July 8, 2006

Study Questions

Posted in Design, Meta, Work at 9:46 pm by India

I have been shocked—shocked!—by the amount of interest in this post since it was written up on Kottke.org. Usually when I talk about what I do, people are like, “Uh huh, that sounds really, um, interesting. So, do you design covers, too?” Covers are sexy; everybody notices book covers, even if they don’t read much; no, I don’t do covers. (Well, I’ve done three. One was an unfortunate accident, and the other two are nothing special.) So, yes, all this sudden interest is very interesting to me. Plus—happy graph! Woo!

Graph of the Kottke Effect, about half an hour after his post; the day's peak was actually twice this number

What’s been even more surprising, though, is that so far no other designers have dropped in to say, “You’re reading the castoff numbers all wrong.” “I can’t believe you used a typeface called fucking ‘Manticore’ for a fucking fantasy book!” “Trim size is actually determined based on X, Y, and Z.” “Quark is the best piece of software in the universe!” And nobody’s said, “But, the process for designing a cookbook/dictionary/art book/computer book is totally different; your half-assed workflow would never work for that.”

I’d like to know more about how others do this stuff. The only formal descriptions I’ve ever read of the process are in Richard Hendel’s On Book Design, about which all I clearly remember is being surprised by how many of the designers profiled in the book claimed to actually read the text they were handling. (As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I skim but make no attempt to read the whole book.) So, if you’re a fellow designer, please put your two cents in. I do subscribe to a lot of design blogs, but rarely do I see anybody else talking about designing book interiors. We can’t all do advertising and jackets and Web sites and packaging, can we?

I’m also very interested in being enlightened by people who know more about the dirty back-room dealings from which all these pesky numbers are generated. I did try to get my head around my colleague Anna Genoese’s breakdown of P&Ls and how books make (or don’t) money, but it doesn’t reveal much about how the decisions affecting my work get made—trim, page count, illustration budget. I could, I suppose, walk into my boss’s office and ask, but where would be the sport in that? Besides, then he might notice that I’ve never worked at a place that has budgets before.

And that’s another thing. My background is working in nonprofits, anarchic independent presses, less-than-two-person staffs, sweatshops. There are more people on just my floor than there have been at any entire company for which I have previously worked (unless you count Tower Books); my immediate colleagues are spread over three floors. My work style was developed in low- or no-budget, short-staffed, short-run, fast-turnaround environments. I know how to do a lot of stuff, quite fast, quite cheap, and quite carefully, but there are gaps in my understanding of how a publishing company works that would no doubt baffle some of the people with whom I now spend my days. But even I don’t know where most of those gaps are until somebody asks me a question and I realize that I have no clue what the answer might be.

So if you have questions, please ask them. And if you have answers, please answer.


  1. Alexis Leon said,

    Just stumbled upon the site while searching for some stats. You have a nice blog and the posts are very informative. Even though, I have been reading the posts for some time, this is my first post.

    I don’t know whether I can call myself a layout designer. But I have designed the layouts for about 30 books. I am the author of those books.

    I don’t use a professional typesetting software like Quark or PageMaker. I use Microsoft Word. First I get the price of the book—the price at which the publisher is planning to sell the book. I know the approximate size of the book as I will be writing it. So based on the price, I would decide whether I could do a decent layout or whether I have to fit as much as possible in each page. Based on that I will create a word template and I start writing the book using the template. So the book is getting typeset as I write it. Yes, there will be some changes after the copyediting, but those changes are minor and as the author, I have the final say regarding what stays and what goes. Sometimes, the publisher will want small fonts, less margins, and tightly packed pages as the book will be priced low—mainly text books. Sometimes, I get to use the fonts, font sizes, spacing, heading styles of my choice. But ultimately it is the publisher who decides how readable the book would be.

    As far as I know, most publishers here (India), first fix an approximate price for the book based on the targeted audience and expected sales volume. They will have a certain profit margin (usually it is above 25%). Then there is the author royalty (about 10-15%). The books are sold to the booksellers at 30-40% discount. So the cost of the production should come within 20-25% of the cost of the book. This 25% includes cost of paper, cover, cover design, copyediting, proof reading, (indexing and illustrations are usually done by the author or at the author’s expense), printing, binding, promotion and so on. So if the price is low all sorts of corners are cut—low quality papers, tight typesetting to reduce the number of pages, dropping of odd numbered chapter beginnings, two column table of contents, quick and dirty indexes (usually generated by sorting the TOC entries in the alphabetical order), and so on.

    But there are no hard and fast rules about the tasks done by the publisher or author. It all depends on who holds the cards. If the publisher desperately wants the book, he might even accept a handwritten manuscript and do all the illustration, indexing and so on. Similarly, if the author is desperate, all these tasks will be done by him/her or will be deducted from the royalty. Also the royalty percentage varies from as low as 5% of the price to as high as 25%.

  2. Robert said,

    So, uh, what font do you use on this blog? It looks great!

  3. India Amos said,

    The blog template I use here is by the talented Becca Wei, and you’re ideally seeing Lucida Sans for the bulk of the text and Georgia for the headings. But maybe not. Her back-up body text suggestions are Tahoma and Geneva, and there’s no specific alternative to the Georgia heads. So if you happen to be missing all those fonts, you’re probably seeing this in Times New Roman and Arial, or something like that.

    Typography on the Web is a whole nother kettle of fish.

  4. India Amos said,

    Hi, Alexis. Your comment got snagged by the spam filter for some reason; I didn’t see it until now.

    So, interesting! Is that typical in India for an author to typeset his own book, or is it specific to your field? Or do you just enjoy setting your own books?

    All I know about publishing in India is that there are plenty of dedicated typesetting firms there, and that some U.S. companies outsource to them. For more than a year, I’ve been trying to get Amazon.uk to send me an Indian style guide, because I collect such things, but they always sit on the order for months and then cancel it, saying it’s not available.

    And are you familiar with the Editorium newsletter? A lot of the information there is about how to do professional-looking typesetting in Word.

  5. Alexis Leon said,

    Hi India, I thought the comment was not appearing because of the comment moderation.

    No, it is not at all typical in India for an author to typeset his own book. I do it because I love doing that and for me it is easier to do it myself as I can do it while writing the book. Also I don’t have to fight with the publisher to change the layout if I didn’t like it. Since I have a software background and am quite comfortable with most word processing, desktop publishing and graphics software, I can do it. Not many authors are. So in 99% of the cases the typesetting is done by professional typesetting firms and yes many of them do work for U.S. publishing companies.

    I am not aware of any Indian style guide. Most of the publishers use the CMS or MLA style guides. If you know about any particular style guide, do let me know the details. I might be able to get you that. I will also check with my friends in the publishing industry. But as far as I know there aren’t any Indian style guides; but I may be wrong.

    If you have placed an order at Amazon, then you will be having the details, do send it to me. I might be able to get it for you. It will be my pleasure.

    I am hearing about Editorium newsletter for the first time. Looks interesting. Thanks for the information.

  6. India Amos said,

    The book in question is called Communicating in Style, and it got a nice review last spring from John D. Berry at Creativepro.com. It’s specifically intended for technical writers and includes some suggestions on design—perhaps a worthwhile addition to your own library?

    I just checked Amazon.co.uk again, and they claim to have it in stock. There are a couple of used copies listed now, too. Since I have a £3 gift certificate to spend there (issued by Amazon the last time they canceled my order), I’ll give it one more try, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll snag one of the used copies. But thanks for your kind offer!

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