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.


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