Coffee Table Tapeworms? The Harsh Realities of Book Economics

In the comment thread for my post about Microcosm’s rave review in Publisher’s Weekly, outeast writes,

There’s been something I’ve been dying for, and here’s as good a place as any to mention it: real coffee-table editions of your books, meaning lavishly illustrated throughout rather than with a couple of meagre (though nice in themselves) wedges of pictures in the middle. When I’m reading about the different stages parasites go through and so on I want to see it – I want to see the flukes pouring from the toad and all that. And I want books that visitors will ohh and ahh (and eww) over, books that will last for years and that my kids will stumble across a decade from now and show to their fascinated and horrified friends… Pretty pretty please, do tell your publisher!!

First off, everyone should know that writers love this sort of stuff. It keeps us going. Look at your bookshelf, go find the web sites of your favorite living writers, and email them to let them know their books matter to you. Left to our own devices, we get mopey and complain to each other about writer’s block and the death of the novel and all that.

As to outeast’s suggestion, that would be lovely. It would also be a good way to keep guests from eating too much at dinner…

But there is, of course, the matter of economics. It’s very expensive to publish books with full-color pictures throughout–not just the ink, but the high-quality paper it has to be printed on. My book, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea had lots of color pictures in the original hardback and paperback. When those ran out, my publisher reissued the book without pictures. (My text does well enough without them, in my humble opinion, but those were some nice pictures…) Monster best-sellers, like A Short History of Nearly Everything, make that equation easier to solve.

On the other hand, in 2010 it will be 10 years since Parasite Rex came out…maybe time for a revision… hmm

0 thoughts on “Coffee Table Tapeworms? The Harsh Realities of Book Economics

  1. I think it’s a great idea!! How about a coffee table edition of Water’s Edge! There would be so many possibilities! A giant pullout of an Australian lungfish!

    That book matters to me. I’m making my wife read it now 🙂

  2. It’s been longer for At the Water’s Edge than Parasite Rex, and with lots and lots of new basal tetrapod and basal whale fossils in the time since, an update would be even more awesome.

  3. Water’s Edge is a fantastic book, Carl, and I seldom miss a chance to plug it. If I were asked to recommend four books that I thought would convince any reasonable person of the fact of evolution, I’d pick Edge, Ancestor’s Tale, Making of the Fittest, and Inner Fish. That’s some awfully good company, IMHO. And I can’t wait for Microcosm. Your output is astounding, Carl, not just the books, but a steady stream of fascinating and highly readable articles. You’re among my favorite science writers. OK, enough fawning already–I’m making myself sick.

  4. When I was learning embryology, I had this idea: remember those flip book animations? why not use the corners of the pages for this so readers could cearly envision a complex process as slowly and repeatedly and then as quickly as they want? (Slow and quick give different kinds of info)

  5. It ends up being cheaper to lump all the color material together because books are printed in what’s called “signatures”. These are groups of pages, usually 8 or 16 pages. Each signature is, in a way, it’s own printing project. If one page in a signature is in color, then all pages in that signature are printed via the same process (whether they contain any color), and the price paid is as if every page was full of color images. If a publisher can lump all of the color images into one or two signatures (usually stuck in the middle of the book), then the rest of the book can be printed as black and white signatures, which saves a lot in the printing costs. It’s an inelegant solution at best but that explains why it’s done. It also explains why some books end up with a bunch of blank pages at the end (some publishers will pretend these are for “notes”). It’s just that the book didn’t work out to a number of pages that match the number of pages in a signature, hence, some leftovers at the end.

  6. I got the Evolution edition without the pictures. The publisher cheated 🙁 Some of the text refers to the pictures, so it was frustrating that there weren’t any.

  7. I’m busy turning Australia on to your work, one bit at a time. Parasite Rex is a runaway winner with anyone who is directed to read it, as is Soul Made Flesh. With the business of illustrations in new editions, why not paste a CD of them into the inside back cover of the book?? Technically not much of a problem these days. MB

  8. A couple of extra comments on this illustration thing: The strength and the essence of Carl Zimmer’s work is in the writing, as most of you seem to acknowledge. He is that rare bird who doesn’t need illustrations to carry him along because it’s all in the text (especially in Parasite Rex and Soul Made Flesh). That’s why I suggested the CD (or DVD) in the back of the book, for reference only. Clog up the text with illustrations and Carl’s work could easily be smothered, and many readers would do no more than skim the pix and not get to work on the words, where the real pictures lie. And what pictures: They stay in the mind! MB

  9. Carl, I tell anyone who will listen about your books and your web site. My favorite books so far are Parasite Rex and The Waters Edge.

  10. Blast. I shoulda known that economics would shaft this plan… though I can’t imagine who wouldn’t want a lavishly illustrated full-colour book on parasites. I’d certainly fork out the dough. Thanks for the reply though, Carl… and for the tipoff about buying the first edition of Evolution!!

    And pace Michael Boddy, I know Carl’s books don’t need illustrations (I’ve read Parasite R 3 times without ’em); but why does it always have to be either/or? You can have the lavish pictures or the informed and exciting text, the stunning footage or the interestring narration, etc?

  11. At Waters’ Edge is probably the book I recommend to others more than any other. It could use an update, since there’s been lots of new stuff on tetrapod and whale evolution in the last 10 years and lots of it would make for good pics.

  12. Idea for a coffee-table Parasite Rex: Have a life-size tapeworm illustration across the top of each page, continuing page to page, like a sort of border. You keep turning the pages and the tapeworm just keeps on coming.

  13. Dammit, now I’m all worried about having to check my version of Evolution. I just got it recently, haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet, and have no idea if it has pictures or not (actually, I wasn’t aware it was supposed to have pictures).

    Anyway, I second all the fawning going on in this thread.

  14. Well, it’s not my absolute favorite idea… but if publishers were willing to underwrite the cost of obtaining all the fascinating photos of flukes exploding out of snails, etc., then the cost of maintaining a static Web site devoted to such ancillary information really wouldn’t be all that much. It would probably be an infinitesimal increment on what the publisher already pays to keep a Web presence alive, in fact — and everything could be in color.

    National Public Radio already posts extensive material online, and technical and textbook publishers often use Web sites to host errata and computer-code samples, for example. I think the marriage of print and online resources is a strained relationship at best, but it would at least allow those who are interested to see a little more color. And any forward thinking publisher ought to be able to see the advantage of driving more book readers online, if only for cross-marketing purposes.

  15. I should have thought of that. A web site! Bit behind the times here, upside down at the bottom of the world, suggesting CDs stuck in the back of the book, as I did. Good on you, Neil MB

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