02 April 2020

Pandemic publishing plans: Better Posters book update

Plan, design and present a better academic poster
When I started working the Better Posters book over two years ago, the original plan from the publishers was to release it in the first quarter of 2020. Which would have been the end of March, 2020.

Er. Yes. About that.

I never mentioned the “first quarter of 2020” date publicly, but because we are now past that date, this is a good time to talk about the status of the book.

The writing is done. The copy editing and revision is done. The cover design has gone through a few versions, and is probably close to being finalized. Planning is going on for production and promotion. But we’re not going to be close to that original planned publication date.

Part of the reason we slid past the planned publication date was my own fault. Copy editing took longer than I anticipated. I always knew it would be complex, but things that I didn’t think of cropped up, like getting permissions for quotes. And I was still teaching full course loads when the copy editing was going on. And it was partly because the copy editing wasn’t just text, either. I ended up revising a lot of figures, and even creating a few new ones.

But the other big reason it will still be some time before you can hold the Better Posters book in your hand is not my fault. There are more important things going on than my little book.

So you may have noticed we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.

Normally, if the book was coming out in the next few months, it would be leading into, or in the middle of, summer. Summer is peak conference season, but every scientific conference that I know of has been cancelled for 2020. It is the worst time ever to release a book about conference presentations.

Of course, that problem even assumes that the book could be physically printed over the next couple of months. Much of book production is digital now and can be done remotely, but there’s enough stuff involving moving atoms around instead of bits that printing and shipping a book would be somewhere between “slow and difficult” to “Shut up and get out, and take your impossible demands with you.”

We’d be doing nobody any favours trying to get this book out in the next few weeks. There’s no point. (Thanks, COVID-19!)

I am still hoping that you will be able to read this book before the end of the year, but only time will tell. It always does.

Update, 4 April 2020: Yesterday, Beth Meachum, an executive editor at Tor Books, took to Facebook to outline why publishing is in a tough spot now. Some of this is specific to the US, and the Better Posters publisher, Pelagic Publishing, is in the UK. Still.

I want to talk for a minute about why publishing is in so much trouble right now. It’s way more complicated than most people seem to think.

First, you need to know that the vast majority of our business remains in hardcover and paperback books. Hard copies, physical objects. The second strongest sector has been audio books. Ebooks are a distant third.

Selling books is a very long and complicated supply chain. Ignore editorial – writers and editors can work at a distance and electronically. It really starts with the paper. Storing paper for the big presses takes an enormous amount of warehouse space, which costs money. Printers don't store a lot – they rely on a “just in time” supply chain so that when a book is scheduled to go to press, the paper is delivered to the printer. Most of that paper is manufactured in China. Guess what isn’t coming from China? Anything, for the last three months. Some of it comes from Canada. Guess what the Trump administration put a big tariff on at the beginning of the year?

So, we don’t have adequate paper supplies. Then consider, big printing plants are not “essential businesses.” There are only a couple printers in the US that can handle the book manufacturing business. One of them shut down last week. COVID-19. We started rescheduling books like mad to deal with that.

But supposing we had paper, and a printer and bindery, the books have to be shipped to the warehouse. Again, non-essential movement. The freight drivers moving books? Staying home, as they should. Not all of them. I hope they remain healthy, because dying to get the latest bestseller to the warehouse doesn’t seem quite right to me.

Now then, our warehouse. We have a gigantic facility in Virginia. Lots of people are working there, bless them, but it’s putting them at risk. There they are, filling orders, packing boxes, running invoices. Giving those boxes to the freight drivers who take the books to the bookstores and distributors. Again, truck drivers risking their lives to bring books to the bookstores.

But think again. The bookstores are closed. The distributors are closed. No place open to deliver the books to. Some bookstores are doing mail order business, bless them, but they aren't ordering very many books from our warehouse. Amazon isn't ordering very many, either – because they have (correctly) stopped shipping books and are using their reduced staff to ship medical supplies and food.

So the books that distributors and sellers ordered months ago are not being printed or shipped or sold. And because of that, they aren't making any money. And because of that, they are not ordering any books for months from now. Plus they aren't paying for the books they got from us last month and the month before. Cash flow has ground to a halt.

Now, audio books... turns out that people mostly, almost 100%, listen to audio books while they commute to work. Sales of audio books collapsed about three weeks ago. Fortunately, there isn’t a physical supply chain there, so theoretically that business can restart immediately upon resumption of commuting.

So given all the above, it’s not a good time in the publishing industry. The damage is going to last for a long time, the effects will be felt for at least a year to come, even if we do go back to business as usual in May. Or June. Or July.....

Oh let’s be real. We won’t go back to business as usual until there is a real vaccine for this coronavirus.

The insight is welcome, the honesty is bracing, and it’s just a little scary for a first time author to read. But I’m lucky. Very, very lucky. My livelihood doesn’t rest on this book.

P.S.—The artwork at the top is a snippet of a cover concept! Just a teaser to show production is happening, and to give you a little more than authorial angst over publication delays.

P.P.S—Because the book is still in production and should still be released, I thought this was a good time to give the blog header a new look. You may notice it is a little more in line with the cover concept sample above than the old blog header.

Better Posters, Improving poster presentations since 2009 (it's taking longer than we thought). Soon to be a book!

This was my first project in the newest version of CorelDraw. I was excited to play with some of the new features, like variable fonts. Looking for references for the “Soon to be a major motion picture” sticker was also fun.

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