcover and paperback, I had my agent send the reversion request. But this time was different. After a month or two, I was informed that, instead of reverting the rights, Simon & Schuster was restoring the book to print.
I took that as a pleasant surprise. It had never happened before, but The Sea King’s Daughter was one of my biggest sellers and my most honored book—illustrated as it was by the world-class artist Gennady Spirin—so it didn’t seem unreasonable. But a year or so later, the same thing happened with my next S&S book to go out of print. And this was one of my worst sellers—a highly unlikely candidate for reprinting.
This time, I did get suspicious. So, I ordered copies of both books from Amazon. Sure enough, they were both print-on-demand books from the biggest of the POD services, Lightning Source.
OK, you may be wondering how I knew that, so let me back up a bit. Since 1999, alongside my career as a children’s author, I’ve been building a profitable career as a self publisher of adult nonfiction using POD, and particularly Lightning Source. In fact, I’ve written and published several popular books helping others do the same. So, when I saw those two picture book reprints, the last pages told me at once they were Lightning Source books. (In general, if the last page shows nothing but a bar code and text at the bottom, you’re looking at POD.)
I should also explain I have nothing at all against publishers putting their books into POD, even if it means keeping the rights forever. In fact, I welcome it. When I started in children’s writing, it was one of the deepest wishes of authors to remain in print forever. So, it bewilders me how some authors, now that their wish stands to be granted, try to torpedo it with defensive contract clauses.
No, in principle, having my picture books in POD was fine with me. I thought it was wonderful that S&S was embracing the new technology. There was just one problem.
The Sea King’s Daughter looked terrible. I don’t mean just a little off, as paperback reprints tend to look, but really, truly terrible. The colors were much too light and much too green. A book that had been honored by The New York Times as one of the best-illustrated of the year had been reduced to a sickly, horrid embarrassment.
So, I did what any overconfident children’s author with a meager background in POD book design would do. I offered to create new production files for Simon & Schuster.
They actually accepted that offer. But after I realized just how much work it would be, I decided to up the ante and try to publish it myself. S&S generously offered to revert my rights for that, but I had never been able to connect with Gennady Spirin directly, and I wasn’t sure I could make the necessary arrangements with him. So instead, I bought the reprint rights from S&S for both text and illustrations. (And yes, I later received my author percentage of the rights fee.)
At my request, S&S then immediately canceled their Lightning Source edition. And later they did the same for another, more-or-less forgotten POD edition of theirs I discovered—this one set up with Amazon’s BookSurge, which had since been merged into CreateSpace.
Now, if you think this is an article encouraging you to go out and reprint your old picture books, guess again. I had no idea what I was getting into, and the farther in I went, the worse it got. But if you’ve ever thought of taking on such a project, you might find it instructive to learn how much trouble it can be. And if you decide to do it anyway, you might at least be inspired to seek out a professional book designer or graphic artist to help.
I had no access to the original illustrations or digital files—and neither did S&S anymore—so I planned to scan and descreen the illustrations from a set of proofs I’d carefully preserved since my editor sent them to me, way back when the book was being published. I already knew of one problem with this: The proofs were double-page spreads, but trimmed to the final page size. All the “bleed” areas beyond the page borders had been cut away. That meant I’d have to trim off at least an additional eighth inch on each side for my reprint, much as I hated to.
A second problem with the proof wasn’t clear to me till I was halfway through the scanning. Through mishandling in shipping, there were small but deep creases on every spread, and these showed up in the scan as light areas. I didn’t think I could fix them properly in post-processing. For me, this was the deal breaker for using those proofs.
At this point, I probably should have called it quits. After all, I figured I’d already accomplished my main objective: getting S&S to cancel their embarrassing POD edition. But I was already in so far . . .
So, for a breathtaking sum of money, I had S&S order me another set of page proofs from the original printer, this time with the bleed areas preserved. Several months later, I got a huge, flat package. These proofs weren’t as badly creased as the earlier ones—but instead of printing double-page spreads as I’d expected, the printer had sent me uncut signatures. That meant not only that I had the nerve-wracking job of cutting pages apart on one, two, or even three sides each, but also that the largest, most important illustrations were divided in half, with no way to seamlessly join them.
Well, I could work around that. A glued binding would hide it. So, I made my cuts as carefully as I could—luckily for me, they’d sent two full sets—and gamely began scanning again.
Halfway through, this time, I noticed that my trusty old large-format scanner was giving me green vertical lines in the scan. Bad sensor. No replacement part available for this scanner. Ready for the trash heap.
You’ve probably never bought a large-format scanner. You may have never even heard of one. With their double-size scanning bed, they’re a godsend when scanning graphics for picture books. Sure, you can scan art in sections and use Photoshop’s Photomerge, but who needs the hassle? Large-format scanners are worth every penny of the price. Still, replacing this one cost me more than everything I’d paid so far to buy the book rights and order the proof. It’s a good thing I was doing this project for love and not money!
I won’t go into the troubles I had with outdated, defective Mac drivers for the new scanner, my having to learn a new scanning program, and so on. In the end, I got what I needed: clean, descreened scans to edit in Photoshop and then import into InDesign.
That is, for everything but the cover. The cover proofs sent to me had the same finish as the final printed covers—a finish that was very attractive but easily scuffed. They were already marred when I got them, so I couldn’t get a decent scan. I tried various workarounds, including scanning parts of an old hardcover and piecing them together in Photoshop. But in the end, I wound up redesigning the cover, using an illustration from inside.
Another set of problems revolved around the type. In the Simon & Schuster reprint, the text had been scanned and screened along with the illustrations. But you can’t really get clean type that way, especially with a font as delicate as the one used in this book. So, I wanted to typeset the book from scratch.
The question was, how to remove the old type? Removing text from white pages was no problem. But much of the text was printed over illustrations, including full-page ones Gennady had painted just for this purpose. Luckily, before I reached this part of the project, the solution was provided by a new version of Photoshop. The new Content-Aware Fill in Photoshop CS5 enabled me to simply delete text along with its background and let Photoshop fill in the blank area with the surrounding pattern. It even worked well!
As for the font, the book designer had considerately identified it on the book’s copyright page, and I was able to locate and purchase the font for a reasonable price to use for display type. But because the font was so delicate, I decided to replace it with something sturdier for the main text. Even when not screened or scanned, delicate fonts don’t do well in the low resolution commonly used on today’s color POD presses—a mere 300 dots per inch—and in fact, this font had been hard to read even in the original book when set on pages with darker background. As a replacement, I settled on Microsoft’s trusty Georgia, with its high readability and classic look.
Yet another group of challenges was related to physical requirements for POD color books. There was, for instance, the little problem of Lightning Source requiring an eighth-inch white margin at the gutter on paperbacks with glued binding. In other words, on any double-page spread, they wanted me to leave a white strip down the middle. Not too classy. The only way to avoid that was to choose saddle-stitching—binding with staples through the spine—which looks cheaper. Also, Lightning required a full quarter-inch bleed on all outer edges, and my book’s illustrations had only the standard eighth of an inch for that.
The biggest puzzle, though, was how to fit this oversize book into one of the smaller, standard trim sizes of color POD, none of which had the same proportions as the original. I didn’t have enough bleed to adjust for that without cutting significantly into some of the illustrations.
I busted my brain over this for many months and came up with a number of possibilities, none of which I relished. I could give in and cut extra off the top and bottom. I could add colored margins at left and right. I could stretch the illustrations horizontally by a few percentage points. (If that idea horrifies you, consider how people with widescreen TVs obliviously watch programs and movies at wildly incorrect display ratios. Also consider that S&S’s own solution had been to add to the illustrations at the edges—extending them sideways by copying and pasting from adjoining areas, sometimes resulting in visual confusion.)
All these dilemmas were solved a few months before publication, when CreateSpace began offering custom trim sizes. I could now get exactly the proportions I wanted, and in a trim size not too much smaller than the original. What’s more, CreateSpace required only eighth-inch bleed, and no white margin at the gutter. I had already worked with CreateSpace as well as Lightning for my first picture book reprint, The Baker’s Dozen. For this second project, I decided to go with CreateSpace alone.
I knew this would mean narrower distribution, but I was more concerned with the quality of my product. And though I had to offer a larger discount at CreateSpace than at Lightning, that was balanced by CreateSpace’s lower price per page—so I could still hit my target list price of $10. (Yes, that’s high for a paperback picture book, but that’s color POD for you—at least for now.)
I still haven’t said how I handled the problem that generated this whole effort: the difficulty of getting good color from a POD reprint. This turned out to be a multi-layered problem, and tougher overall than I’d imagined.
One layer was easy to address. Whoever had done the scanning for the S&S reprint had apparently done a careless job, not bothering to correct the color at all. I’m no graphic arts professional, but in my work as a self publisher and semi-pro photographer, I’ve picked up enough knowledge and experience and equipment to do a whole lot better.
As I worked with the scans, though, and studied the proofs and printed books I was comparing them to, I realized there was another layer involved. As honored as this book was for its art, I became convinced that the scans for the original book too had not been handled as well as they could have been. Restoring the art to a full range of contrast—with real whites and deep blacks—and also removing an obvious yellow cast overall, I saw colors more brilliant than I had ever imagined were there.
Still, it’s one thing to get great color on your computer monitor, and another to get it off the press. For that, you need intelligent color management—a set of standards and software and procedures that enable color to be more or less reliably translated from one situation to another.
Sadly, neither Lightning Source nor CreateSpace has made color management easy for its clients. To avoid complications, Lightning has actively discouraged it, and CreateSpace, as far as I could tell, simply ignored it. As a result, almost all the color books I’d seen from Lightning and CreateSpace—including other S&S reprints—have looked a bit dull.
Still, POD color management is possible. I’d already worked out one solution for The Baker’s Dozen, tricking Lightning into printing to a more appropriate CMYK color space than the standard one they prescribed. And files using the same technique had worked at CreateSpace too. The result had been vibrant color you almost never see from POD.
But when the first proof came back from CreateSpace for The Sea King’s Daughter, I saw that this technique by itself wouldn’t do the job. The illustrations in this book are much darker and ink-heavy than the ones in The Baker’s Dozen, and on the cheaper paper used for POD, the images came out muddy.
A possible solution would have been to adjust the images to print with a lower “total ink limit”—another procedure I’d worked out, originally for Lightning book covers. But before I had a chance to try that, I got some undocumented advice from a CreateSpace tech: CreateSpace does in fact support color management, but only for images in one particular color space (Adobe RGB).
Once I knew that, it was a simple matter to submit my images in that color space with profile embedded. And it worked! The colors in the next proof were lovely. The printing was still not as sharp and clean as it would have been on better paper, but overall, the book was well within the expected quality range of a reprint—and many times better than the disaster from S&S.
Probably not. If I had it to do over, I doubt I would. On the other hand, now that I’ve done it . . .
OK, I admit it. I’m raring to reprint more of my books. And after that, maybe some originals? Lightning does offer color hardcovers, and CreateSpace is planning the same. And I do have all those unsold manuscripts. . . .