Coffee Table Books
Have you thought about coffee table book publishing? Are you an author or photographer looking to publish content that is eye-catching, unusual, or visually appealing?
A coffee table book is an over-sized, most often hard-covered book intended for display on a table or counter, where it’s available to guests to spark conversation. Usually, the subject matter is non-fiction and based on photos or other images, able to be skimmed or appreciated quickly by guests.
Generally, the content is meant to be read and understood by a general audience, taking a broad view of subjects in captions and small blocks of text, instead of a deeper exploration. The topics could cover broad, visually appealing territory such as art, pets or other animals, architecture, and sometimes history or science. Some authors may also be looking to create a single copy coffee table about personal topics such as family history.
Best Coffee Table Books of All Time
Goodreads.com’s list of the best coffee table books of all time includes National Geographic: The Photographs edited by Leah Bendavid-Val, The Art Book by Phaidon Press, Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs by Ansel Adams, Los Angeles: Portrait of a City by David L. Ulin, and Diane Arbus: Revelations, by Diane Arbus.
Take a look at these books to get a sense of what makes a coffee table book appealing and successful.
There are a number of challenges and special considerations for authors (or photographers) interested in publishing a coffee table book — there’s a lot to keep in mind that other authors won’t have to worry about.
The subject matter should lend itself well to visual display. Often it is content that is eye-catching, unique, or unusual, that can serve as a conversation starter. Not only should the images themselves be captivating, the interior design should give them a chance to shine. Professional design in any publishing is important, but it’s especially essential for a coffee table book, since the primary point of appeal is visual. As a starting point, some self-publishing services may offer templates for photobooks.
Coffee Table Book Quality
The typically large format of coffee table books means higher printing costs, and the focus on the visuals usually means higher costs for the art as well. You will need good color, which means a test proof from the printer. Prices can also add up quickly when permissions are required for photos, which can be expensive. Or, if the art is original, you will need to scan or take photos of your art. Even if it is to be a book of your own photos, any files will need to be of a high resolution in order to print clearly.
There are additional challenges to putting a coffee table book into eBook format, and it’s probably a bad idea to focus on eBook distribution. Much of the appeal of a coffee table book is tactile — guests can pick it up and flip through it when it is placed in a common space for hosting. An eBook can’t be placed in a central location, and can’t be left on the coffee tables that earn the genre its name. Without the tangible and visual appeal, coffee table books lose much of their charm. Also, the eBook format limits appeal for the gifting market, traditionally important to selling coffee table books.
Finding an Audience
There may be a general audience for coffee table books, including those looking for a gift, or decorating a space in their home. But really, the more generic the approach, the more limited the audience (think of Seinfeld’s coffee table book about coffee tables, for example).
The most successful books will appeal to their audience from another angle as well. Make sure you can imagine who would be interested in your book, and how they might find it. If your book is focused on photos, don’t just put together a disconnected collection of aesthetically appealing photos, come up with a theme — that’s what will draw an audience. A coffee table book with photos of New York City could be the perfect souvenir, or a reminder of home for those who moved away. Nature photos could focus on a specific theme, like coastal scenes, or even a specific region or national park. Perhaps your book pairs poetry with photography or art, and could get attention from audiences interested in poetry.
A fairly limited number of readers will simply search Amazon for “coffee table books,” but many more will be searching for “nature photography” or “books on New York City.” Make sure you can imagine who your readers are, and how they would stumble on your book.
As with other authors, one piece of the puzzle is a platform. Readers are much more likely to buy a book from an author they already know. For example, if you’re an established photographer, you may already have a following of people who appreciate your work. For most new authors, this won’t be the case. Establishing a platform from the ground up isn’t easy, but social media and blogging is a great place to start. Consider spending a year posting photos on Instagram, build a following, and then use that platform to announce when it’s time to publish your book.
Two Basic Approaches
There are a few basic approaches to publishing a coffee table book, and authors would benefit from learning the advantages and drawbacks involved.
Traditional publishers offer prestige, as well as established distribution channels. Many duties are delegated from the author or photographer to a team of experienced experts, and the publisher can handle costs for layout, design, printing, and other aspects. Authors won’t need to worry about these other steps, and this can be appealing. The biggest advantages to traditional publishers are in distribution and marketing. Traditional publishers are well positioned to negotiate shelf space and promotion at bookstores, and to arrange special sales through online retailers.
However, as always with traditional publishers, your long-run revenue will be limited after the author advance; then you’ll lose some control over creative and marketing decisions. Perhaps the biggest drawback of all, traditional publishers are extremely selective about offering publishing deals, normally looking for established authors with an existing platform and wide audience. Traditional publishing has its perks as well as its drawbacks, but won’t be an option for many authors.
Coffee Table Book Self-Publishing
These days, self-publishing refers to a wide range of options that keep the author in charge of their own project. Conventional self-publishing often means going through Amazon with no support in editing, design, or marketing, and generally publishing through eBooks or print on demand. Millions of books are published this way each year, most of which are lackluster in terms of quality.
Alternatively, authors can work with a self-publishing company that can provide the benefits of expert support along with the accessibility and control of self-publishing. A top notch self-publishing service may be able to offer much of the expertise of a traditional publisher, while giving authors total control over the direction of the project and a much better share of the profits.
Collaborative publishers work with the author to create a custom-tailored plan that meets their specific needs and goals. The best companies will build authors a team with many years of experience in design and editing for traditional publishers, so self-publishing authors can reach the same level of quality, and compete with books from major publishers. This is especially important with a visually-focused project like a coffee-table book, where aesthetic appeal is the single most important aspect of your book. Some novel authors might be able to get by with a DIY approach, but that won’t be the case for a coffee table book.
Print on Demand vs Press Run
For simple text-based books, print on demand offers a great option to avoid the overhead and logistical issues of a large press run. Instead of printing hundreds or thousands of books at once, print on demand prints each book to order, as needed. This is certainly an option for coffee table books, but it’s important to consider some of the drawbacks.
Your coffee table book should call out for guests to pick it up and flip through, and its cover should be aesthetically appealing, since it sits on a table as a piece of decoration — not unlike a painting on a wall. With a sizable press run, you’ll have special cover design choices available that wouldn’t be feasible with print on demand.
Book Cover Treatments
For example, Spot UV is a popular cover design option in which a glossy varnish is applied to parts of the cover to add depth and contrast that can highlight certain features. Another finishing method called “soft touch” gives a smooth, velvety finish to a cover, boosting tactile appeal. For coffee table books, both the visual and tactile quality is key, and the cover should be a central consideration.
With print on demand, your choices will be limited. Options like Spot UV and “soft touch” would require special equipment set up to print each individual book for print on demand. In print runs, this equipment only needs to be set up once. Size choices will also be more limited, and there can be a slight variation between each copy that would never matter for a novel, but could impact the quality of a photo or art book. If possible, a print run of 500 to 1,000 is often the best approach.
With this being said, print on demand is still a good option for coffee table book authors to test their concept and see if there’s an audience, before investing in a full print run.
Whatever your choice, be sure your book stays true to the original hallmarks of coffee table books; visual appeal, broad approach to the text and subject matter, and unusual, unique, or eye-catching content. Your process for self-publishing the book should be sure to highlight these aspects.
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