At the beginning of this week, I spent part of my lunch hour at the cafeteria (aka Whole Foods) casually consulting with a friend of a friend who’s checking the page proofs for her first book. It’s an anthology of articles about filmmaking, and it’s being brought forth by a reputable publisher of scholarly and professional books. Unfortunately for the author, her publisher is determined to produce the book as cheaply as possible: completely generic and poorly thought-out design, executed by apparently quite error-prone compositors in Hong Kong. She loathes the display type, she doubts the wisdom of the layout, she’s unhappy with the cover, . . . and her publisher has been fighting her at every step, since the moment the contract was signed. All in all, she’s not having a very warm and fuzzy experience as a first-time author.
And I’m torn, because she’s right—the interior design is hideous, and a lot of the layout choices just don’t make sense. For instance, perhaps half of the articles are interviews, and they’ve been indented on both sides, for their entire length. This wastes so much space that the body type in the book as a whole has had to be squeezed down quite small in order to make castoff. The design of the epigraphs and head notes is also ill-considered, and the front matter and display type throughout are extremely homely: too many fonts, too many styles, and utterly random indents throughout.
These are problems that a competent book designer/compositor, such as, oh, me or the designer friend through whom I know this person, could fix in one to two hours. I am dead certain that I could make the whole thing look much more inviting and coherent, while sticking to the desired page count, in less time than it will take the distraught author to mark up every single chapter title to be even small caps instead of caps + hideous fake small caps, as my friend and I cautiously recommended.
At the same time, however, looking wincingly at her stack of proofs, covered with Post-Its and liberally scrawled with deletions and additions, wordy corrections using nonstandard proofreading symbols, and requests for global layout changes, I deeply pity and sympathize with her editor and production crew. The book is already running late, and this is not the time to be asking for major design changes. More significantly, if you want to ask for such changes, covering the pages with red ink (ink!!) is probably the worst possible tactic. I, too, would no doubt give her the flat reply, “I’m sorry, but that’s our house style, and we’re not changing it,” which is apparently what her publisher has been telling her since the first complaint.
The upside to this depressing consultation was watching someone who has obviously read quite a lot but not looked at the books she’s been reading begin to notice the layout and typographic choices that can make one book look more appealing than another. She had brought another book with her, to show as an example of how she thought the acknowledgments for reprinted material should be handled. Her editor wanted her to move them from the ends of the individual articles into the front matter, but the author wasn’t sure of the etiquette. The other designer and I discussed a couple of options (cramming them onto the copyright page, creating a separate section in the front matter, including them in the author’s general acknowledgments) that depended on the space available, and at one point she exclaimed over there being a whole page with just the main title of the book on it, in addition to the regular title page. How wasteful! We showed her that this same bizarre custom had been followed in the book she had brought as an example; she had not noticed this.
Then I explained that sometimes a book may include two such half-title pages, with the second being called a “bastard title.” Imagine! Why would one do such a thing? Well, to fill space. Or to reserve space in case there may be last-minute additions to the front matter, such as a separate acknowledgments page. We then pointed out that in her exemplary book, each short story began with its title on a new right-hand page, followed by a blank, and then the story itself starting with a half-page sink on the next recto page. “There wasn’t a lot of material, but they wanted to stretch the book so that they could charge a particular price for it,” I explained. This also allowed for a cute trim size, generous outside margins, a very comfortably sized text face, and elegant running heads. All of this was news to her. She had known that she liked the design, but she hadn’t thoroughly examined why.
As I’ve said, this author is clearly a very bright and well-read person, and one who has been puzzling over the design of her own book for several frustrating months already. Why were these features still invisible to her?
And, more my concern, why isn’t there some kind of crash course for authors—and no, much as I love it, I don’t think the Chicago Manual of Style qualifies as a crash course—in understanding why their books are being made in a particular way? A basic pamphlet, perhaps, explaining how price and design interact, why the publisher is being so cheap about one book though perhaps lavish with another, and what elements can be negotiated at what point in production (if at all)?
Does such a publication already exist and I don’t know about it? Or does it not exist because providing this information after every contract signing would create more problems and anxiety than it would solve?