Interview with Mark Long, Publisher TSTC Publishing

Mark Long is the publisher of Texas State Technical College Publishing. He blogs about the industry at TSTC Publishing's Book Business Blog.

1) Academic publishing is usually a short-run business where POD makes great sense if the quality is sufficient. What percentage of your titles are currently POD vs. offset?

All of our books are done via POD. Right now we do three print runs a year-one each for the fall, spring, and summer semesters-based on the textbook orders for an upcoming semester. Ideally, sure, we'd like to get to where a significant amount-say, 25% to 50%-of our titles had the sales (and stable/fixed content) to justify offset runs because the lower per unit cost would increase profit margins. Then again, if it wasn't for POD we never would have gotten our operation off of the ground; many of our titles are custom work for particular programs at Texas State Technical College and/or need to be updated regularly because of ongoing curriculum changes based on industry needs. We'd have already gone broke printing 2000 copies at a time to sell 150 copies that needed to be updated the next semester or two anyway.

In a sense, that can be both the blessing and the curse of POD. Short runs are economically feasible and from semester to semester the text can be relatively fluid and organic because we're not printing 5000 copies that have to be sold before we can pick up corrections/updates in a reprint. (And you don't have the ongoing setup costs of making those updates via a series offset reprints.) But, with the number of titles we actively have in print-around 20-25 right now-over the last year I've seen that we're progressively spending more time on an upcoming semester's print run instead of putting more new titles together as we'd like. So, we're looking to deal with that issue over the next couple of semesters by getting on a fixed schedule to update any given title once a year at the most.

2) Is the acquisitions process for your textbooks driven by the needs of the college or an independent business model of your press?

Initially, because of the increasing price of off-the-shelf textbooks that didn't dovetail that well with the TSTC's programs, our plan was work primarily with faculty who had a desire to put a textbook or lab manual of some sort-especially in those cases where they had already been working on their own to develop those materials so that the development time on our end was relatively short-to produce books that generally fell into the $30-$50 range. We also folded in some other publishing the school had been doing on an ad hoc basis, technology forecasts in particular.

The thing that happened after the first couple of years was that we had a wide assortment of books in a lot of different areas: some health related, some computer, some developmental math, some philosophy, and so on. And some were strictly custom work-books for one program at one college-with no market for outside sales while others did have the potential for wider sales.

So, while we still actively look for projects inside and outside the TSTC System, we're also beginning to commission projects on a work-for-hire basis that we think have good sales potential. That's the theory behind a freshman orientation textbook specifically geared toward technical college students we have in development and a series of technical program career guides as well.

3) I think you started the TSTC Book Publishing Blog for internal consumption, yet your readership obviously goes far beyond that. Has the outcome of your blogging surprised you, and has it changed the way you work?

As an old college English teacher-I taught freshman comp for about ten years-the blog was a way to talk about the learning process all of us at the office are going through in becoming book publishers. I also had this idea that it would be-to use the buzzwords du jour-a Web 2.0 new media marketing vehicle.

As it's turned out, though, since the blog is more about the mechanics of publishing than the titles we've put together, I can't say we've ginned too many sales from it. On the other hand, we've made some good contacts. In particular, we found the writer we contracted with to do the freshman orientation textbook for us because of a comment she made on our blog about a publisher she had worked for I had written a post about. And it's good, given the high degree of transformation and flux in the publishing industry right now, to actively participate in the ongoing "conversation" about those ramifications instead of just lurking around the fringes.

4) Industry pundits often point to colleges and libraries as the primary market for ebooks, something I don't currently see, but I've always felt ebooks would make a great textbook replacement for weight and environmental reasons. What's your take on the future of ebooks in academic publishing?

On the one hand, I'm still unconvinced that there is an imperative reason to buy a $400 device to read an eight dollar paperback. It just doesn't make sense to me. And, as far as straight academic publishing goes-original critical research-I think it will take a long time for tenure committees to see ebook (or even a lot of POD) publications as "real" publications.

On the other hand, I think textbooks in ebook format could really be the killer app that ebook reader manufacturers have been looking for. Who wouldn't want to have all of their textbooks digitally stored on a Kindle (or whatever) instead of lugging a giant backpack of books around? And with the printing/distribution costs cut out of the equation, retail prices could be half of what they are right now while increasing profit margins, much like SafariX (I think they're CourseSmart now?) has done with Web-based subscriptions to select textbooks.

The biggest problem I see is with the digital rights management issues. I mean, if I want to read a Stephen King novel I don't really want to hunt around for a bootleg PDF on the Internet to read on a screen or print out and put in some giant notebook. But if I'm in a college class, I could probably care less how or where I get a book or what format it's in as long as I can access the information I need. Combine that with the fact that college students are infinitely tech savvy when it comes to cracking DRM protocols and permissions and you wind up with a situation where the potential market is huge but the potential to undercut yourself because of the nature of your typical consumer is almost equally as great. Basically, once ebook readers-whatever actual device comes out on top in the coming format wars-become ubiquitous enough that the price drops way down or have enough value added features-I went to an interesting session this week at the Publishing Business Convention & Expo about epaper-to make pirating more trouble than it's worth, etextbooks won't take off like they could.


Mark Roy Long said...


Many thanks for giving me a chance to talk about what we do.

(I'm planning to be at the Publishing Business Conference again next year so I hope we can finally run into each other in person.)


Morris Rosenthal said...


It was my pleasure. As you can see, I kept the italics font for questions that you introduced. Now let my critics say I'm unrepsonsive to outside design suggestions:-)


Stephen Tiano said...

Well done, Mark. Thanks for putting this up, Morris. Got me thinking ...

Does working in the more reasonable economy of scale that POD makes possible get a publisher to breathe a bit easier about spending on prepress (including book design)? Or does it all go to motivate a publisher to tighten their belts and conserve resources all around?

I ask, because after a rather expansive year-and-a-half, I find freelance jobs on hold. Books that I thought were coming appear to be on hold. SO that's when I think about market my services in areas I may not have put in a great deal of effort so far.

And I'm wondering whether publishers who use POD might not be lost causes for me.

Morris Rosenthal said...


That's what we call a damn good question. It really depends on the individual publisher. I know I went overboard with a designer when I started out with offset printing because I was frightened by the prospect of spending $6,000 on a run of hardcovers and having some horrific mistake that would cause me to throw them out. If I recall, I spent over $1000 on the design work and the designer made a $900 mistake on the dust jackets that I ate.

Now I really do look at it the other way, and although I knock my book interiors out in Word (you're going to hate my next video) and covers in PowerPoint, I do it in part to prove it can be done and in part because I don't think it matters for the specific titles I'm publishing. But it's not my idea of fun, and if it weren't for the fact that my current book is complicated and needs continual reformatting through the editing and proofreading process, I would have happily outsourced it.

My guess is that there's a market opportunity in selling design services to all of the new publishers and self publishers that have been emboldened to enter the publishing field thanks to POD economics. But it may mean using more templates, lowering your rates (if you charge by the job) and trying to make it up in volume. The native PDF generation in Office 2007 and the CMYK capability have shortened the learning curve for new publishers to produce files that a printer will accept. I'd guess you need to differentiate yourself by some smart marketing, show how paying you to do the work will save headaches, free the publisher up to concentrate on book promotion, and result in a more professional looking book.

But it's a complicated situation for sure:-)


Stephen Tiano said...

Well, I think I see where my next blog entry is going. But I want to address some of what you just said here, Morris.

It is, to be sure, a little like the Lady and the Tiger. The choices aren't always appetizing. I mean, I don't want to make up in volume--that is, work twice or three times as hard to make the same living. I really like books, and making them. And I think--but the rub is that it may just be my practiced eye--that I can tell a book that's been designed and laid out in Work or Publisher; and art and covers in PowerPoint.

I can't argue the point that if the publisher doesn't mind, and the readers don't mind--as evidenced by the sale of such books--a publisher still NEEDS to spend professional money on the services of someone like me.

But, as a reader, I don't buy books that irritate my eyes. And then, too, as a book-lover, I just feel lousy that something is lost if we keep lowering the lowest common denominator in terms of aesthetics.

None of this matters during a stretch like I just had the last year-and-a-half or so. Work was plentiful and I was able to pick projects that please me for all the above reasons. But when things slow down and I can't be so choosy--or else I can choose not to work so much and pay so many bills--I get a bad feeling about all kinds of art and forms of expression.

As my brother-in-law used to say to my his son, one of my nephews, when he was a child and sulking over something: I think I'll eat worms.

Morris Rosenthal said...


The question isn't whether or not you can pick out books done in Word, I'm sure you could spot the amateur books in a heartbeat and some of the kearning issues may even make the books from professional designers using Word obvious. But professional designers do use Word, especially at the big trades.

I was standing next to the IT guy from one of the top trades in the US a couple weeks ago, waiting to ask him about their ebook plans, when somebody else asked him what software they used for book design. He looked at the guy like he was from another planet and said "Word" like you'd have to be an idiot not to know that.

My main goal with this blog is to help self publishers and small publishers make a living. There's a school of thought out there that says, "Go for it" with the second mortgage on the house, put your best foot forward, because this is the big leagues. My own approach is, don't throw away money when you don't know what you're doing. It takes time to learn a new business, and publishing is definitely a cut-throat one.

New publishers can't afford to see books as fetish items. The most beautiful books I've ever seen have been published by historical societies, paid for by pre-press subscription, where $80 a book (with zero profit to the publisher) sounds like a bargain. That's great, but it's not a business model, it's a charity.

I've been rather struck by the reviews of Kindle I've seen going over its strengths and weaknesses. Nearly all the serious reviews I've read claim that it's great for reading novels, which were previously considered the ultimate "need to curl up with" books. Where it falls flat is with magazines and newspapers, that require fancy formatting and images to work.

So when I'm advising a new publisher about setting priorities, I put layout pretty far down the list, and cover design not much above it unless the publisher is targeting bookstore shelves. And those beautiful historical society books, they never see a bookstore shelve unless it's in the gift shop.

All this from a guy who really loves books, probably too much, but I don't kid myself about the business of publishing, and I'd be lying if I told my blog readers that I thought design was important for most of them. But it depends on the goal, and if somebody is starting a literary press and needs to get the critics in their corner, function follows form.


Stephen Tiano said...

Well, I take your word for it, Morris. But--and maybe I'm just isolated in my artist's garret on Long Island--I just cannot get my mind around your saying that anyone at a big trade would design and lay out in Word. I think I'll just stop "talking" now, as I apparently am out of touch.

Morris Rosenthal said...


This is the longest discussion about design I've been in since I quit moderating the POD_Publishers group:-)

As to being in touch, if you haven't used Word in a number of years, you should try it, otherwise you're kidding yourself about your ability to judge the product. Or read Aaron Shepards "Perfect Pages". I don't have a copy of my last McGraw-Hill book around to check, but I believe they used Word to lay it out, and it's pretty complicated, with some 250 photographs.

Myself, I use Word from Office 97 (yes, over ten years old) because I'm comfortable with it and too lazy to learn a new version. And in the five years I've been selling books I laid out in Word, I have yet to receive a single negative comment about the interiors, while I've had dozens of requests from small publishers to know the exact fonts and settings I used.

But the main reason I kept this "thread" open wasn't to give you a hard time, I understand where you're coming from even if I don't live there. It's because after I shut down for the night, I realized I hadn't responded to your most important point about not being able to enjoy books that weren't up to your layout standards.

I've given away, and in extreme cases, thrown away (recycled with prejudice) the vast majority of professional and business books I've bought new in the past decade. The reason is my utter disgust with trades that publish manuscripts from authors who don't know what they are talking about. Fake experts hand out advice that can only waste people's time and if they take it too seriously, cost them their savings or their homes.

At the same time, most of my fiction reading is on crumbling acid paper from the turn of two centuries ago, with plenty of typesetting errors and ragged pages that were cut open by the original purchaser with a dull butter knife! The experience for me is in the words. I can even overlook the numerous typos and expressions that just don't work in English from from self-publisher authors whose first language isn't English, provided they have something of merit to say.

The value you add to books as a designer is strictly in the aesthetics. That's important for people who place a high value on aesthetics, but for somebody like myself, it just irritates me when I see a beautiful book that has nothing to say to me.


Bryan Rosner said...

To me, one of the biggest advantage of professional type-setting and design is not usability for practical-minded people like Morris, but instead, for credibility among research peers, readers, and the area in which I publish. It doesn't matter what we think (the industry folk), it matters what readers think -- do they think the book is professional and credible? So I take a "mainstream" approach and try to make my books look like trade books. And this approach has gained me the credibility I need to get inverviews and a position of authority. Of course it also goes without saying that you have to publish *content* that is valuable along with fancy pages.

Regarding the e-book discussion, I just don't see e-books replacing paper books. Forget about the technology capabilities - I don't see it happening for another reason - the reason being the "feel" of a real book. It falls into the category of other things that are distinctly a part of our culture, like coffee. Sure, you could wake up and take two caffeine pills instead of drinking a cup of joe. You could probably do it cheaper too.

But people don't want just the buzz, they want the experience of drinking coffee. I believe it is the same with books. People like books, period. And, add to that the fact that, especially for more complicated books with charts and references, real books are much easier to navigate.

You can keep a thumb in the index, your pinky on page 143, and cross-reference that chart on page 9. Oh, and you can quickly flip to the back cover to see if the author's website was available to check the info online.

Try doing that with a PDF on a computer. I would say I am in the top 5 percentile of proficient computer users in the world. I use a double-monitor set up, I can take my computer apart and put it back together (sometimes), and I know how to use most applications available, quite well. Yet I still HATE reading long PDF's. It is one of the most frusterating experiences known to man.

Bryan Rosner, BioMed Publishing Group

Morris Rosenthal said...


I think, though I may be wrong, that you went with outsourced design from the start. That's fine, and publishers with sufficient start-up capital can do that. But the main point I made in the video that I haven't posted yet is for those who go into publishing and don't have the money or desire to outsource design, Word is the way to go. It's what many large trades use to get the professional look you wanted. As with most arts, the results are based on the skill of the operator, the tool used is more a question of familiarity or convienience.


Bryan Rosner said...


Actually, I did all the design for my 3 books myself, with the exception of the cover of my "Top 10 Lyme Disease Treatments" book, which I paid $700 to have designed. If each book has two design elements (text and cover), and I have published 3 books, then I have done 5 of 6 design projects myself.

I am a penny pincher and have barely spent any money on production. I actually use a family member who has a masters in english for editing and trade her Southwest Airline vouchers in return (I get the vouchers from all the expenses incurred on my business credit card, e.g., printing, marketing, etc).

I designed all my interiors and exteriors of my books in Word with a little bit of photoshop CS3, which I invested in.

When I started my publishing company, I had no money, and was broke, so did the design myself for that reason.

Now, after having a hugely succesful year last year and having a bit of cash, I still do the design myself because:

a. I enjoy it.
b. I haven't learned how to delegate well.
c. I like saving the money.
d. The more I design, the easier it gets and more proficient I become.
e. I plan to publish a number of titles in '08 and '09, and with an increasing list, outsourcing design would just get more expensive.

One concern I do have though is that I think DIY can become a fault. For example, maybe I could grow faster and be more profitable if I outsourced more and focused on more core activities? I think I get the "failure to delegate" syndrome from my dad who, after owning a company with 20 employees for 20 years, failed to grow to 50 or 70 employees, as did his competition, because he insisted on doing everything himself. This meant long hours while his competitors hired out the dirty work to experts.

I guess this brings us to a bit of complex discussion of outsourcing vs. doing it all yourself. I think this question depends largely on a person's skillset, their goals, their management gifting, and how simple they want their life to be. But probably more than anything, it comes down to a personality question.

Some people (Morris and myself) are happy being "one man shows," writing, publishing books and websites all by our selves.

Others probably do better to establish a more conventional publishing company with employees.

I will stick with the one man show for now because it gives me tremendous flexibility and leverage with my time, frees me from the hassles of dealing with employees, and allows me to run my business how I want.


Morris Rosenthal said...


That's great to hear, but I made my assumption that you didn't do your own design based on your comment that you thought a professional design was especially important given your audience. Both we and readers of the interview with you know that your books do very well, so apparently your efforts were up to snuff:-)


Sander Stoks said...

Perhaps Word has improved after 2003 or I'm still using it wrong, but I find it pretty hard to get a good layout using it. It often inserts spurious kerning after font changes, for example. Perhaps many people don't even notice, but to me it interrupts the flow of reading tremendously. It's like I "stumble" — almost as bad as a typo.

I used only free software to make my book, using pdfLaTeX which outputs (beautifully typeset) PDFs natively. It has a rather steep learning curve, but since my book contains math and I've been using TeX for about 17 years now, it was the logical choice.

I had some doubts for the cover, since Lightning Source has some very strict requirements, and the programs I used (both The GIMP and a paint/drawing program I wrote myself in a previous life) didn't natively support CMYK. But things came out just fine.

I promised myself I would only invest time in my book, and limit my financial risk to the LS setup fees.

I knew beforehand that I shouldn't expect too much from the quality of POD (I've been in contact with you, Morris, regarding the quality of the print work of your POD book). I carefully picked the font, for example, so it wouldn't look too bad at relatively low resolution, but I was pleasantly surprised.

In case I'm allowed to pimp it, you can find it here.