article discussing why a self-publisher or independent publisher of fiction should learn about typography, typesetting, page design, and focus on a beautifully designed book

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Small Publishers Association of North America

Issue 2/2009

A Quality Physical Book

When I finally decided to self-publish my fiction, I knew I wanted to provide readers a story well-told. Yes, one can tell a good story, not necessarily a well-crafted one, but an entertaining read none the less. And one can tell a well-crafted story, displaying unique mastery of English grammar and usage that dazzles the reader, but with a story that falls short of entertaining. What I’m striving for is to one day be able to tell a great, can’t-put-this-sucker-down kind of story and to tell it well. I think that’s what most authors strive for: To tell a good tale and to tell it well. But there’s more to a book than the story.

By that I mean the housing, the physical book. Interior design/layout, cover, paper quality, binding (be it hardback or soft cover a nice package is a nice package). Most readers appreciate the physical book. I know that I do. I was, therefore, acutely aware of this aspect of my self-publishing endeavor. Gee, I’d love to be able to publish my books in hardbound leather with gold-inlay. Ha! I’m a long way from being there, if I ever am. But I digress.

I am assuming that if you have read this far, you are interested in, or at least thinking about, self-publishing a book or you know someone who is. I will therefore offer some advice. After you’ve written your book and written it well, make sure that the final embodiment of your masterpiece is quality, too.

If you are considering going with a POD publisher, look at their work. If the publisher is going to charge you to typeset your baby, he should be capable of doing typography. Look at the fonts, look at the layout. Look at the white space on the pages, the leading and the tracking—and if you don’t know what these terms mean, and you are seriously considering self-publishing, invest in a book on typography. You have a vested interest in at least being able to converse somewhat intelligently on the subject. Another investment is a good style manual. You need this, not only for layout, but for basic grammar. But, again, I’m digressing.

I have looked at numerous POD published books—good stories—and been struck by the poor typography and style. Y’all, there are rules as to where to hyphenate a word—and there’s more to it than the simple word divisions found in the dictionary. Two-letter syllables carried over to the next line, for example. Two syllable words where the second syllable is a silent e is another. There is a slew of “no-no’s,” and they can be found in a style manual (I use The Chicago Manual of Style).

One particular layout problem that jumps up and smacks me in the face whenever I see it, is the “widow.” A widow is the last line of a paragraph ending at the top of a page. [An “orphan,” if you’re interested, is the first line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page. Orphans are forgivable.] Widows are acceptable only if they extend at least three-quarters of the way across the top of a page (some say the line should extend the full width of the page). Epico Bayou my July 2009 release, has, if I remember correctly, three widows that extend almost the full width of the page.

I routinely see widows much shorter than that (and therefore stylistic no-no’s) in POD published books. I mention widows because they are so easy for anyone to spot, and therefore are clear testimony as to the typographical abilities of the publisher you are considering. Now it’s just my opinion, but any publisher using that term in reference to himself—and taking your money to publish your book—can invest in a style manual, read it, and avoid such blatant errors.

Another point I’d like to make to those of you considering going down to your local print shop and having him print up your book. First, make sure that printer can construct a book—he should be a book “manufacturer.” Even then, realize that the printer is a printer. A printer is not a publisher. If you have created a book, and you’ve typeset it or had someone typeset it, then for all intents and purposes you are the publisher. The defining point is who provided the International Standard Book Number or ISBN. I realize you may not have purchased an ISBN for your book, but if you want to sell your book in stores, you need to invest in an ISBN (and a barcode). The former you can purchase singly or in blocks from Bowkers. The barcode you purchase from a vendor—and there are lots of them around. I use Infinity Graphics. Note that you need to purchase the ISBN before the barcode, and you need to know how much it’s going to cost you, per book, to print it before you get your barcode, too.

The point I’m trying to make is that unless your local printer is also an editor and a typographer (not so sure how good the odds are on that happening), don’t leave him/her to edit and typeset your book. You are the one responsible for making sure both those things are done before the book goes to print. But, if you think he can do those things anyway—read your proofs very carefully—preferably get a friend or two to help. Your name is going to be on that book; you want it to be something you can be proud of.

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