Thursday, 3 December 2009

Public libraries should sell large print books

When Margaret Hodge suggested, at the Public Library Authorities Conference in October, that libraries begin selling books, there was dismay amongst booksellers and a forthright response from The Booksellers Association. But there is one vital and underprivileged sector of the community, the visually impaired, where being able to buy large print books at the library would be warmly welcomed.

Historically, libraries are where you go for large print books. Very few bookshops stock large print books and the recent RNIB initiative, Focus on Books, whilst very welcome, has only resulted in about 100 titles being available for booksellers to stock (the vast majority of these being print-on-demand titles).

Nearly all Public Libraries have a section of large print titles, normally limited to a few hundred titles, predominantly fiction.

Within the RNIB’s Right to Read report, Overdue, issued in 2003, whilst discussing the difficulty people with sight problems and reading disabilities have in finding out which titles actually exist in a format they can read, they appealed: “We call on publishers and booksellers to come together to create a database of all large print and unabridged audio books produced commercially.”

To the best of my knowledge our company,, is the only organisation to respond to this appeal. (However, we have recently removed all audiobooks from our website so that we can devote all our attention to large print books). We have the most comprehensive list of what is available in large print, and our database comprises about 20,000 titles. We buy a monthly bibliographic data feed from Nielsen Data, and supplement this with an immense amount of manual work, adding titles from publishers who do not inform the bibliographic agencies of the existence of their titles. We also spend a lot of time amending the records, as many publishers neglect to tell Nielsen when a title is no longer available.

The result of this is that we have a resource of unrivalled accuracy which is free to use by anyone who logs onto the website. We are only too pleased when libraries make use of the resource. The opportunity exists for libraries to partner with us in order to enable the general public to buy large print books, because they cannot get them from normal bookshops.

Greater access to large print books is very much in accord with the brief for the ‘Framework for the Future’ where ‘books, reading and learning’ and ‘community and civic values’ should be at the heart of libraries’ modern mission.

Reading and learning: One in six people in the UK struggle with literacy. Larger print sizes are a proven aid to reluctant readers and those seeking to improve their literacy. “Research and action studies confirm that Large Print improves reading speed and comprehension and is an extremely effective alternative tool for students reading below grade level. The larger font and additional white space between lines slows the eye and increases the care that students take with the text. Because Large Print books appeal to struggling readers they are more willing to pick up books and read, often encouraging their classmates to do the same.” (

Community and civic values: The RNIB estimates that there are 3 million people in the UK who have a visual impairment or a reading disability that makes them unable to read conventional print. The figure is probably growing with an ageing population with declining vision. At the moment there is no realistic alternative to the Public Libraries to satisfy the large print reading needs of this sector of the community. The Public Libraries could recognise that they are the first port of call to the visually impaired, enabling them to continue their lifelong pleasure in reading, and increasing the range of accessible titles.

I have mentioned that there are 20,000 large print titles in print at the moment but this is a minute proportion compared to regular print titles. Less than 1.5% of new books are issued in large print, and they remain in print for a very short while. For example there is very little backlist of large print books (no Birdsong, no Captain Corelli’s Mandolin); the improvements in print-on-demand technology has meant that the out of copyright classics have now been made available, and they need never go out of print again (Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Dickens, etc).

If the Library Service Modernisation Review recognises that it is ideally placed to provide a lead in the promotion and provision of large print books, either for borrowing or buying, they could prove the catalyst that encourages mainstream publishers to produce their own large print editions, with the eventual result that many more large print books are published, and become available through normal booksellers, both independents and chains.

Guy Garfit
The Old Police Station
Priory Lane
Royston, SG8 9DU
Tel: 01763 252687; Fax: 01763 252611

This article first appeared in the Libraries Modernisation Review consultation document, "Empower, Inform, Enrich" published on 1st December 2009.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The RNIB Focus on Books Initiative

Where the large print market is today

The world of large print book publishing in the UK is stuck in a time-warp. Practically nothing has changed in the 45 years since Frederick Thorpe set up Ulverscroft publishing in 1964. The template that Thorpe established, since followed by the many imprints that Ulverscroft subsequently swallowed up like Isis and Magna, and by other publishers such as Severn House, Chivers Press and WF Howes, is to sell, almost exclusively, to public libraries.

Earlier this year Roger Thirlby, group chief executive of Ulverscroft, reported that 99.9% of their sales are to libraries. He also said, somewhat disingenuously, ‘that large-print books are already widely available to order from bookshops’. These are Ulverscroft’s trade terms that they offer to booksellers: firm sale, 20% discount, carriage charge of £3.50. This means that if a customer comes into your bookshop requesting that you get for them Naples, or Die! By David Bingley, published in July 2009 at £8.99 by Ulverscroft, you will be charged £8.99 less 20% plus £3.50 carriage, which comes to £10.69 before you, as the bookseller, add an acceptable margin; 35% would give a price of £16.45 for an £8.99 book!

A lot has happened in 45 years not just in the book trade, but demographically with an ageing, but more affluent population, increasing instances of visual impairment, often age-related, not to mention important new technologies such as print-on-demand, which offers enormous opportunities for publishers to serve the large-print market.

But Ulverscroft and their clones remain stubbornly adamant that their only market is the public libraries. In fact Ulverscroft’s new website launched earlier this year even says on the home page ‘this website is for public libraries only’.

For publishers of normal print books the situation is very much as it was 45 years ago; they seem to prefer to sell large-print rights rather than to contemplate issuing their own large print editions, despite the fact that less than 1.5% of regular books are issued in large print.

Booksellers are in the same situation that they have been in for years: they have loyal customers whom they can no longer serve once their sight deteriorates, despite longing to do so.

Enter the RNIB Focus on Books initiative in April 2009

This is the situation that the RNIB is hoping to change with their Focus on Books initiative. They want to encourage mainstream publishers like HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, Hodder etc to produce their own large print books and they want booksellers to stock them.

On their Focus on Books website the RNIB list some Frequently Asked Questions, the first of which is ‘Why are RNIB producing Large Print books?’ Answer: ‘RNIB wants to prove to the publishing/bookselling industry that there is a market for Large Print books and to encourage publishers to produce large print editions at the same time as the standard edition and booksellers to sell them’.

The RNIB has allocated £800,000 to this project, and have just announced the second tranche of titles to be published in October, 53 titles having already been published in April.

To change the ingrained habits of 45 years is a massive task. The rewards of success could be immense for the visually impaired; for the publishers who could access a market of up to 5% more readers than they can reach at the moment; and for booksellers. Print-on-demand has changed the whole viability of producing simultaneous large print editions at the same time as the standard edition. With no warehousing or extra promotion costs, and no need to offer booksellers the sort of discount that allows for 3 for 2 offers, it is feasible to issue the large print edition at the same price as the original standard edition (as opposed to the subsequent paperback edition). This would go a long way to achieving the Right to Read alliance mantra of ‘the same book, at the same time, at the same price’.

Make no mistake, also, that the RNIB have set itself a massive task that requires nothing less than an assault on the entrenched position of specialist large print publishers who, whatever lip service they might pay to the initiative, are frankly nervous that it will jeopardise the business model that has served them so well for forty-five years. The RNIB is seeking to effect a sea-change in the book trade’s attitude to large print books.

The RNIB initiative is very much a pump-priming exercise, with the eventual hope that mainstream publishers will start producing their own books in large print. There are several aspects of the Focus on Books initiative, which is an evolving programme, where some of their policies of the original launch in April this year, would benefit from being revisited.

These in particular revolve around: 1. The way the mainstream publishers whose books are being issued by the RNIB are involved in the whole process; 2. The role and potential of print-on-demand for the supply of large print editions; 3. The discounts that are being offered to booksellers; 4. The font that has been chosen by the RNIB for these Focus on Books titles is much wider than the 16 point fonts used by the specialist large print publishers, resulting in books that are up to 50% larger than they need be.

1. The mainstream publishers whose books are being issued by Focus on Books need to be more involved.
For the sake of convenience with this pilot project, all the production has been handled by Chivers Press, who have already issued their own large print editions of all the books appearing under the Focus on Books initiative. The vast majority of the books are only available as print-on-demand titles (46 out of the original 53). Putting all the work with Chivers has administrative advantages, and means incidentally that all the production has fallen into the lap of Antony Rowe who do most of Chivers’ printing (which is a bit unfair on Lightning Source who have worked so hard with the RNIB to promote the benefits of print-on-demand for large print books).

Chivers, like all the specialist large print publishers, are excellent at selling to the libraries, but have no experience of getting their books into the bookshops. This is where the mainstream publishers who have supported this initiative, Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, Hodder and Little Brown could prove so vital in the success of the whole project. One of the great strengths of the trade publishers is their rep forces: imagine the effect if a publisher or commissioning editor at each house took ‘ownership’ of this initiative, and introduced the project at their six-monthly sales conference. Not only would they help carry the message to every bookshop in the country, they would also be able to point out when more stock was needed. But, almost more important than this, they would learn first hand just how keen the trade is to be able to supply large print books. I know this from my discussions with bookshops of all sizes in the UK; how good it would be if sales reps took the message back to their sales and editorial staff in London. This, I would suggest, is the only way that these publishers are going to learn from, and be encouraged by, this initiative.

2. Most of the books published are only available as print on demand titles.
Now print on demand is massively important in making more large print titles available. In particular, publishers like Echo Library and Tutis have made sure that the major out of copyright classics like Dickens, Hardy and Austen are available, and they should now remain available for ever.

But if you are trying to entice those who can no longer read conventional books back into the bookshop by promising a shelf of large print titles, it is daft to have 46 of those 53 titles only available as print on demand. Few bookshops are going to order these on spec, particularly since they are only sold on firm sale. For the reader who wants to look at, and feel, the book before purchasing, and be treated the same as any other book browser, it is no good being told to come back in three or four days time when it should be available to view. (In fact print-on-demand regularly take much longer than this to be produced: Gardners told me recently that it is quite normal to take two weeks to produce a print-on-demand book, something that the industry needs to address if print-on-demand is to deliver the promised benefits.)

I understand that it was mainly cost reasons that deterred the RNIB from producing short runs of these books, opting instead to produce them as print-on-demand. I would suggest for the future that, if the RNIB and mainstream publishers were to adopt my suggestions about using their rep forces to promote this initiative, the reps could subscribe the books prior to publication so that, initially at least, the books could be available on the bookshelves.

3. The trade discount, at 20%, is inadequate.
Many booksellers have supported this initiative, and some have made gestures of goodwill, such as donating part of the proceeds to a sight related charity. Despite that, the Focus on Books initiative will only achieve its ends if it can be demonstrated to publishers and booksellers that large print books are commercially viable. The reason why large print books are not stocked in our bookshops, despite the fact that many booksellers would love to stock them, is quite simple. The large print publishers do not give satisfactory trade terms, and never have done. No one expects large print books to be sold under 3 for 2 schemes, or buy one get the second one half price, but I would suggest that anything less than 35% is unacceptable.

I understand that the RNIB hope to improve their discount structure with the October publications so I look forward to learning more in due course. But, it was suggested to me that there should be a difference in the discount between those that are printed in modest quantities and are stocked by Gardners, and those which are print-on-demand. I do not agree with this distinction in this instance: as it is the print-on-demand titles are sold firm, whereas the others are on sale or return, but if the RNIB were to adopt my suggestion of subscribing titles before publication, the distinction between the print on demand titles and the others would be less pronounced.

4. The books are up to 50% larger than they need be.
For over 40 years the needs of the visually impaired have been catered for by publishers producing books using a font like Plantin in 16 point. This has proved quite satisfactory, and the books tend to be about 30% larger than their regular print counterparts.

For Focus on Books, however, the RNIB have used a font designed by their own researchers, called LP Tiresias. This was designed principally for short documents, such as letters from the bank, information leaflets to accompany medical drugs, etc. At about the time that this font was launched, Lightning Source were piloting a large print scheme with the RNIB and thought they would try this font for books. Whether or not there has ever been research amongst readers who require large print as to whether this font is clearly superior, I do not know. What I do know, by comparing the original large print editions of these books with their Focus on Books equivalent, is that these RNIB editions are yet another 40% to 50% larger than the other large print editions. This fact will have greatly increased the production costs, as well as the weight of the books, and we know that weight is an important factor for old people, often frail and with some degree of arthritis. For example Drayson’s A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is 224 pages in extent in the Chivers edition, but 344 pages in the RNIB one. The Ice Princess is 472 pages in the Chivers edition, but 680 pages in the RNIB; Being Elizabeth, 472 pages in Chivers, 704 pages in RNIB; Fractured 490 pages in Chivers, 728 pages in RNIB.

Unless they have a compelling reason for not doing so, I would urge the RNIB to reformat their editions (or even use the Chivers typesetting), whilst maintaining the prices they have already set, thus allowing them to offer more generous trade discounts.

Similarly, I would urge publishers like Tutis Digital and Echo Library who are doing such a good job making the classics available, but who have both adopted this font, to reformat, enabling them to cut the published price by about 30%.

The Future
Focus on Books is a bold and worthwhile initiative, with massive benefits if successful. There are lots of exciting titles coming in October which will have great appeal at Christmas. The pilot project has established that there is a lot of good will in the book trade towards the project, but what is needed now is practical and focused efforts to move it from pilot project to sustained commercial viability.

Guy Garfit

Please note: this article appeared on BookBrunch, a daily newsletter for the book trade ( in August 2009.