Making Castoff

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?”

Apparently not.

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.

trim size

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

  1. picking the font!
  2. making the type as small as I felt comfortable with
  3. reducing the leading as much as I could stand
  4. 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
  5. 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.”

54 thoughts on “Making Castoff

  1. India, this is really interesting! I have (had) no idea what went in to making a book until I read this explanation. I think the reason people always ask about fonts is because, well, none of us have ever had to do your job and we don’t notice much about the books other than the cover and the interior font.

    For those of us who are relatively design-blind, can you name some examples of horribly designed books? For instance that “earnest but tasteless” poetry publisher? (Via private email if you prefer)

    Also, are all those books on the right side of your page ones you’ve designed?? Wow! You are so prolific!

  2. Yes, most of the books on the sidebar are ones whose interiors I designed (if you hold your mouse over them, a tag should pop up saying what I had to do with each)—but they’re not all supposed to be visible at once! used to let you cycle randomly through a limited number of links, but then they recoded the sidebars and for the last few months all of my links have been on display. Thanks, guys! Great new feature! There nothing I can do but delete them, which I haven’t done because I keep hoping they’ll restore the old functionality.

    Anyway, ahem, I actually can’t think of any specific examples because I don’t keep any ugly books in the house (<—lying). And the poetry publisher I was ragging on actually is more notable for its hideous covers than for its interiors. My bad. They would ugly up the interiors if they could, but it’s a bit more difficult to screw up poetry, because of all the short lines.

    The nastiest interiors you’re going to see are in long books that have been squeezed. How about almost any Norton Critical Edition? It’s a valuable series, and I’ve certainly bought a lot of them in my time, but the last one I tried to read (Middlemarch), was extremely unpleasant. Partly it’s the small, spindly type; partly it’s the very translucent paper, which shows too much of the print on the reverse of each page; partly it’s the long line (about fifteen words! I usually aim for ten, unless I’ve got room for a lot of leading). On the other hand, I like the trim size of Middlemarch; the long, narrow format can be very elegant. But not if you try to cram 4,160 characters (52 lines x 80 characters) onto each page. It’s far too dense for comfortable reading.

    That’s pretty typical of the worst interior designs: too many words on a line, with not enough space between the lines. Did I give you a copy of Popular Music in Vittula? There’s an interior I don’t like much—again, the line’s too long. There should be a direct relationship—you can set a fifteen-word line that reads well, but you have to add more than the usual amount of space between those lines to make up for it. So sometimes it’s actually more space-efficient to set a short line with very little leading.

    And you can’t go by the numbers—one typeface at 10/14 x 24p (10-point type on 14 points of leading in a block 24 picas, or 4 inches, wide) will look too horsey, while another will look too small. And each sample will have a different number of words per line. So you just have to mock it up, over and over and over, or else always use the same four or five typefaces that you know well, which is what a lot of designers do.

    It’s much easier to give examples of beautiful books than of bad ones. Anything from University of Nebraska Press is a good bet. In the Shadow of Memory by Floyd Skloot, for example, is lovely. (A fantastic book, too.) The designer Richard Eckersley, who died in April, probably had something to do with it.

    And in all this, I’ve only been talking about the process of designing straight text—novels, general nonfiction. You know all those cookbooks and computer books on your shelves? Some poor sod had to design them, and some other poor sod had to make everything fit together prettily. Every bleedin’ sidebar. The process is the same, but the complexity can increase a hundredfold. For some books, you really have to design each page individually. I’ve only gotten close to that once. It was fun, but that was a short book. Another hundred pages and I’d have been ready to gouge my eyes out.

  3. Well, the thing about widows is . . . it’s a matter of house style. Where I am now, they don’t consider a complete word a widow. Ever. So even if the last word of the paragraph is “it” and it’s hanging out down there on a line by its lonesome, that’s okay. It looks fugly to me, but hey, it’s pulp. They’re also okay with a part of a word on the last line, as long as there are four characters including punctuation. So, like,

    I said, “This widow looks incredibly ug-

    is okay. On our fancier books, we require a minimum of six characters, but we pay extra for that, and I’ve only seen one such book come through in a month of checking proofs.

    They’re also okay with the last line of a paragraph at the top of a page (I still never know what to call those—orphaned line?), as long as it’s at least 75 percent of the full measure. On the fancier books, the minimum is 100 percent, but that’s still a single line. I would never do it, though, if I were typesetting the book myself, regardless of the firm’s style.

    I wrote this post using “font” throughout and then went back and pasted in “typeface.” It’s not a natural impulse, these days.

  4. Great entry India! My brain feels sparkly.

    As far as poorly designed interiors in the stretched-too-thin vein, the David Rakoff’s latest hardcover, Don’t Get Too Comfortable (published by Chronicle), was packed with deadly widowmakers. (Widows being single words left to languish on a line all by their lonesome.)

    Whenever I describe my job to someone and get the Question, I have to swallow my explanation of “font vs. typeface” because, let’s face it, they might see it as an open invitation to explain Bible trivia to me. It remains to be seen if in the span of my career (knock on wood) I’ll ever work with someone who uses the term “type family”—it hasn’t happened yet—but then maybe Jonathan and Tobias like Oolong.

  5. […] How I use it: I usually set up at least three master pages, even for just a sample layout: Body, which is a standard text page with running heads; Chapter Opener, which has no running heads, probably no folio, probably a sink, and maybe some kind of ornament; and Guides Only, which I use for front-matter pages, art, and other oddities. The margins are the same for all three. As I explained the other day, trying to make castoff involves a lot of fiddling with the layout. I often have to change the margins a couple of times before I get something that works in combination with my typeface and leading. In Quark, I have to change these margins on each master page separately. In InDesign, all my master pages inherit their margins from the same übermaster, so when I change the original, the new margins apply to them all. Now, with at least 66.67 percent less clicking! […]

  6. If a widow is a word hanging out by itself on its own line, what’s an orphan? Last line of a paragraph at the top of a page?

    I always get those 2 mixed up. Also monks and friars, never know the difference.

    Computer book designers probably only survive by reusing the exact same design in book after book after book. cf. O’Reilly, “For Dummies,” etc. Still, if I had that job I would shoot myself.

    Some day when I write a book, I want you to design it, India!

  7. BTW, keep all those books in that column there. Very impressive.

    Oh, and “Chomsky vs. Foucault” must be a real laugh riot of a book. I can only imagine the sequels: Lacan vs. Heidegger. Derrida vs. Wittgenstein. Pound vs. Proust. Woo hoo!

  8. Okay, you made me look it up. I was trying to avoid that, because I seemed to recall that there was no definitive answer.

    Most of the time, a widow is “when the last line of a paragraph from the previous page flows onto the top of the next page.” (1). An orphan is “when the first line of a new paragraph starts at bottom of a page” (2). Wikipedia offers the following tip for remembering which is which: “The easiest way to remember this is that “an orphan’s future is uncertain”—in other words, you can’t see what’s going to happen in the rest of the paragraph. Also, an orphan is a paragraph left alone at the beginning of its life, while a widow is left alone at its end.”

    However, Ilene Strizver, among others, gives a different definition:

    A widow is a very short line—usually one word, or the end of a hyphenated word—at the end of a paragraph or column. A widow is considered poor typography because it leaves too much white space between paragraphs or at the bottom of a page. This interrupts the reader’s eye and diminishes readability. Fix them by reworking the rag or editing the copy. Like a widow, an orphan is a single word, part of a word or very short line, except it appears at the beginning of a column or a page. This results in poor horizontal alignment at the top of the column or page.

    The delightful Robert Bringhurst writes in The Elements of Typographic Style,

    Isolated lines created when paragraphs begin on the last line of a page are known as orphans. They have no past, but they do have a future, and they need not trouble the typographer. The stub-ends left when paragraphs end on the first line of a page are called widows. They have a past but not a future, and they look foreshortened and forlorn. It is the custom—in most, if not in all, the world’s typographic cultures—to give them one additional line for company.

    So. In practice, it seems to me that most people who actually deal with this kind of nerdery on a day-to-day basis tend to call everything involving the end of a paragraph a widow, regardless of where it falls on the page, and that nobody much cares what happens at the top of a paragraph, i.e., the more common location of an orphan. Because, really, as Bringhurst so gently suggests, that kind of orphan is not worth your notice. It’s not very ugly, being an almost-full line, and it’s not likely to confuse the reader, unless he or she is unfamiliar with the mechanism whereby one turns the page.


    As for “Chomsky vs. Foucault,” I proofread it as if it were written in French, which it may as well have been, as far as I was able to make heads or tails of what the hell they were nattering on about. Unfortunately, that very cool cover was changed at the last minute, supposedly because students wouldn’t understand it. To which I’m all like, the cover is probably the only part they’re going to understand.

  9. Wow! Incoming links!

    Re Richard’s trackback: Depressing? Well, not so much for me. Design is all about solving problems within constraints, and the page estimates I’ve been asked to meet at this company so far have been well within the realm of reason, though not a text designer’s ideal. (The ideal would be “Use as much room as you want! And let’s do printed endsheets! With a second color throughout!”) In the past I’ve been asked to meet some very unreasonable page counts (usually for small publishers that are trying to save money—paper costs a mint); those books don’t go into the portfolio.

    And at the same time, so far all my designs (one more since I wrote this post) have been approved with no changes. This is a delight after my previous job, where first I would have to get the sample approved by my boss, who would ask me to change a lot of stuff so that it would look more like her own style (which is not at all a bad style—just not mine), and then it would go to a client who would say, “Well, it’s nice, but could you just . . . [remove all the design and make it really ugly]?” Now, that was depressing.

  10. Love your blog. I design news pages, so it’s interesting to learn how “the other side” does it, LOL.

    How long does it take you to finish the interior design of one book, on average? Are you normally working on several at once?

  11. Re: “dumping it into MS Word to get a character count (there are Quark XTensions that do this, but we don’t have them”

    Actually, you can just hit Command-L in Quark for a spellcheck, and you get the word count at no extra charge. Then you note the total and dismiss the spellcheck!

  12. Hi, Denise. Thanks!

    Answer: Um, it varies. Because I do design using live copy if it’s available, it kind of depends on how long the book is and how distracted I get by the text. But for a novel, I can usually come up with a rough design in a couple of hours. I like to sit on it for a day or two after that, and sometimes I show it to a friend of mine who’s a much more experienced and creative designer. He’ll usually tell me my title page sucks, as it usually does, and make some suggestions. Then I grumble for a while but end up reworking it. So, total, probably two lazy days, which includes frequent breaks to check proofs, spec case colors, correspond with illustrators, and do the other parts of my job. So far, there’s been very little design work, despite this being, for the first time, suppposedly my primary job function.

    One recent book had an author-drawn symbol to be incorporated into the layout, so I spent a lot of time goofing around with that in Illustrator and Photoshop, and the text included a couple of pages of Greek and Hebrew, which I’ve never dealt with before. It took a day to figure out what typefaces were available to me for those alphabets, and how best to make them coordinate with the main text. Next time, I’ll just know.

    There’s also a second phase, after the copyedited manuscript comes in, where I have to go through and make sure everything is properly labeled for the typesetter, and that I have created a design sample for every kind of text that appears in the book. I usually have to do some more fiddling at that point, and then I have to write up the specs in typesetting jargon, which takes me a shockingly long time. So, another day or so.

    As I said, design is a surprisingly small part of my job, and sometimes I get the manuscript months before anything is due, so I’ve been able to work on one book at a time so far. I’ve got only four new designs in the queue right now, with the only manuscript labeled “Rush” being due in a month. I’m used to “Rush” meaning “today,” so I’ve got this constant nagging feeling that I’m supposed to be busting my ass on something, but then I look at the schedule and can’t figure out what it is.

  13. Jedd: Thanks! I never noticed that, since I never use the spellchecker in Quark. You know, designers aren’t supposed to read. But that Quark trick only gives a word count, anyway, and I do need a character count. And the round-trip to Word takes five seconds.

  14. Any advice for us authors on how to help folks like you design better books? How can we apply whatever leverage we have (often not much) to make a difference?

    The big problem I’ve experienced is that publishers crank out so many books that even talented designers can’t possibly put the time required into each book to do something that looks great (or more to your point, better/different from the standard templates used for all other books).

    I’m a design minded management author, working on book #2 for O’Reilly.

  15. Hi, Scott. I corrected that link; I hope it’s okay with you (I’m not sure what’s the hivemind’s current opinion on editing other people’s comments).

    Anyway, the single most helpful thing you can do is to turn your manuscript in on time. It makes everything easier for everybody (except, perhaps, you).

    The second thing is to write it to the expected word count. Don’t give the publisher a bonus 250 pages unless they ask for it; a longer book raises costs all around—more to photocopy a zillion times, more to copyedit, more to proofread, more to typeset, more to print—and much of it gets billed by the page. They’ll have to recoup costs in other ways, none of which is going to make you happy.

    The third is to make sure that your logical structure makes sense. If you know anything about HTML, you’re probably familiar with the concept of a well-formed document. Heading 2 is always under Heading 1, elements are always nested properly, that sort of thing. Keep that in mind as you write.

    Do not try to design your manuscript to look like a book—that’s not what I’m talking about. The first thing the editor or typesetter is likely to do with your manuscript is strip all your formatting out; I always do. But do make sure that your book’s structure is clear and consistent. If you have sidebars, do they all have titles, or do they all not have titles? If there’s more than one kind of sidebar, is there some clear distinction between them? Do they have to look different? Can they move around on the page, or do they have to fall at that exact spot in the text in order to make sense? If you have multiple levels of heads, is it clear which is which? Do you need them all?

    I’ve always hated writing from an outline myself (a deficiency which is, no doubt, all too apparent), but if you can’t make an outline from your text after you’ve written it, a designer probably won’t be able to elucidate the structure, either.

    I’m not sure I agree that my point is that a designer should do something “better/different from the standard templates used for all other books.” I find a book handsome not because it necessarily differs from the standard template. You don’t want a book design that says, “Look at me! I’m designed!” You want a book design that says, “Dive into this text.” So it has to be inviting, but also capable of becoming transparent once you’re in it. Like a cool pool on a hot day. You splash in, you scream delightedly, and after a few seconds it feels normal and you can focus on hitting your friends with foam toys or whatever. I like a design to complement and enhance but not upstage or distract from the text. If a designer has more time to work, and less unclear structure to muddle through, he or she is more likely to come up with something that accomplishes that in a creative fashion; but the designer’s oppportunity for creative expression is not the point.

    The Floyd Skloot book I linked to way up the page isn’t handsome because it’s fancy or creative; it’s peaceful, harmonious, and elegant, and there’s enough white space on the page that you don’t feel crowded or rushed. You want to spend time with the text, absorb it slowly. There’s room in the margins to put your thumbs, so you can settle in for a comfortable read without fidgeting. That look wouldn’t suit a lot of books, but it fits this one perfectly.

    For a technical book, you need a lot more hardware—headings, subheads, sub-subheads, bulleted lists, numbered lists—but the pages should still be inviting and should support the tone of the text. I haven’t read an O’Reilly book in years and am not versed in their list anymore, but the animal series, at least, has a strong interior style, and I remember thinking that it’s a pleasant one. A lot less flashy than most technical publishers, but that really puts the focus on the text. If the text is weak, their design will make that more apparent. If it’s strong, the reader will blaze through it without distraction.

    So write a good book. That’s my last piece of sage advice. After that, you’re probably in good hands.

  16. I really—no, but really—need to get back to doing some work around here, but I have one other piece of insightful wisdom for Scott and any other writers who want to influence the way their books look.

    First of all, you should know that we hate you. It’s nothing (very) personal (usually), but as the reknowned Mr. Kidd ranted exactly one month ago, designers usually don’t go around telling you how to do your job, so why don’t you close your eyes, chill out, and trust them to do their jobs?

    Sorry, I don’t mean to be harsh, but I’d be lying if I didn’t let you know that that’s they first thing the designer’s going to think, when they hear that you’re at all interested in influencing the design.

    That said, you can be a well-liked buttinsky. As in many situations, you’re more likely to get what you want by being nice than by being pushy. See above under getting your manuscript in on time and on word-count: you want the production people to like you, or at least not to hate you. Sprinkle praise and thanks as far down the food chain as you can—dozens of people work on your book, and most of them hear a word of appreciation from an author less than once a decade. If you were pleased by some way in which the copy editor kept you from looking stupid, let the production coordinator know. That copy editor may not work on staff, but the person who hired him or her does. If you like the clever way the designer placed your name on the jacket—even if you hate the rest of it—say so. Act appreciative, and the staff will try to earn more of your appreciation. They will go out of their way to accommodate you. This is common sense, but you’d be surprised at how few people do it.

    And then, as you’re behaving like a professional and greasing palms with kindness, you can try to suggest how you would like the book to look. The best way to do this, I think, is to provide specific examples. Editors say they want a design to look “classic” or “edgy,” and that means absolutely nothing to me. Or rather, it means one thing to me and a completely different thing to the designer down the hall. But if you can show me photocopies or screenshots from Google Print of some books that you like, that will help. Extra points if you can express what it is that you like about those designs—Is it the specific typeface used in the headings? Is it the density of text on the page? Is it the way the running heads look? Is it the symmetrical/asymmetrical layout?

    If you can’t identify what you like about it, put it next to something you don’t like and try to determine how they differ. Consult an online typography glossary—there are many—if you want precise terms to describe what you see, but don’t expect to get precisely what you ask for. Your request may not be fulfillable, given the constraints of length and trim. Your taste may, unfortunately, suck, and the designer may choose to incorporate only the least offensive qualities of the samples you chose. So make your suggestions, and then let it go.

    You probably won’t get to approve the interior design anyway, and don’t expect to be able to change it once you see the first proofs. It’s prohibitively expensive, and unless your name is John Fucking Updike, they’re probably going to politely but firmly tell you to get over it. Though John Updike, of all people, would probably stand back and let the designer do his or her job.

    There. That is all.

  17. Thanks for sharing your world with us – I am fascinated to hear it!

    I concur with the early poster who felt anything by the University of Nebraska Press was high quality layout. I have had the same experience through time, with the most recent example of a book I bought from them with a simple but comfortable layout being ‘Local Wonders’ by Ted Kooser. Beautiful cover, good paper, lovely font, easy on the eyes.

  18. I am a Blog Virgin. But I’ve been a book designer and production manager for 35 years, so here I go.

    To the author who wants “design input”—we don’t hate you, but we do generally both know and care about what we’re doing. Nobody is in THIS business to get rich. I have been known to force an author to thank his designer, typesetter, proofreader or indexer in his acknowledgements because they saved his butt and nobody will ever know it. About twice a year, I actually hear praise from an author, and I make a big point of passing it on to the person who actually did the work. You can’t imagine how thankless the work is, and how far you will get with a few words of praise and gratitude. If you can articulate what you like (or dislike) in terms of design or type, do it—you’re a writer, after all. Just don’t be one of those awful people who does not know what he dislikes until he sees it.

  19. I don’t know… you know Updike started out as a cartoonist/artist/designer type early in his life, and I once heard him say at a reading a few years back that he’d picked the book he brought along to read from (a very old one—Museums and Women maybe?) because he liked the color of the hardcover binding. He’d picked it out himself, you see, for the book’s first printing way back at the dawn of time, or whenever.

    Yeah, that’s still quite a ways from interior design, but Updike would probably feel qualified to offer his suggestions, even if refrained from actually doing so!

    As for widows/orphans, the only part of their definition I care about is the “not applicable to body text on the world wide web” part. As a web developer nerd, I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve had something come back from “QA” with a “remove widow” note on a particular screen printout, whereupon I must heave a sigh and launch into the spiel about how a million different combinations of hardware devices/browser/platform/monitor size/resolution/installed fonts mean that trying to prevent widows is like trying to sweep up the ocean with a broom.

  20. Chris: That was me (your delighted hostess) who said that. My impression is that a lot of the nicest interior designs come from university and nonprofit presses. Must be something to do with economics, or the academic schedule. When noncommercial press designs are bad, though, gaaah!, they can be really, breathtakingly bad. I used to administer a bunch of contests whereby I would receive cartons of poetry books every day, and there were certain return addresses I’d see that would just make me wince. But I’ll say one thing for them: they were consistent. I’d rarely see just one ugly book in a box of nice ones; it was either a whole box of beauty or a whole box of abominations. And the abominations tended to have a very strong, though abominable, series design.

    Emmy: Okay, maybe hate is too strong a word. But it makes us very wary, no? Because we’ve all seen author involvement in design go horribly, horribly wrong.

    Michelle: I do not at all miss the exciting challenges of typography on the Web. I do, however, miss the increasingly widespread attention to standards, platform independence, and separation of form from content. I learned typesetting around the same time I learned HTML, and the two are very closely linked in my mind. CSS makes a lot of sense to me, and I wish more people in print publishing understood the concept. There’s a tendency to style text as though it were never going to appear in a different format—a lot of the Quark equivalent of using the <font> tag and a gajillion spacer gifs—even though at my last job I was periodically asked to export chunks of text, or sometimes whole books, from a layout for this or that Web or e-book project. I do some things when I design and typeset books that other designers think are weird, or overkill, or control-freaky, but it’s because always, at the back of my mind, there’s that knowledge that at some point, somebody’s going to try to repurpose this file for something I couldn’t conceive of at the time. In serious Web development, it seems like most people now have at least heard of that concept.

  21. […] Every once it a while you pick up a book that is so lovely in its design that you have to pause and admire the work and care that went into it. Certain publishing houses are well-known for taking the time to make a book look good. Making Castoffs gives you an inside look at the design process. Check out the sidebar and you’ll surely recognize a few titles that India Amos has designed (and one or two by authors that Vertigo has hosted). […]

  22. […] I have been shocked—shocked!—by the amount of interest in this post since it was written up on Usually when I talk about what I do, people are like, “Uh huh, that sounds really, um, interesting. So, do you design covers, too?” Covers are sexy; everybody notices book covers, even if they don’t read much; no, I don’t do covers. (Well, I’ve done three. One was an unfortunate accident, and the other two are nothing special.) So, yes, all this sudden interest is very interesting to me. Plus—happy graph! Woo! […]

  23. Someone in my online group posted your website, and I am fascinated by it. I’m not a designer, but I am a reader, and I will be paying much more attention to book design in the future. All the explanations, comments, insider info about book design are so fascinating I can barely pull myself away to do my own work. If you don’t mind, I might lurk from time to time for my continuing education. Thanks.

  24. It seems that a lot of people have latching on to the idea—promulgated by me, of course—that “bean counters” decide how long a book will be. This makes me nervous, mainly because, as I’ve said, I don’t actually know how they come up with the estimated page count that’s then passed on to me as a target. If I’d ever imagined that so many people were going to read this post, I might have put some actual research into it. Might.

    I do know that it’s not as if the bean counters say, “To hell with the manuscript! We need this to be a nine-hundred-page book so we can charge fifty bucks a copy! Stretch it!” They start with a SWAG based on the number of words, the number of parts (if the book has them), the number of chapters, and what front- and back-matter elements the book incudes. But then there’s this discretionary gray area in which the person filling out the castoff worksheet gets to choose from “loose,” “standard,” and “tight,” and I don’t know how they decide on that part.

    What I suspect happens is that, as I implied up the comment thread a ways, sometimes manuscripts arrive that are significantly longer than what was contracted for. To paraphrase Pascal, the author probably made it longer because he or she did not have time to make it shorter. By that time, though, a lot of decisions about budget have been made and a price has been published in the catalogue. And if the list price of the book increases, sales may decrease.

    You can’t just say, “Well, the book came in a hundred pages long, so let’s jack up the price five bucks.” A lot of people who’d buy a novel at $25 will say, “I’ll wait for the paperback” if the same book is $30. And while a few lucky authors have dedicated fans who will buy whatever they publish, at whatever price, most can’t count on that kind of support. So the book gets to me with a castoff worksheet that says it’s expected to be tight, or with a note saying the castoff came to 352 pages but the editor wants it to hit 320 pages.

    So it’s not like The Man is just trying to keep the books down, you know?

  25. I LOVE this blog! People who actually understand what the heck I’ve been doing for a quarter century live here! I’m a niche book designer (a niche in a niche I guess) who designs college-level textbooks. I’m one of those “poor sods” who has to design those hard books–multiple styles of boxes and sidebars; 40 kinds of lists, sublists, and sub-sublists, etc. I don’t go crazy because I usually don’t typeset the entire books, just design a template with syles made up and write specs for composition houses to follow. I have typeset a 144-page book with a couple hundred pieces of art in it, but many books are too long for me to handle by myself. The houses usually split up the chapters so no one person has to do the whole thing. The worst part is the spec sheets, and those have just gotten much worse as textbook publsihers have discovered XML and cross-media publishing, and are forcing specs rewrites that demand individual specs for every permutation imaginable.

    Since I rarely work with a complete manuscript in file form, my castoff method is a little different and very old-school. I’m usually given a requested characters-per-page estimate and just use the old CPP method and compare sample paragraphs to estimate proper size and leading.

    The publishers usually have some sort of castoff from manuscript, usually done by some poor editorial assistant saddled with the task. They request a CPP based both on draft manuscript and on the market–how long the competing books for a particular course are running, how they can keep the costs down as much as possible for students, etc. There are cost restraints here that are tighter than might be found in the trade area.

    Although the “clean and open” look is always requested, I’m always ending up with tighter margins than I’d like because the authors, well, like to author. I stare longingly at cookbooks and poetry books with all that gracious white space. I even look at ads in the Wall Street Journal with a lot of white space–done to set them off from the crowded pages surrounding them–and enjoy a moment of serenity.

    My basal (text) font choices are probably even more limited than those of many other book designers. Nothing too spindly or with strong thick-thin contrasts (Bodoni types just collect dust in the fonts folder), nothing with illegible italics (I’ve never used Galliard’s lovely roman for this reason), nothing overly wasteful of space (authors like to author), nothing with ambiguous punctuation (I design a lot of grammar books–sort of depressing for college level). It’s much more a process of elimination than one of active choosing. Find the two or three that fit all the parameters and pick the one that is most in tune with the author’s writing style and course topic.

    To compare notes, I’m one of the silly ones who don’t use a baseline grid. I’ve seen final book files of my designs and the composition houses don’t seem to use these grids either (as I grit my teeth opening their files without their required vertical justification XTs). I do always spec so major subheads will, with spacing a/b, always come out to some multiple of the text leading to avoid major headaches. There are so many combinations of elements in the books I design that snapping to a grid (other than the top and bottom of a text page) is potentially wasting space. There are too few simple pages of running text. We just work with a set top and bottom of the text page, with the big thrills of line-long or line-short options for spreads.

    Emmy, I second your “Nobody is in THIS business to get rich” comment. With upper-level textbooks, it’s also nobody should even notice the book is designed at all; they should just be able to access the information clearly. So…

    …Everybody I work with in prodiuction is starved for compliments. Authors never say enough, even though there’s usually some perfunctory blurb in the Preface about all involved. Authors, send in some nice emails that are easy to forward along to the recipients. I worked with one author for over 20 years before her recent death, and she was the only author of the many I’ve worked with who really understood what a book designer did for her textbooks–and didn’t hesitate to say so in public. I’d still kill to make her continuing books the best they could be.

    Other advice I can think of for authors is NOT TO PRESS DOWN THE SHIFT KEY TO TYPE IN ALL CAPS! Type normally (or clc for headings) and use a style key for your caps. Your designer will probably not choose to put in all caps whatever it was that you chose to, and it really breaks up the composition rhythm to have to correct these.

    Well, my post is getting too long. I do want to mention that I found this blog Googling how well or not InDesign handles the specifics of setting books. I’m a Quark girl (I’m not inviting jabs or a debate here) but have been watching the other side for awhile now. My clients currently insist on Quark although their in-house covers are done in InDesign. I use 6.5; it’s way better than 6.1 in terms of bugginess issues; most of my designs are still actually typeset in Quark 4.11. I’m not even looking at 7 until next year after at least a 7.1 release, and possibly not until my clients will finally let go of v4. In trying out ID, I haven’t gotten past how ID handles running heads and repeating book features, but hope to see some of these taken care of in CS3. Or maybe I just need to learn the workarounds in ID better. Bye for now…

  26. Hi, Claire! Thanks for your detailed post. Always glad to hear how others do this stuff.

    As I reported over here, I’ve been getting more comfortable with designing from castoffs, myself. I still prefer to work with live text, but the numbers are becoming less scary.

    Bodoni: I’ve never used it for running text. Maybe for a poster, or some other short piece, but for running text, it’s just too stylized for me. That said, a friend of mine designed and set a book about bookmaking in Bodoni and actually received letters from fans asking what was that amazing, gorgeous, unusual typeface. Go figure.

    And I can certainly understand not using a grid for the kind of books you do, though my solution to those sorts of things has always been to just let the bottom margin be ragged. I just don’t like the look of carding, though I understand that it’s a time-honored practice.

    What’s your beef with master page items in ID? Having to unlock them to make changes?

    God, I wish I could use InDesign right now. I’m working on two books that have similar annoying font problems—one displays onscreen but won’t print, and the other prints but won’t display. In both cases, it affects Carbon applications only—Quark, Word. It’s fine in Cocoa apps such as InDesign and TextEdit. Do I have InDesign on my computer at work? No. Can I design books in TextEdit? It might be interesting to try. . . . These fonts also apparently work fine in the art department, three floors above us. I’ve got a query in to tech support, but I’m not optimistic. The response to my complaints always seems to be, “Oh, that’ll be fixed when we roll out the new disk image,” a happy event with an indefinite date, somehow always far on the horizon.

  27. If someone sent me letters about the typeface I’d used in a book, I’d consider my design a failure, although designers reading a design book would be more tuned into font choices. I actually did get a letter just once–from the typeface designer whose font family I’d used for a 2000+ page literature book he happened to see. That’s intimidating; it hadn’t really occurred to me before that “they’d” be watching. Good thing he liked it.

    The whole point of a textbook is to have the design disappear and let the reader access the info as easily as possible. It takes an enormous number of design choices to make a textbook work like this, but nobody should ever notice the design at all. The only time I’ve ever been asked to spiff up a design at the outset was for a management text that had very poor content. The publisher (not in business now) wanted to mask the poor content with a fancier design. Usually I’m just asked to make it clean and open–and still fit a lot of text on the page. It’s a difference in market I guess. Your books are supposed to attract more attention in the trade area. A poorly designed textbook may lose sales because instructors won’t adopt a textbook they can’t easily navigate (or imagine their students navigating). But it shouldn’t be TOO cutting edge either. It still needs to look authoratative.

    We don’t allow carding (if you mean variable leading for basal text to allow spread alignment); leftover space is inserted above heads or around lists, figures, or boxed/sidebar items. As I said before, there aren’t a lot of simple pages so there are a lot of options. I have no idea how this particular comp uses the vertical justification XT they have. It must be set up somehow to add in the spaces around elements automatically.

    I don’t have a beef with ID exactly, just a lack of understanding. The particular irritation I felt has been lifted by a little more exploration (and some good books). I’m also using v2, and could probably benefit from an upgrade to CS2.

  28. I mean what you’re describing—body text leading stays the same, but space around other objects, such as heads, is flexible. We allow our comp to do it on most of our books (they call it “feathering”), but I wouldn’t do it myself.

    CS2 is a very worthwhile upgrade. It adds object styles and Quick Apply, both of which would be probably useful for the kind of work you do. Then again, the person they’d really appeal to is the compositor.

  29. WOW. What an incredibly interesting read! I love books and I usually notice little things like an odd font (always a thrill to find a book NOT printed in something akin to Times New Roman), or too many extra blank pages, but I had no idea that kind of thought went into the interior of a book. I recently started working for Prentice Hall as a Production Editor – I get our college textbooks (math & science) from final manuscript through the printing press and into the warehouse. We usually receive camera ready copies from the authors directly, and the books are printed from either a PDF file or hard copy of what the author set him/herself. I don’t think we have anyone actually design the interior on these, but from now on I will take time to appreciate my personal book interiors! Since working here, I’ve also taken to actually reading the copyright page because now I understand what all that gibberish means. LOL Thanks for teaching me something today!

  30. Sorry – should’ve clarified, my dept at PH publishes the supplements to college texts, not the parent texts themselves. After reading Claire’s post, I figured if she saw my post she’d come unglued. LOL The parent texts are most definitely designed… and I can’t even fathom how those designers fit everything into a finite number of pages. There’s so much info in there!

  31. Hi, Trayce. Glad you found it interesting! And thanks for the clarification—I was about to come unglued, myself. That seemed awfully strange.

  32. You can’t imagine how thankless the work is, and how far you will get with a few words of praise and gratitude.

    I remember right after my newspaper moved me to a brand new building and informed me I’d have to do layout with an exacto knife and waxer again because they had no Mac for me, I spent half the night — until about 3 a.m, making an impossible broadsheet feature wrap an ad. A few days later I see a bunch of ad reps oooooing and aaaaaing around a page on a desk — MY PAGE! I asked what was up. They explained to me how well the composing room guys had done in designing the page, then went on to tell me they’d like me to spend a few days there for training. I must have repeated SIX (6) times, “that is my page, I designed it and laid it out. I even typeset the text. I edited all your lousy grammar, too.” And they kept speaking to me slower and slower as if I couldn’t understand what they were saying, “no, we mean the copy. The text. You have nothing to do with the text.” WTF?????????????? “Uh, guys, how the hell do you think the copy has been getting on the bloody ad feature pages all these years, anyway?” MAN!

  33. […] In the course of seeing my 100,000-or-so words transformed from a Word document (it’s what the publishers want!) to a typeset galley, I’ve learned a bit more about what goes into making the text of a book look good and fit right. (My editor and the Crown designers did a great job with Dreaming in Code.) So when I recently stumbled on this blog by a book designer — addressing the realms of typography, castoffs and such — I took note. Fascinating stuff if the extent of your knowledge of publishing design is, like mine, drawn primarily from the newspaper world and the computer desktop. Tags: Dreaming in Code, books, publishing […]

  34. Hi India,

    Your explanations are excellent. I work as a book designer too.

    Like you, I use grids for more complex titles. Yes, it’s important to keep the text lines perfectly aligned on facing pages. That’s a hallmark of professional work.

    Keep up the good work!

    David Fideler

  35. I read this and WOW!!! my head is spinning………. i am starting so to speak in the kindergarten of learning how to put a book together, BUT i am a photographer and am not writing a book but will be publishing images with either poetry, writings etc. do you have any input for that type of publishing? Nicole

  36. Hi, Nicole!

    I’m not sure I’m picking up what you’re laying down—it sounds like you’re making broadsides?—but my advice in general is to keep it simple, especially if you’re combining poetry with images. That’s asking for a lot of complex brain activity from the reader, so you’ll want the layout and typography to be as unobtrusive as possible, to prevent seizures.

    Pick a nonquirky typeface—Garamond, Bembo, Minion—and try to stick to the roman version of it as much as possible—above all, do not set poetry in italics. It’s supremely tacky. And you probably don’t need to use a bold weight for headings, just make the type larger. Also, pick an alignment and stick to it. Hint: The alignment you want is probably left or left-justified. Again, do not center poetry; it looks amateurish and makes the text difficult to read.

    Go to a library or bookstore and find some publications that are similar to what you’re trying to do. Ask yourself which ones look most appealing to you, and try to figure out why they have that effect. Compare and contrast—why does this look better than that? You can learn an enormous amount just by setting two books side by side and flipping through them, spread by spread, comparing how various layout issues were addressed.

    Have fun!

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