Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Rolling your own

Editor’s note: If you are just joining us, this post is part of an intermittent series (starts here, most recent installment here), addressed primarily to the self-publishing author, in which I use an old , that of a wooden barrel as a metaphor for a process dependent on many inputs, to describe book publishing, with the volume of water in the barrel representing sales. The notion is that the level of the water is limited by the shortest stave.

Once the initial edit of your manuscript is complete, there is nothing left to do but pick a fancy typeface for your title page and send the book off to the printer, right? That seems to be what a lot of authors believe, and there are plenty of so-called publishing companies on the Web who stand ready to separate those gullible authors from their money. Please don’t be gullible.

I guess the first notion to disabuse you of is that you can print a proper book from your Word manuscript file. You cannot. Don’t even think about it. Word is the wrong tool for the job, and your manuscript file is not ready to print in any case. Aaron Shepard can show you how, with great diligence and months of study, you can produce something acceptable using Word; but the end result will bear little resemblance to the edited manuscript file you begin with and will still represent a compromise, as even Aaron acknowledges. Doing finished composition in Word is like repairing a fine Swiss watch with a baseball bat. Even Microsoft doesn’t use Word to typeset its manuals.

The large point here (oxymoron alert: a point, in mathematics, is dimensionless) is that no matter how brilliant your manuscript, you need to present it in a visually appealing way to attract the largest possible audience. An amateurish appearance is a short stave that will seriously affect the potential sales of your book. Distributors, reviewers, and booksellers will reject out of hand a book that looks amateurish the moment they open it. The gatekeepers to the book distribution channels, in other words, expect to see a professionally designed and produced book, even if they understand that you are a self-publishing author. In fact, the reason self-publishing authors have such a hard time getting past these gatekeepers is precisely that, as a group, they publish so many amateurish books. You want your own to be the shining exception that stands out from the group.

Can you design and produce your own book to professional standards? Yes, absolutely. If you have visual sense and a willingness to study and learn about book design, if you have or are willing to obtain appropriate page layout software, if you are willing to seek and accept criticism as you go along and make suggested improvements, you can do it. Book design is an arcane art, but it is not a secret art. Those of us who do it learned how; you can learn how, as well. The more important question is this: Is book design something you are interested in becoming good at or are you just trying to save a few bucks to get your book out? If your answer is the latter, then you are being penny wise and pound foolish; and you will come to rue your choice.


Anonymous said...

I've almost always found myself nodding "Yes" when reading your essays but this is one time I must disagree. I've been publishing books using Word for over a dozen years now.

I'll state up front that I'm not a trained typographer or book designer (or as the oft-maligned Andrew Plato would say, a font fondler).

I use Arial and Times New Roman, mostly because they're perfectly acceptable for the audience I'm addressing but also for the sake of simplicity. However, the basic concepts of book design and typography that I use in Word could be accomplished just as easily using any font choice. The tool itself is font agnostic.

I would submit that I can easily implement any book design in Word, producing output that can match that of FrameMaker, Ventura, Quark, etc. I've used these other tools as well but left to my own choice, I'll go with Word, thanks.

I'd be glad to email you a link to a PDF of my most recent effort to show you an example of what can be done with Word (I don't want to post a public link to it because I don't have authorization to do so).

Mike Starr

Dick Margulis said...

Okay, Mike, you're on. Email me the link.

Maybe you're a disciple of Aaron Shepard (or have discovered all that he has discovered, and maybe you can produce book efficiently using Word.

It's also possible that the technical information you are presenting is of such high value that your audience doesn't care whether your books are beautiful or just workmanlike. And that's fine.

But send me the link and we'll see what you've got.