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).