Last week I attended a reunion of people who used to work at a certain nonprofit literary organization. Some are in publishing now, many are writers, and all are bookish people who buy and read books—past page 18—regularly. Yet I was asked several times, while catching up with folks, what it is that a book interior designer does. “So, like, you pick the fonts?”
I am used to being asked this question by normal people, civilians, but I expect more from those who read and promote literature. One friend who asked if I pick the fonts is now the executive director of a literary organization whose mission is to promote reading, an organization that publishes its own series of books. I attacked him—“You, of all people! Haven’t you ever looked at a book from Knopf and noticed that it looks nicer than one from [earnest but tasteless poetry publisher]? Haven’t you ever noticed that some books are more inviting or more readable than others?”
I’m feeling my way around at the new job and having to actually think about what I’m doing from time to time, so now seems like a good moment to try to put into words what I do. I learned to do what I do from reading books (crazy!) and Just Fucking Doing It, so my methods may not be the most scientific and I may not be able to explain them very succinctly, but I’ll try to touch on the basics.
When I’m designing a book now, the most important thing I have to do is make castoff. This means figuring out a way to fit enough words on a page so that the book comes out to the number of pages that were budgeted for. The page count is determined very early on, by people who’re more concerned with profit and loss than with beauty, and it’s intimately tied to the price of the book and the projected sales. Some books need to be stretched so the publisher can justify charging a certain price; many, many more need to the crammed so that they don’t cost more to produce than sales are likely to recoup. I do not have any input into this decision-making process. I just receive a stack of manuscript and a standardized worksheet showing how the page count was estimated. This worksheet shows not only the total number of pages but also the number of characters per page that will be needed to hit said length.
Because of the way printing is done, pages ideally come in groups—signatures—of thirty-two. Theoretically you can tack a sixteen-, eight- or four-page signature onto the end of a book, but it costs more to print 8 pages than to print 32, so many publishers won’t allow it. So a book might have 304 or 320 or 352 or 384 pages, but not 316. And most publishers avoid leaving more than four blank pages in the back, because blanks make the buyer think he’s being cheated. There are certain pages in the front of a book that can be added, reshuffled, or deleted in a pinch, but the goal for the designer is to make everything fit just so without reorganizing anything.
Most of our books measure either 5.5 × 8.25″ or 6.125 × 9.25″, not including the cardboard case, if hardback. I think this trim size depends partly on whether the book is likely to go to mass market or trade paperback for the next edition, but that’s just a guess. It also depends on the kind of press being used and the size of the giant sheet of paper it’s cut from. In Europe, the standard paper sizes are different, so their books have different proportions. Again, the trim is not something I have any control over; I’m just told what it’s going to be.
So using Quark XPress 6.1 (which is emphatically not my layout program of choice, especially for making a design that I know I’m going to have to rejigger a couple of times—oh, the time Quark wastes!) I create a document having the given trim size. I set some margins for the page—usually 1/2″ on top and about 3/4″ on the sides and bottom, though I like to have a bigger margin on the outside edges than in the gutter (the part that gets sewn into the spine of the book). And I set up a baseline grid, e.g., 14 points. This will match the leading—i.e., the distance from the base of one line of type to that of the next—between lines of normal text in the book.
Most designers whose files I’ve pawed through do not use a baseline grid, and I’ve never understood why the hell not. For me, a grid helps with a lot of decisions about spacing that would otherwise be arbitrary. Where should this heading go? How much clearance should there be above and below it? Where should I place this piece of art?
A grid keeps me from having to think too hard. I need only to decide between “on” and “off”—an element must either be on the grid, i.e., sized to fit in some multiple of the text leading (14 points, 28 points, 42 points, etc.) or off it, which is actually still on the grid, the way I do it, but in 1/4 increments (3.5 points, 7 points, 10.5 points, 17.5 points, 21 points, etc.).
If I create a heading that doesn’t sit on the grid, I make sure that the space above and below is defined so that the next paragraph will always come out back on the grid. That way, text lines on either side of the book’s spine will always align (assuming the bindery kept them straight) and the reader won’t have a seizure. There are other reasons to do this—hell, there are whole books on how and why to use grids—but those are my primary ones: (1) less thinking for me, and (2) fewer seizures for readers.
Then I just drop in some text and go!
This job is the first for me where there is even the option of working with books through the medium of castoff worksheets, and so far I still prefer to design with live text, if it’s available. Ideally, I get the raw manuscript file from the editorial department, run it though FileCleaner, style it back up the way I like it, and dump it into Quark. Then I can see with my own eyes whether the text is going to fit in the allotted page count.
Yes, I basically typeset the whole book to design it; if you’re used to working that way, it’s much faster than you might think—and a whole lot more accurate.
Yesterday, though, I had to start work on a very big book for which I had only a hard copy. I’m hoping the editor will eventually provide a file, but in the meantime I needed to get started, so I filled a couple of pages with Esperanto gibberish and then fiddled with them until I got something approaching the necessary number of characters per page.
Fiddling with them meant
- picking the font!
- making the type as small as I felt comfortable with
- reducing the leading as much as I could stand
- selecting the text on two full spreads, dumping it into MS Word to get a character count (there are Quark XTensions that do this, but we don’t have them where I work), dividing by 4 for the number of characters per page
- starting over at step 1.
so, you get to choose the fonts?
“Picking the font” is not just a matter of choosing what looks pretty. It also has to fit. The letters of some typefaces are relatively wide, while those of others are relatively narrow. Some need a lot of space around them to be readable, while others can be jammed together quite tightly before they start to cause headaches. We have hundreds of typefaces available to us where I work (hundreds of licensed typefaces, which is another thing that’s totally new to me), something like half of which are suitable for use in running text. So let’s say we have 800 typefaces. About 400 of them are text faces, and I’ve actually used thirty or forty in my own previous designs or in picking up other designers’ files. Fifteen of those I detest and would never willingly use again. And 360 to 370 are faces I’ve never used or even perhaps heard of before.
Most of the typefaces legally available to me are sampled in a narrow paperback book that we keep handy, but they’re not really sorted in a useful way. So sometimes I try to take the I Ching approach of opening to a random page and seeing if anything strikes my fancy, but more often I rely on a “Things to Try” list that I made when I first arrived and had nothing to do. I paged through the whole specimen book, made a list of typefaces that had the features I want or that seemed like they might come in handy, and put all those faces into a folder so I can find them easily whenever I’m starting a new project.
So far, I’ve done three new designs at this job, each one using a typeface from Things to Try (Manticore, Bulmer, and Fournier). For the fourth, though, after going through steps 1–5 at least ten times, as well as reducing the margins, changing the leading, and still coming up with too few words per page and type that I felt was too difficult to read, I finally fell back on Old Faithful, a typeface I’ve used a million times and that I know sets very compactly: Adobe Minion, by Robert Slimbach. Finally, I came up with a 2,600-character page I felt I could live with. It’s not nice, it’s unlikely to win any beauty pageants, but it’s not too difficult to read, either. And it just might make castoff.
Once that was settled, I went back and decided how to handle the running heads, chapter openers, title pages, table of contents, . . . all stuff I can continue to monkey with over the next couple of days. But the basic text page is fixed. I’m unlikely to make any changes to it unless I receive the digital manuscript file, swap it in, and discover that the design I made comes out to nothing like the right length. When the typesetter finally gets to work on this, our rep will e-mail me to say whether the book is running short or long, and she’ll make suggestions about how to fix it—heartbreaking suggestions such as changing the type size to 10.4 points and the leading to 13.9, measurements that make it impossible to hold the grid in your mind and place things on it with any kind of orderliness. After that, I have to give up and say, Oh, it’s just pulp. Nobody will notice if it looks like shit, anyway.
But you will notice, next time you’re reading something that gives you a headache, or next time you’re flipping through an uninviting book in a store. You’ll say, “Wow, this designer must have been given some really unforgiving specs and a manuscript that was thirty pages too long. The poor thing. She should have picked a different font.”