What’s the magic by which the Word document you’ve been working on for so many weeks and months is transformed into a book? Jo Bottrill, head of Newgen UK, is a book production expert who’s worked with thousands of authors to perform exactly that magic, and in this conversation he not only demystifies the production process but also explains what you as the author can do to make it as smooth and effective as possible.
From copy-editing to repurposing for multiple formats, typesetting to cover design, discover exactly what’s involved in transforming a manuscript into a beautiful book you can be proud of.
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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Jo Bottrill, who is a production, project management and operations leader with expertise in trade, academic, education and ELT, that’s English language teaching, publishing. Leading editorial and production teams, Jo’s worked at Nature, Taylor and Francis and Cambridge University Press before founding Out of House Publishing, a publishing services company.
Now part of Newgen Knowledge Works, Jo’s colleagues in the UK, US and India commission and produce books, digital content and media assets for some of the world’s leading publishers, including of course, Practical Inspiration Publishing.
So welcome to the show, Jo.
Jo Bottrill: Thanks Alison, it’s great to be here.
Alison Jones: It’s really interesting to be having the conversation with you on the podcast, because obviously we talk very often about Practical Inspiration books, about production and broader themes, but I thought it’d be really fascinating for would-be authors, particularly first-time authors, just to get a sense of what’s involved, because it’s a bit of a black box, isn’t it? You insert the manuscript and out comes the book.
Jo Bottrill: Yes.
Alison Jones: So we’re just going to unpack that a bit.
So before we get onto the kind of the nitty-gritty, which I am genuinely looking forward to, we can geek out about this so much, just tell us a little bit about your own background in publishing. What drew you to book production?
Jo Bottrill: Yes, it goes back to my school days actually, Alison. So I was really passionate at school about English, about storytelling, communication, and journalism but also about science. So I decided to take the science route through university and then bring the two together in my career. And my first job was at the Nature Publishing Group, working on science content.
And that’s what got me into publishing and it’s really communicating stories and the author’s message that I’m passionate about. You know, making sure that we’re getting the author’s content out into the world as efficiently and effectively as possible, giving the author a fantastic experience and everyone else involved a really good experience of the process. That science, publishing and my career in academic publishing in general, really taught me the value of process, of efficiency, but also of service as well, great author and customer service all the way through the process.
And it’s that, that we try and really ingrain in everything we do at Newgen.
Alison Jones: It is a funny thing book production, isn’t it, because on the one hand, it is about systems and processes and it’s quite technical, but on the other hand, you can never lose sight of the fact that you’re working with intellectual property, with ideas, it’s very creative. And I think that’s one of the things that most appeals to me about publishing as an industry.
It’s that sort of mix of the technical and the creative and the commercial. And it’s a funny blend, keeping it all in balance, I guess.
Jo Bottrill: Yes, it really is. And there are so many different people involved in the process, from copyeditors, to designers, of course the authors themselves and the teams around them. We have to depend on good process to make sure the right things get done at the right time, but it has to feel personal as well, as you say, it’s about creatively crafting content and getting it out into the world in the most effective way possible.
And whether it’s an academic journal or a business book or a piece of trade fiction, there’s a process that needs to be brought to getting that out into the world as quickly and effectively as possible. So it’s that that really drives me, and making sure that we can get as much fantastic content out there and accessible and discoverable as possible is really, really inspiring.
Alison Jones: Yes, the discoverability is key actually, we might come back to that when we talk about more about the technical stuff.
I just wanted to explore your own journey a little bit more before we do that though, because you are unlike most of the production directors that I’ve worked with over my career, of course you’re an entrepreneur as well. So tell me how that panned out and what you discovered about that whole process.
Jo Bottrill: Yes, I’m an accidental entrepreneur, I think.
Alison Jones: Most of us are like that.
Jo Bottrill: The right description of me. Yes, so I was working away quite happily in one of the large university presses in the UK, climbing the ladder in production and doing pretty well. But then we decided to move to the West Country, a lifestyle decision really, we moved to the West of England and set up shop in leafy Gloucestershire and I started working as a freelancer really, providing project management services to my network of people in the publishing industry. And it wasn’t until two years into that process really, that I realized that I’d started a business. It had been quite successful. I’d managed to gather some staff around me.
But I was still running it through a building society bank account and doing everything on Excel. And it was my first business coach, actually, coaching has always been really important to me and that’s why I find what you’re doing Alison so inspiring, it was my first business coach who I sat down with in a pub in Cheltenham who really made me realize that I was an entrepreneur and we were building a business. And it was from that point that I was able to really start to bring process to it and start to think of not just the publishing work that we did and that we do for our clients, but really work on the business and develop it in that way.
And it’s been really inspiring to work with startups ourselves. We’ve worked with a lot of independent and startup publishers as well as some of the major university presses and big academic and education and trade publishers. But really being involved in a startup from the beginning, helping build process, helping to get those first bits of content out into the world and review and reflect on how it’s gone, and then charting those businesses through their successes, their difficult times, and really getting behind them, has been a huge part of what we’ve done at Newgen and it’s really inspiring and encouraging to see how publishing can embrace all of these new, niche publishers and getting, at the end of the day, new content in different forms, in different genres, in different media because we’re publishing content now in so many different forms. Getting that out into the world, it’s been great.
Alison Jones: Well, I have to say speaking for Practical Inspiration, it has been really transformational and I’m sure lots of smaller publishers feel like this as well. Is that in the old days publishers had an in-house production department, who would have been responsible for everything. Increasingly actually, even the big publishers, and you work with several of them, are outsourcing that function.
But for us as a fairly small, new-ish publisher to be able to partner with you and have access to that incredible, I mean, I’ve no idea how many hundreds of people you work with, but that sort of team of project managers, the freelancers that you work with and that rigor that you bring to the book production process, it’s a real illustration I think, of how 21st century businesses can work: you can draw people from all over the place and you can create virtual teams on the fly around a book. And it’s incredibly powerful.
Jo Bottrill: It is powerful. It can be very agile and very dynamic as you say. And yes, it’s a partnership. You know, I did a session at the Independent Publishers Guild conference a few weeks ago about partnership in publishing and it is exactly that. And as you say, in the global economy and with the importance of freelance working and bringing in different skills, what we do really is build networks, identify the right people, whether it’s people within our in-house teams around the world, or part of our wider network, when we look at editorial skills and design and so on.
It’s about bringing the right people together at the right time and then applying some process to make sure they can do what they need to do efficiently and get content out there. So yes, it is a partnership and what we do is enable people to scale quickly when they need to, to be able to bring in technical expertise and support when they wouldn’t necessarily be able to find that themselves, or certainly as you say, have it in house in the very early stages.
And hopefully do that really efficiently and flexibly so that we can scale up and down as we need to.
Alison Jones: I think it’s time to look at that black box, isn’t it? Because we’ve been talking about freelancers in quite general terms and processes in quite general terms. Talk us through that process, that magical mystery that happens. The author submits their manuscript and four, five, six months later, out pops a book. What’s going on?
Jo Bottrill: Well, I mean, it starts before the manuscript and you’ve been amazing at Practical Inspiration about coaching authors and sort of defining the process. Of course, it starts much, much earlier than a finished manuscript to make sure that these books are successful in the market and can be discovered and they’re being launched onto a really strong platform right from the get go.
We start with the cover design. So you know, I think we’ll talk about that in a bit more detail later on, but getting cover designs and marketing material assets out into the marketplace, into the supply chain, which is ticking the right boxes in the supply chain these days is so important to make content discoverable. We really start with that as early as we can.
But when we get the manuscript, we have project managers working in our team who are responsible for everything to do with a book, building schedules, connecting with the author, pulling all of the team together. So for us at Newgen, it’s really the project manager who is responsible for everything, who will be the publishers go-to person, who hold the hand of the author all the way through the process and will organize everything that needs to happen.
So they will have a really detailed work through the manuscript when it first lands with us, they will really get to grips with what the book is trying to communicate. And then we assign a copy-editor, so we’ve got an amazing team of freelance copy-editors that we work with in the UK and more widely around the world, with really important skills in industry, in business, in education and in all sorts of technical areas.
So depending on the nature of the book that we’re working on, we match the manuscript to a copy editor who will really be able to not just polish the language and dot the i’s and cross the t’s, but really understand where the author’s coming from, understand the language that’s spoken in that particular area of business or enterprise or education, and work hand-in-hand with the author on crafting that content and making sure that the message is concise and is clear and is consistent. So, you know, and not libelous, and that we’ve got permission to reproduce all of the images and all the…
Alison Jones: … legal stuff.
Jo Bottrill: Yes, there are technical things that we need to do around making sure that we’ve got permission to reproduce all of the assets and quotes and extracts that authors might be using. But it’s making sure that the message is clear, that the content is accessible, that’s becoming increasingly important. And will be discoverable in the market, that they can really focus on just tightening that up and making sure that everything’s consistent.
Alison Jones: I’m just going to put a waymarker in, Jo, because there’s an awful lot to cover.
So we’ve talked about the predelivery stuff, what our coaching covers: who it’s for, key point in market, all that great stuff about actually setting the book up for success, the cover design, which should get underway as soon as possible with a cover brief.
And then once the manuscript has arrived and the project manager has taken over, the first step is that detailed, real close engagement with the text that a copy-editor brings. Just recapping because there are quite a few processes here. So that’s where we’re at at the moment. What is the next stage?
Jo Bottrill: So then the copy-editing is all about getting that content concise and clear, consistent, but also preparing the content for the design team who will take over and start to make up the pages of the book and prepare the content for all of the other formats that we’re going to produce, eBooks, audio, if we’re producing an audio script, any other spinoff formats or assets that we might be producing from that core content.
So once we’ve got content in the hands of the designer, we make up pages and share briefs with everyone involved in the process. So authors will see proofs, we will have professional proofreaders working on the content, project managers go through proofs with a fine-tooth comb. And of course your staff at the publisher will review proofs as well. So everyone has an opportunity to review their proofs, to check over the content and make sure they’re happy with the way that pages have been set and the way that the content’s looking.
Alison Jones: It is a really magical moment that, actually, when you see the first proofs, because it went in as a Word document and it comes out looking like a book, and that is very cool. And you sort of mentioned it in passing, but just to draw out to people who aren’t familiar with the process, the two inputs into the proofs are the copy-edited manuscript, but also the page design. So you’ve got a page designer working on identifying, as you say, the structure of the book and how the different elements, quotes, call-out boxes, headings, all the sort of structural bits are going to look, and our authors obviously check those too.
And then that’s what those two things come together and you get the PDF, soft proofs we send out, rather than printed.
Jo Bottrill: Yes, we send out PDF proofs usually, so authors can review them on the screen and they can print them out if they want to see how the book’s going to appear on hard copy paper. But once everyone’s reviewed them, it’s the project manager, again, who will be responsible for bringing all of those comments and corrections from people together, making sure that changes that the author might want to make are consistent with those coming from the publisher, from proofreaders and so on, and making sure that every correction is made accurately and carefully and that we maintain the author’s voice and message consistently throughout, so that we’re not kind of introducing any inconsistencies, any errors or any issues as we go through.
So we’ll go through that process, sometimes through several rounds, to make sure everything’s completely polished and ready structurally, it’s all consistent and clear and nicely put together.
Alison Jones: And that typesetting process, we haven’t actually used the word typesetting, which we probably should, the typesetter’s responsible for the, compositors, they used to be called, didn’t they? I think that’s one of the things that sets apart a professionally published book from one of those things that people have generated from a Word document, because there’s a huge amount of stuff that your brain processes, but you’re not aware of, in terms of the way that the margins are set, the way that you have the back margin, as the recto and the verso come together. I’m getting technical, geeky now.
But the running heads, the way that you organize the prelims and the end matter, all of that comes together to create a product that you recognize as a quality book, doesn’t it? There’s so much stuff that’s almost tacitly understood by typesetters, that you don’t understand if you’re not a typesetter.
Jo Bottrill: It’s a skill, and typographic design and how we select fonts and how we put all of that together on the page. There’s a lot of established convention in the publishing industry about what works but really it’s about coming up with a design, a page design and a book format that will be recognized as a well-crafted and a well-put-together product. But is also reflective of the market that’s going to be working with the content and looking at the length of the book and it’s the page format that we’ve selected appropriate and all the rest of it.
So yes, that typesetting job is really skilled. It’s increasingly supported by technology these days. So, we are able to make pages faster and more efficiently than ever before, through using automation and technology. But at the end of the day, it is skilled typographic design that makes sure that these attractive books, that people want to pick up and buy, end up in the bookstore and are successful.
Alison Jones: And work in digital format as well, of course, because as you say that’s a key part of it.
Jo Bottrill: And work in digital format, so, exactly that. And going back to the role of the copy-editor, and I’ve talked about structure a few times, making sure that the structure is clear and consistent is really important then for how we go on to create eBooks, HTML content, anything that’s going to appear online.
And if we get that right at the beginning, if we get the structure clear, we can spin off lots and lots of different formats and types of content from that core sort of central repository of book manuscript once we’ve been through that corrections and revision process. So we produce things like eBooks, which go out through Amazon and through all the other ebook channels, but we can also produce web pages, XML that can go up onto platforms, things like audio scripts for the audio book recording, all from a central, single source, if you like. Which just really helps us make sure that we’re getting content out into the market in the formats that people want to consume.
Alison Jones: And it’s future proofing it as well, isn’t it?
Jo Bottrill: It’s exactly that, it’s future-proofing and it’s allowing people to access content in the way that that works for them.
You know, so often now we’re seeing people reading books, listening to books, reading on their phone. And it’s making sure that we’ve got that structure and that flexibility right in the content so that we can get those outputs really efficiently without having to produce a book three or four different times just to get the different outputs out there.
Alison Jones: With all the possibility for error that that introduces.
So just coming back to our waymarkers, I hope everybody’s taking notes, but we talked about the stuff before, we’ve talked about the project management, copy-editing, and now we’ve talked about page design, typesetting, proofing, proofreading through all the various rounds of proofs until we get the final files, which the author signs off, which you guys sign off and do the QA on, which then produce all the outputs, the files that go to the printer, files that go for eBooks, you know whatever’s required for that book.
So that in a nutshell, is this the kind of text production process, isn’t it? I’m keen to come on to covers, cover design is the one, it excites authors, it captures your imagination. It’s also the thing traditionally in publishing houses, if you have like five people around a table at a covers meeting, you still have six opinions.
What makes a good cover? And how can an author brief a cover so that they get the best chance of getting that one that’s really going to sing?
Jo Bottrill: So covers these days need to work in lots of different formats. So, we want covers that are going to be attractive on a physical book, that will stand out in a bookstore and have an attractive spine and front cover and all the rest of it, but they also need to work online.
So they need to work in tiny little thumbnails, they need to work in catalogues, they need to work in sort of square format on audio book platforms. So simple designs that are visually appealing and attractive, don’t try and work too cryptically, you know, aren’t trying to convey some kind of complicated message, I think are those that work really well.
And authors can inform that by really summing up and providing the key messages that the book is trying to communicate. What is the core essence of this book and who are the readership? What’s the core community of readers that are going to engage with it?
And then sharing examples of book covers that they really like, that have touched them, that they’ve seen to be successful in the markets and communities that they work in, I think is a really valuable way of informing the designer and helping the designer to build a picture of what’s the target market for the book, what is the key message, what’s, visually and conceptually, what’s the key thing that we’re trying to get across to readers. And then, from an author’s point of view, what’s the author’s preferences visually? And from a design point of view, what things do they like? What are they seeing be successful in the communities and the niche areas that they work in?
And then our designers, and we work with range of graphic designers all around the world, will pull all of that together and usually provide several options to an author. So that we can take different kinds of design and visual approaches to the brief, so that we can kind of check in with the author. Which of these is in the right direction, before really honing down on one particular approach and crafting that to a cover that is going to work.
Alison Jones: I think one of the questions that is often hard to answer for me actually, so I’m really interested to hear your take on this: cover designers are not illustrators, or they’re not necessarily illustrators. So what we do for cover designers is we give them the assets and then they produce the cover.
So if you’ve got an original piece of artwork, then you supply that artwork. However, there’s an awful lot of illustrative work that a designer can do. So where do you see that dividing line between what you can commission by the way of original artwork from a cover designer? I hope that makes sense as a question.
Jo Bottrill: It does makes sense. I mean, you know, we’ve got a range of different designers in our network, so some of them are illustrators and can provide that sort of illustrative input. Others are incredible typographic designers and can produce an amazing cover design with no image at all.
So I think the most important thing is, putting the project manager in control of picking the right designer for that book, and really having a brief from the author that really, as I said before, gets that key message across. When it comes to illustrations, there are so many options, we have freelance illustrators, and illustration agencies that we use. There’s a huge range of stock illustration libraries and all the rest of it.
But if an author has a particular concept or idea for an illustration that they want to use, I think that the most important thing is that we talk about that as early in the process as possible. And if there’s original artwork that someone thinks would work on a cover, sharing that with the publisher, with your team, Alison, and bringing in designers and the production team as early in the process as possible, would just enable us to have a think about whether that will actually work.
Alison Jones: Sometimes they’re too subtle and fiddly, aren’t they?
Jo Bottrill: Sometimes they’re subtle and fiddly, sometimes just from a very practical point of view the dimensions of that thing just wouldn’t work in the context of the cover design and also no space for the text. And also if it’s going to be very tiny, in a very little thumbnail image on Amazon, would you be able to see the detail at all?
And as I said before sometimes, I think authors get a bit lost in the concept or the idea that an illustration might quite cryptically sum up their book and it means a huge amount to them. But if you road test that with your friends or with some potential readers, sometimes that meaning doesn’t actually come across to them as well.
Alison Jones: Same with titles, isn’t it?
Jo Bottrill: Well exactly. Yes, exactly.
Alison Jones: You’ve got nanoseconds to get the idea across to someone and they’re not going to invest lots of thinking time in it.
Jo Bottrill: No, and increasingly with titles, it’s machines and bots that we’re trying to trigger to pick certain things up.
Alison Jones: You’ve got to SEO the heck out of your title and subtitle, haven’t you?.
Jo Bottrill: Your subtitle, your title, your chapter titles and your content as well. And, you know, copy-editors are increasingly being able to support that. And, you know, I think providing short summaries for not just the book, but for individual chapters, providing keywords and thinking about things like hashtags and key messages can be a really important way, not just in helping authors craft and bring their content together concisely, but equipping the publisher, the marketeers, the production team, the designers, in really understanding what the content and making…
Alison Jones: …a really great point, actually…
Jo Bottrill: …get out into the market. And a lot of this content, if we’re talking about summaries, keywords, that sort of thing, a lot of this content might not appear in the book, but we can hold it as metadata.
So, there’s a huge amount of content that we can supply in an ebook, for example, as metadata that Amazon, ebooks.com, Google can use to make sure that that content is discoverable, that it is accessible to everyone that might be interested in buying it.
And then it gets into all of these sort of nooks and crannies of the internet, where people find their content.
Alison Jones: Do you know, it’s such a great point actually, because one of the best things about, a lot of people just publish their eBooks on Amazon, but actually if you go through someone like us, who have that kind of distribution out to all the eBook platforms, one of the places you go is Google Books, and Google Books return search results on Google organic searches. And that’s really powerful too.
I’m very conscious of the time because we could talk, we could geek out about this forever. We know our metadata, I mean, heaven help us. So we’ve taken that whole kind of whistle-stop tour through from copy-editing, right through to sort of file creation and beyond, and metadata and discoverability.
I guess if there’s somebody listening and they’re writing their book at the moment, and are thinking well it’s kind of interesting, but I guess that’s somebody else’s job, what would you say? What’s one thing that an author can do, as they write, to really sort of set themselves up for success in that whole book production process?
Jo Bottrill: I think it’s really focus on the content. It seems such a simple thing to say, Alison, but so many authors immediately start to think about design and when they’re putting together their manuscript, they spend hours thinking about the font they’re going to use in the manuscript and crafting the formatting of the thing.
Alison Jones: Only to find we strip it all out.
Jo Bottrill: Exactly. We don’t need to worry about that. Focus on the content: is the message concise? Is it consistent? Is it in a structure that’s going to make it really accessible? Because accessibility of content, you know, rightly or wrongly our attention spans are shortening. People want to read short snippets and have really easy access to content.
So think about the structure. Think about how concise and consistent your content is. Are you using key words and the key message consistently and frequently throughout the book? And try not to worry too much about the formatting because, you know, we’ve got experts that will do that for you. So focus on the content. Don’t worry about the formatting of your book at that stage, I think is the key message.
Alison Jones: Yes, content and structure. I think, you know, being aware of the underlying structure of the book and how it’s going to look on the page.
Jo Bottrill: It’s really important.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. And you’re a man who’s read a few books in your time. Is there a book that you would like to recommend to listeners? I mean, I always say business, but it doesn’t have to be a business book.
Jo Bottrill: It is a business book. It was really important to me. It’s The E-Myth Revisited, it’s sometimes the old ones are the best ones.
Alison Jones: Michael E. Gerber. One of the first guests on this podcast.
Jo Bottrill: Yes, yes, So why most small businesses don’t work and what to do about it.
You know, for me, it really reiterates the importance of beginning with the end in mind, you know, as a startup, as an entrepreneur, often you’re wearing lots of different hats and you don’t really realize it, but, really thinking about, in five years’ time who will I need around me to make sure that this business continues to thrive?
And through storytelling and through really clear, consistent, well-structured book, he really brings it to life and really gives you belief that even if you’re wearing 25 hats today, post person CEO, finance director, if you see it in that way and really bring structure to your business and give yourself the time and the space to work on it, not just in it, you can really set yourself up for success in the longterm.
But it was hugely important to me as I was probably around year two or three of just realizing I had a business. And I come back to it often.
Alison Jones: Yes, it is an absolute classic. I thoroughly endorse that, great choice. Thank you.
And Jo, if people want to find out more about you, I mean, I want to say, come and publish with Practical Inspiration and you know, you’d get Jo into the bargain, but where can they go if they’re not going through us?
Jo Bottrill: So you can find out all about Newgen at newgen.co, and we’ve got lots of case studies there of all the different types of solutions and services that we’ve provided to publishers of all shapes and sizes and lots of author stories there as well. You can also follow me on Twitter @JoBottrill and of course, LinkedIn and Facebook as well.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. I shall put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com as always, along with the transcript of the conversation.
And thank you, Jo, it’s been really fascinating, I think if we’d had more time, I would have loved to have explored a bit more kind of where we’re going in the future with book production techniques, maybe that’s for…
Jo Bottrill: …we can do that next time.
Alison Jones: We can do that Lovely to talk to you. Thanks so much for your time.
Jo Bottrill: Thanks, Alison.