Coping with rejection

22 March 2011

It’s been months since you submitted your book proposal and the mail you received today is almost a relief after all the silence. No. The press to which you offered your book (and in which you invested hopes and dreams) says ‘no’; they do not want to publish your book. No solid reasons given. You are not sure they even looked properly at the darn thing (but they do say ‘sorry’ in a nice way).

It takes more than time to write a book. It also takes courage, stamina and self-belief, all of which may leach away in the face of (constant) rejection. And, let’s be clear, rejection is the norm. The spurn rate is much higher with journal articles (many journals rejecting as many as 95% of the articles submitted) but the norm is rejection for a book manuscript, too. Luckily, there is (or should be) more than one press or journal to offer your work to.

How then to react to rejection, and to move on positively?

Is it actually ‘no’?

Of course, ‘no’ can come in different shades of black. Sometimes the rejection will not be outright; you may be invited to ‘revise and resubmit’. If so, you may enter a process of ‘acceptance creep’, a period of dialogue during which you revise your work to meet the publisher’s requirements. In essence, you have a tiny toe in the door and over time you can work and wiggle to get first a foot in the door, then a leg and finally all of you – of your book – through to the sunny side of publishing.

However, if you have received a blunt ‘no’, then you need to move on; there is little point arguing with the publisher. Rather, be pleased if the publisher chooses to tell you in any detail why your book has been rejected; such feedback is invaluable. On the basis of the knowledge of the industry, some publishers also helpfully suggest alternative presses which they think might be interested in your work.

Where now?

If that publisher’s rejection is final, pause a moment. Do not immediately rush off and submit your manuscript to the next publisher on your list. Reflect on the likely reasons that your proposal was rejected.

  • Was this publisher indeed the right one for your book?
  • Was your approach to them handled correctly? If not, what can you learn from this?
  • Was there a problem with the peer review process? It is not unknown that a scholar’s work ends up being judged by a bitter enemy, for instance, or one approaching the topic from an entirely different standpoint than the author’s. Knowing this won’t improve that reader’s report but it will help you face others in the future.
  • Is there something wrong with your text itself? On a sliding scale of fixability, common problems are shoddy presentation/spelling, bad writing and poor scholarship.
  • Is the big problem financial rather than content? For instance, is the readership/market judged to be too small or will your book be too expensive to produce?
  • Or is it (simply, sadly) that you personally are the problem, your authorship isn’t believed in?

Only if you take this time to ask the cruel questions – asking exactly what went wrong – can you move on and do something effective about it. Otherwise in all likelihood you are condemning yourself to another round of rejection.


How ever much the rejection hurts (and you may want to shrug the whole thing off as a bad dream), for the sake of your writing career you need to be decisive in response. You have several choices, depending in part on what the original problem was.

  • You can abandon the whole thing. This is clean and simple but a drastic, wasteful decision if you have spent months or years working on the book. At the very least, salvage something from the wreckage (the makings of a couple of journal articles, for instance).
  • You can simply resubmit/argue the merits of your proposal to the same publisher. People have succeeded here but personally I think it is a waste of your time and of your creative/emotional energies.
  • More productive instead is to find/approach another publisher. If so, however, then you need to find out in what ways the new publisher is different from the first. What effect will these differences have on your revised proposal? In other words, will you ‘sell’ your proposal to the new publisher any differently? At the same time, you should ask yourself how generally might your proposal be improved, no matter which press you approach?
  • But a quick response may not be possible; you may need to rework the book (or at least rewrite the book concept). In this work, any critical feedback you receive from earlier rejections (e.g. from readers reports) can be worth gold.
  • Improving the economic prospects for the book might be all that is required, of course. Publishers invariably say that subventions don’t affect their decision-making but that is nonsense; of course they do – at least in instances where there is no issue with the scholarship but rather the likely production costs are too high (say, with a book full of colour pictures) or expected sales are too low (the market is too small). In such instances, a publication grant can make all the difference. Indeed, let’s be clear: there are some publishers whose entire business plan depends on such funding (and here I don’t mean vanity presses, either).
  • Finally, you may decide to self-publish. Received wisdom denies any place for self-published academic works (let alone recognition in job and funding applications) because of the lack of peer review. However, the ground is shifting here; we are seeing experiments with ‘soft peer review’, the rise of collaborative writing based on the Creative Commons approach, and other developments resulting from the rise of the internet. That said, self-publishing is not something to venture into lightly. There are many issues and considerable costs or extra work involved, as can be seen in my series of posts dealing with this issue.

In short, you need to gather as much hard information as possible and then do some hard thinking. But, hey, you are a researcher. Isn’t that precisely what you have been trained to do?

Good luck!

Printer’s proofs

26 June 2010

Now your book is really at the starting line. The PDF book files delivered from your publisher have been transformed into a print-ready format in the printer’s pre-press department; printing is just minutes away. Ready, set, … .

Well, no, wait a moment. As mentioned in my last post, specimen proofs must first be printed off and sent to your publisher for approval. These allow publishing staff to check that text pages are ordered correctly, cover colours match, etc. Only after the approval of these printer’s proofs can the actual printing of your book proceed.

No author involvement

This proofing process is one that you will not be involved in – unless, that is, yours is an art book or similar highly illustrated work where fidelity of reproduction is paramount; here it might be appropriate for authors with their superior knowledge of the subject to be consulted.


Just what these printer’s proofs look like depends on the type of printing intended and the type of equipment the printer uses. If it is a digital, print-on-demand job, then what the publisher is likely to receive is a printed copy of the book, i.e. looking exactly like all subsequent copies would look like.

However, if it is a traditional lithographic printing job, then – unless these proofs are machine proofs (more about them below) – the printer’s proofs received will be quite different and look nothing like the final printed book. The book pages may be in loose-leaf form or – more likely – gathered in signatures (in which case the proofs take the form of a bundle of booklets). Such page proofs may be called blues/blueprints, diazos, ozalids and Vandykes, depending on the technology that produced them.

In all cases, however, because these proofs are printed on something like an ink-jet printer (with all sorts of compromises being made with regard to colour, resolution, etc.), the proof print is only indicative – something to check that nothing has been imposed upside down or out of sequence, for instance. Even the cover proof tends to be printed using an ink-jet printer or similar but usually the quality is good enough to flag up any major problems.

Machine proofs

Although none of these conventional printer’s proofs match exactly what the final printed copies will look like, a ‘perfect’ proof is possible but not cheap; to get this requires a machine proof, i.e. a proof printed off the actual printing press that later the book will be printed on (and not just printed off; the press needs to be set up first – quite a rigmarole for a single proof copy). As you might guess, then, this printing of a single copy is an expensive proposition that few publishers contemplate investing in. (Again, it is the high-quality art book that may need this sort of proofing.)

Publisher feedback

If it’s anything like usual, the printer’s proofs for your book will arrive by courier at the door of your production editor and s/he will have only a short time to check these. The printing presses are not actually throbbing there, waiting to start on your book (no, there’s dozens of other jobs to be done, with presses often running 24 hours a day). But there is an air of urgency and no doubt your production editor will be praying for a clean sheet, no errors.

In your case, everything is fine; the proofs are approved and the printer gets the go-ahead to print. Now, finally, all systems are ‘go’. Time to descend into Hell’s Kitchen.

(Post #6 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Meet the printer

14 June 2010

‘My book is at the printer.’ Now, that sounds nice. There is a solid promise to your book; no longer is it a vague wannabe that may or may not come to something. One might almost imagine the book taking shape in the hands of a big, burly, hairy-armed midwife.

‘Printer’, however, is a relative term. In fact, your book could be printed by quite different people in a variety of ways and places. Let’s take a brief look at these.

One or many

The solitary craftsman working at his printing press is a rarity; he exists but is more than likely to make a living from printing business cards, letterhead paper, etc. I doubt that many books are printed by such a person in these modern times. No, your book (and the books of any author you can think of) will be printed in a factory employing many people – maybe hundreds of them – carrying out a multitude of tasks. Along the way, in this series of posts, you may meet some of them.


It is rare for an academic publisher (indeed any book publisher) to have an in-house printing operation – that is something more common for very short-lived publications such as newspapers or magazines. One major reason for this is that different books need different printer set-ups, so there is a clear incentive for publishers to shop around for each individual project to find the printer most suitable in terms of technical ability and price.

One of the last academic presses with a significant in-house printing operation is Cambridge University Press (CUP), which indeed tried to chop this a year or two back but abandoned the attempt after a huge uproar.

(Note the name ‘press’ and the assumption that printing is an in-house publishing function. Once upon a time, it was the reverse; publishing was an add-on offered to authors by their printers. There’s more about this here. Times have changed; printing and publishing have gone their separate ways. In the process, however, publishers – who, let’s face it, are in some respects mere purveyors of promise – boosted their credibility by retaining the solid word ‘press’ in their name. This is why, when we talk about ‘a press’, we refer to a publisher and yet, when a book goes to press, it goes to a printer. Quite confusing.)


A major reason why CUP wanted to severely scale back on its in-house printing operation was the fact that it has outsourced much of its book production to India. This is something i have discussed often before (here for instance) but, briefly, although there are numerous printers in Western Europe and North America, a large number of Western publishers choose instead to have their books printed either in cheaper places like Eastern Europe or Asia. This is because of the huge financial pressure they are facing and because they find that the prices charged by printers in developing economies are low enough to more than outweigh the extra cost of getting books shipped great international distances to their various warehouses. Nor is this just a Western phenomenon; for instance, it least one Singapore publisher I know has looked at moving part of their printing offshore.


Some printers are set up for printing large quantities, producing books in their thousands or even tens of thousands, although that is admittedly a rare occurrence for an academic book in the humanities or social sciences (but not at all unreasonable for, say, a medical textbook). Other printers have set themselves up to be able to offer competitive prices on the smallest of printing jobs, down to just a few hundred copies, or even single copies in the case of digital printing (see below). Yet others have invested in machinery that enables them to provide really high-quality image reproductions for books on art and design, or to handle extra-large sizes, or to print on unusual papers.

Nor are all printing functions necessarily undertaken under the same roof. It is common that a printer may only print the (black and white) body pages of books while another specializes in printing high-quality colour covers and, somewhere else, a book bindery takes these two components and binds them into finished books.

Litho vs POD

Finally, there is the difference between traditional offset, lithographic printing and the new digital, printing on demand – something explored in my earlier post on printing revolutions.

No doubt the initial printing of your book will be in the hundreds (if not thousands) of copies. As such, in the posts that follow we shall be looking in greater detail at traditional printing processes. Perhaps you will also notice that the printing works described is a big, all-in-one operation located somewhere in Asia.

Let’s take a ride, the first stop the pre-press department.

(Post #4 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Printing revolutions

7 June 2010

Most of us have a secret vice, something we don’t usually brag about. Mine is that I balance all the serious, academic material I read on the job by consuming more trashy literature in my spare time – thrillers, historical fiction and (especially) crime. And in a word, that’s what I do: consume – borrow what I can via the Danish library system (quite a lot) and for the rest buy via an internet bookseller. Once I’ve read a book, I pass it on to another or even (and this enrages my wife) throw it away.

This may be a vice but it’s a darn sight cheaper than going to the movies.

You may be wondering, what’s this got to with printing? Quite a bit, as we shall see.

e-This, e-That

Nowadays we hear a lot about the internet revolution and how this is ushering in a new era of e-books, ‘green publishing’, greater consumer choice, etc., etc. Gone will be the days of that dinosaur, the printed book. Gone, too (though this is hardly talked about) will be the bookshop and that creaking edifice, the book trade, which sustains it.

Indeed, it is said, the printed book has only ten five two years of viable life left in it. Game over, enter the Kindle, the iPad or something that will prompt us all to go digital – and go digital all the way, 100%.

There is, however, a wee fly in the digital ointment. Another revolution is also in full swing: a printing revolution.


p-This, p-That

The computer and advent of digital communication have brought us the internet but they have not been the only technological developments happening. Globally, there has been a general shift from electro-mechanical to electronic technology. This has had an impact on all areas of life and all types of consumer product (think about modern cars, washing machines and telephones, for instance).

It has also had a major effect on the whole production process in publishing. In an earlier post, I described the changes in typesetting technologies and practices in recent years. Fundamental changes have also affected the printing world but here the transformation is incomplete and indeed several different developments are happening at once. Some of these are:

  • Printing presses are becoming faster, more sophisticated and can print fewer copies than before at an economic price.
  • Introduction of new print-on-demand (POD) technology has made single-copy printing feasible.
  • Some big booksellers are thus experimenting with in-store printing of stock.
  • The globalization of bookselling and entry of non-traditional retailers like supermarkets have driven down book prices dramatically. This is forcing publishers to cut costs, hence they are squeezing printers and other suppliers.
  • Printing prices are falling, not least because publishers have become willing to go offshore to find the best printing deal. In academic publishing especially, there has been a major shift of production and printing to India and China.

Let’s explore some of these points in greater detail.

Traditional book printing

Traditionally, books have been printed using offset lithographic presses in a lengthy process that essentially has three phases:

  • Pre-print: converting the material for printing to a print-ready state. (Once upon a time, typesetting was carried out at the printing works and was part of this phase.)
  • Physical printing of the book pages and cover material.
  • Gathering and binding of the printed sheets and covers into finished books.

Here, the presses must be set up for each new print job. This is time-consuming and expensive but, once done, copies can be printed off at very little additional cost. That means there is a high initial cost to be distributed over the number of copies printed at low individual cost. The more books are printed, the lower the share of initial costs applied to each copy.

Offset printing is thus good value for print quantities of hundreds or thousands of copies. As such, it is still the dominant form of printing carried out today. However, it is ruinously expensive if you only want dozens of copies, or even just a single one.

Enter POD

Major hassles for publishers are reprints (when, say, only a few copies are needed), overstocks and warehouse storage in general. The advent of new, digital print-on-demand technology in the 1990s promised a solution to these problems. Well, the solution isn’t there yet (especially in the early days, the print quality of POD copies was far inferior) but the prospect of a solution is still there.

With POD, publishers do not print books for their warehouse shelves, but only print as and when orders are received. Printing digitally means that there are few set-up costs, so the unit cost is the same whether you print one book or 1,000. Many printers now offer such a digital service but in addition warehouses are now offering such POD services.

The trouble is, though, that – while the unit cost of printing small quantities or even single copies is much lower than for offset printing – it is still too high to be profitable for the initial printrun for most publishers. In practice, POD is therefore mainly used as a service to authors, keeping their books in print indefinitely. But the hope is that in the near future unit prices can come down to a level where POD-only publication becomes a real option.

Printing inside the bookstore

Print-on-demand technology has developed to the point where proponents now talk of placing POD printing equipment in every bookshop. Instead of carrying stock in the form of books, then, bookshops could become ‘content kiosks’ where customers browse through files before placing print orders for immediate execution, a little like today when ordering ‘instant’ passport photos from a camera shop. By the time you have had a latte in the bookstore’s in-house cafe, the book you ordered is ready for collection.

The aptly named Book Expresso machine offers such a service. I described it in operation in an earlier post.

Currently, the initial investment in equipment is huge and beyond the reach of smaller bookshops. It is also quite likely that shops would continue to carry a certain amount of stock for impulse purchases, so we would be surprised if bookshop fronts became as small as passport photo booths. But it could happen, and POD systems are already being trialled in a few major bookshops (at Blackwells on Charing Cross Road in London, for instance) and at least one large library.

The question is, of course, unless that latte is exceptionally good, why people should continue bothering to visit bookshops if the browsing experience becomes limited to looking up a print catalogue? That could be done at home over the net.

The p-book isn’t dead yet

As a result of these printing revolutions and the associated bookselling price war, all of those thrillers, ‘krimis’ and historical novels which I buy are getting relatively cheaper to buy. Indeed – morality and the fate of our planet aside – I can afford to consume and discard them.

Yes, I’m taking away Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to read on our iPod Touch this summer. I also look forward to buying an iPad sometime soon. But for my serious reading, for the meantime at least, I’ll be sticking to physical books. I am not alone here – and that has major implications for publishing and bookselling, whatever the hoopla is about e-books.

More specifically, the knock-on effect is it’s likely your book will be more than just an ethereal digital being. It will be printed, become a physical object, something to fondle and show to your mum.

So, after this long digression, let’s follow that process of physical creation. This starts with the publisher doing a final check before sending the print files.

(Post #2 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

How much can you change at proofing?

4 March 2010

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the mental shift required of authors in the transition from editing their manuscript to typesetting their book, of the need to let go, give their book its freedom. However, sometimes this shift only truly comes at the proofing stage when the author suffers a rude awakening about what changes are actually allowed. Suddenly, there is heard the discordant sound of money being demanded with menaces.

How can this be?

Typesetters must be paid

Today, more likely than not, the typesetter of your book isn’t someone beavering away in a dungeon beneath your editor’s executive suite. Rather, he is a freelancer whose office looks out on cows and crops somewhere out in the countryside or an employee of one of the big Indian outsourcing firms in an industrial park on the outskirts of Chennai. Either way, the typesetter is paid for his work – and often on a per-page basis, not by the hour.

(See here for more about typesetters – and designers – and how they tick.)

In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that typesetters try to avoid being saddled with extra, unpaid work by threatening publishers with penalty charges. In turn, to protect itself, the press will seek to pass responsibility for any such costs over to the author.

Contractual consequences

Has your contract a clause something like this?

If so, you are in good company. This sort of wording is pretty standard among publishers. Indeed, sometimes it can all get quite mathematical. The terms of a contract may well include a maximum amount of proof corrections that authors can make at the publisher’s expense. Anything over and above that level will be charged back to them. What of course the press is doing here is to protect itself against any extra charges levied by the typesetter for ‘unnecessary’ changes.

While most publishers would accept some changes, please bear in mind that alterations to proofs are time-consuming, costly and can introduce further errors. Many typesetters thus charge publishers for every single correction apart from those that relate to fixing typesetting errors, not least those arising from the file conversion, as we have seen. (Not even typos are exempt; after all, these should have been picked up during copy-editing.) Charges can escalate rapidly, and eventually (as seen above) your own pocket could be at risk.

Proofing on a short leash

Perhaps because she doesn’t feel comfortable with this situation, your production editor is likely to work hard to avoid any possibility of such charges raising their ugly heads. Pre-emptively, she will do this by clamping down hard on what changes you are allowed to make to the proofs.

Arguably, this is quite reasonable. The time for resolving ifs and maybes was in the writing phase. Clarifications, restructuring and polishing your text belonged to editing, likewise any last-minute content changes. Thereafter, it is only reasonable to expect that the text delivered for typesetting is final. Consequently, your job now is only to correct any typesetting errors but otherwise to make no changes.

That’s all very well and good but, out in the real (scholarly) world, something pertinent to your text may well have happened that absolutely must be mentioned in your book, or there could be typos and factual errors that (true) should have been but were not picked up in the editing process. As I said above, most publishers would accept many such changes but expect that the patience of your production editor will rapidly wear thin. Some leeway will be given with the first, unpaginated proofs but almost nothing with the final, paginated proofs.

As for feedback on (and suggested changes to) the page design, something that I raised as a possibility here during the first proofing and that I’ll elaborate on in my next post about the final proofs, expect that here especially you will encounter quite stiff resistance.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still take a step back and look at your book with a critical eye. You can be sure that others after publication will be doing the same. You may not win the argument in every respect but you could still achieve a better look for your finished book.

(Post #8 of the Proofing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Letting go

11 February 2010

Letting go is not easy, whether you are a parent or an author (or both). This is quite understandable. While it is human to hold tight to (and be protective of) your children, the critical (and often treacherous) nature of the academic world teaches us to be equally guarded with our research results. Fear turns many a scholar into a serial polisher of his text, forever hesitating to expose it to possible ridicule or theft.

Ultimately, however, you have to let go. No child can grow and thrive if still clamped in their parent’s embrace, nor a scholarly work shine if hidden in a dark, lonely drawer.

Separation may be a lengthy business. And the angst begins early, already during the writing process. For many authors, the hardest stage here is to

  • actually finish the manuscript
  • place the last full stop
  • recognize that this is as good as it is going to get and that any more fiddling about with the text will add only time without contributing quality
  • let go and send your final words out into the world to stand or fall on their own merits.

That can be very difficult indeed.

The ripping feeling intensifies during editing. This, you are told, is your last chance to make sure that the text is just as you want it. From this point onwards, any changes to your text will be met with the greatest reluctance by your editor. Slowly but irrevocably, the book – your baby – is slipping beyond your grasp.

It is at typesetting, however, that the separation becomes irrevocable. As noted earlier, it is at this stage that your material is converted to other formats. Text and image files are placed in the typesetting ‘container’; essentially, there is no longer any live link between these files and the text and images found in the typeset book. As such, any changes to (say) your original Word files and JPEG images are pointless. All changes to the book’s text or illustrations can only be made by the typesetter.

And, as we shall see in a forthcoming post on proofing, chances are that the typesetter will be reluctant to make ‘unnecessary’ changes without an extra (penalty) payment.

Time to let go, indeed.

(Post #20 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Expecting colour in your book?

3 February 2010

Go on, admit it: you are not a monochrome type of author. You want colour in your life and inside your book; a bright, fancy cover is not enough.

Sadly, you shouldn’t assume that your publisher is willing to print anything in your book in colour (apart from the cover). Ask first!

With recent developments in printing technology, the cost of colour printing has dropped dramatically, but printing a book in colour still costs almost twice as much as printing in black and white only. Given the tight margins of academic publishing, most presses are willing to include halftones and other grayscale illustrations but nothing in colour.

As such, unless you have agreed with your publisher that some or all of your illustrations are to be printed in colour, any colour illustrations you submit will be converted to monochrome (often without consultation). Make sure, then, that they will still be meaningful in black and white. A ‘quick and dirty’ quality check can be made by photocopying any illustration you are in doubt about.

Remember that bar chart in Chapter 3, the one with the dramatic before-and-after effects in black and red? Looks like you better convert the red bars to hollow white or a B/W pattern. But what about your action shot of Michelle Obama, the one where she’s wearing that gorgeous yellow dress? After all, the whole point of the picture is in the colour; gray just doesn’t work. Will it help to throw a little money at the problem?


Publisher attitudes to colour do change with a substantial subvention on the table, of course, but even here – if (say) you have several such images scattered though your book – all that you might be offered is having all of the colour illustrations grouped together in a colour section.

Time perhaps to get a little assertive? Or maybe ‘realistic’ instead?

Unfortunately, this may be not the only dashed expectation; there are several other things to get steamed up about yet (more about these here).

(This is a preliminary post regarding use of colour in your book, a post where the emphasis is on typesetting issues. But colour is a bigger story, one I’ll return to another day.)

(Post #15 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

What is typesetting?

22 January 2010

With the design phase now completed, your manuscript and the design brief will be sent to a typesetter, who will take your text and illustrative material, setting it out on the page ready for printing.

An art and process

There is a lot more to typesetting (and its sister, typography) than you would think. Both have their origins in the Gutenberg revolution and each, in their different ways, were concerned with the presentation of textual material in type format ready for printing. In earlier times there was a big difference between them. Typography was the art of designing, setting and arranging type whereas typesetting was the process (or craft) of actually setting the type.

Note the class difference: typography wore a beret and twirled a designer’s pen, typesetting wore an apron, punched type and had ink on its fingers. As we shall see, however, the differences between the two have blurred in recent years.

Together, typography and typesetting combine an art and process that only really succeeds when invisible. In many respects, the layout of your book is comparable to the background music added to a film. Its primary duty is to make your text clear and accessible, but ideally it should also enhance the meaning with mood and style. Though stylish, the layout must also be durable (indeed timeless), transcending fashion. Much creative energy goes into this art, which is the subject of passionate debate among its practitioners.

At the forefront of the publishing revolution

The differences between typesetting and typography have narrowed (even blurred) due to the digital revolution and advent of desktop publishing (DTP), which has virtually obliterated other forms of typesetting in recent years.

At the sharp end of publishing – in the production of books, journals, etc. – the old, quite laborious and expensive process of producing print-ready material by hand-setting individual lines and pages of type (a job for well-paid tradesmen) has given way to on-screen, WYSIWYG page composition using personal computers and (usually) lower-paid semi-clerical staff.

In parallel with (and a precondition for) this transformation was the development of things we all take for granted today (everyone, not just publishing professionals) – the personal computer, DTP software, new digital fonts (see below), laser printers using the Postscript programming language, and PDF (which renders Postscript into a viewable, WYSIWYG format). An even more recent addition has been the arrival of text mark-up languages like XML; originating from the old pre-DTP typesetting systems, these are still esoteric, even for many publishing people.

For a while, typesetting came in-house for most publishers and many of the old, specialist typesetting firms went bust. In recent years, however, further cost-cutting by publishers has seen this typesetting work move out to local freelancers and further afield to places like India. (I have described this development elsewhere in greater detail, if you are interested.)

At the same time that the process of page layout has been transformed, a parallel transformation has been seen in typography. Here, there have been huge advances in typographical design, not least the development first of scalable, digital fonts followed by an explosion of new designs and more recently the digital capture and standardization of all the world’s varied alphabets and scripts in the form of Open Type fonts.

These advances have been an essential feature of the digital revolution in publishing. Without them, there would be no #e-publishing, no e-readers like the Kindle, probably no iPhone or other smart phone, and indeed even the PC, Web, etc. would be far more limited things than they are.

Key concerns and tools

According to Wikipedia, ‘Traditional typography follows four principles: repetition, contrast, proximity, and alignment.’ The same could be said for typesetting; they are classic requirements of a good design and layout. In essence, then, when laying out your book, your typesetter will be concerned to:

  • Fit your text and illustrations into the agreed page extent.
  • Place text and illustrations in an effective and appropriate combination.
  • Apply a layout that is uniform and predictable.
  • Implement a design that is elegant but also clear and readable.
  • Deliver the print-ready PDF files on or before the agreed date.

Given the sophistication of today’s DTP software (programs like Adobe InDesign, for instance), the typesetter of your book will have a vast array of tools at his/her disposal to ensure these goals are met. There are too many to list here but among them will be:

  • a selection of appropriate fonts in different sizes and styles;
  • paragraph and character styles, assigning uniform values to text (font, size, colour, alignment, etc.) that can be globally changed in an instant;
  • hyphenation, character spacing (kerning) and line spacing (leading), allowing fine adjustments to how much space an amount of text actually fills; and
  • much more (e.g. alignment and rotation, linking to external files, layering, use of colour, etc.)

Such is the world of the typesetter. But, as shall be seen in my next post, this esoteric world about to impinge on your own.

(Post #8 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Meet the designers (and typesetter)

9 January 2010

In publishing these days, almost everyone looks the same. Yes, clothing and hairstyle may differ (and let’s not forget attitude, accent and class) but everyone works on a computer. Look more closely, however, and the differences become more apparent. What sort of computer are we talking about and which software is being used? Who is the press insider and who the hired help?


In former times, the differences were clear. Editorial and marketing staff were office types, the former usually middle class (if not upper class) and intellectual, the latter often seen as more common and tainted by money. Increasingly, women were commonplace. In contrast, typesetters rubbed shoulders with the printers and got their hands dirty; they were craftsmen, working class and blokes. They were also part of the industrial elite.

Designers lay somewhere in-between. They, too, learned a craft but design was (and is) one of the creative professions; one should expect to work closely with architects, engineers, artists and other creative types as well as with people in advertising and marketing, areas where creativity is valued.

The computer revolution changed this picture, typesetters moving from setting metal type on-site at the printing works to setting virtual type on screen on big typesetting machines located elsewhere. The PC and desktop-publishing (DTP) revolutions completed the transformation. Today, virtually every designer and typesetter works on a computer. The old days of real cutting and pasting have gone.

Amateurs and distance workers

What the DTP revolution also allowed, however, is a dramatic decline in the use of qualified designers and typesetters in the publishing industry. Partly, this was a result of cost-cutting by presses but the trend is also in keeping with the industry’s origins as a profession for gentlemen, an industry distinguished by the work of gifted (and not so gifted) amateurs.

Especially in smaller presses, then, it is quite common for editorial and marketing staff to undertake design and typesetting work. For instance, though without the slightest design or typographic training, I design almost all of the covers for books published by NIAS Press, typeset the occasional book and in the past have even created customized fonts to meet our needs. Such involvement is not at all extraordinary.

This ‘democratization’ of design and typesetting work has also meant that it can be passed on to low-paid amateurs, of course, and indeed outsourced to ex-industry professionals now working freelance and costing less than if they were on the press staff. Moreover, in recent years, outsourcing of typesetting and other pre-press work to India by Western presses is increasingly common. (Several earlier posts have discussed this issue, most notably this one. Click on ‘outsourcing’ in the right-hand tag cloud to view all of these posts.)

That said, although many presses have cut costs by outsourcing or employing low-cost amateurs and/or by the use of template designs, some presses still find it worthwhile to employ professionals to undertake this work.

I suggest you keep this nuanced picture in mind in the description that follows and in subsequent posts dealing with design and typesetting.

Different types, much in common

In the new democracy of design and typesetting, it is quite possible for the designer and typesetter to be one and the same person; chances are they are different, however – or that the typesetter creates the page design but the cover design is assigned to a specialist cover designer.

This is not surprising; the work has much in common but it is not the same. Typesetters and page designers should obviously care about the aesthetics and accessibility of a text but a central concern is ‘fit’ – how to ensure that the finished book ends up with the number of pages it is supposed to have (and hence keep printing within budget).

In contrast, the cover designer must produce covers that are attractive to look at and ideally also a bit intriguing to encourage potential buyers to pick up the book. At the same time, cover designers must satisfy a number of practical concerns such as that the cover works both when viewed face-out (as it should ideally be seen) and spine-out (as on the shelf of a bookshop or library).

That said, there is much in common between designers and typesetters. Both work with an intimate knowledge and appreciation of spatial relationships, colour and fonts, and both need to be skilled at using images to good effect and at enhancing image quality.

For their work, moreover, both designers and typesetters are likely to use a powerful Macintosh computer running highly specialized software. Because of its superior graphics capabilities, the Mac has long been dominant in both pre-press and printing work. (It was this tiny but lucrative slice of the computer market that allowed Apple to survive during the long years of otherwise utter Windows dominance.) The domination of Abobe Creative Suite as the software package of choice is more recent but with InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, Acrobat and more, use of the package is almost inescapable.

This can be seen in the next few posts, which deal with the page design and cover design.

(Post #3 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Substantive editing

27 December 2009

Eventually, once you have satisfied the Style Nazi, editing of your manuscript can proceed.

Editing in fact is not one thing. Transformation of your manuscript calls on two very different types of editing: substantive editing of the initial (delivered) text focusing on its structure and argumentation, and copy-editing of the finalized (restructured) text focusing on its language and ensuring that it complies with the publisher’s house style

Substantive editing is the aristocrat of editing and, sadly, it is rare. For me, this has been epitomised by the editorial work of Joanne Sanstrom at Berkeley, now retired. As I understand it (though just how real this picture is, I don’t know), Joanne worked with each of her authors, line by line, ensuring that their text flowed logically, its argumentation structurally coherent, clear and consistent, all of this presented in language that was fresh and alive. In my mind, this is substantive editing (with a dash of copy-editing) at its greatest.

However, my understanding is also that Joanne only edited about four books a year and editing was pretty much all that she did. There is no way that this level of perfection makes economic sense in today’s publishing climate – indeed, I doubt that it ever did, even in the golden age of scholarly publishing a few decades ago. Each of these four books would have needed to sell tens of thousands of copies to cover Joanne’s salary and ancillary costs. Such levels of sales have rarely happened.

Any book will be the better for undergoing a mindful edit such as Joanne’s but sadly, in almost all cases today, it never happens. Because of the economic pressures on publishers, in recent years there has been a decline in the amount of structural revisions made to manuscripts after their final delivery. Instead, the tendency is for structure and content to receive feedback (not editing) before final delivery. Quite often publishers rely on any concerns regarding structure, argumentation and coherence being raised in the peer reviewers’ reports, and perhaps in additional comments from the commissioning editor (which may have been made after only a hasty skim-reading of the work). And that is about all the ‘substantive editing’ that a manuscript will get.

This degradation of the added value that publishers are supposed to offer their authors is one reason why some people argue the merits of self-publication and question if publishers have role to play in the dissemination of modern scholarship. (This is a complicated argument, one that I have explored elsewhere at great length.)

Mind you, I don’t hear too many authors complaining about this situation (though I dare say that’s because of ignorance not acceptance). Substantive editing is not what many authors think of when considering that their manuscript will be edited; rather, all that is in mind is a bit of ‘polishing’, the correction of the stray typo. After all, they are the ones that know their subject. (Unfortunately, knowing your subject and being about to communicate it effectively are quite different things.)

But what is your situation?

Hopefully, you received a detailed and coherent assessment of your text on such structural and content issues prior to final delivery but chances are you haven’t. If not, you might like to use this approach in the finalization of your manuscript.

Take the feedback that you have received from the readers’ reports and commissioning editor as your starting point, adding to this your own formal response to these evaluations. Thereafter, take the time to swiftly read through your manuscript one more time, briefly marking anything for follow-up but never really pausing. Doing this reading at speed reduces your unwillingness to read the wretched thing one more time. In fact, the faster you read, the easier it will be to keep a picture of the entire work in your head, and you will also notice anything that disturbs, distracts, bores or irritates you far more easily.

With all of this input, it should be fairly clear what revisions need to be done. Do them, but do not get bogged down with rewriting text that had nothing wrong with it in the first place. Speed is of the essence.

With luck, after delivering your final manuscript, your text may receive a minimum of substantive editing as part of the copy-edit. Just don’t count on it. As you will see in my next post, copy editors have enough to do already without straying into the byways of structure and argumentation.

(Post #3 of the Editorial section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


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