Here I am again recommending a road less traveled by—not unusual in my life and work. Before the choruses rise up in defense of other workflows, let me tell you my reasonings. I fully recognize that most people write in Word. What these people do not realize [in most cases] is this simple fact starts their book under a great handicap. If Word users are publishing their own book, they are missing out on the best tools for communicating with readers.
Books are not entirely about words
Of course as a writer this may not make much sense to you. But hear me out. For years I have taught graphic designers that the content is all that matters. Now I am teaching writers that presentation and layout are a big part of your book. For designers, this has been a major fight because many never read the copy they design into books and printed materials. Now I am dealing with writers who do not see the need for typography and layout skills. In the publishing world there is a real disconnect between the writers and the book designers. They are treated as two entirely separate skill sets. It is better for them to merge, as much as possible.
Most designers do not deal well with words
Graphic designers [and this includes most book designers] are visual people, focused on how things look. One of my major concerns as I started to write books in the mid-1990s was my experience in my classes of using published textbooks as examples of poor communication. As a pastor, commercially available Bible studies were just as bad. They rarely had any meaning to our little flock because they were not explanations of scripture, but mere human examinations of men’s ways. The examples are endless.
My pursuit of functional, reader-centered books has been fraught with trials. I was constantly bumping up against standardized procedures of traditional publishers which really made their books hard to read or use effectively. This goal is so far outside the norm in publishing today that there is no room at all for an author who even cares about these things (except in the brand new world of on-demand publishing).
Let’s talk about some simple examples of this lack of concern for the reader
- Illustrations listed by number with no connection to the copy which talks about what is illustrated: Most traditional non-fiction publishers require this typographic horror. In many cases, authors are not allowed to even pick out the images because they are not considered professional enough to understand what is required of an graphic.
- Illustrations, maps, charts, and photos listed by number which are often not on the same page (or even the same chapter) as the content they illustrate. Why bother to even have them? Few readers will find them or take the time to look for them. The result is frustrated readership and readers who simply quit reading in disgust.
- For fiction, it is equally bad to have an illustration or map which cannot be easily referenced by the reader. In my attempts at novels I added maps where they were needed in the copy to help the reader understand what is going on a little better.
- Heads and subheads generated by designers: In many cases over the years I spent as a graphic designer, I wrote all the subheads, developed all the lists, wrote all the captions, and even wrote most of the headlines. I developed them out of a need to help direct the reader through the copy I was formatting. The author commonly had no clue that they were desirable or necessary. I wrote them as a service to the reader. But I was a real minority as mentioned. Many designers [and it may well be most designers] do not even read the copy they layout, as I said.
- Page layout determined by fashion and visual concerns: This is an epidemic in traditionally published books. Fonts are chosen because they look good. Layouts are determined by fashion. Columns, margins, sidebars and the like are chosen to stimulate visual interest and provoke excitement instead of being chosen to communicate the content effectively, clearly, and accessibly. Clarity and accuracy are rarely considered.
- The most glaring example of this is seen in the books where content is broken up into small pieces—supposedly to help people with short attention spans. We recently bought a book on creationism that is virtually unreadable. The gorgeous, fancy illustrations push the copy into bits and pieces that randomly appear out of the visual clutter of the pages’ backgrounds. My wife gave up on it. She asked me to read it and give her a report. I did, and it was an excellent book. BUT: it was hard work to simply read the book and took a lot of discipline. The copy was compelling, but it was hard to find and make sense of it. I can’t imagine how many readers that author has lost because of the layout.
As a writer, you must be aware of these issues and realize that they are a primary method of clearing up communication with the reader. Heads, subheads, list design, and all the rest are key elements of your support of the reader.
But it goes much further than that. We’ll talk about this more next week…
- Writing in InDesign is the only sensible choice for writers in the new paradigm of on-demand self-publishing (bergsland.org)
- Book typography: this is not typing in Office (hackberry-fonts.com)