active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

The Maas gadgets of Amazon

In the past few months, I’ve created paperback versions of all 23 of my books. You can order them from the links in the menu above. In this post I’ll go through the results. Warning: this is a long post, with many photos.

The image above shows my 23 books, arranged in the order in which I originally published them as ebooks. I use the same size (5.06” x 7.81”) for all my books, which is known as “trade” or B-format in the industry. (Note that Amazon uses inches to size its books. Metric people like me know the size as 128.5mm x 198.4mm.)

I personally think trade is the best size for paperback books, but Amazon gives you a lot of leeway here. It’s actually the smallest size they offer. You can size your book from 5” x 8” (which is slightly larger overall) to 8.5” x 11” in standard industry steps. Amazon claims that 6” x 9” is the most common size for U.S. paperback books. I’m not a fan of novels of that size.

Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t offer the smaller mass-market size 4.3” x 7.0”. I’m keen to write a series of pastiches of the 1970s horror novels I love so much and they just have to be in that size.

Here they are again, arranged in order of author name. So far, I’ve published 15 books under my own name, plus six books as Penny Maez and one book each as Kare Mois and Scott Meze. I’ve designed the work of each author to be quite different from the others, in keeping with their market personas.

The thickest book on the shelf is Fantastic Trips, which is 782 pages long. The thinnest is A Thousand Years Of Nanking (third from the left), which is 100 pages long. Biome is 686 pages long, but I’ll come on to why this is an exception in a minute.

Look closely, and you’ll see that the actual paper of Fantastic Trips is a slightly different color to the others. Amazon offers two types of paper: cream and white. I’ve used cream paper for all my fiction, but white for my non-fiction book. The reason is that cream paper is very slightly thicker than white paper, and when you’re dealing with 782 pages, the difference is substantial.

Amazon quotes a thickness of 0.0635mm for each page of cream paper and 0.0572mm for white (obviously, these values must be doubled to give the thickness of the paper itself). So the thickness of Fantastic Trips would have been 49.657mm for cream, as opposed to what it is, 44.7304mm for white—a significant saving in bulk.

Even still, I was pushing the limits, since Amazon will print up to a maximum of 828 pages, considerably less than some of the professionally-printed paperbacks on my shelves.

Here’s a closer look at Fantastic Trips. The first thing to note is that Amazon’s POD books are truly beautiful. This is true of all the ones I’ve created. They are gloriously good.

In principle, they’re better quality than those of professional printers. Of course, this depends on the care the author took in typesetting and designing them, but Amazon uses very good quality paper, respectable binding, and a flawless print quality. My own shortcomings aside, my books are some of the loveliest on my shelf.

I mean it. The quality is superb. You’d think they were premium items, rather than POD, if you didn’t know. It’s an irony that some of the best books you may own are those by self-published authors like myself, who haven’t been through any kind of professional typesetting or editing process, and may be written by lousy amateurs with slapped together cover designs.

A reminder, though: POD is expensive compared to mass printed books. So maybe the quality is justified.

Amazon has two finish options for the covers: gloss and matte. Matte seems to be standard for paperback fiction, judging by the other books on my shelf, so I chose that for everything except my non-fiction book, which I’ve chosen to finish with a gloss coating.

And that gloss coating really makes the colors punch out. It appears to be a fairly durable gloss film, too. After extensive handling of this copy of the book, in order to proofread it (something else I’ll come on to in a minute), the film is only curling up the merest part on the edges. We’re all, I guess, familiar with paperback books in which the gloss film is peeling up all over. Amazon doesn’t seem to be the same.

By the way, hey, this is a book about the experience of taking psychedelic drugs. I reckon it’s important it has a gloss coating. If you’re not rolling up on it, you’re puking on it!

Here’s the interior of Fantastic Trips. If you’re interested, that’s Garamond 10 point, and it works out at about 330 words per page. Amazon provides templates you can use to create your book, but I chose to retain total control and create my own template in Word. Since this was the first book I converted to paperback format, I had fun getting the gutter within Amazon’s acceptable margins. For a book of 782 pages, you need to have a wide gutter, and Amazon won’t let you publish unless it’s within what Amazon thinks is appropriate.

This is The Music Of The Rending Of The Night, my only book under the pseudonym Kare Mois. It was always one of my favorite covers, and it’s come out really beautifully in paperback, though you will note I had to redesign it from the ebook version. This is the only book whose front cover I have redesigned for paperback.

Amazon will not let you publish a book if the author name and title are not fully visible on the cover. My ebook of Music clipped the title dramatically, but that’s not possible here. A shame: I loved that clipped effect, though people have told me they assumed it was a design fault.

For all my fiction (with one notable exception), regardless of the pseudonym, I use exactly the same formatting inside. The margins are the same, just shifted left and right where necessary for differing gutter sizes. The text is in Georgia, which I think is the most welcoming font for fiction, at 9.5 point which works out at about 350 words per page.

The exception is Biome, which at this standard format would have taken up too many pages for Amazon to publish. So I had a number of choices with Biome, ranging from publishing the book at a larger size than trade to splitting it into two volumes. I chose instead to slightly decrease the margins, pull in the leading, and reduce type size to 9 point. Biome works out at about 400 words per page.

Here’s the interior of Biome. The smaller and denser type is still perfectly readable and less small and crowded than many of the “professional” books on my shelf.

Among other things paperback publishing has taught me is the arcane art of hyphenation, something I do manually and with continuing perplexity. Unless you know how, you’re bound to stumble on a word like ‘acceleration,’ and the logical part of my brain still can’t work out why it’s hu-man but wom-an (feminist typesetting?), or no-where but noth-ing. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary has become my new best friend.

Given the restriction of 828 pages, it would have been impossible to publish Hemisphere as a single volume, even if I’d wanted to. So I decided to match the ebooks precisely, and publish the work as six separate volumes, each of about 200 pages or so. Naturally that makes the book more of an investment, but it’s worth it!

Here are the six volumes of Hemisphere laid out together on my tatami mat floor.

This brings me to the print quality of the covers. Amazon’s matte printing is lovely, though of course it mutes the colors slightly. In particular, my “Robert Maas orange,” in which I present the title and that bar along the bottom of each page, comes out far duller than the original file. (My original ebook designs don’t have the orange bar at the bottom.)

That’s fair enough — this is CMYK printing after all, and Amazon doesn’t give you the option of spot color, even if you could justify the expense. More annoying is that the printing also darkens the covers appreciably. Usually I can live with the results, or I’ve simply brightened my designs to compensate and republished them, but in one case it’s been a bit of a disaster.

And here it is. Born From Ash came out so dark that you can no longer see the gray metal grid inside the birthing hole. It’s just black. And if you can’t see the grid, how can you get the joke? I’ve gone back and tweaked the design substantially to really bring out the grid, and so I hope from now on it’ll be visible, just as it is in the original ebook design.

That’s my fault — not a strong enough definition between the gray of the grid and the black of the hole — but there are a couple of things I’ve noticed with Amazon’s covers. Firstly, they are sometimes not attached precisely square. This would hardly be noticeable, except that orange bar is a giveaway. The eye can detect if it’s just a millimeter wider on one side than on the other. There’s nothing much to do about it, since obviously it’s merely a vagary of the POD machine and every cover will be different. But for an extreme example of this, take a look at my copy of Biome:

Even at this angle, you can see that the bar is much thicker at the right hand edge of the front cover than at the left. Had the bar not been there, of course, you wouldn’t have noticed. But the reason I chose this angle for the photo above is because I want to talk about the headache that is designing a spine.

Amazon has precise rules on creating a cover image. Again, you can choose to use Amazon’s own cover creator, or design your own. I design my own. To create your paperback book, you provide Amazon with two files: the internal pages, preferably in PDF format, and the cover design, also in PDF format. As you’d expect, the cover design must be a single image consisting of back cover, spine, and front cover, carefully laid out together. I work in Photoshop, flatten the entire thing (including the text, to ensure I keep absolute control of it) and then export the image to PDF.

One of those precise rules is that the width of the spine must be accurately measured for the number of pages in the book. Fair enough: of course it must. This means adjusting your design carefully for every book you publish, since in my case no two books have precisely the same number of pages. Amazon will reject your cover if the spine is not the right size.

But Amazon’s spine measurements are not precise. At least not for cream paper (0.0635mm per page, if you remember).

For white paper, they seem spot on. The photo of Fantastic Trips above shows that the spine is almost perfectly sized, with just a very little overlap of the spine image onto the front and back. I’m happy with that. I cut the image at the precise edges of the spine and I’m glad it wraps over very slightly (less than half a millimeter).

With cream paper, Amazon’s measurement is off. The paper is not as thick as they tell you it is. Of course, the error accumulates with the more pages you have. You won’t notice with books of few pages, but when you get to something the size of Biome the error has been compounded to a massive 6mm oversize. In other words, the mandated spine wraps to front and back by an enormous 3mm each side.

You can see the effects here. There’s a broad (3mm) white strip down the left hand side of the front of the image. Bad enough, but of course it also pushes the design 3mm to the right, meaning that the front cover is cropped dangerously close to the edge of the S in MAAS. The back cover is just the same.

To give them their due, Amazon’s publishing guidelines do warn authors not to design strong contrast or sharp edges between the cover design and the spine design for this very reason. But that wouldn’t fix the problem with the front cover cropping harshly to the right.

I could have attempted to correct the spine wrap, for example by extending my front cover image slightly into the spine, but I can’t be sure it would work. Since I live in Japan, all my own copies of my POD books were printed locally in Japan. (Amazon inserts an extra page at the back of each book to tell you so.) I cannot guarantee that the paper stock used in Japan is the same as the paper stock used elsewhere, or even that one batch of paper will be the same weight as others. So it’s a dangerous game to play, and I just have to live with the problem.

Then again, maybe you won’t think it a problem at all. It’s not perfect, but it’s not offensive. And it’s still a great looking book, if I say so myself.

This brings me on to the most important thing about POD. Here in Japan, we’ve had POD machines in bookshops for a decade at least. It can be truly impressive, as it is with Amazon. But it does cause a headache if you’re an author.

With traditional publishing, the publisher will print off proofs before they approve the big batch run. They’ll examine the proof, tweak the plates, and only start the presses rolling when everything is perfect. They’ll also check the printed books for quality issues before they start shipping them out.

That’s not the case with POD. There’s no big batch run. The batch is one book at a time. You certainly don’t get to see proofs before your book goes live. Amazon won’t send you a copy prior to publication, just so you can check it’s fine. Even with Amazon’s own onscreen approval mock-up you won’t catch all the errors and issues until you have the actual book in your hand.

And that means you have to publish it first, and buy your own copy from the site to proof with. You can then edit your source files and re-upload them. That’s what I’ve had to do with all my books. I published them, bought a copy, and used it to proof with. I then made all the necessary changes and uploaded the source materials again. I haven’t yet gotten around to buying corrected (final!) versions.

Maybe I missed something fundamental. Maybe you can schedule your book for future publication and in the meantime buy your own copy to proof it. I didn’t see that option. It’s something Amazon really needs to add, and I bet they will. And while you’re at it, Amazon, give authors the facility to buy one copy of their own book at cost, please, without the 66% Amazon markup.

I’m not dumb. Knowing I have to buy my own books to proof them, I made sure the Japanese price was the lowest permissible. I get no royalties for Japanese sales in the meantime, but I’m not throwing money away.

What the current system means is that publishing on paperback at Amazon is a scary business if you’re an independent author with a reader base eager for your next book. You have to tell them not to buy it until you’ve had a chance to proof and correct it.

Maybe they will anyway, just to have a collector’s item you can be embarrassed about later!

At the opposite end of the spectrum to Biome’s spine problem, Amazon also polices the text you place on the spine, demanding that you leave 1.6mm between any spine text and the left and right edges of the spine. I’m not sure exactly how this works, because I tried my hardest to be within these margins but never managed to get my covers for my three “bitesize novels” approved. Amazon kept rejecting them, saying the text was too close to the edges. So in the end I simply deleted the text altogether. Here you can see those three books, each about 100 pages long. It would be nice to have spine text, but I’m not that disappointed that they don’t.

I want to take a moment to indulge myself in my six Penny Maez novels. My Penny Maez novels are written to a set length of between 50,000 and 60,000 words. (I did the same thing with Slow Wilhelm Exit, which for a while I considered releasing as a Penny Maez novel.) Each paperback is therefore approximately 200 pages long.

I used a bold design scheme for these paperbacks, in keeping with their suitability to a young adult readership (though they’re also adult novels), and I think it’s come out really well. I like the effect of repeating part of the front cover design on the spine, and of using the color of the title as a background splash on the spine and back. (These colors are from my original ebook designs — I haven’t changed them at all.) From being a “secondary” voice, Penny Maez now feels like one of the team. The paperback process has been worthwhile just for this. Of course, Penny always did write some of my best books.

And here are the six published Penny Maez novels. I love how bright and compelling they are. Penny will publish three more novels in her career, and I’m already advertising them in the backs of these six paperbacks. You may have to wait several years for me to get around to writing them, though!

I have two last comments to make. Firstly, though Microsoft Word is of course the standard tool for authors, it’s a lousy tool in many ways, and was not designed for authors. Among the many things that Word won’t let you do, it won’t let you view your document in two-page layout with the even numbered page on the left. (You can of course add a bogus page at the top of your document to try to achieve the same effect, but that’s dangerous messing about.) Just as annoying, it handles images poorly, and the built-in PDF converter down-samples those images. To create print ready PDF versions of Word files, you must use an Adobe Acrobat converter, which adds a menu to your Word toolbar.

This is important, since Amazon complains if you try to include internal images that are less than 300dpi in resolution. To me it feels a little academic, since even though I use high resolution internal images, Amazon’s POD dithers them using a noticeable halftone matrix.

Here’s an example of an internal image, this one from the Penny Maez book The Mael. It’s a section divider — I’ve designed section dividers for all my books that have sections. As you can see, the image comes out very well, with subtle enough grayscale processing (using halftone dithering, of course) for you to see the intricacies of the image. Amazon has options such as color printing (an absurd cost increase for novels) and internal bleeds (again, not worth the hassle) but you can achieve worthwhile results simply within the restrictions of the black and white printing and plain outer margins.

Here’s a close view of the map of Manhattan that appears at the beginning of Grand Funk Central. If you have the ebook, you’ll know this map appears in color there. I could not justify color printing for the paperback, but the grayscale version comes out very well. Still, you can see Amazon’s down-sampling (halftone matrix processing) even in this photo, particularly on that slanted line marking 51st Street.

And secondly, I have written forewords for most of my Robert Maas novels, and afterwords for all my Penny Maez novels. These small essays are exclusive to the paperback editions and are not included in the ebooks. (Occasionally I’ve adapted one of the posts from this blog.) They are by themselves reason enough to opt for the paperback versions!


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