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Spotlight on: S.M. Beiko

Spotlight on: S.M. Beiko

Unseen Engineering:

Yes, A Human Typeset That, and Other Epiphanies About Book Design

With the advent of Print on Demand publishing, a model used by Amazon’s CreateSpace and Ingram’s Lightning Source, it seems that it’s easier than ever to ‘make’ a book. You just type the story up, upload a file, and hit PRINT, and after that hundred-thousand dollar machine goes whirring through the printing, cutting, and binding process, voila. A book! You’re a publisher!

But, as you may have guessed by this article’s title, it’s not that cut-and-dry. There’s way more in-betweening than you may have thought.

First of all, that manuscript you typed up in your word processor? The way it looks in Word isn’t how it’s going to look as a printed book. It’s not a matter of dragging that Word file into some software that then spits out your pristine PDF complete with headers, folios, chapter titling, drop caps, linked table of contents, glossary, and whatever other front-and-back matter you’re putting in there.

Uh oh, you thought that a computer typeset that 1000-age fantasy tome you devoured over the holidays?

Well, sort of. But also no; a human did all that, using a their meat-brain, with an assist from some computer software they trained in. That human probably put in 10 – 30 hours into not only doing the technical acrobatics that makes a word document into a book—but also to design it to look extravagant, or minimalist, or fresh, or subversive, or downright whacky.

Still don’t believe me? Well, luckily I have 8 years of book layout experience, so let me take you on the thrilling ride to what is involved in, well, making a book!

*Please note that this is interiors only, not book cover and packaging…though the two go hand-in-hand, cover design is another whole blog entry!

When designing a book, there are many questions you have to ask. Usually first, what type of book is it? Is it a prose fiction novel, which is mostly text? Or a non-fiction book that will have a lot of referential material like footnotes, a table of contents, plus images? Or will it be a graphic novel, which is only image-based, but requires those images to meet certain printing standards, or it will also contain text blocks, or magazine-style columns?

Once you know what kind of book it is, you adjust your design standards. What are the book’s dimensions? What typeface will you use—and what size of font, or leading (space between the lines)? How big will your pages’ gutters, margins, and header-footers be, to accommodate folios (page numbers) and liner-header (AUTHOR NAME + BOOK TITLE)? Once you’ve decided on the above, how will your master pages be set up? And does the publisher or client have a certain look they want, or one they want to remain universal across their books?

And on and on. And, guess what! Usually while you’re undergoing this process, things might change. But that’s okay, because you can just update your style scripts.

Geez Sam, I hear you moan, you’re throwing a lot of words around that I don’t understand. Well, they’re things I didn’t understand, either, when I was doing my Book Publishing post-grad at Humber College. I also never imagined that the bulk of my freelance work would be in book design and print preparation, but the reality is that it’s a key field for graphic designers, and while I had working hobby-knowledge of Adobe Photoshop, I was about to crash headlong into working with its austere sister, Adobe InDesign, the top means of typesetting print media for web and offset printing.

I’ve used a lot of big words and made book layout seem complex, but these days it’s not. It’s rather more efficient than the original method of taking individual lead letters and lining them up by hand, which is how printing presses used to do it! This is where the word typesetting comes from (and leading!)

But now with the magic of software, it comes down to learning the systems, managing streamlined script shortcuts, and ‘bringing out the soul’ of that original word document with carefully-chosen digital design elements so you don’t have to wait several painstaking months for your plates to be manufactured. Thanks, technology.

But you do have to have some training or working knowledge. Half-assing design leads to printing errors, as well as not understanding the different between CMYK colour formatting and RGB. My point is that, like anything else, training and knowledge equal a solid final product. Think of book layout as a delicate inner structure dictating the surface features. If that inner structure is missing a few keystones, the whole thing can fall apart!

All I’m saying is, the next time you pick up a book, think about the time it not only took to write it, but the care that the designer and typesetter put into taking it from the digital world to something tangible. It’s now an object that not only allows you to get lost in the prose, but celebrates those words with a keen eye that even a computer can’t just summarily spit out, no matter how much technology changes.

Typesetting is engineering. Skyscrapers don’t pop out of no where, and book design, for all its complexities, really is a labour of art—and of love.

Samantha Mary (S.M.) Beiko currently works in the Canadian publishing industry as a freelance editor, graphic designer, and consultant. Her first novel, The Lake and the Library, was nominated for the Manitoba Book Awards for Best First Book, as well as the 2014 Aurora Award. Her next series, The Realms of Ancient, began with Scion of the Fox (ECW Press, 2017) and the sequels to follow are Children of the Bloodlands (2018) and The Brilliant Dark (2019). She is the co-editor of Gothic Tales of Haunted Love (Bedside Press, 2018), and her short fiction has been anthologized in Gush: Menstrual Manifestos of Our Times (Frontenac House, 2018) and Parallel Prairies: Stories (Enfield & Wizenty, 2018).


How to be a comics historian in 2 easy steps – Tim Hanley

How to be a comics historian in 2 easy steps – Tim Hanley

I’ve spent the past several years of my life immersed in the histories of characters like Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, and Catwoman, along with the fascinating creators behind their many adventures, and I’ll be honest with you, it’s a pretty fun gig. The history of comic books is as bizarre as it is entertaining, and there’s never a boring day reading and writing about these heroes.

Case in point, Sally the Sleuth. I wasn’t too familiar with the character when Hope asked me if I’d be interested in writing an introduction for Bedside Press’ latest reprint collection, but after just a few minutes of cursory research, I was totally on board. A half dressed heroine whose titillating adventures led to the publication of Superman? What a weird history. Of course I was in.

Writing any piece of comic book history, be it an introduction, an article, or a book, is a process that can be boiled down to these two steps:

1. Be a historian.

2. Read comic books.

Once you’ve got those down, you’re on your way! Simple as that. But we’ll expand on each step, just to be thorough.


My background is in academic history. I’ve got two degrees in history from Dalhousie University, and my book Wonder Woman Unbound is an expanded version of my Master’s thesis, rewritten for a broader audience (i.e. I took all the boring bits out). This type of training is useful on several fronts. First, it gives you a solid base of general knowledge. The better you can understand the cultural and political context of the time period in which a comic book is published, the more you’ll get out of it.

Second, you develop specific expertise. It’s great to have a larger appreciation of 20th century North American history, but a deep knowledge of the history of the comic book industry itself is just as important.

Third, it teaches you how to research. Knowing where to find sources, how to evaluate them, and how to glean useful information from them are all important skills if you want to be accurate and efficient in your work.

All three of these proved useful with Sally the Sleuth. For instance, knowing the state of American culture in the 1930s, it was clear that her racy strip was extremely taboo for the time. And while I wasn’t an expert in the history of the pulp magazines in which she appeared, I sure was familiar with her publisher, Harry Donenfeld. He co-founded DC Comics and was an interesting, if rather sketchy, dude. This connection to DC really caught my attention, and I was able to look through some reliable databases and discover that Sally the Sleuth was Donenfeld’s first foray into comics. There’s a direct line from her successful run in the seedy world of pulps to Donenfeld later launching Superman as wholesome entertainment for kids.

Now, you don’t have to spend six years on multiple degrees to write about comic book history. That’s just the path I took. But having a good understanding of history in general, of the comic book industry in particular, and knowing how to research effectively will prove invaluable.


This seems obvious, but it’s key. Read ALL of the comic books, in order if you can. Before I wrote a book on Wonder Woman, I read every Wonder Woman comic that I could get my hands on. Same with Lois. Same with Catwoman. And same with Sally the Sleuth. Hope did an amazing job tracking down her old strips, and it was no small feat. Those pulp magazines are hard to find these days.

History needs to be accurate or else there’s no point to it, and part of being accurate is being thorough. You never know what random issue might blow up your entire thesis, or take it in an exciting new direction. That’s why it’s important to try to read them all. You want to know as much information as you can.

The stronger your understanding of the character is, the stronger your analysis will be. You can tell when someone’s taken only a cursory look at a few comics, and those pieces often end up simplistic and hollow. You don’t want to come in with your argument already set and cherry pick a few panels that support it. It’s easy, but it’s pointless. Come at the comics with an open mind and see where the stories actually go.

Also, look beyond the stories. With comic books, there are ads, letter columns, and other documents that can shine an interesting light on a character. With Sally the Sleuth, I read several of the prose stories that appeared alongside her strip in Spicy Detective Stories. Everything in the magazine was salacious, but it was fascinating to see how the female characters in the prose stories were just love interests or damsels in distress while Sally had a far more active role in her own tales.

Databases are great, too. Using the Grand Comics Database or the Comic Book Database, you can track creators and see who is writing and drawing the stories. From there, you can research these creators through interviews and bios that let you delve into their approach to the characters.

Being a comic book historian can be a lot of work. Not everything you read is going to make it into a piece. In fact, most of it isn’t. That’s the job, really, distilling vast quantities of comic books and background research into something clear and easily digestible for readers. But at the end of the day, you get to spend most of your time reading comic books! It’s hard to beat that.

Tim Hanley is a comic book historian and the author of Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous HeroineInvestigating Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter, and The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale.