Publishing local books of Birmingham is an area I have worked around since the early 1990s. The first edition of Positively Birmingham hit the streets in September 1994, published by our small publishing house, which we called Birmingham Picture Library. This venture brought together my interest in photojournalism and publishing, with skills gained in different ways, but especially as I edited over 300 editions of a monthly magazine ACB News. I had taken a black and white magazine in 1988 and turned it into a full colour monthly magazine with extensive use of photos and this was a great learning experience.The public art of Birmingham has always fascinated me. I used it to help explain the city in Positively Birmingham. I gradually got to understand some of the reasons that Birmingham has such a large and diverse range of public art. In the 2006 I helped with a book which tried to encourage people to appreciate art on our streets. However my photography for that book was in large part not reproduced well. So back as far as 2007 I first had the idea of producing a ‘coffee table’ style book of the city’s public art - where the story is told with photos that shout at you every time you turn the page.
Understanding what public art comprises
So, my book Birmingham’s Public Art has been a long time in the making, and quite rightly so. To write a book of authority in this domain requires a deep understanding of the whole area of public art, with the bringing together of a lot of different and sometimes complex thought lines. Before I started the book I enjoyed studying books by Cher Krause Knight and also Tess Jaray, along with lectures and discussions by Vivien Lovell, who did so much in Birmingham in the 1990s, and who speaks with authority on public art. See the video link here and also the end of this blog for further links. My researches leleft me with the strong feeling that even the different ways that public art is defined were complex and sometimes controversial. Add to that the shifting sand of what one includes as public art, with street art and murals, as well as temporary and performance related public art increasingly within the envelope, and one is entering a complex arena to say the least. My book is not aimed primarily at academics but it certainly requires an academic foundation. However, it was vitally important to be able to refine this academic stuff into clear thought lines for a general readership.
Time to Act
In December 2021 it was time for action – which meant starting one of what ended up as four project planning note books. An initial plan and idea of the book was drawn up and then a ‘first-cut’ idea of chapter titles and a writing and photography timeline. These books are the rock on which the work is built. From making notes from online seminars to project reviews and lists of photos to take. Basically a production diary – something I learnt the importance of in my 20’s when I grappled with writing up my PhD followed by professional exams study in the evenings after a busy day at work.Of course targets are good but when they are not kept to that is not a a problem as long as we regroup and carry on. For this project an initial optimistic 8 month plan turned into nearly two years. Some of this was due to other things coming along to fill up a retired Pathology Director’s life. For example, the decision to produce a 5th edition of Discovering Birmingham tourist guide in summer 2022 to coincide with the Commonwealth Games, along with the offer of a pop-up shop in Great Western Arcade, meant Birmingham’s Public Art went on the back burner for a while. In retrospect though thought lines in the book were formed over this time and hopefully have added depth to the text that accompanies the photography.This is not a book that can be published very often, and getting the timing right is key to success. In summer 2022 it became apparent that the biggest thing to happen in Birmingham’s public art was the one night stand of the Raging Bull at the Commonwealth Games. Raging Bull moved on to be a huge success as a temporary piece of public art in Centenary Square. When it was announced that it would be back as a permanent piece in summer 2023 the timing of the book’s publication, and the front cover became self-fulfilling.
With public art all over the city, undertaking the photography for this book could only be undertaken as a labour of love. No commercial photographer could revisit sites on numerous occasions, and just locating the pieces chosen for the book takes time. Travel by car around the city is ever more tricky and in the end the use of a mountain bike with a rather expensive Nikon camera and lenses in the pannier and tripod strapped to the rack was a great way of getting around.The photography started in earnest in spring 2022 and continued, with the last assignments undertaken in August 2023, A flurry of activity came in May 2023 when the photo-editor hit upon the brilliant idea of close-ups of public art for each chapter start, which lead to the natural progression of the idea of a close up of the Raging Bull, now renamed Ozzy, on the front cover. When the first page proof came in June 2023 there were images where the origination needed to be improved to do justice to the ink we were committing!
Text and legends
I am deadline and target driven and the text of an 11 chapter book went to the text editor on time in February 2023. It was not perfect, but there comes a point where you need to hand it on. A strong editor is really important for me. From the big things like suggesting chapters are in the wrong order, right through to grammatical changes. Just like a PhD thesis, making sure the introduction and conclusion do not simply repeat themselves is key for this book, and telling a flowing story is so important for a book of substance. After a couple of months the editor returned the text and it is back in my hands for a month. Now is the time to make sure the book is personal to me, and that I can stand by the final content. Checking out the many helpful suggestions the editor has made needs plenty of thinking time.
First Page Design …..indicative quotations required!
Bringing the text and photos together is just so exciting. As the author I suggest photos I would like to go big, but also give my designer a lot of freedom to use his creative skills. This is the 12th book we have worked on together so we understand each other well now.An initial chapter is designed, and I comment that I want more ‘big’ hitting pictures. A few weeks later the designer comes back after his ‘first cut’ page layout and with it comes an assessment that the book will form 180 inside pages, certainly more than initially planned. The increase in pages requires an early request for indicative printing quotations. We tend go to printers that we have worked with before. While we have a good idea what the prices should be, paper price increases after Covid makes this a somewhat volatile area. When quotes come back we can see where we are going on the commercial side of this publishing venture. We agree on a way forward on the basis of this. In this case we bite on the bullet and set the publication at 180 pages with a hardback thread-sewn binding, and with a matt laminate finish but no further adornments.
Cut-off for photos and publication date
Several public art projects continued in Birmingham as the book progressed. For example the revamped Raging Bull was due for installation in New Street Station concourse in July 2023. There were further art works going into Digbeth High Street and also Handsworth Park. We tried to design the book so that late images could be included close to the final deadlines. For this book the Christmas book market is important, offering the potential for a quick return. The book publishing industry tends to get a bit frenetic in the autumn due to this. So, for an early November publication date we need to sign the book off for printing by early September and hopefully beat the rush.
Business planning and marketing
The process of publishing includes many different facets. For a small publishing house, it is not possible to be expert in every area. You do have to choose what you do in-house and what you decide to seek professional help for. For us the area of editing and pre-press is something we commit to others. Most of the rest of the process – as you will see as this blog progresses we do ourselves.Marketing and business planning are fundamental to success. However, while elements of this need to be introduced at an early stage, more detailed work needs to be kept well away from the creative space. Our approach is to get the fundamentals in place, including enough market research to understand the book’s potential and to set a print run. Then leave the spade work on marketing and public relations until the book is signed off for printing.To open doors and get people to take you seriously some publishers details about the book adds a lot. In November 2022 we produced ‘publisher’s details’ of Birmingham’s Public Art with a teaser cover designed to give a feel for the likely content. Behind the scenes that included a fairly frank in-house discussion of the book’s title. For better or worse, the author’s view of a ‘what it says on the tin’ title won the day over something perhaps more ‘artistic’.
Website to underpin marketing and sales
With internet marketing and social media being absolutely essential for publishing success it was also decided to develop a website for the book early on as well. This would we hoped be a mature site by launch and picked up by major search engines. Direct sales of our books have never been huge compared to internet bookshop sales, but our business plan needs this to increase for the book to be a commercial success. So, by spring 2023 the website was up and running, and included many different ways of gaining page views, including a variety of blogs about public art of both Birmingham and elsewhere.
Choice of print partners
We have used several print partners in our publishing adventures. Once the book’s paging and finishing are fixed then we ask for quotes from three companies, all known previously to us. Clear details of the size, materials and finishing along with the quantity to be printed enable companies to quickly tap the details into their computerised quoting packages. We chose two UK printers and a large hardback book printer in Malta to quote for this title.Historically in book publishing a factor based on the basic cost of pre-press and printing is used to set the retail price. This factor can vary depending on the market being addressed and is also impacted by the print run. The way books are sold is also increasingly important - with sales direct from the publisher, especially in quantity, being increasingly important.
Pricing and print-run conundrum
Our most successful book Positively Birmingham has had five editions with print runs from 3,500 to 12,000 ,and has generally sold out without being remaindered. Not a bad track record for a hard back book with a very local target audience. However, the book market has changed and for Birmingham’s Public Art it is difficult to gauge sales potential. A large print run can get the base cost per book down and offers a way to a more attractive retail price, but if you get it wrong the result is a warehouse full of unsold books. We are keen that Birmingham’s Public Art is a book that the general public purchase and our market research suggested that keeping the retail price at or below £20 is key. In the end our chosen way forward is to keep the print run of the first edition relatively low but at a level that we can still make the book affordable. Then, if the book ‘takes off’ we can more quickly move to a second edition, which can include some of the new public art which has not made our August 2023 deadline.You can do too much market research. However, one approach I use is to visit what is now Birmingham’s only major bookshop - nice and early when it is quiet and the staff have some time. I pick up what looks like the best selling local book and head to the checkout and we look up how many copies they have sold. In this case I chose a book that had been out four months, was priced at £14 in paperback and in the same market area as mine. The store had sold 175 copies and confirmed it was currently their best selling local interest book. That was pretty good figures and great market research.
Page proof arrives, 30th June 2023
Wow! This is the time to get excited….and also the start of the next phase. The major work through July includes:1.Send to readers and await their comments.2.Updates and final photos - including the book cover shot which can’t be taken yet.3.Update for photos the designer is not happy with - about 15 in total.4.Sort out permissions of archive photos.5.Permissions for street art photos.6.Contact key people and send relevant pages for comment.At this stage things can seem daunting. Will the weather be right for the final photos is key pressure. Some things at this stage you just have to take off the list - so public art that is not yet installed is ruthlessly dropped. When you have a full page proof it is important to try and not play around to much -as it is expensive in time and cost.
Back to the designer 27th July
After nearly four intensive weeks the corrected proof is sent back to the designer along with some updated and new photos. Certainly a lot has happened. In particular artists who produce murals and graffiti have all been contacted to make sure they are happy to have their work in the book. Comments have also come back from my ‘critical reader’. The launching of the new and hugely impressive Ozzy the Bull on New Street Station concourse could not have been better timed. The camera came out yet again for this - and we will see what use we make of that morning’s photography when the book is published.
Final Page Proof Monday 14th August
The final photo shoot was on Sunday 13th August. They were added in and yet another low resolution page proof produced. The key things to do now are:•Final sign-off of photos.•Text - final check for ‘typos’ and a final ‘critical reader’ to check for everything from ‘political’ issues to artists names spelt incorrectly.
Final Proof Reader Changes
The final proof reading included looking for any key omissions and also considering issues such as modern wording to ensure the book is suitable for schools etc. It did lead to a final photo shoot for one key missed image and also some changes to the final chapter discussion. Once included the final page proof came back with just 19 ‘typos’, which went for correction over the August bank holiday.
We ended up with the final changes in on 30th August 2023 - pretty much exactly as the timetable set back in the winter suggested. Next it is time to produce the high resolution files and send them to the printer in Malta. They put the files into their systems and we receive a final PDF ‘printer’s proof’ which shows the pages as they will will be transferred to the press. You can have a physical paper proof but with today’s modern printing calibration this is just overkill and adds both cost and time.
Gentle start to marketing
The walking tour part of our business integrates into our publishing and business model. We decided to set up a new walking tour with the same name as the book. We launched the tour at Birmingham Heritage Week and put it up to run four times.These tours attracted a lot of interest and bookings, making for busy tours. This gave us a bunch of people who were interested in Birmingham’s public art - a very key target audience.
Book Launch Planning & Invitations
Organising a book launch is not to be taken on lightly. From the choice of venue, people to invite, work on the build up and then the day itself - pretty full-on. Key things for us:Venue: from a number of options one just fell out of the bag as perfect. So Birmingham City University’s STEAMhouse it is!Invite List: An eclectic mix - from those that have helped, artists featured in the book, through to national media. Previous experience informs us that we can expect 30% accepting and on the day perhaps only 70% show up.Budget and sponsors: We look for a sponsor for ‘book for every school’ and also for the refreshments for the launch. Both are hard work and in the end we decide to just assign some marketing budget to the food & drink. The ‘book for every school’ nearly had a couple of takers - but company ‘community project’ budgets are often ‘frozen’ at present. However we have another idea for that……Sending launch invites: Email is the only way now. You have to comply with data protection and also ensure that the email systems do not decide you are sending spam. A well constructed email and PDF invite attachment with low file size is how we approached things - but no one way is perfect. We sent invites out 6 weeks in advance. Positive replies will get a reminder email a few days before the event with ‘joining instructions’.
New camera research…
All this stuff is a lot of pressure - so you need something to make it all feel worthwhile! So, after a period of research, a second-hand camera and lens is on the way to replace the 8-year old brace of Nikon D4’s that have served recent book projects so well.The trendy thing now is for mirrorless cameras. Along with the new technology new lens mounts have been designed meaning you need a whole new set of lenses. After a week of deliberation the purchase of a five year old Nikon D850 and 24mm lens was the prudent choice - it has the benefit of a modern sensor and still my trusty collection of Nikon lens’ can all carry on working for the next project.
Early copies of the book arrive
On Monday 2nd October two early copies of the book arrive. They are beautifully wrapped up in tissue paper and sent by TNT from Malta. This is the moment of reckoning. You sit back and look at the book and pretend you are a customer in a bookshop. You look at the cover, flick through inside and then …..you check the back for the price. This is the 12th time I have done this. In 1994 with the first edition of Positively Birmingham I remember saying to myself: “Bit expensive, £15-99 in posh paperback”. Of course books were much more expensive then and in fact it sold out in under a year. Today, with Birmingham’s Public Art my immediate thoughts were: “What a stunning book….great price!”. If anything it feels under priced, and £25-00 or even £30-00 would not look out of place on the back cover. The printing is superb and finishing and binding impressive. As for the design - that works so well and the cover is going to generate huge interest and draw people in. As for the detail - I just love the head and tail bands being the same red as Ozzi’s eye. We never asked for paper samples - as we trust our printer to provide the most suitable and this 170 gsm paper, with a slight sheen works really well. This is certainly the same quality printing we got with our last hardback book: Invention and Design; Elkington of Birmingham, but of course this new book is much more substantial. Our printer in Malta, Gutenberg, is certainly up there with the best when you want fine art printing. To produce the book so quickly, from us supplying high resolution files to books loaded on pallets in just a month is extremely impressive.Of course attention now turns to the five pallets of books currently snaking their way north through Italy, Germany and France to arrive in the next few days in Birmingham.
Off to sell a book….the acid test
Now we have a real book to show buyers it is time to go into selling mode….and that is much more tricky than it was back in 1994. Let’s see how we get on!Book sales are complex and for a local publisher like ourselves we have to try and understand the different markets sectors.
Where books are sold….
In simple terms we have:•Direct sales through our website: We have been doing this since 2015 but it is not that successful. However, it is important to have this as one of the internet sales platforms.•Website Sales on internet bookshops: It is extremely important to understand and work with internet booksellers. Once the ISBN is registered then details percolate through to many, but not all internet shops. For example Amazon had the book on at a pre-publication offer with 6% off a day or so after we registered it. Wordery on the other hand does not show the book until UK wholesalers have stock of the book. There is currently only one book wholesaler supplying the internet booksellers in the UK and it is vital that you work well with them. This requires some direct form filling and separately supplying the front cover to them. For a new title talking to your allocated buyer and persuading them to take a stock of the book is crucial.•Bookshops: We only have two general bookshops in Birmingham city centre – Waterstones and Foyles, and behind the scenes they are the same company. As they work through the UK wholesaler as well for most local books you must get to understand who does the buying for local books. We will always try and get the book into branches of WH Smith, but that is down to local store managers and in practice far from easy. Other outlets such as the tourism shop and art galleries and the like are also possible places to approach.
Get to meet key staff
A copy of the actual book makes it far easier to get some orders. However, it is hard for an author to sell their own book. Be prepared to receive some fairly direct feedback. For bookshop staff it is extra work to order local books on top of the stuff that comes down from London buyers and there are all sorts of reasons given for not ordering your life’s work. Often people do not realise they are talking with the author and say some pretty hard to hear things about you life’s work!Discounting is another area you need to understand. You may still get away with 40% discount for small orders, but really 50% is becoming a minimum. For Positively Birmingham John Lewis in Grand Central took it coming up to Christmas but at 65% discount – which actually saw us supplying without a margin. Worse still on the 3rd January they phoned up and requested we take all the unsold books back and stopped stocking the book.
While we wait for the book to be delivered we get on and produce key marketing tools, which include:•An A5 leaflet - both PDF and printed•Roller banner for display at the launch and events•Update to our walking tour brochureWe have a tiny marketing budget. Key costs for these items are design and then production for items that need printing. We use an internet based print company for items like this. They offer great prices and amazing service - for example 5,000 leaflets come to you a couple of days after uploading the high-res designs and the quality is superb. While many people talk about marketing moving to internet/socials and away from print, we find there is still a real use for printed leaflets as well. All our items have the same branding - colour schemes, fonts etc. We also try and remember to put the QR code on - which takes you to the website front page.
Small publishing house!
Yes, on 9th October, a week or so ahead of the project timeline the bulk delivery arrived. The pallets weigh about 500kg and it is a relief when they are all safely on the drive of our ‘small publishing house’! Book storage is a key cost in publishing and we have on occasions used warehouse space for large print runs. However, for this book we have avoided that - both by keeping the first edition print run quite tight and by creating some space within our family home and outbuildings.
Moving the books on to a UK wholesaler
We actually managed to ship the best part of a pallet out same day, to fulfil an order to the UK wholesaler. Gardners are based in Eastbourne. The order is based on pre-sales to bookshops and also internet shops. The main bookshops in the UK now work with wholesalers even for local books. Forty boxes of books along with the pallet weighed over 400 kg, and called for our first ever use of an online pallet company. We went for next day delivery and this was a lot less work and risk of damage than sending individual boxes as we are more used to. The pallet was picked up at 16.30 and the taillift just about managed to get it into the lorry! It arrived in Eastbourne by 11.00 the next day.
Gardners stock levels easy to see
The Gardners website has an open access search facility on the front page. You can look up any book and see what stock levels they have in their warehouse. If you look up the current best seller you may see stock levels of around 1,000. For our books we see levels between 6 to 30 generally. Birmingham’s Public Art went on their system the same day it was delivered and showed 28 available - which means that bookshop and internet orders had already been over 300.
How do you gauge
In marketing and public relations a key issue is always how to measure the success of you efforts. Essentially you need a tool to do this - which can directly feedback on a marketing campaign.As a small publisher we use two tools:1.Gardners stock levels - as above2.Amazon Best Sellers Rank - this is for us a real time gauge of how the book is selling. One has to assume that sales on this internet bookshop platform mirror other outlets, but overall we find this a useful and almost ‘real time’ tool with marketing and social media efforts quickly seeing a change in the Amazon Best Sellers Rank. In the old days we used to go in the large Waterstones in New Street and ask staff to give us sales figures.
Building up to the launch
The publication date of the book is the date that the book is officially released, with for example Amazon pre-orders being sent out that day. In practice local book shops do not seem to embargo the book but put it on the shelf once they receive supplies. Our launch event is a week after the official publication date.
We sent our a press release to local media and also to more specialist national and international media. We had an early success with a journalist working fo the Westside bid. That is useful in its own right - and we add a link to the front page of the book’s website. It can also help with getting other media interest.We set up a page for press releases and photos and images for use in editorial. PowerPoint slides are also designed for people to download and use in talk.
A programme of small video clips was devised to use as one part of the backbone of the social media marketing. We have reasonable Instagram, X, Facebook and YouTube accounts. However social media marketing is far from easy to get right and we are not experts. A primary aim is to create awareness of the book and then drive on to sales. We want to strongly support local bookshops that are supporting us.However with around 50% of book sales being through Amazon we need to also market for internet based sales as well. This is particularly the case for this title which we feel has national and international sales potential. We checked out Amazon sites in several countries. On the Dutch site the book was available at Euro 21.22 with free postage - cheaper at £18-51 than on the UK site. We really do not understand all this but the key thing is that when we market to guests from overseas on our walking tours, that they will be able to buy locally when they get home.We will also trial some social media advertising starting with Facebook from publication date.
•Below are key sources of information that Jonathan Berg used as he worked on his book Birmingham’s Public Art.Books on Birmingham’s Public ArtPublic Sculpture of Birmingham, George Noszlopy, 1998, Liverpool University PressBirmingham Public Sculpture Trails, George Noszlopy & Fiona Waterhouse, 2007, Liverpool University Press.Desire Lines, The public art of Tess Jaray, Ridinghouse, 2016.
General Books on Public Art
Public Art; Theory, Practice and Populism, Cher Krause Knight, 2008, Blackwell Publishing.A Companion to Public Art. Cher Krause Knight and Harriet F Senie, Wiley Blackwell, 2016.