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 others, let me tell you my reasonings. I fully recognize that most people write in Word. What they do not realize [in most cases] is this simple fact starts their book under a great handicap. 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. This has been a major fight because many designers never read the copy they layout into books and printed materials. In fact, this is still true now that graphic designers are responsible for laying out Websites, blogs, and many other distributors of the words we write. 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.
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 using published books as examples of poor communication. My pursuit of functional, reader-centered books has been fraught with trials. 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.
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: In many cases, authors are not allowed to even pick out the images because they are not professional enough to understand what is required of an image. But the result is illustrations listed by number that are often not even on the same page 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.
- 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. They were 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.
- Page layout determined by fashion and visual concerns: Fonts are chosen because they look good. Layouts are determined by fashion. Columns, margins, sidebars and the like are chosen to stimulate interest and provoke excitement instead of being chosen to communicate the content effectively, clearly, and accessibly. The most glaring example of this is seen in the books where content is broken up into small pieces to help people with short attention spans. No one seems to even consider content that is so compelling that the reader becomes immersed in it.
But it goes much further than that. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia about the normal traditional editorial process:
“A decision is taken to publish a work, and the technical legal issues resolved, the author may be asked to improve the quality of the work through rewriting or smaller changes, and the staff will edit the work. Publishers may maintain a house style, and staff will copy edit to ensure that the work matches the style and grammatical requirements of each market. Editors often choose or refine titles and headlines. Editing may also involve structural changes and requests for more information. Some publishers employ fact checkers, particularly regarding non-fiction works.”
Notice that there is nothing here about serving the readers. The readers’ needs are not part of the process.
Let’s take a brief look at traditional publishing—that relic of the pre-digital, pre-desktop world. In general, this industry is extremely confused by what is taking place in the new publishing world.
Large company publishing by specialists
The traditional model is completely bound up [or broken up] into areas of expertise that are assembled production style in to finished product. This works well for mass-market content understood by everyone in the process. The list of people authors are required to deal with in this scenario is incredible. Several types of acquisition editors, editors, copyeditors, proofers, marketers, illustrators, art departments, production departments, assistants, preflightists, it specialists, and the list goes on.
The basic process
- Manuscript submission: maybe with an agent
- Editor: Acceptance of project and contract signing: setting up royalties, rights, and so on; fitting project into publisher’s production plans and series developments
- Acquisition editors: Setting up the work team, have veto authority over concept and content
- Marketing team: determines focus, market, demographics
- Technical editors: make sure that technical details are accurate and instructions actually work
- Illustrators: Fix up rough sketches from authors
- Copyeditors: fix grammar, rearrange copy, regulate consistency. Have full veto authority over content.
- Peer review: manuscript is sent to peers in the field to determine relevance and industry acceptance
- Art department: Authors have no say in who determines layout, designs typography, sets up digital workflow
- Cover designer: Authors are never allowed to do the cover
- Page layout: a production job after manuscript approval
- Proofers: typos and typography errors
- Print-ready file production:
- Production proof: author often does not even see this
This process is long and expensive
It’s all about money. Books must support this huge bureaucratic infrastructure. Production costs run from tens of thousands of dollars on up to millions. If you cannot count on selling thousands or millions of books, they cannot afford to publish your work. It commonly takes a year after the manuscript is completed to produce the book. For time-sensitive work, this does not work well.
These specialists commonly do not understand your content
I have had copyeditors flag something that was standard industry usage because he/she did not speak the industry lingo. They had no idea what a separation was for an image, or a signature is for a book, or that leading is a specific measurement. Imagine finding editors and proofers for a book on a capella choir music, steam engine design, Japanese carpentry, Norwegian landscape design, dulcimer construction, raku kiln design, rosemaling, passion plays, calligraphy, weaving looms, pueblo indian jewelry, Hatch green chilé, I Ching, prophets, or whatever your niche is. It’s not going to happen. But you can write a book to your niche that will sell well.
Niche writers to limited markets
Here we begin to see the modern reality of publishing. The change is of the same type as we saw with the conversion in television from three massive mass-market networks to the current reality of thousands of channels on cable and satellite. The same things has happened in magazines where there are now over 10,000 magazines in the US alone. There are now well over 100,000,000 active blogs. We are currently publishing over a million different book titles per year. Obviously things have changed a little.
In a typical niche, the overhead of tradition publishing is not good stewardship
Many of the new books are developed for very small niches when dealing with a global scale of things. Let’s take my newly proposed book on creating books. Statistics are hard to find. The labor department says there are nearly 300,000 graphic designers but only 26,000 desktop publishers. They say that there are a little over 150,000 authors which are about 70% self-employed. Smashwords works with 18,000 writers. Lulu claims to have worked with over a million creators. But there are no stats on number of InDEsign users, number of authors using InDEsign, or anything like that. When I start looking for keyword searches on Google in this area, I am left with the notion that there may be a few thousand people doing this.
How does the publishing world handle a niche this small? It doesn’t.
So, what is a writer to do? You do not have many options unless you have enough money to pay for all the services of a traditional pubisher. here are some rough and minimal cost figures:
- Copy editor: $1000
- Book formatter: $1000
- Proofer: $500
- Cover designer: $500
- ISBN #: $100–$250 per book unless you buy a large block
- Printer: $2000 or much more
- Press release: $500
- Book review: $1000
- Marketing package: $2,000 to $10,000
- Books to give away: $1000
- Website: $2000 plus $50 to $100 a month for ISP, Web access, site maintenance, et al
- & on & on & on
So, what do you do if you do not have ten to fifteen thousand dollars with which to gamble—disposable income?
You must learn to produce your own books.
For the past two decades, I have taught publishing skills. For the past fifteen years I have written and published books, both traditionally and on-demand. I have taught skills to present digital content transparently, effectively, and gracefully. But Word [and word processors in general] cannot do this. There are skills and capabilities that are necessary which are simply not available in Office.
- Typography: The skill to use fonts, paragraph styling, and page layout to invisibly communicate content: point size, leading, small caps, ligatures, oldstyle figures, lining figures, ems, ens, discretionary hyphens, tracking, kerning, and much more. For this you need a professional page layout program. There are only two: InDesign and QuarkXPress
- High resolution: Printing requires 300 dpi minimum. you’ll need Photoshop. JPEGs, GIFs, and PNGs won’t work
- Postscript: This is a page description language that is required by book printers. You must be able to create and proof in Postscript. This requires InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat Pro. It is true that QuarkXPress and FreeHand can also do this, but FreeHand is dead and Quark is left far behind.
- PDFs: A printing companies now require a PDF to print from. If you give them anything less, they make their own PDF and you have no control over what results from that conversion.
- Page layout: A thorough understanding of columns, margins, alignments, indents, gutters, lists, tables, headlines, subheads, sidebars, running heads, drop caps, and much more.
Writing in InDesign gives you layout power
You can use a subhead for clarity, a kicker to emphasize a header, lists to recapture the reader’s attention, a sidebar for peripheral information, a table for overly complex lists, and much more. You can see on the page how clearly the content is being communicated. It changes your content into something that communicates clearly and easily to your readers. It provides the control you need to speak to your specific niche.
When you’re done, it’s ready to print!
If you print on-demand, it can be in the hand of your reader in a week or less. If you produce an ePUB or downloadable PDF, they can have it to read this afternoon. A Kindle book might take another week. All from the same content.
It’s a whole new world!
- Digital publishing: book as artifact; author as ringleader (erikhansen.com)
- Top 15 blogs for book design (teleread.com)