Penman No. 178: So You Want to Do a Coffee Table Book

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Penman for Monday, December 14, 2015

 

 

PEOPLE OFTEN ask me what it takes to produce a coffee table book. As a writer and editor, I’ve been involved with quite a few of them over the past twenty years. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was happy to attend the launch of one I co-wrote with Exie Abola and Felice Sta. Maria, Lighting the Second Century, produced for Meralco by the prizewinning Studio 5 group of publisher Marily Orosa.

While I suspect I know the answer, the first thing I tell anyone who asks me is, “What do you want a coffee table book for?”

Coffee table books are not cheap, running into the millions to produce—and, with few exceptions, they don’t make money for their publishers. So why even bother? Why does every year bring a plethora of new CTBs off the presses?

Many of those books don’t even come to market—they’re never meant to be sold or to make their investment back, and therein lies the reason for their existence: not to make money so much as to make an impression, not even to the general public but among a select group of readers, fellow connoisseurs, enthusiasts, and avatars of a certain thing or idea, to whom they can be given away as promotional material.

Because they’re generally not for-profit projects and because they require a sizable investment, CTBs are almost always conceived and funded by large institutions—corporations, foundations, universities, and the government—whose leaders have found some special reason to commission a CTB.

That reason is usually to commemorate and to celebrate an important milestone—the founding of an institution, the centenary of a founder, the completion of a major undertaking. CTBs can also be used to introduce or promote a new initiative—say, a province’s tourism program. Some CTBs may seem downright frivolous and extravagant, but many do serve a higher purpose beyond public relations, as visual records of our social and economic history,

But why a book, and why a coffee table book? Even and especially in this digital age—abounding with possibilities online and with new media—print still suggests permanence and prestige. The Web reaches far more people and is practically free, but many see it as an ephemeral medium, lacking the solidity and credibility of a book in the hand. For people and institutions seeking to perpetuate some shining moments and memories, the appeal and cachet of a CTB can be hard to resist.

CTBs are relatively new on the local publishing scene, and it wasn’t until the late 1970s when Gilda Cordero Fernando came out with such landmark tomes as Turn of the Century and A Question of Heroes that this new category of “desirable object” emerged. My own first exposure to CTBs was an epic challenge, when I edited the 10-volume Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People for Readers’ Digest Asia in 1998, working with and learning from such legends as our editorial consultant, the late writer Doreen Fernandez, the late designer Nik Ricio, and our indefatigable project director, Tere Custodio.

Institutions usually go to PR or ad agencies for CTB projects, which are too complicated for in-house PR units to do all by themselves. They can also be put together and undertaken by people like me, Tere, or Marily who’ve had some experience in the work involved, but even I have to assemble a crew of first-rate professionals who can deliver good work on schedule.

CTBs are, first of all, conceptualized by the client in consultation with the writer or the PR specialists. While top management can and should give the marching orders early on—purpose, theme, scope, audience, treatment, budget—it’s best if a mid-level person with some understanding of media were designated to represent the client in dealings with the creatives, with full authority to streamline decisions and processes. (My worst nightmare would be to deal with a whole board of directors, each one of whom will be dipping into the editorial pie and making a general mess of things.)

Aside from the client, the CTB team will typically comprise the project director or manager; the head writer and his or her assistants; the executive editor; the book designer or art director; the photographer; and a production or editorial assistant in charge of logistics—handling money, setting up appointments, liaising with the client, following up the paperwork.

Many future problems can be solved right at the conceptualization stage. If the book’s purpose, scope, and audience are clear from the start, expensive adjustments can be avoided later on. Schedules, budgets, and deliverables have to be established and stipulated in a contract, leaving a little wiggle room for exigencies.

A CTB is picture-intensive, and will typically have a ratio of 60/40 or even 70/30 in terms of images to text. This means that there’s absolutely no excuse in a CTB for bad photography, bad design, and bad printing. If you can’t afford to come up with a good-looking product—never mind the text for the time being—then save your money and go for a regular, black-and-white book, not a CTB. Take note that a good designer could cost more than a good writer. (My pet peeves design-wise include designers who get too fancy with typography or insist on laying out text over an image, compromising readability.)

That said, showing off a well-designed book with awful text—poorly written and riddled with grammatical errors and misspellings—will be much like going to town with a date with the looks but also the brains of a lovebird (not that some people would mind). So invest in a good writer, one possessing a mastery not only of the language but also of the material, and with the patience and maturity to deal with both the client and his or her fellow creatives.

I’ve often found that the actual writing is the easiest and most pleasurable part of the job. Dealing with and interviewing clients can be quite stressful, and there’s a saturation point one reaches with almost any project, no matter how interesting it is.

Like any other book, CTBs also require sharp editors who can look over the writers’ shoulders. I never mind being edited myself, if the editor knows what he or she is doing. (If I don’t have the time to write the books myself, I’ll sometimes offer to do the editing.) CTBs, surprisingly enough, often reveal their lack of editorial oversight in their most visible and therefore vulnerable parts—in their titles, picture captions, and the front and back matter, which tend to be the last pieces of text to come in and are easily overlooked. I’ve seen expensive and glossy books with spelling errors on their title pages!

A good CTB should be a pleasure to read and to own. It should be a showcase of the art of good writing and good design. But above all, beyond being a plaything for creatives, it should do what it was meant to do—provide useful information in a visually engaging way. The best CTBs will retain their value over time and even become heirloom pieces on their own. That’s something worth keeping in mind next time somebody with more money than sense cries, “I want a coffee table book!”

 

 

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