Cheats, Shoots, and Leaves

Update: Now, with sample pages!

Ever since I tried to roughly describe how I go about designing a book, my process has been changing. Mostly, it’s because I keep getting asked to design books (1) for which I don’t have an electronic file, and (2) that need to be shot down to mass-market size. In the last six weekdays, I did 3.5 designs, and I had electronic files for only the 0.5 part. The transmittal forms for two of these books said they were to be designed so that they could be shot down. What does this mean?
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A Hard Case

Update: Now, with pictures!

All right, kids. You like details? Here are some details.

Pick up three hardcover books, preferably from different publishers, and remove the dust jackets. Look at the spines. Do you see the title, author, and publisher’s name or logo stamped on each spine in metallic foil? Probably. Are the colors of the foil different—e.g., one’s silver, one’s gold, one’s copper? Right. Somebody picked those. And actually there are many shades of silver, gold, and copper to choose from—not to mention colored metallics and matte colors. Somebody designed the stamp—a die—to print the spine, too. Some publishers like to have it complement the interior design; others like for it to echo the jacket.

Spines of three of the more interestingly bound books in my possession. The top is from 1816. The middle is undated but probably from 1900 or 1901, based on cues in the content; it’s blind-stamped. The bottom is from 1954 and has raised cords.
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Don't leave me dangling

Checking some proofs the other day, an error leaped out at me. Appearing on the acknowledgments page, I couldn’t help noticing this dangling modifier:

Like all other authors . . . , there are many others who helped me get this book together.

Leading a paragraph in which the author thanks his two proofreaders, I needn’t point out the irony of this error.

Can you see it? It’s a dangling modifier, and if the text of this post so far has set your teeth on edge but you can’t quite identify why, it may be because all three of my own sentences surrounding that quotation start with danglers. (To fix the quote, I’d recast the second part so that its subject is “I.”)

Here’s a dangler from a novel I set a few years ago (rendered from memory): Continue reading “Don't leave me dangling”

Study Questions

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!

The Kottke Effect

What’s been even more surprising, though, is that so far no other designers have dropped in to say, “You’re reading the castoff numbers all wrong.” “I can’t believe you used a typeface called fucking ‘Manticore’ for a fucking fantasy book!” “Trim size is actually determined based on X, Y, and Z.” “Quark is the best piece of software in the universe!” And nobody’s said, “But, the process for designing a cookbook/dictionary/art book/computer book is totally different; your half-assed workflow would never work for that.”
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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.
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Even More Puzzling

Speaking of puzzles, I also recently got to design and assemble a book of crossword puzzles from a certain weekly progressive newsmagazine. There wasn’t much to design, and what there was of it I cribbed from the magazine itself. Nor was there much to typeset, since after a not inconsiderable amount of wrangling we were able to get the Quark files from the magazine. But I did learn how crossword puzzles are set, or at least how these particular ones are: It’s a typeface.
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Puzzling Samples

Since that puzzle book I mentioned earlier (math, design) has now been printed and should be appearing in stores, I figure it’s time to post some pages of it here, for your viewing pleasure.

What I started with

A very complex manuscript overflowing with cartoony illustrations (none of which are shown in these samples), line drawings supplied as Word art, equations, and notes to the typesetter, e.g., “Start light red background,” “Set in Bible font,” “Set in e-mail font,” etc. Also, a reasonably high-res comp of the cover, which uses ransom-note typography for the title, a very staid sans serif for the author’s name, and a photo of a tangled ball of colorful wire.
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A satisfied customer!

So yesterday afternoon I submitted sample pages for that puzzle book, and today I received an e-mail from the publisher saying the “design is drop-dead gorgeous . . . I think it’s lovely.” The author hasn’t seen it, though, and I had some queries about structural issues, so there may yet be changes. But I’ll post some samples eventually.

(It is perhaps appropriate to note at this point that as a designer of book interiors, I am totally in love with Amazon’s “Look/Search Inside the Book” feature, and I’m sure I’ll soon be just as enamored of Google Print. Why? Because each of these services makes it easier for me to find work I’ve done, even if I can’t remember that I did it. Copyright pages are almost always scanned, and that’s where my credit lines go; also, acknowledgment pages tend to get scanned, for those never-too-frequent occasions when one actually gets thanked in print.)

Update, 11/17: Confirmed: “design is way approved!”

Indexes, indices, indixes

Okay, first off, here are the last two books I’ll ever index:

Appeal to Reason

History of African American Theatre

These happen also to be the only two books I’ve indexed. Professional indexers are special people, and I am not that kind of special.


  • Appeal to Reason, most of which I also typeset and the copyediting of which I supervised, had the cleanest manuscript I’ve ever seen, before or since. I kept saying, “We ought to send Craig [the editor] flowers.” We never did, but we did gush praise at him every time we spoke.
  • The manuscript for the History of African American Theatre was about seven inches high, and it was being copyedited while I wrote the index. Which meant that I had to look up which of the zillions of variants of all those titles and proper names and so forth were correct, and then e-mail them to the copyeditor. It was kind of insane; I thought I might die; I nearly died. The published index is forty-three pages, typeset. Also, I really don’t recommend compiling a large index using Excel. On the bright side, having obsessively fact-checked the index myself, I can now place reasonable trust in it as a fact-checking resource—I look up play titles and actors’ names in it all the time.