October 19, 2007

Is an educated author our best customer?

Posted in books, business, Design, production, Typesetting, typography at 12:39 pm by India

unhappy author at work on an earlier stage of the book

At the beginning of this week, I spent part of my lunch hour at the cafeteria (aka Whole Foods) casually consulting with a friend of a friend who’s checking the page proofs for her first book. It’s an anthology of articles about filmmaking, and it’s being brought forth by a reputable publisher of scholarly and professional books. Unfortunately for the author, her publisher is determined to produce the book as cheaply as possible: completely generic and poorly thought-out design, executed by apparently quite error-prone compositors in Hong Kong. She loathes the display type, she doubts the wisdom of the layout, she’s unhappy with the cover, . . . and her publisher has been fighting her at every step, since the moment the contract was signed. All in all, she’s not having a very warm and fuzzy experience as a first-time author.

And I’m torn, because she’s right—the interior design is hideous, and a lot of the layout choices just don’t make sense. For instance, perhaps half of the articles are interviews, and they’ve been indented on both sides, for their entire length. This wastes so much space that the body type in the book as a whole has had to be squeezed down quite small in order to make castoff. The design of the epigraphs and head notes is also ill-considered, and the front matter and display type throughout are extremely homely: too many fonts, too many styles, and utterly random indents throughout.

These are problems that a competent book designer/compositor, such as, oh, me or the designer friend through whom I know this person, could fix in one to two hours. I am dead certain that I could make the whole thing look much more inviting and coherent, while sticking to the desired page count, in less time than it will take the distraught author to mark up every single chapter title to be even small caps instead of caps + hideous fake small caps, as my friend and I cautiously recommended.

At the same time, however, looking wincingly at her stack of proofs, covered with Post-Its and liberally scrawled with deletions and additions, wordy corrections using nonstandard proofreading symbols, and requests for global layout changes, I deeply pity and sympathize with her editor and production crew. The book is already running late, and this is not the time to be asking for major design changes. More significantly, if you want to ask for such changes, covering the pages with red ink (ink!!) is probably the worst possible tactic. I, too, would no doubt give her the flat reply, “I’m sorry, but that’s our house style, and we’re not changing it,” which is apparently what her publisher has been telling her since the first complaint.

The upside to this depressing consultation was watching someone who has obviously read quite a lot but not looked at the books she’s been reading begin to notice the layout and typographic choices that can make one book look more appealing than another. She had brought another book with her, to show as an example of how she thought the acknowledgments for reprinted material should be handled. Her editor wanted her to move them from the ends of the individual articles into the front matter, but the author wasn’t sure of the etiquette. The other designer and I discussed a couple of options (cramming them onto the copyright page, creating a separate section in the front matter, including them in the author’s general acknowledgments) that depended on the space available, and at one point she exclaimed over there being a whole page with just the main title of the book on it, in addition to the regular title page. How wasteful! We showed her that this same bizarre custom had been followed in the book she had brought as an example; she had not noticed this.

Then I explained that sometimes a book may include two such half-title pages, with the second being called a “bastard title.” Imagine! Why would one do such a thing? Well, to fill space. Or to reserve space in case there may be last-minute additions to the front matter, such as a separate acknowledgments page. We then pointed out that in her exemplary book, each short story began with its title on a new right-hand page, followed by a blank, and then the story itself starting with a half-page sink on the next recto page. “There wasn’t a lot of material, but they wanted to stretch the book so that they could charge a particular price for it,” I explained. This also allowed for a cute trim size, generous outside margins, a very comfortably sized text face, and elegant running heads. All of this was news to her. She had known that she liked the design, but she hadn’t thoroughly examined why.

As I’ve said, this author is clearly a very bright and well-read person, and one who has been puzzling over the design of her own book for several frustrating months already. Why were these features still invisible to her?

And, more my concern, why isn’t there some kind of crash course for authors—and no, much as I love it, I don’t think the Chicago Manual of Style qualifies as a crash course—in understanding why their books are being made in a particular way? A basic pamphlet, perhaps, explaining how price and design interact, why the publisher is being so cheap about one book though perhaps lavish with another, and what elements can be negotiated at what point in production (if at all)?

Does such a publication already exist and I don’t know about it? Or does it not exist because providing this information after every contract signing would create more problems and anxiety than it would solve?


  1. sc said,

    Well, there’s these two books by Bill Germano, an ex-academic editor who said to himself a few years ago, “Why isn’t there some kind of crash course for authors?”

    Getting It Published

    From Dissertation to Book

    Both volumes are published by the University of Chicago Press and are in their series Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing, a set of guides for authors and publishing workers.

  2. Cliff Burns said,

    It must be tough for a person who cares about the design and layout of books to see what publishers are willing to sacrifice in the name of economy and cost-cutting. I remember buying a collection of John Cheever stories and being appalled at how his publishers squeezed the words onto the page, not even providing a separate page for each new story–and this was a writer of the highest stature.

    It makes one shake their head…

  3. sc said,

    A sample chapter of Getting It Published is here:


    Here’s some honest advice:

    “Will I be getting a party?” asks an author breathlessly, having just turned in his overdue manuscript on the history of childhood illnesses. Publishers throw parties reluctantly. Parties make authors feel good—to which your publisher won’t object—but the publishing business is primarily about getting books sold. Unless you can deliver the movers and shakers of the media, or of your academic discipline, your publisher’s marketing budget is better spent on advertising and direct mail than on renting a restaurant for catered snacks and dancing. Of course, it might be nice to have a little do for your close friends on campus. Think warm white wine in plastic cups in the faculty lounge. Next question.

  4. Erin said,

    There’s also “Thinking Like Your Editor.”

    But this is really the editor’s fault for not jumping on design at the get-go. Shouldn’t the editor have noticed all this tsuris as well?

  5. Erin said,

    Thank you for fixing my broken link. :-)

  6. India Amos said,

    Hmm. I like the title of the chapter “How to Be Published Well” in Thinking Like Your Editor, but I can’t tell what it covers. Not much, I’m guessing, as it’s only seventeen pages, whereas most of the book is devoted to proposals and the actual writing.

    From the sample chapter, it looks like Getting It Published is more what I have in mind, but I’d want the essentials to be compressed to a length that every author might reasonably be expected to read. A bit longer than the handy little booklets that Cambridge University Press sends out (or used to). The University of Virginia Press guidelines also skip right over issues of design.

    The idea behind skipping these topics in author guidelines is, I suppose, to not get the author’s hopes up. Writers are very rarely given any say in the design of their books, and for good reason—what does a writer know about design? Leave it to the professionals. Most of the design input I’ve gotten from authors has been ignorant, at best.

    But a lot of editors and production people don’t know a thing about design, either, and if the whole project is being outsourced—I think the production in this case is being managed by a third party, a packager of some sort—then perhaps nobody is paying attention to the design. Perhaps they picked out a prefab template from a page of thumbnails?

    I don’t have enough information to determine exactly whose fault—editor, production manager, designer—it is that this book has come out looking so crappy, but I guess the fundamental problem is that the publisher doesn’t care, and the author was not aware of that before signing with them.

    Perhaps the moral of this story is, “Choose your publisher carefully,” but I still think that if it’s the publisher’s policy to make ugly books and refuse to allow any authorial input on design issues, it’s in the interest of the staff’s own sanity to go out of their way to make this policy clear from the outset. Burying it in the contract will cover your ass, certainly, but it won’t keep you from having to deal with anxious phone calls and e-mails, and from having to pick through page proofs that have been covered with futile markings. Headaches and heartbreak all around.

  7. India Amos said,

    Erin, this is a full-service blog. :-)

  8. tianodesign said,

    Well, interesting sitch. I suppose that—thirty-plus years ago, when I was writing my coupla bad, unpublishable novels—I, too, would have been so happy at getting a book published not to have considered the design and layout until it was way late. And unless it’s somehow raised in the contract that the author gets some say over the design, well, they’re out of luck.

    That said, just how unhappy does a publisher want their author to be? I hesitate to call that a hazard of dealing with an overseas printer, but I wonder? I guess the first commandment, something about not letting a book’s design become a distraction that takes the reader away from the words, again bears repeating.

  9. sc said,

    …this book has come out looking so crappy…

    It’s worth noting that the author in question bugged her editor about design, the editor bugged the production guys, and the book is getting, from their point of view, lots of design attention. The publisher apparently even spent real money to commission a trade cover, instead of their usual fine monograph cover design. (I’ve seen the cover. It’s totally inappropriate for this book but it’s average enough that I don’t think it will kill sales outright. I can’t see it landing in the window at St. Mark’s Bookshop but it will look fine on the remainder tables in the back of the store.)

  10. India Amos said,

    Well, I haven’t seen the cover, but ouch—pre-remaindered.

  11. Maia said,

    Oh, this post makes me feel so torn! I’m sorry that she got a crappy design. It did strike a personal chord with me, though, having seen some of my own un-crappy designs nit-picked within an inch of their life by the author. Even better are the critiques that begin with, “Well, my husband/wife thinks…”, “My colleagues say…” ,”The responses of my 12 grad students are pasted below…” — you get the picture!

    I understand that I am dressing someone else’s baby, but it is sometimes unclear whether the parent is the author or the publisher; or both, in some kind of tenuous co-parenting communal experiment… It is a strange symbiotic relationship between author and publisher, isn’t it?

    Now that she is more aware of book design, perhaps she will factor that into her decision the next time she chooses a publisher. And as her academic reputation builds she will find that she can pull more rank when it comes to the cover design. (Here’s a shortcut you could suggest, if she’s single: Start dating someone in her field who is a Big Name Department Head… might be enough to get her some special design oversight written into her contract. I’ve seen this happen!)

    But I think she’d have to wait a lonnng time to earn the clout to give significant input on the interior design. Once it’s at the proofs stage, it has already been sent to the indexer, so anything that would cause page reflow would be out of the question at that point.

    At any rate, I feel for her; I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes!

    p.s. This reminds me. I met our new upstairs neighbor on Sunday, and when I told him that I’m a book designer, he told me about one of his professors at med school who just published a book. The prof held up two book designs in front of the class and invited them to vote on which one they though was better! Sounds like all the students had great fun picking them apart and saying why they hated both of them.

    So, while I fear the outsourcing of design and composition to slap-dash businesses overseas…
    I also fear the outsourcing of design decisions to professors’ grad students all over the US! ;)

  12. India Amos said,

    Tough, isn’t it? And I know I’d be pissed if I were on the receiving end of, “Well, I showed it to two book designers, and they both hated it.” We really were very reluctant to comment, suggesting only things that wouldn’t affect pagination (though, in fact, it hasn’t been indexed yet; which is another story) and that could be fixed with a simple stylesheet change. Of course, that’s assuming the compositor uses stylesheets, which is sometimes iffy. I’m frequently shocked by other people’s file hygiene.

    The author in question is not a youngster, and I’m not sure she has another book planned, so I doubt she’s willing to start dating someone fancy in order to get better design. It’s useful advice for a lot of people, though, I’m sure.

  13. Maia said,

    On rereading, I have to add —
    Sheesh… fake small caps. These people are giving folks like us a bad name!

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