Why index?

7 March 2010

An index may be unassuming, loitering at the end of your book with not a lot to say for itself. It is also one of the last things to be made, often under great time pressure. So why bother?

There are many reasons to index your book, not least a wee clause in your contract, something like this:

No, but seriously, if yours is an academic book then really an index is unavoidable for the following reasons:

  • It is useful. The index is perhaps the most-used pathway to searching a book, accessed far more times than the table of contents.
  • The index provides an alphabetic mind map of the contents. It is, then, an intellectual construct, a key part of the scholarly insight that you are offering your readers. This can also benefit you, the writer (see below).
  • It has a direct impact on sales. Library purchasing decisions can be influenced by the presence or absence of an index. Years ago, I was shocked to hear an acquisitions librarian go through his checklist for deciding if a book would be bought. The first question was, ‘Is there an index?’

In addition, if it is you who will be doing the indexing (something that I discuss in my next post and that the rest of the posts in this indexing thread assume), then the act of creating the mind map referred to above gives you a marvellous insight into the completeness of your study. Are there, for instance, any gaps in the information that shouldn’t be there? (You can know a subject so well that you forget to make all pertinent details clear to your readers.)

Ah, but we have a problem here. If it is only now that you realise you have failed to explain the background of this or the meaning of that, isn’t it too late? Well, yes, it is if you are only starting work on your index just days before the book goes to press. Arguably, you should start earlier (something that I explore further in a post later this week).

To conclude, I think the issue is quite clear. Publishing a scholarly volume without an index is a bit like revealing a new work of art in a gallery where the blinds are pulled down and the lights are turned off. It just won’t do.

Time, then, to get started with your index.

(Post #2 of the Indexing 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.)

Copyright problems

6 February 2010

Remember the picture of Michelle Obama we talked about earlier? I hope that it is your photo, or you have otherwise received permission to use it. Otherwise, you and your production editor (who has not been doing his job properly) could be in deep doggies.


Because by the time that your text and image files have been delivered to the typesetter, any questions about copyright and permissions should have been resolved long ago. Certainly, your typesetter will not be asking any questions about your right to this image (or, for that matter, your right to quote 15 pages word for word from Dreams of My Father).

No, and the first anyone may realise there is a problem is when a big fat lawsuit lands thud in your publisher’s letterbox. By then it will be too late – and by then you may get to learn that certain clauses in your contract are not just words:

4.1    The Author warrants to the Publisher that the Work is original and previously unpublished; that the Author has the sole right to publish it; and that in no way whatever does it violate any existing copyright.
4.2    If any material is to be reproduced in the Work to which the Author does not have copyright, the Author is responsible for obtaining the permission of the copyright holder for the reproduction of this material. Any expenses incurred in this connection must be borne by the Author.

§ 5 Other Legal Obligations
5.1    The Author warrants to the Publisher that the Author has the full power to enter into this Agreement, that the Work contains nothing that exposes the Publisher to legal action, and that all the statements contained therein purporting to be facts are true to the best of the Author’s knowledge. […]
5.2    If the Author breaches the warranties made in §4.1 and §5.1, the Author shall indemnify the Publisher against any consequential loss, injury or damage occasioned to the Publisher or the Publisher’s business partners, including any legal costs or expenses and any compensation costs and disbursements paid by the Publisher on the advice of their legal counsel to compromise or settle any claim.

These clauses are from the standard NIAS Press contract. By no means are they unusual. And essentially they mean that, if you have dropped your publisher in the legal doggies, you can be pretty certain that you’ll be hung out to dry. Bankrupted. Fired. Humiliated.

The long and short of it is that, even if it is your production editor’s job to check that you have cleared any permissions required for the use of copyright material, ultimately it is your responsibility that this has been done. Likewise, if you are to get round the copyright issue by getting (say) a map redrawn, that too should have been done by now.

Better get moving, right now.

(The ins and outs of copyright and permissions will follow in a later post. This is just a wee reminder, warning you not to leave this matter any later.)

(Post #18 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Your role in deciding the cover/page design

20 January 2010

Who knows most about your book? You do. Who decides what it should look like? Someone else. There’s a bit of a disconnect here, I feel.

Publisher territory

Publishers do not expect authors to design their own books, and in fact reserve the right to determine a book’s final appearance. After all, they are the professionals. If you look at your author contract, chances are that you will see a clause something like this one from the standard NIAS author contract:

The Publisher shall have complete control of the production and publication of the Work. Among aspects at the Publisher’s discretion are: the paper, printing, binding, cover (or jacket) and embellishments …

However, being the professionals doesn’t mean that the design of your book is best left to your publisher’s editors, designers, etc. alone. No, you too should be involved, right from the beginning.

Why? I can think of two reasons right off.

  1. With your inside knowledge of your book and its subject, you have a better feeling for what might ‘click’ with your readership and what might be appropriate (even allowed) as discussed in my previous post.
  2. Publishers may be the professionals but they don’t necessarily do a good job if left to themselves. This may be because of the attitude problem mentioned earlier (that the jacket/cover is unimportant) but more important perhaps is the time pressure that book designers work under; the temptation to apply ‘the standard treatment’ to your book will be strong as a consequence.

If you want to achieve a better result, something that brings to life your vision for the book, then it is up to you to work for this – even get a little pushy if need be.

But how much say do you have in the final result? Each publisher is different; some may be flexible in one area but will not budge a millimeter in another. Even so, chances are that your publisher will seize upon any good ideas that you have to make your book stand out in the crowd, shine among its competitors – and sell more copies.

Adding an author perspective to the cover

Chances are that your publisher will welcome suggestions from you for illustrations for your cover, particularly if you have copyright-free material. But your illustrations must be suitable. Keep in mind, for instance, that:

  • The image that you supply should be of a sufficiently high resolution (anything less than one megabyte in size is a waste of time; ideally, the file size should be larger).
  • It should go without saying perhaps but your illustration should be composed nicely, aesthetically pleasing and generally of a good quality (nothing that needs a lot of repair work, for instance).
  • There should be no copyright or other ownership issues with the image. If it needs the permission of someone else for its use, then it is your job to get that permission and pass on to your editor any associated requirements (e.g. that an attribution is given using a specific wording).
  • If the image has to be paid for, then that too is your responsibility (though you can of course raise the issue of compensation with your publisher). It is more than likely that an author is charged less for an image than a publisher.
  • The image must leave enough room for the other cover elements (title, subtitle, author name, etc.) mentioned in my previous post.
  • However, if the illustration is to cover the entire front cover, then it cannot be so ‘busy’ that it fights with the other cover elements. Having a uniform background (like sea or sky) in a suitable part of your image can be useful here.

Inspiration need not come from the world of your research only. Other books can also inspire. What works best for you as a reader? What attracts you aesthetically? Develop a sense of what works and what does not. If you can do this, then you will be able to communicate more knowledgeably and on more equal terms with your publisher on the book design.

However, it is important that you bring any design suggestions to your editor at an early stage. Otherwise, with some publishers, you may not be asked your preference about the cover design but simply be presented with a fait accompli for proofing (after all, you are ‘only the author’). At that point, the design budget will have been spent and any protestations from you are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Adding your perspective on the page design

Getting involved in the cover design is one thing, having a say on the layout of the inside pages is quite another.

Theoretically, you could contribute to the page design brief. Over the years I have had authors taking an active (sometimes too active) interest in the entire book design, but these authors have been few and far between; in practice, most authors show little interest in the page design.

However, perhaps you might like to warm your interest just a little more right now because our thread of posts on design is finished; now we are moving onto the typesetting of your book (first up, what exactly is typesetting, followed by a whole lot of ‘issues’ posts demonstrating why you should care).

(Post #7 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Word count and book length

11 May 2009

One of my biggest problems as a publisher is having authors deliver more than was agreed to. However sometimes, like today, the reverse happens. Does this matter? Yes, actually.

There are in fact two issues here: book length and contracted extent. Let’s look at these in turn.

Book Length

A book’s extent depends on the type of work that it is. You are unlikely to encounter a brief Encyclopedia of World History, nor should you meet a 1,000-page Introduction to the Works of Jane Austen (though sadly this sort of thing does happen).

If you analyse the contents of a typical bookshelf in an academic library, you will notice that many of the books are between 272 and 320 pages in length. The golden extent for many publishers is 288 pages (about 90–100,000 words without tables or figures). Why is 288 pages a golden extent? Because this length is sufficient for the author to develop their argument fully. It is also perceived as a full-sized book hence it is quite acceptable for the publisher to charge the full normal price. For the publisher, it is an economic size – 18 printed sheets (books tend to be printed on 16-page sheets) give a nice balance between the costs of cover and inside pages.

(See my later post for a detailed explanation and instructions on how to calculate book length.)

Books falling outside the standard range of 272–320 pages can be problematic. Under-length books are often regarded with suspicion by scholars: perhaps they have not covered their subject properly. On the other hand, over-length books may be tolerated by scholars but are the bane of publishers’ lives. They cost more to produce in almost every area (editing, typesetting, proofing, indexing, printing and binding) but rarely can the price be commensurately higher without losing sales. Because of their greater weight, they also cost more to send (in shipping costs for the publisher and later in delivery charges for the customer).

Keeping to the extent agreed in your contract

For these reasons especially, a key clause in most author contracts specifies the extent that the author should deliver. (Usually, this will be a word count – including notes and references – and perhaps an agreed number of illustrations.) It is on the basis of this agreed length that the publisher costs the book and sets a price. Both length and price are clearly stated when the book is announced, and this information is one of the things that people (especially librarians) take into account when deciding if they will purchase the book.

As such, once the book has been announced, at the very least the publisher will be seriously embarrassed if the author then delivers a final ms that is significantly over- or under-length. What was announced (and maybe ordered) is not what is being delivered on publication. Embarrassment is cheap; money is not. Obviously, over-length mss are especially problematic. Costs will be much higher and normally these cannot be recovered with a price rise (or not immediately, at least). The result may be that a book that promised to be marginally profitable is suddenly a financial burden – hardly something any publisher wants.

Not all publishers accept such nasty surprises. Some throw the ms back to the author, demanding cuts and more cuts. In the increasingly tough economic times that we are going through, you should expect that publishers will be less tolerant of any over- or under-length mss delivered than they were in the past.

So, how important is it to stick to the word count stated in your contract? I think that’s obvious: very.

That said, there is at least one exception. If your contract is for a book that hasn’t yet been announced, then perhaps the change in length won’t be an issue. Perhaps. Don’t assume; ask your editor.