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Thinking Inside the Box

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Everyone knows how to pack a box of books. You square up a carton you hope is the right size, tape the bottom, put in the books, add the packing, and tape the top. This takes about two minutes.If you have many cartons to send, however, there is a much better way. You stack up the books on a 12″ x 18″ piece of cardboard sitting on a 12″ wide section of a skate-wheel conveyor. You measure the height of the stack against a rule attached to the conveyor, and then choose the carton of the right depth. (You have three sizes, all 12″ wide and 18″ long, but 6″ or 8″ or 10″ deep.)Then you put the carton around the books. The skate-wheel conveyor has two slots and a pair of arms that make it easy to tuck up the bottom flaps by sliding the carton along the conveyor. Finally you add a little packing and push the carton through a machine that tapes the top and the bottom at the same time. This procedure takes longer than the first to describe, but much less time to do: about 20 seconds. It’s the same old box deployed somewhat differently.The Book Box

A book is a sort of box-a package. What is the best way to fill that package?”No!” exclaim the publishing traditionalists. “You’re going at this backwards. You must start with the content and then create the one ‘package’ that is somehow just right for that content.”If we had world enough and time (and money), this is perhaps the best way to create a book; but publishers interested in producing a number of titles each season don’t do it that way because it is too time-consuming. They fit most of their titles into three or four standard formats-the ones printers can manufacture cost-effectively-and they alter the content and the interior design to suit the package.But isn’t this a “cookie cutter” approach? Maybe it is, but the first law of successful publishing is that you must never ask the consumer to pay for some “extra” he or she does not want. Odd trim sizes, 300 pages on a subject worth 200 pages, or “high concept” interior design can easily force a publisher to price a book higher than the market will bear.The Employee Box

If you’re going to hire a new employee for your publishing company, you will need to create a very careful job description, another sort of box. (Watch out! They all want to be editors, no matter what they say in the interview.) Should you find a person to fit that box, or should you alter the box to fit a particular candidate? I am in favor of the standard box, but with three different depths and salary levels to match. This approach combines the flexibility you need in a tight labor market with the focus you must have to hire the skills you require.The Publishing Company Box

Your publishing company is a kind of box too-or at least some days it certainly feels like that! Business consultants say loudly with one voice two flatly contradictory things. We must “stick to our core competence,” and we must “think outside the box.” I like the “core competence” idea better, so long as this box can have various depths. You do need to have a very clear idea about the particular part of the book market you are after and you need to get better and better at reaching that market.Sometimes, however, if you pay attention, the box gets deeper all by itself. The bigger bookstores, for instance, now stock many professional and educational titles, which means that traditional trade publishers can broaden their focus a bit without having to learn a new market from scratch (which is always an expensive proposition).Recently many new companies that thought outside the box about e-publishing are having to think again. There is a lot more to book marketing than simply making a book available somewhere. However some well-established book companies you already know-Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, and some of the major book distributors among them-are developing programs that will allow you to fit e-books into your existing publishing program without requiring you to become a computer geek or an “e” anything.The e-commerce gurus continue to insist that we must discard the business models that worked for us in the past because “Everything is going to be different!” I believe this is a gross exaggeration. Once the traditional players in the book market get up to speed, which is happening very quickly now, an e-book will be just another edition, like the trade paperback you publish after or at the same time as the cloth one.Your company will be able to accommodate whatever “next big thing” the electronic age turns up if you don’t panic. Don’t throw out your old boxes. If you think carefully about how you use them, they will continue to serve you well.

Curt Matthews is CEO of the Independent Publishers Group/Chicago Review Press.


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