Friday, November 30, 2012

The Beauty of Books

A printed book is a work of art. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love my iPad. I read on it, write on it, edit on it. I surf the Web, check my e-mail, and do the New York Times crossword puzzle on it. I use it to check Facebook and GoodReads, monitor Twitter, and even watch movies, after discovering to my surprise that they don’t look half-bad on the tiny screen. I like the convenience of downloading novels on a whim and of having an entire bookshelf at my fingertips. I turn my own novels into e-books and go through them as a reader would, looking for inconsistencies and problems. But e-books are, at least at this point in time, utilitarian. Print books are beautiful. 

For example, take the book I finished last nigh: Karen Engelmann’s The Stockholm Octavo—which I highly recommend, so stay tuned for information on my interview with the author for New Books in Historical Fiction

Even from the sample available at, you can see the work that went into this design. The font for the chapter numbers is an old-fashioned script, appropriate to the 18th-century setting of the book, and each opening page has the first few words reproduced behind the main text in light gray, as if someone had scratched them onto the page with a quill pen. The typefaces are clean and dark against soft cream paper, and the book has lots of white space to rest the eye. Some books include a colophon, giving information about the design and the typefaces used. This one, unfortunately, does not. The text looks as if it might be Adobe Garamond Pro or Minion Pro, but I can’t be certain. Whatever it is, it’s a nice, unfussy font to offset the elaborate script of the display type.


The design doesn’t stop there. The plot involves divination by cards, based on a 16th-century pack of German playing cards drawn by Jost Amman, and the book has sprinkled among the pages pictures of the cards, each neatly wrapped by the text. The script font appears again in the timeline that precedes the opening pages, contrasting the histories of Sweden and France in the years when the story takes place. The designer, Suet Yee Chong, has created an object as lovely and as complex as a multi-layered puzzle box. The effect is only highlighted by the thickness of the paper and the solidity of the cover (this book is cloth-bound).


For indie authors, this is the competition—and to be blunt, it sets a high bar. Ecco Books is an imprint of HarperCollins, one of the Big Six (publishers). These corporate firms command resources no indie author can match. Moreover, their work has shaped the expectations of readers, who judge self-published and small-press books by these standards.


So what’s an indie author to do? It’s bad enough that it takes years of your life to write and polish a novel, only to send it out to literary agents who give your query letter 90 seconds of their time before moving on. Now you have to become an editor, typesetter, cover designer, proofreader, and marketer, too?


Alas, the answer to that question is yes. You do. If you want to sell books, especially print books, you do. If you read the descriptions at various print-on-demand sites, you may think that you can get away with uploading your Word-compatible file. Which you can, but the results—unless you are an absolute Word whiz—will look, well, as if you typeset in Word. The physical book will be fine: CreateSpace, especially if you select the cream paper, produces a nice product. But unless you intervene in the formatting, the book will look unprofessional. The Big Six do not typeset in Word. They use Adobe InDesign or Quark XPress—expensive dedicated typesetting programs that do things Word users can only dream of. Even in an indie book, these programs make a difference.


C. P. Lesley, The Not  Exactly
Scarlet Pimpernel
, p. 1
I’ll use my own two novels as examples,  because I know them best and own the rights to post screenshots of them. To start, let’s talk about some things that you can do in Word without a lot of effort. It’s relatively easy to set up a chapter title style that starts on a new page with spacing above and below and a specific typeface that you can change from book to book. If you compare the first pages in The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel (left) and The Golden Lynx (below), you can see that NESP uses Edwardian Script, a splashy 18th-century-like cursive with curlicues and rounded letters that evokes the time period of the novel: revolutionary France and aristocratic England in 1792. Lynx has chapter headings in Tangerine, an Arabic-style script with elongated letters that approximate in English the style that the heroine might have used in writing Tatar. Sites like FontSquirrel let you search for fonts, check their licenses, and download them free of charge. You can also buy fonts from dedicated fontmakers.

C. P. Lesley, The Golden Lynx, p. 3

The body text in both books is set in Garamond, a classic serif typeface that has been around since the 16th century. It ships with Word. The first line of each opening paragraph, whether marking a new chapter or a new section within a chapter, is not indented, per standard publishing practice (note that The Stockholm Octavo does have indented first paragraphs for the chapters, although not for sections, presumably to show off the gray script). Again, most word processors let you  set up a non-indented first line. The first line of each chapter also includes words in small caps: you can do this mechanically in Word but not as part of a style.

The font for the page numbers is the same in both books (Book Antiqua Italic, another old-fashioned serif font; I would have stuck with Garamond if I hadn’t been trying to establish a standard for Five Directions Press). The font used in the running heads matches that for the page numbers, which is also easy to do in Word.


Here, however, Word begins to falter. Chapter openers, again by convention, do not have running heads, since the chapter title orients the reader. Getting rid of them on pages where you don’t want them is a major pain, in contrast to InDesign, where I set up a master page for chapter openers and just drag it wherever I want to get rid of the running head.


Now let me show you two internal pages.


C. P. Lesley, The Not Exactly
Scarlet Pimpernel,
p. 11

The type ornaments separating the sections (five-petaled flowers for NESP and Turkish daggers in Lynx) are centered with space above and below: if you have the right font, you can set those in Word. The page numbers, though, also have surrounding type ornaments that vary from book to book and reappear on the title pages. These are perfectly positioned in InDesign with something called a flush space, which expands as needed to fit the edges of an invisible box that contains the page number (calculated by the software) and the ornaments. As the page numbers go higher, the space between them and the ornaments contracts evenly on both sides while the dimensions of the invisible box remain unchanged. Word-processing programs have no equivalent. Controlling spacing, vertically justifying pages, managing paragraph breaks and page breaks: these things are more difficult, more time-consuming, and at times flat-out impossible in word-processing programs.


C. P. Lesley, The Golden Lynx,
p. 11.
Not every feature is essential, of course. But as indie authors, it’s important to  appreciate what book designers do, be realistic about how much work it takes to produce a beautiful book, and have a plan that involves more than typing THE END and uploading the file for a machine to process. At Five Directions Press, we edit our books in Word; design, typeset, and proofread them in  InDesign; then create print-quality PDFs—just like the big boys. The only difference is that we print the final books through CreateSpace, because we don’t have the warehouses and distribution system of the Big Six.


That said, take heart! There are resources out there. For lots of specific and helpful advice, explore Joel Friedlander’s blog. Check back here, where I will continue to write about typesetting and publishing. And experiment. May each and every one of you produce a book as beautiful as The Stockholm Octavo.

Images © 2012 C. P. Lesley. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

New Books in Historical Fiction Now Live

Despite my ability to push Murphy’s Law to its limits, the New Books Network came through, and the first interview in NBN’s newest channel is now online and available for listening. Join me as I discuss The Estate of Wormwood and Honey with Julian Berengaut, an international debt negotiator turned novelist. You can also follow Julian on his blog—where he chats about Russian history at many different times and places.

The Estate of Wormwood and Honey reproduces the style of its setting, 1820s Ryazan (about 120 miles east of Moscow). This well-researched novel follows the journey of Nicolas Nijinsky, a young nobleman in search of justice from those who mistreated him in childhood and exiled him from his ancestral home. But as he puts his plan into action and wends his way through a Gogolian world rife with corruption, scheming, and family politics, Nicolas begins to wonder whether, after all, he has chosen the right path.

Enjoy! I should have another interview up around mid-December, but I can’t give you the name yet, because the author still has to agree. (Hope she doesn’t read that Murphy’s Law post!)

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Murphy's Law of Microphones

First came the purring. The good news: I'd asked the cat not to meow, and he refrained from meowing. Instead, he provided a nice, gentle purr, showing how happy he felt that he could sit in my lap despite the cold-hearted way I'd abandoned him last Friday to read from The Golden Lynx at my alma mater and my callous insistence on attending ballet class three times that week—right when he was getting comfy, too. Really, how could I complain just because the microphone turned the purr into a roaring jet engine, reverberating like a soundtrack while the hapless interviewee waited for me to dial him up via Skype?

Fortune, as they say, favored me. Right about the time I was wondering whether I would make things better or worse if I shut the cat in a room, he abandoned my lap and the purring for his favorite spot, my printer. Never mind that the poor printer now contains more fur than certain stuffed animals I've known, or that it makes pathetic mousey noises when I ask it to print. When the cat is lying on it, he can stay quiet and relaxed for hours. Which, when I'm facing a 45-minute conversation with someone I've never met for a podcast that I have no experience in creating but need to record for the general public and for posterity, seems like a great idea.

Better still, Sir Percy was ensconced in his office, in the midst of a conference call. Cat #2 much prefers to hang out with him during the day, so I had no need to worry about her either. (She had spent the morning reminding me of just how much noise she could make if she tried.) I had turned off the ringer on my phone, set my computer not to blank the screen, figured out how to keep the swivel chair from squeaking (don’t swivel), finished lunch, and left the coffee downstairs. No smacking, no slurping, no sniffling, no squeaking. No purring. I was ready.

I checked my microphone and recording equipment, as recommended in the NBN Hosts Manual. Well, I knew the microphone was working, since it had picked up the jungle purrs. But the Skype test call didn't record (I think I mentioned in a previous post that I am Skype-challenged). Then I realized the audio capture software works so much better if you click the Record button before recording. Sigh. I hadn't even made the call yet, and I was already down for two.

Let me emphasize that none of the glitches I'm relating here had anything to do with my interviewee, Julian Berengaut. He answered the phone right away and was the perfect gentleman as I staggered through my opening segment (three times, but who's counting). He even said nice things after the recording stopped. Not his fault that I mixed up the name of his publisher (re-record no. 1) or the channel I'm supposed to represent (re-record no. 2) before settling into something that at least didn't make me sound as if I'd dropped in from another planet and had trouble thinking in English. Nor was he responsible for Sir Percy drifting by about halfway through and forgetting the sixteen warnings I'd issued not to talk to me during the interview or Skype deciding to take a break five minutes before the end. Or for my microphone emitting the occasional howl for no obvious reason (why conceal its Braveheart yearnings for the first two-thirds of the conversation?).

There are only so many ways a person can mess up a podcast, and I think I found every last one. So I can't call myself a podcasting queen yet—maybe a podcasting plebe. Still, it was fun. And with luck, I didn’t foul things up to the point where Marshall Poe can’t compensate for my inexperience. As soon as I have the live link, I'll post it, on this blog and on Facebook. Then I'll start practicing, so I can do better next time. I’m determined to earn that crown sooner or later.

Meanwhile, you can follow Julian's blog at And check out his book. If you like Russian literature—especially Gogol—I'm sure you will love The Estate of Wormwood and Honey.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Uncommon Women

I missed my usual Friday post this week because I was out of town, giving a reading from the early chapters of The Golden Lynx at my alma mater, Mount Holyoke College. I shared the stage (figuratively speaking—it was a lecture hall) with five amazing women: two poets, two writers of personal essays/memoirs, and one essayist who is working on a novel. It was a pleasure just to meet them—much more to hear them read.

We were there to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Mount Holyoke’s founding (the first women’s college in the United States) and because we have all published in The Lyon Review, the literary magazine for MHC alumnae, faculty, and staff. If you’re interested, you can find a description of the event, with links to the individual authors and their works, at Soon the Lyon Review site will also include videotapes of the readings.

So let’s hear it for uncommon women,* who keep life interesting and ask awkward questions and refuse to stand by while others try to suppress their voices, their ideas, and their contributions.

Skinner Hall, Mount Holyoke College, ca. 1896
It doesn’t look much different today.

*The title comes from Uncommon Women and Others, a play by Wendy Wasserstein ’71 about her experiences at Mount Holyoke College.

Friday, November 2, 2012

New Books in Historical Fiction

Or How I Became a Podcasting Queen

It seemed so simple in the beginning. Isn't that always the way? You take a step, and next thing you know, it leads somewhere you never anticipated. Not a bad place, necessarily, but one you hadn't imagined. So it happened to me.

As any reader of this blog knows, I have two relatively new novels to publicize. The not-so-hidden secret of the modern indie publishing world is that publishing is easy, but marketing is tough. So when I first learned about the New Books Network, I thought I had it made. The NBN site combines about seventy channels devoted to different types of new books (anything published within the last five years qualifies as new), ranging from art to world affairs and comics to critical theory. One of them covers historical fiction. Perfect.

But when I checked the page for the channel itself, it just said that NBN hoped to inaugurate the channel soon. Well, I thought (because I would be embarrassed to say this out loud), how better to inaugurate it than with my two books? So I contacted Marshall Poe, who created NBN and hosts the New Books in History channel, and suggested that he interview me. In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I have known Marshall for years; otherwise, I usually have trouble mustering that much chutzpah.

Only later did I find out that I had, in all innocence, violated the basic rule of academe: "first, do your research." I thought that NBN, because it was on the Web, stockpiled written interviews. A natural fit for a writer, right?

Not quite. Turns out that NBN interviews are podcasts, conducted over Skype. And what kept New Books in Historical Fiction from operating was that it had no host. Marshall solved that problem by offering me the job.

Oops. I don't listen much to podcasts, and I'd never imagined creating one. I don't even listen to audio books. As for Skype, it looks easy, but I had already tried it once and spectacularly failed to master it. Microphones, headphones, audio capture software: my head started spinning, and I hadn't even finished reading the instructions that promptly arrived by e-mail.

Moreover, even though these days I can conduct a conversation with strangers at parties, give lectures, and present the occasional reading of my own work, the super-shy high-school me still lurks in the shadows of my subconscious. Why else would I hide in my office and type novels for fun? I like learning new things, and I'm a geek at heart, so I especially enjoy mastering new technology. But Super-Shy Me was having fits. Could I make this work? Did I want to?

Well, to cut a long story short, Marshall talked me through the software and the equipment and the basics of interviewing writers. And I decided that becoming an NBN host was not only a great opportunity to market my own books but also a fantastic chance to meet other writers and learn something new. I've been practicing with the microphone and the headphones, selected a non-squeaky chair, and started requesting review copies and taking notes on new historical novels. I've even made some successful Skype calls and recorded myself practicing the talk I'm giving at the 175th anniversary celebration at Mount Holyoke College next week. 
I just have to figure out how to convince the cats not to meow at the wrong time; they're Siamese, and they always have plenty to say.

My NBN office setup, with the local celebrity,
ready for his interview, whether I like it or not

 © 2012 C. P. Lesley
Marshall is reading The Golden Lynx, and soon I will create my first podcast, in which he interviews me to introduce me as the new host. Then, when you go to, you will see not the "we hope to launch very soon" message but an actual downloadable interview and a link to subscribe to future podcasts via iTunes. I'll be conducting interviews under my pen name, C. P. Lesley.

And if you write historical fiction and find a message from C. P. Lesley in your mailbox or on Goodreads, I hope you will consider giving me an hour of your time!