Tuesday, April 04, 2017

A framework for thinking about book typography

While typography evolved from classical and medieval roots, the modern body of knowledge that forms the basis for best practices in commercial (keyword that I'll get to in a minute) book typography really developed in the last few years of the 19th c. and the first few decades of the 20th. Until the 1960s, graphic arts programs taught a set of mechanical arts to bright kids who were not headed to college. Today, these same kids become IT techs and staff the genius bar at the Apple store. The requirements were the ability to learn a bunch of arcane facts, manual dexterity, and some amount of visual sense. You didn't have to be a creative genius. 

Graphic arts programs taught core skills—copyediting, markup (specifying type), typesetting, page makeup, imposition (later lithographic stripping), platemaking, press work, and bindery operations.

Beginning in the 1960s, roughly, a parallel movement started training more artistically inclined students in graphic design. Mostly, graphic designers were involved in advertising, magazine layout, movie posters, and so forth—media where a sizzling layout was more critical than readability of the text. With the advent of desktop publishing, the demand for people trained in graphic arts dried up. Today, there are lots of graphic design programs, but good luck finding an old-style graphic arts program.

So what do I mean by commercial book typography? I mean producing readable text that follows a bunch of rules that were pretty standard across publishing houses (balanced spreads, no widows, ladders, rivers . . . ). And if you did all that, the book was good enough to sell commercially. It might not get you into the AIGA Fifty Books of the Year selection, but you could hold your head up.

So when we talk about learning book typography, we're really talking about that old graphic arts curriculum, at least the parts of it that still apply, and those same commercial standards. It's a learnable discipline for anyone who meets those same basic requirements. It's not magic, but it does take practice and either hands-on training or a lot of reading.

Now I'll grant you that a lot of publishers today have stopped applying those standards and have begun to accept pushbutton typesetting, with no human intervention, as a way to cut costs. That's a reality in today's world. But it's not what I think of when someone asks about book typography.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Jargon as shibboleth

Yesterday, a colleague, a man who was trained in the law in his native England and has lived in Israel for many years, no dummy he, asked in an editing forum about the meaning of something he read in the Wall Street Journal: “ABB Ltd. said it would likely book a $100 million charge related to a ‘sophisticated criminal scheme’ it said was orchestrated by the treasurer of its South Korea unit, who has gone missing.”
“Just wondering what ‘book . . . a . . . charge’ means.”

I replied that it was bizspeak for “show a charge against earnings on the company's books.” He then said that having once been in charge of the books of a public company, he would have just said they had “written off” the amount.

This led me to think about the way business reporters write (not all of them, certainly, but a significant percentage). I think the business press is not unlike the sports press in its constant creation of new shibboleths to separate those in the know from the unwashed masses. If you don't keep up with the latest slang, the latest bizspeak, you're obviously not part of the in crowd, the people in the know, the winners. You're a loser. You're not welcome here.

I can see how this attitude might evolve in a company that promotes based on social cues rather than actual job performance. But I'm an editor, not a corporate ladder climber or a business journalist. So my interest is in clear communication between author and reader. Unless the author is hellbent on selling as few books as possible to a narrow audience, I'm always going to recommend reducing the use of jargon and writing clearly and to the point. The book will be better for it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Printers, publishers, and . . .

Earlier this morning, on a mailing list, someone trying to sort out a list of printers began to ask a question by positing "There are many, many on-demand book printers/publishers online, some with very low prices."

I responded as follows:

Stop. Right. There.

You're dumping alligators, seaweed, hippopotamuses, and pond scum into one bucket just because they all live in water. So let's try to sort them out into categories. Then it will be much easier to compare services and prices.

REGARDLESS OF WHAT COMPANIES CALL THEMSELVES OR SAY THEY OFFER, what we're interested in is what the are and whether they provide the services we need. So let's use our own bafflegab-free definitions and ignore the marketing materials.

===============CLIP 'N SAVE=====================
  • A publisher is someone who puts money at risk to produce and market a book.
  • A publishing services company is someone who provides services such as editing, design, indexing, or proofreading to publishers.
  • A book packager is a company that prepares books for publication on behalf of a publisher.
  • A printer is someone who owns printing equipment and accepts customer files for printing.
  • A book manufacturer is someone who prints and binds books under one roof.
  • Offset printing is printing from metal plates hung on a press and is typically used for 300 or more copies of a book.
  • Short-run digital printing is using digital printing equipment to produce one or more copies of a book for delivery to the publisher (or to a fulfillment warehouse).
  • On-demand printing is using digital printing equipment to produce a single copy of a book for direct delivery to a retail customer on behalf of the publisher.
  • A print broker is someone who accepts a job from a publisher and then forwards it to selected vendors for the required services.
  • A vanity press is a company that combines the services of a publishing services provider and a print broker and overcharges for both, making it impossible for a publisher that contracts with them to make a reasonable profit. Otherwise known as pond scum.
===============CLIP 'N SAVE=====================

Now, WITHIN A CATEGORY, it is possible to compare companies and evaluate whether one provides better quality or better services than another, and that can be a productive exercise.

There are book manufacturers who specialize in working with amateur publishers (high school yearbook staffs, for example) and have customer service reps (CSRs) who are adept at hand-holding.
Some of these companies also do a superb job of book manufacturing. Others tend to cut corners.

In contrast, there are book manufacturers whose CSRs are nothing more than traffic managers (friendly, competent, polite traffic managers). Any technical questions are forwarded to a technician, and the answer that eventually comes back may or may not be clear. These companies work directly with professional print buyers at publishing companies and with professional book designers, customers who are expected to provide trouble-free files for printing and clear specifications for the job. Within this subgroup of book manufacturers, some companies focus on quality and some focus on price.

Similarly, with short-run digital printers, there are companies that specialize in book manufacturing for publishers, and there are others that specialize in church cookbooks, machinery service manuals, and programs for the local high school football awards banquets. And, oh yeah, if you have a book of your weekly newspaper columns from the local shopper, they'll throw that together for you too. So, again, you can compare on quality and price.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Instructions to authors who think an Excel worksheet is a table

Well, it has been a very long time since I posted anything, and for that I sort of apologize. I guess my allotted social networking time has been absorbed by Facebook. However, in a conversation on the InDesign list, something came up that leads to a blog post, so I can link to it later. That something is tables.

This is directed to people who work in Excel a good deal of the time and who would like to see their worksheets reproduced in a book for which they are preparing a manuscript.

Print it.
That's right. Print your worksheet. The part you want shown in the book. You probably know the size of the book page by now, and I'm guessing it is not 8.5 × 11 inches. More likely it is 6 × 9 inches or thereabouts. So set up your page margins to limit the printed area to, say 4.5 × 7.5 inches. (On US letter paper, you would do this by making the top and bottom margins 1.75 inches and the side margins 2 inches.)

Okay, what you have now is approximately the way your worksheet will look in the printed book. It's permissible to run the table broadside (so the book has to be turned 90 degrees to read the table). The compositor may typeset your table rather than running it as an image of your actual worksheet, but the amount of type that can be squeezed into the page doesn't change much when that step is taken. So if the information on your test print is too tiny to read, then it will be too tiny to read in the book as well.

The key thing to keep in mind is that your worksheet can have an enormous number of rows and columns, and you can navigate around it just fine on your computer monitor. But a printed table in a book is limited to the size of the printed page. You can't just select a large region of your worksheet and shrink it down to page size and expect it to be legible.

What does this mean to you as an author?
It means that you have to think about the way information is organized for presentation to the reader. The way you have it organized now may perfectly suit your workaday purposes, but it may not work for your audience. So you need to select and organize the information in a way that will make sense to a naive reader. If you have a great deal of information to present, arrange it into a limited number of columns but allow it to run to a large number of rows. This will be printed on consecutive pages, and readers will understand it. If you instead have a limited number of rows running across a great many columns, there is no convenient way to make that comprehensible in a book. (Foldout pages are expensive and generally not available for short-run books. Trust me. Yours is a short-run book.)

What else?
 After you create a new worksheet organized for the reader's benefit, provide that as an actual Excel file to your editor. You may also want to provide an image of a table in your Word manuscript file, to show how and where you want the table to appear. But that is not sufficient in itself. The Excel file is needed as well, so the compositor has the table contents to manipulate and not just a picture that will then have to be typeset from scratch.

One more thing . . . equations!
Another problem that sometimes arises is the confusion between Excel formulas and equations. If you are explaining to the reader how to set up a worksheet, by all means cite your formulas just as you have them. But if you are expressing a mathematical truth, use an equation editor, or at least don't complain when your editor uses one. As an Excel user, you probably don't think about whether variables are set in italics or not. But in traditional mathematical notation, the choice of type font carries information (real information, defined by Claude Shannon as that which resolves an uncertainty). A letter set in italics is a variable. The same letter set in roman is a constant. In boldface it's (usually) a vector or a matrix (depending on the context), and so forth. Greek letters are part of the picture, and faking them (using lowercase u instead of Greek μ, for example) is a no-no. In Excel, none of this is relevant. But for an equation on a book page, whether it's a display equation or part of running text, it's important. I'll leave it up to you and your editor whether you assign variable names to business quantities or spell them out in their entirety (net profits = . . . vs. P = . . .). Just follow the conventions and everyone will be happy.

Okay, that's it.
Set up the table with the book page in mind and provide the file to the editor. Follow mathematical notation conventions. Just doing those three things will make the whole editing and production process much smoother for everyone.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Where in the world is the Press Democrat

I am exhausted from an all-weekend training seminar and therefore not in a civil mood toward anyone and shouldn't be posting at all so maybe you should just delete this before reading it as a kindness to me.

In this McLuhanesque Global Village Virtual World Age of the Internet, there seems to be a presumption that no one cares where you are in the physical world. I cannot begin to tell you how many links I have followed to newspaper websites to learn about someone's local story (posted on Facebook, posted to a mailing list, posted wherever)—good news, funny news, sad news, or bad news—only to be left scratching my head because the newspaper can't be bothered with datelines or with any indication on the news page of where the paper is published.

In today's episode, I followed a link from a mailing list post and then had to click twice more to find the About page, where I learned that the Press Democrat is published in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County. Now it happens that I know enough geography to know that Sonoma County is in California, so I didn't have to read all the way to the end of the paragraph. But it would be so much simpler if the city where a paper is published were part of the header or footer of every page, as it is on a print edition.

I know I cannot influence managers of newspaper websites to change their practices, but maybe by whining here I can influence you, when you post to a forum or a mailing list, to put at least the city and state where they live in your signature lines, to clue people in to where you are in the world.

Friday, November 30, 2012

New interview on self-publishing

Tom Santos, one of the most active members in the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA) has a regular slot on his community access television station. He interviewed me in September, and I found the DVD of the show in the pile of mail that awaited me when we returned from our adventures in the Galapagos and Quito. I've just uploaded it to my website. Take a look.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Kind words from a client

Dear Dick,

Although I am usually a careful researcher before I make a major move, I called you to help me compose my book on no more than instinct.

What a great decision it turned out to be. I had an idea of how my aunt's 90th birthday celebration book should look, but I didn't know how to get there. With my cousins as my clients, I conducted interviews and wrote copy. That was the easy part. They gave me their albums of photos, some as old as my aunt, others hot off the digital camera,and I stayed up nights worrying about combining the two elements into the book of which we could all be proud. There was no doubt that I had to turn the next steps over to someone. That's when I contacted you.

Our first meeting gave me the confidence that you could do it. As the weeks passed, I saw you take my materials and produce a result that I proudly presented to my aunt and cousins last week. Your experience, professionalism, creativity and easy-going nature made the process a pleasure. You even met my somewhat unrealistic deadline.

Thank you for the wonderful book that my family will treasure for generations.

Judy Goldwyn
As You Recall
46 Elder Street
Milford CT 06460
(203) 209-8098