Thesis vs book

13 May 2013

In my previous post, I asserted that ‘a thesis is not a book’ without offering any grounds for this claim. In this post I shall substantiate my claim by describing and commenting on the main differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. Obviously, some theses are more book-like than others while a fair few academic books are not particularly good in their scholarship and/or in their authorship.

start-bridge

Purpose

Thesis: To test the student’s competence and establish academic credentials.

Book: To communicate ideas/research results.

Comment: The difference in purpose, as in author and readership (below), means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.

 Form

Thesis: Often book-like but usually amateur in appearance.

Book: It is a book and normally is produced to professional publishing standards.

Comment: Producing a book-like thesis is risky but may be unavoidable. My previous post explores this issue.

 Length

Thesis: Often a lower limit, but not always an upper limit (sometimes the assumption being that the greater length, the greater the scholarship).

Book: Limited by market forces (printing cost, shipping weight, retail price, reader expectations, etc.)

Comment: The whole issue of book length (and word count) is explored here.

 Author

Thesis: Student (writing to pass scrutiny and assert academic credibility).

Book: Writer (aiming to communicate but with obligations to readers).

Comment: Arguably, the student is an involuntary author whereas the writer has choice (but that is to deny the enduring power of the old adage ‘publish or perish’; teachers have other obligations but researchers especially are chained to a publication treadmill).

Readership

Thesis: Panel of examiners tasked to evaluate the student.

Book: Colleagues and anyone else interested in the subject and in learning.

Comment: The difference in readership (between a group that is known and self-contained and one that is amorphous, undefinable and largely anonymous) is subtle but means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.

Focus on

Thesis: Author (the student, who is being examined).

Book: Reader.

Comment: Again, the difference in orientation creates a subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.

Scholarship

Thesis: Exposition required (to demonstrate knowledge).

Book: Absorbed and built on (to frame discourse).

Comment: Theoretical framework is not the only issue here but it is a major one that I explore in greater detail here.

Approach

Thesis: Defensive exposition (to panel of examiners).

Book: Open disclosure (‘selling’ an argument/research results to often unknown and possibly sceptical peers).

Comment: Another reason for the subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.

Treatment of subject

Thesis: Often highly technical and very detailed.

Book: Avoids unnecessary technical detail.

Comment: Many factors are at play here, not only length and approach (as above) but also things like how experienced the author is as a writer. That said, remember that we are comparing the typical thesis and a good scholarly book; there are plenty of experienced authors with an obsession with detail.

Language

Thesis: Often obscure, abstract and heavy on jargon.

Book: Clear with judicious use of technical terms where needed.

Comment: As per treatment of subject (above) but substitute ‘impenetrable prose’ for ‘an obsession with detail’.

Structure

Thesis: Often progressive recitation (along a preordained railway track).

Book: Organic unity, with narrative thread drawing the disparate elements together.

Comment: Arguably, the difference is more about the author’s skills and experience as a writer than any inherent distinction between thesis and book.

Narrative flow

Thesis: Orderly exposition but argument not built; often excessive signposting.

Book: Builds argument, linking chapters with subtlety; has pace and momentum.

Comment: As per structure (above), i.e. more about the writing skills and experience (less likely among new authors).

Ending

Thesis: Often ends quite abruptly.

Book: Wrapped by conclusions.

Comment: Structure and narrative flow (above), hence writing skills and experience, are usually at work here.

Methodology

Thesis: Detailed description required.

Book: Description only if and when relevant.

Comment: Methodology has much the same role as theory – see scholarship (above).

Referencing

Thesis: Often far more than strictly necessary.

Book: Only what is necessary.

Comment: Excessive referencing is typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality found in many theses but is not unknown among experienced authors. Unfortunately, every citation is a ‘speed bump’, reducing the readability of a text.

Quotations

Thesis: Necessary, often extensive.

Book: Limited use.

Comment: Also typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality is excessive quoting of the work of other scholars (both in length and frequency). Usually, students can get away with this in a thesis but the same excess in a published work (whether a book or article) could provoke accusations of breach of copyright and ‘fair use’.

Evaluation before completion

Thesis: Feedback from supervisor; final assessment by panel of examiners.

Book: Publisher’s commercial assessment, peer-review process and editorial input.

Comment: The difference in part relates to readership (above) but never assume that the commercial interests of a publisher and the academic needs of an author are completely aligned (far from it). A detailed description of editorial input begins here.

Evaluation afterwards

Thesis: Formal defence.

Book: Reviews published in journals and other external forums.

Comment: As per evaluation beforehand (above), readership plays a part but ultimately purpose (above) is especially important here.

footbridge

Where now?

As you can see, there are differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. However, every thesis is different, likewise every monograph. The question is, then, where does your thesis fit in this matrix and what do you need to do to transform it into a career-building book?

Time to put on your analyst’s hat and start planning. In a subsequent post, I shall follow this process.


Hell’s kitchen – on the print-shop floor

4 November 2010

Bedlam or Mozart?

Earlier, I described the hushed, clean zone of the pre-press department. Beyond the double doors, it is a different, almost primitive world with scenes straight out of the devil’s kitchen, a place moreover that often smells like a glue-sniffers’ convention. But above all else, this is a world coloured by one thing: the noise of many huge lithographic printing presses tirelessly grabbing, inking and ejecting thousands of enormous sheets of paper.

My first impression of such a ‘print shop’ was incredulity. How could anyone work in such punishing, epileptic noise? Of course, us visitors were the only ones listening. The shop-floor staff at this Danish printing works all wore headphones and went round in a calm, deliberate manner. For all I know, they were all listening to Mozart. This Danish print shop was immaculately clean and tidy, moreover.

This is quite a different picture from some of the printing works I have visited in Asia, for instance, where the work situation can be dismal. Certainly, I rarely saw headphones there and I shall never forget the sight of two miserable-looking workers enveloped in a haze of chemical dust as they shovelled a mountain of paper offcuts into rubbish bags.

Many different printing presses

Even at the smallest printing works, there are likely to be quite a few different printing presses. This is because it is vastly cheaper to use a press for one type of job all the time as it avoids the need to continually strip, clean and reset the machine after every job. Such down-time is incredibly expensive.

Typically these days, in any printing works will be found quite a few monochrome presses, printing in black and white only (as this is the most common type of printing job, especially in book printing). In addition, there will be a number of colour presses set up to print the four process colours – cyan, magenta, yellow and black – that are the basis of all colour printing. (Of course, a print job can involve the use of spot colours – special, pre-mixed inks of a specific hue – but here the printing press will have to be specially loaded with this spot colour and stripped and cleaned after its use.)

Of course, many printers want the latest shiny new toys and you can be sure that the latest German wunderprinter will be found even in the back streets of Chennai or Lima. Old presses take a long time to die, however, so all too often right next to the newest machine will be a press that is many decades old but still capable of churning out high-quality work; it too will fill a production niche.

There are, besides, different types of printing technology (and this of course is changing rapidly). Newspapers and magazines are printed on presses loaded with giant rolls of paper, for instance. But for book printing what you will typically see used is a sheet-fed printing press, i.e. the machine is loaded with a huge pile of giant sheets of paper that are then grabbed and pulled through the press, ink being applied in the process.

Printer setup

In this traditional world of offset printing, the presses must be set up for each new print job. Here, the printing plates created in the pre-press department are each – one after the other – fitted onto the printing press. Setting up each print job is time-consuming and thus relatively expensive because all the plates must be got ready, the correct inks and paper loaded, and special instructions (not least print quantity) taken on board. (Just which paper is loaded is hugely important. I’ll return to this in a later post.)

Moreover, the mini-setup/changeover between plates and sheets (described below) also takes time; that said, printers generally have developed routines and rhythms that allow this work to be carried out very efficiently. However, once everything is set up, copies can be printed off at a great speed and with very little additional cost.

Less for less

This has huge economic implications. There is a high initial setup cost to be distributed over the number of copies printed at low individual cost. The more books are printed, then 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, but ruinously expensive – indeed technically almost impossible – if you only want dozens of copies (let alone just a single one). If the number of copies to be printed is less than 400, then print on demand (using giant, glorified photocopiers) makes the most economic sense.

Sitting uncomfortably between POD printers and the big printing firms that churn out tens of thousands of copies in each print run (they are the printers of the Harry Potter books, for instance) can be found short-run printers. I remember a few years ago hearing such a British printer specializing in academic books complain that in earlier times 1,500 copies was regarded as a short run; now (such was the collapse in academic book sales) a short run was 400 copies. And yet the publishers still expected to pay less per copy than they had before. This printer looked old and tired. It’s not nice being in such a squeezed situation.

Printing process

After initial setup, the real work begins. If it is a monochrome job, the process is relatively simple. First, one side of the sheet is printed then a new plate loaded and the other side printed. (Modern duplex printers are able to print on both sides of the sheet simultaneously, being able to hold all of the plates required for printing a single sheet.) This process continues until all sheets are printed, each stacked separately. A typical academic book that is 288 pages in length would have 18 such stacks each of which eventually will be folded into signatures.

Colour print jobs are more complex because for each side of the sheet, four separate printing plates have to apply their own coating of cyan, magenta, yellow or black ink. Obviously, the colours have to line up perfectly, hence the vital importance of registration marks placed around the margins of each page to ensure pinpoint accuracy.

The presses do not run unattended but are policed by an operator (maybe even a master printer) who will periodically remove sheets from the printed pile to check them for problems. This quality check is not only for colour registration but also things like sharpness and ink density. All such sheets are discarded after inspection; they are not returned to the pile. As such, it is difficult to print the exact number of copies ordered. Indeed, printers always print quite a few extra copies (perhaps 10% of the total printrun) with there being a fair few overs above the number of copies ordered. For this reason, printers usually offer two figures in a printing quote: one price for the exact number of copies being quoted for and another price that includes an extra X run-on copies at a discounted price.

Yes, this is a wasteful process and arguably the term ‘green publishing’ is a contradiction in terms. But that is the subject for another post.

Meantime, it is time for all of those piles of printed sheets to move on to the bindery, the location of my next post.

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


What to index

16 March 2010

Apart from the number of pages available, there is another important factor determining the length of an index: just what is to be indexed. This is not an issue considered in advance by most authors, I suspect, but your choices here will add to readers’ perceptions about the index and your book.

Does it look as if the indexing job has been thoroughly done – but not overblown – or is this a skimpy (even sloppy) affair? Although a threadbare index useless to its purpose will immediately signify that the rest of your book is equally inadequate, more is not necessarily better. There are limits.

So what material should be indexed in your book?

Obviously, your body text must be indexed, but what about notes that comment on the text? Citations and bibliography are usually not indexed; will you follow that practice? Some publishers think it unnecessary to index a glossary (indeed, sometimes an index becomes a kind of glossary), but consider it essential to index any illustrations and captions. What does your publisher say?

With luck, your publisher will have guidelines on all of these matters but otherwise simply use your common sense.

As you can see, decisions need to be made here but they are not life and death issues, nothing even to lose sleep over. Indeed, although what you chose to index can be significant, the ultimate quality of your index depends on other factors, not least the intellectual conceptualization of the index (or mind map, discussed here) and its ‘visualization’ in the index structure, the subject of my next post.

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


Index length

12 March 2010

Winter this year in Copenhagen has been cold and snowy (and I’m sick and tired of shovelling all that white stuff; the searing heat of Bangkok tomorrow should be a shock). Overcoats are seen here far more than is usual, some looking more comfortable than others. An index is like an overcoat: too small and its squeezes its wearer in a wrestler’s clamp, too big and it lets the cold air seep in underneath.

Knowing beforehand

A year or so ago, we hired someone to index one of our books. He was very good, very thorough, and also flagged up a number of typos and inconsistencies in the text that had been missed. There was a problem, however. The index delivered was 64 pages in length (about 23 typeset pages), the maximum amount of space available 12 pages. Drastic cuts were made.

A key lesson we learnt from this experience was to be (even more) clear about how long we expect an index to be. In your case, your production editor should know how many book pages are available for the index. Make sure that you are informed about this before you start indexing.

Limits

Is there any real limit to how long your index should be? Yes. In fact, there are several factors at play here.

  • Perception. Indexes are like books: if too short, they may be treated with disdain (a 2-page index may be seen as pathetic and laughable) but, if too long, they may be regarded as unwieldy and ‘over the top’.
  • What is physically possible. Books tend to be sized in multiples of 16 pages because that is how they are printed (on big sheets of paper holding 8 book pages on each side; more about book length here). If (say) the total extent of your final proofs is 276 pages including prelims, then no more than 12 pages will be available for the index (or 28 pages if an extra 16-page signature is to be used).
  • Flow-on effects. In the above example, no publisher will agree to an index that when typeset fills 13 pages and causes there to be 15 blank pages at the end of the book.
  • What has been announced. A 12-page index is quite reasonable, even generous. In the above example, it would be unlikely that an index longer than this would be permitted if the book has been announced as being 288 pages in length.

Calculating size

Of course, there is a confusion and potential trap for you when I talk about ‘pages’ above. The number of typeset index pages is not the same as the number of ordinary (A4 or US Letter) pages on which you prepare your index in Word or another word processor.

Typeset indexes are generally set quite tight in a smaller font size and laid out in at least two columns whereas more than likely your index will be prepared in 12-point Times Roman with generous line spacing. As such, your typesetter should be able to fit a bit more than two of your word-processed pages onto one typeset page in the book.

As a rule of thumb, then, if told that you have (say) 8 pages available for the index, then you can count on having 17–18 pages in Word for your index (though obviously not single-spaced in a tiny font size).

If the amount of space is too little or (in some ways, worse) too much, then there may be an issue of what (how much) you are indexing, the subject of my next post. If so, re-evaluate your situation and – if not resolved – contact your production editor urgently.

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


Finalizing the cover

16 February 2010

Ask any young woman and she will tell you it’s not her brain that counts with ‘real’ men but her body. So says the cliche, but there is an uncomfortably big grain of truth in this observation.


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Content matters

Although content ultimately matters – you are unlikely to buy those cornflakes again if they taste lousy – initially, all too often the wrapping counts a lot.

So it is with book covers, as we have discussed earlier. Surface appearances, fripperies.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that this long thread of posts on the design and typesetting process ends on a(n almost) frivolous note. Most posts in this section have dealt with the layout of your text and illustrations – the contents, the serious stuff that your readers are waiting for. And yet, when it comes to the production of your book, chances are that you – like most authors – will show little interest in the page layout but keen interest in every aspect of the cover design.

Time, then, to finalize this surface matter. Unfortunately, all too often, the issues raised are not frivolous ones.

A simple matter

In the best of times, the process of producing a cover is straightforward enough for the cover designer (or typesetter) to finalize. S/he has the cover design and, within this framework, it should be a simple matter to arrange the various cover elements – title, author name(s), illustration, blurb, publisher logo, bar code, etc.

Long time coming

Straightforward enough, indeed. The problem is that covers are not always produced in the best of times. Or, rather, that they are produced in all times. This is a job started early in the production process – if not right at the beginning, right when the book is first announced – and yet it is one of the last things to be finalized before printing.

In between, there is ample scope for things to go wrong. Here are a few of the issues that can arise:

  • The cover illustration is unusable. This can easily happen if only a thumbnail cover image was produced at the design stage and the low-resolution illustration supplied by the author was good enough for that but not for the real cover. The catalogue, for instance, may only need a cover image that is about 33 x 50 mm whereas more likely the final cover will be 152 x 228 mm (6″ x 9″) in size.
  • There is a disconnect between cover and contents. A schism between the cover and page design is not really acceptable (e.g., elaborate, ornate script on the outside with severe, clinical type inside) but it happens, and it need not matter. More problematic is if (say) the author’s name is written one way on the cover, another way inside. Or (heaven forbid) misspelt. Likewise, if one of the editors drops out and the cover designer isn’t informed.
  • The spine width is wrong. Another disconnect. The final extent of the book determines the spine width. If the total number of pages change, then the spine width needs adjusting (no problem – just needs to be communicated).
  • The cover illustration isn’t credited. Another disconnect. A cover photo credit perhaps should always go on the cover but this isn’t always possible or appropriate. But if the credit then fails to appear inside (in the list of illustrations) then there may be an unhappy copyright holder to deal with long after the book has been printed.
  • The back-cover text is too long or too short. The blurb written for the catalogue will probably be shorter than that on the back cover. Indeed, new text should really be written but it can easily happen that the catalogue text is recycled. Also, there may be an endorsement to be added (but which hasn’t yet been received from the fine folk in Editorial).
  • The author hates the cover. The cover image used in the catalogue wasn’t to the author’s taste but s/he was pacified with the assurance “Don’t worry, we’ll do something better later”. Later has now arrived and the author is still unhappy.

No, not simple matters at all, and hardly frivolous.

Outputs

Once upon a time, covers were designed and created on huge pasteboards. No more. Everything is digital, everything delivered as a PDF file – in other words, in the same way as the inside pages of the book. Among other advantages, this allows authors to participate in the cover proofing process (if allowed by their publisher). But more about that later.

And that is the design and typesetting section finished. Next post, I move on to the proofing stage.

(Post #22 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Typesetting phases and outputs

12 February 2010

For the last two weeks, I have been blithely discussing what typesetting is and the issues relating to it but without actually describing what is produced. Time for a short overview before we move on a new thread of posts, on the proofing process.

A duet

Typesetting is not a single event in the production of the book pages; rather, it is a multi-phased process and one interwoven with that for the proofing of the book. In a sense, one could look at typesetting and proofing as a duet sung by a tenor and soprano.

Their ‘performance’ looks somewhat like this (but note that approaches do vary between presses):

  • Initial typesetting
  • Output of first proofs
  • First proofing
  • Completion of typesetting
  • Output of second (often the ‘final’) proofs
  • Second (or ‘final’) proofing and indexing
  • Output of print-ready copy
  • Final-copy check
  • Delivery of print files to the printer

Let’s look at the initial typesetting, its completion and briefly at how the proofs are output. More detailed descriptions of each of the proofing phases shall follow in my next thread of posts on proofing.

In addition, also required (and not mentioned above) is typesetting of the cover/jacket (more about that in my next post).

Initial typesetting

Practices differ between typesetters and another major factor is which typesetting software is used. However, likely steps are as follows:

  1. Finalization of the page design (as discussed here).
  2. Creation of typesetting documents meeting the design specification.
  3. Conversion of those input files not conforming to the page design/software requirements (e.g. image files changed from colour to monochrome and from JPEG to TIFF format).
  4. Marking up of text files with consistent paragraph styles that match those defined in the destination typesetting documents.
  5. Import and placing of text files in the typesetting documents.
  6. Assignment of paragraph and character styles to the text and any tables (or, if already done at step #4, then fine-tuning of styles).
  7. Import and placing of any image files in the typesetting documents (often this step is left until completion of typesetting).
  8. Generation of first proofs.

Proofing output

Not too many years ago, when typesetting was done on specialist machines, the initial proofs were output in galley form, i.e. as continuous text without any page breaks marked and printed out on what looked like giant-sized toilet paper. As the layout was finalized, the book would be paginated, subsequent proofs clearly showing the page breaks. These proofs, too, could be printed on long galleys or guillotined into their individual pages.

The output of today’s PC-based desktop publishing systems is utterly different, being based on the industry-standard PDF format (though other output formats are possible). Galleys are gone; everything is either printed on ordinary (A4 or US Letter) paper or output as PDFs. Moreover, there is little difference in the appearance of (say) the initial set of proofs and the final print files sent to the printer (not least, all proofs are paginated).

The shift to PDFs has been a revolutionary development for authors. This, however, is something I shall take up next week in a new section of posts detailing the proofing and indexing process. Proofing outputs are discussed in greater detail here.

Completion of typesetting

Just what is needed to be done to complete the typesetting process depends of course on if step 7 above was done during the initial typesetting or has been left until now. If the latter is true, then likely steps are as follows:

  1. Keying of any text changes from the first proofing.
  2. Import and placing of any image files in the typesetting documents.
  3. Re-evaluation of the likely extent of the book including space for the index (not yet prepared, of course).
  4. Possible adjustment of the page design (especially of the font size and line spacing) to meet the final extent set by the production editor.
  5. Pagination of the book (including subtle adjustments to line spacing, to the placement and size of tables and illustrations, etc. to save on – or add – a few lines here and there so that the target page count is indeed reached); the ideal is that each double-page spread has even page bottoms, its composition is evenly balanced and the overall effect is aesthetically pleasing.
  6. Finalization of any page-specific cross-references.
  7. Generation of second (often ‘final’) proofs.

After the return of any changes resulting from the final proofing and delivery of the index, typesetting concludes as follows:

  1. Keying of any text changes from the final proofing.
  2. Typesetting of the index.
  3. Generation of print-ready copy for checking/approval by press staff.
  4. Delivery of print files to the printer.

Time then (almost) to move on to the proofing and indexing of your book but first let’s return to your cover and its finalization.

(Post #21 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.)


Design matters

5 January 2010

The Biblical observation that men do not hide their light under a bushel but raise it high to light the whole house applies equally to the work that already has been done on your manuscript and the work still to come that will transform it into a book.

The purpose of the editing, and indeed of the author revisions preceding it, should be to polish the text and ensure that it communicates its meaning. But thereafter the book design and subsequent typesetting become hugely important – if content is king, it should be dressed accordingly; the book design should illuminate the contents, not obscure them.

Time and again, publishers fail to heed this imperative and the result can be that a major work fails to gain the recognition it deserved.

What should have been a prize-winning study

I still regret one such instance in my career when, due to my failure to keep the author in check, her opus magnum ballooned to an alarming number of words and illustrations. I also designed the book and at first glance it was beautiful. Even so, it weighed in at over 500 pages, a hundred more than it was first announced at. The book went on to almost win an important book prize; arguably it should have won. For me, however, the moment of truth was feedback from Winnie, a trusted Singapore colleague, who complained that she had tried several times to read the book but ‘got tired’.

Was it the design? I believe so. The font size was too small; the number of characters per line was way over the 65 that is the golden mean (more like 89). The result will have been eye strain for many readers. In a nutshell, there was a readability issue. Probably, the book should have been 600 pages long – or edited more assertively.

This is just one way in which a bad book design can get in the way of readers fully appreciating an author’s argument. A layout that is ugly or boring is just as bad, likewise one whose text uses fonts that are unsuitable for extended reading. Also problematic is a book size that is unhandy (too big or too small, awkward or tiresome to hold, etc.).

Enter the queen

Many readers will struggle with a bad book design (often unconscious of what is bothering them) if they consider the contents important enough. Here, however, the presumption is that the work is to hand. But what actually ensures that a reader buys or borrows a copy of your book? Is it the contents? The marketing? Actually, in many cases, what sells a book is its appearance, its initial impact, something that briefly attracts the reader’s eye to that book and guides her hand to take it off the shelf.

Once a copy has been sold, it’s quite different; what you say becomes more important than appearances. But – for a brief moment – the look and feel of your book is paramount. Content may be king, but design is the queen who by appearance attracts the most initial attention.

The cover matters

The internal book design can be important in the purchase decision-making, but only after the book has been picked up. Initially, then, the most important design element is the book cover (or jacket), something that some publishers don’t seem to care about. In a recent post on H-ASIA, Peter Matanle of the University of Sheffield complained that:

… the cover is really important for a book yet some publishers do not pay sufficient attention to this aspect of book design, preferring simply to make it conform to a series or even publisher style. Often there is no information about the book anywhere on the front or back cover beyond printing the main title and author’s name. Often there are no unique graphics on the cover and no endorsements or short summaries on the back cover to entice a reader in.

His explanation for this (bad) behaviour was that:

… the publisher may be more interested in creating its own brand image than in taking care over the content of the volume, and that the publisher is actually not that interested in post publication marketing either …

Actually, I rather suspect that the publisher’s behaviour is largely shaped by the expectation that nearly all copies sold will be to libraries, and they tend to buy on the strength of the book description, the price, etc., not on the book’s appearance. However, with the continued collapse in library market sales, such a policy seems rather short-sighted.

Like it or not, bookshops and individual book buyers matter, and that means that the cover matters, indeed design matters.

Sounds like it time that you meet the designers.

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


Elements of a book

28 September 2009

Planning a successful book requires that you first conceptualise your study (more about that another time). But, once you have done that, then it’s time to plan in detail. Essentially, you need to build a structure for your book, one that not only considers how best to present your argument but also ensures that it is of a suitable length, that it includes what needs to be included (and excludes the rest), and that it has the narrative pace and coherence that will draw the reader through your text – in short, that it is a satisfying (even uplifting) experience for the reader.

One of the first steps in this process is to map out your manuscript. Here, it is a good idea to be quite clear what is (and need not be) required – in short, to understand the various elements that should eventually constitute your book.

Generally, these elements come in a specific order:

  • (Half title page – something the publisher makes)
  • (Half title verso page – also something the publisher makes)
  • Title page (your publisher will change this, of course)
  • (Copyright page – something the publisher makes)
  • Table of contents
  • Lists of figures and tables
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements (if not part of preface)
  • Author’s notes, lists of abbreviations, chronology, etc.
  • Introduction
  • Body chapters
  • Conclusion
  • Appendices
  • Glossary (if not in front matter, a placement common with many European publishers)
  • References/Bibliography
  • Index

Not all books contain all elements, but before you start it is useful to have thought through if, say, your book should include a list of abbreviations or a glossary, as these are much easier to write as you go along rather than after the main text is finished.

Note also that those elements constituting your manuscript are fewer than the final elements making up your published book. Here the difference is that your publisher will insert extra material in the prelims, most importantly a copyright page. These are bracketed in the list above.

These are elements which you need not worry about. Focus instead on shaping (and getting started with writing) your manuscript.


How to calculate book length

20 September 2009

In an earlier post I discussed broad issues relating to word count and book length but didn’t actually explain how the length of a book is calculated. Let’s take a quick tour of copy fitting, casting off and related issues here.

Which side of the equation?

When we talk of copy fitting, generally we think of a publisher’s production editor or typesetter looking at fitting the delivered amount of text, tables, illustrations, etc. into a specific number of pages. (This is why, as recounted in my earlier post, so much fuss is made about authors delivering a ms according to what was specified in the author contract.)

However, in your case (especially if you are self-publishing your book or a bit worried about having hassles with your publisher), it may be smarter to look at the equation from the other side – to calculate the likely number of pages resulting from the setting of X thousand words, Y tables, Z illustrations, etc. This is also known as casting off.

More than word count

Obviously, a prime determinant of book size is the word count. No matter how much you adjust the other variables, if the ms is only 50,000 words in length instead of 95,000, then you have a problem if the book was announced as being 288 pages in length but the most it can be stretched to is 160 pages.

However, other variables do enter the equation, among them:

  • page size – academic books tend to follow a 9″ x 6″ (228 x 152 mm) format but the smaller traditional British Demy octavo format is also used a lot.
  • font/typeface – some fonts fill a lot more space than others but obviously here as elsewhere readability and what publishers want are also important considerations.
  • font size – this varies depending on font but usually it is between 10 and 12 points for body text, a bit smaller (sometimes much smaller) for notes.
  • letter spacing (kerning) – you should assume this is set at 100%.
  • word spacing – best to ignore as this is not easily adjusted.
  • line spacing (leading) – usually 1.2 times the font size with any deviation from this needing to be handled with care.
  • amount of normal text vs notes – as the font size for normal text is a bit bigger than for notes, the number of notes can have a significant effect on chapter/book extent.
  • number and size of tables and illustrations – calculate in terms of half and whole pages including captions. (The related issue of oversized tables and illustrations will be discussed in a later post, likewise problems with image resolution.)
  • word length – MS Word only counts the number of words not their length, nor does it care if your language is full of bombast and excess syllables. But, apart from being harder to read (the subject of forthcoming posts on readability and simple English), such ‘flab’ demands much more hyphenation of your text and even then the result will be looser text filling a far greater extent than the word count would imply.
  • chapter breaks – these can fall awkwardly (e.g. just before a new part that must start on a right-hand page) hence why it is more accurate to calculate the length of a book by its constituent parts than in the whole.
  • elements of the book – all of these constituent parts must be considered (e.g. space allocated for an index, something not delivered with the main ms).
  • sections – most books are printed on large sheets of paper folded and cut into 16-page sections. Part of the typesetter’s art is in ensuring that the number of blank pages at the end of the book is as low as possible.

Feel overwhelmed? If you do, then you are not alone. However, the above list is for typesetting nerds not ‘real’ people. For your purposes, many of the above elements can be safely ignored or incorporated into a simple procedure, as you shall see.

Making your estimate

If you have a page-layout program like Adobe InDesign, then it is a simple matter to calculate how many pages your manuscript will fill by creating a dummy book and then tweaking its layout parameters. Otherwise, you can make a pretty accurate calculation of the length of your book by following the steps below.

  1. Create a map of your book, listing all of its elements in your first column. This map can be made on paper but it is relatively easy (and ultimately will save you a lot of time) to put it on a spreadsheet. (I will make available a sample Excel template for free download when I can sort out where to store such a file. Meantime, a screenshot of such a file is at the end of this post.)
  2. On your map, define additional columns that later will hold the following values – in column 2: word count; 3: number of tables and illustrations; 4: calculated extent; 5: adjusted extent; 6: end page number
  3. Determine the average number of words per page. Usually, this is about 400 for a standard academic book but only about 350 if the page size is Demy octavo. Changing the font, font size, leading, etc. will change this number a bit but, for your purposes, it is best to stick to these standard values.
  4. Assign actual extents to those book elements where this is known (e.g. the first 4 pages of the prelims are standard and – depending on if you have a dedication, how detailed are your table of contents, and if you have lists of tables and illustrations – you can also safely guess the next few pages). For the index, you can probably only guess at this stage but here too you need a value. Enter these fixed values in columns 4 and 5.
  5. Count the number of words for your preface, chapters, bibliography, etc., putting their values in column 2. Make sure that you include footnotes and endnotes (if using MS Word, by checking the appropriate box). Normally, it’s enough that you count these notes but obviously a lot of notes will skew your page calculation.
  6. Count the number of tables and illustrations for each chapter (and other element in your book), putting their values in column 3. Although they may be much smaller, the assumption here is that each table or illustration fills an entire page. We’ll adjust for this in step 8.
  7. Calculate the (unadjusted) extent of your preface, chapters, bibliography, etc. To do this, divide the word count by the words per page set in step 3, add a whole page for each table or illustration, then round up to a whole number of pages. Enter these calculated values in column 4.
  8. Assess your calculated extents and put adjusted values in column 5. Reasons for doing this may be that some tables and illustrations are smaller than a whole page in size, there are a lot of endnotes (which will be set in a smaller font size), the chapter is followed by a part divider starting on a right-hand page, and the last page looks to be only a few lines long which could easily be saved in the typesetting.
  9. Calculate a running total by adding the adjusted values, putting the end page number for each element in column 6 (i.e. the end page number for Chapter 4 is calculated by adding its adjusted page value to the end page number for Chapter 3). The final page number (effectively, the book’s grand total) will appear in the bottom row, that for your index.
  10. Calculate the final extent (and number of blank pages at the end of the book). To do so, get the number of sections by dividing the grand total of pages by 16, then round up to a whole number of sections, multiplying these by 16.

Ten steps – it’s a simple as that.

Where now?

Is the likely extent of your book too long? Too short? In most cases, if the variation in length is only about a section (16 pages), then it probably won’t matter. Your publisher’s production editor or typesetter may swear a bit and try to tweak the book design so that all the material does exactly fit the announced book extent. But, if s/he fails, it is more than likely that your publisher won’t even blink at this slight variation.

However, if your book is likely to be significantly over or under its contracted/announced extent, now is the time to start sweating and thinking hard about how to retrieve the situation. Serious chocolates for your editor may be in order, but this may not be enough.

Extent calculation for the book, "Getting Published". (Note that pagination restarts after prelims.)