Sometimes Business Takes a Backseat to Staying Sane

Add comment September 27th, 2017 05:55pm admin

I think I’ve mentioned in the past that I only turn over cross-platform, printer-ready PDFs to clients. It’s what I arrive at by job’s end that they pay for; and I spell that out in every contract I write. Perhaps because I worked that day job for over 32 years in New York’s Unified Court System, I use the attorney’s phrase “work product” to describe the InDesign and Quark files I create to get to those PDFs at job’s end.

But I just ran into a situation that made me rethink this position of mine.

I’ve been working on the book Veritas Pictura, a book of some 300+ photos illustrating a series of philosophical questions that are then answered by thinkers from many different walks of life. Or maybe it’s the other way around: it’s a book that delves into some of life’s questions using a kind of Socratic method, punctuated by those 300+ vivid photographs. Either way, the book is a very interesting bit of work.

I’ve been working on this one for a while, since Valentine’s Day, February 14, of this year, when I began editing photos. It proved an opportunity to hone some of my Photoshop skills—in particular, Selecting—and I sharpened my ability to edit out and drop in elements of photos.

Then there was a break of a couple of a few months while the author finished writing and the final editing was done. Aside from some back and forth fixes the printer needed, my end of things was completed.

Until today.

Today, much to my client’s consternation and not just mine, the printer said certain pieces of art used on the jacket, were low-resolution. So, of course, I started by checking what my client had sent me and found that they were the requisite 300 dpi. Next I looked at the art placed in my actual InDesign file for the jacket. Same thing: 300 dpi.

In a burst of flexibility, I packaged the InDesign doc for the jacket, the fonts used, and the images the 300 dpi images they say are “lo-res” and sent them to the printer. Perhaps they can find some issue I’m unaware of that’s causing the problem they see. That’s not something I plan to make a habit of doing, but in this case, when it’s simply not clear to me what they’re talking about I think that is the prudent step.

Money Changes Everything

2 comments June 1st, 2017 08:38am admin

I first started freelancing as a book designer over 26 years ago. It was slow going getting started. I’ve mentioned more than once on this blog about the lucky break that became my first steady work and that helped me start a track record. But it wasn’t until about three or four years later that someone online, an experienced freelancer, dropped the nugget of wisdom on me that raising what I charged for book design and layout would get me taken more seriously and help me expand my business.

And you know what? That worked.

Over 20 years after that, my situation’s changed. I’ve also mentioned here more than once that I started out freelancing “with a net”—that is, I had a full-time, 9-to-5 job all those years. So I was secure and could be patient growing my book design practice.

I’m semi-retired now and still secure. And there are tax consequences to consider that I didn’t have to concern myself with when I was a full-time employee. In addition to the pension I earned from the day job, I decided to not be presumptuous about life expectancy and hold out on collecting Social Security until I would be entitled to the maximum. But there is a maximum I can earn for the next few years, above which there is a payback I would have to make to Social Security.

On the one hand, I’m not averse to paying into Social Security if I make above the maximum. I just don’t want to get into a situation where my next year’s payments could be recalculated at a lower amount. Just as important to me is that for the first time, since I don’t want to reach that maximum in just three or four projects, I can take worthy book projects from self-publishers who are working on a shoestring and can’t afford my normal rates. I’ve figured that the optimum reduction is to 25–50% of what my typical full price would have been.

The first such project, one I haven’t completed yet, is a book written by a young woman, a junior high schooler. I’m working on her book, The 100 Most Important New Yorkers, for about 25% of my usual fee. I’m having a good time doing it. Plus I actually feel like I’m doing something that matters, helping a young author come to press in a serious and professional way. The author, Agatha Edwards, has actually self-published before. But I’m doing my best to place this latest book of hers on the same level playing field as every adult who is self-publishing. I think she’s that good and worth the read.

And it’s only by lowering my rates that I am able to “pay it forward” like this. I understand that most freelancers should not do this. They shouldn’t cheapen the value of their efforts. But I’ve been through that already, for years now. Now my prime concern is to keep making books, especially the ones that wouldn’t get quite the professional push without me.

Freedom of the Press and This Book Designer

Add comment January 21st, 2017 11:25pm admin

It’s been said that freedom of the press belongs to those who own the press. Nowadays the whole “ownership of the press” thing has largely been turned on its head, thanks to digital typesetting and print-on-demand (POD). These two babies have brought the possibility of getting published to virtually anyone who wants to publish a book.

I’m aware of this because for the last five or so years the lion’s share of my clients have been self-publishers. This is a sea change from when I established my freelance book design and layout practice 26 years ago. Back then I started out with traditional publishers and a book packager or two as my clients. Back around 2009–2010 I began to see a steady diet of self-publishing authors as clients. By 2011, the majority of my clients were self-publishers. As of last year, I work pretty much exclusively for self-publishers.

This isn’t exactly alert-the-media/stop-the-presses kind of news.

But it strikes me as particularly of the moment, given the political climate and the repressive attitude toward the press of the new administration. So in addition to the work self-publishers have provided me over the years—in fact, perhaps whether or not I’d ever gotten work from them—I am thrilled that this outlet exists for getting ideas and people’s books out into the world. Inasmuch as the current federal government seems to be leaning away from facts, science, and intellectual freedom—the latter not to be confused with deliberately telling lies to fuel hate and make money—more than ever we need authors to get their books out into the world.

It’s my business and I stand ready to assist in that task. But it’s also something I believe in.

Looking Back at 2016 and Ahead to 2017

Add comment January 1st, 2017 02:52pm admin

Last year was full of shit.

And I use that last word above as a substitute for the word “stuff”; to mean, too, that it got to be too much, too full of itself; and, finally, to indicate that something bad and nasty happened.

Last one first. While this is my blog on book design and freelancing, not politics, God knows I have to acknowledge the election. I am horrified by it, because, from the point of view of a small businessperson, it seems to me that the whatever-he-is-elect (because there are so many obvious issues, the emolument clause, first of all, that I don’t quite picture him in office for long) is not someone who’s interested in doing things for or protecting things that help, the little guy. And so I foresee everything from tax policies that hurt freelancers, as well as greater incentives for people who would ordinarily have turned to those of us within the U.S. for freelance projects to third-world country freelancers, thereby both depressing prices and depriving us sustainable work.

On the other hand, 2016 was a heady year. And given that I’ve grown more superstitious as I’ve gotten older, I sometimes want to hesitate to talk about how well things have gone. But the truth is, that, given my relatively new status as a semi-retiree (I had worked in New York State’s court system for over 32 years, before retiring from it Thanksgiving, 2015) to pursue book design full-time, there were certain logistics to work out with just how much book design-and-layout work—and income from it—I really wanted to take in. Because there are consequences to it, with a “limit” on allowable income before a penalty kicks in when one opts for collecting Social Security early, as I have.

I guess I had no idea that, with more time to pursue new freelance projects, I would just naturally work more and reach that limit more quickly than I could have imagined. And that brought me to a kind of crossroads: Do I stop working when I reach that limit? Or do I start working for less, so that I avoid the limit longer each year (until the limit is eliminated in a few years)?

If I do the latter, I decided, it allows me to accept interesting jobs for less money if I am so inclined. This requires a bit of reorienting to my thinking, as I’ve spent years railing against folks who accept “pennies-on-the-dollar” rates, thereby depressing all freelancers’ prospects. Now I tend to see it that it’s a way to keep some freelance projects and prospects from looking outside the country for freelancers, as well as giving me the opportunity to accept interesting projects that I would normally have turned down because of the low rate of pay. However, I am endeavoring to do this only in instances where the people who offer such work are genuinely people I want to help, because I see something in them and in what they have created that I think needs to be brought into the world.

I’ve grappled a bit with the idea that it may be a bit hypocritical of me to change my tune now that I’ve “got mine” thanks to a decent pension plus Social Security. But I’ve been working pretty much, one way or another, since I was about 13-years old. And, as far as freelancing goes, that means a lot of nights when I worked deep into the night on books, going to the civil service 9-to-5 job on four and five hours of sleep, and building my book design practice over the course of 25 years. I sort of feel that I “earned mine,” rather than I just somehow have it now.

At the same time, I always told anyone who would listen that, as tired as I sometimes was from working one full-time job only to go home and—especially when factoring in the long hours of searching for freelance projects—then working a second full-time job from my own studio at home, it kept me sane. I got to have one foot in the real world where the ability for someone to earn a living was increasingly less secure, as well as the relatively secure world of civil service whose only real hardship was the occasional indignity of seeing how, sometimes, knuckleheads achieved heights that better workers, better people, couldn’t because of Politics and politics.

Finally, the great personal stuff that 2016 closed out with … The secure footing that my freelance book design practice is now on—and God knows I worked at it for enough years—combined with a reasonably secure retirement from the 9-to-5, has enabled us to take advantage of low interest rates in a recovering economy (reminding me again of the miserable and uninformed choice the country made this past November). My wife and I sold our old home and were able to move into a newer home—actually, a dream house—with an improved kitchen, solar panels, on a golf course.

* * *

And that brings me to this bright, new year’s potential: more books, certainly, to begin with. I am already beginning preliminary work on a very interesting project, a book of translations of critiques of Beethoven’s works. I am also awaiting the start of the third in a series of children’s storybooks. And there may be a sort of professional memoir somewhere ahead, about one man’s experiences as a pioneering agent for professional athletes. And I am always open to listening to anyone else’s proposals for such work: traditional publishers, independent and university presses, and self-publishers.

That, plenty of golf, and an ever-expanding life of new experiences with my wife lie ahead for 2017. I am even again interested in finding an over-40 hardball league on the eastern end of Long Island to pitch in this summer.

I wish everyone a Happy, Safe and Healthy, Productive, and Fulfilling New Year in 2017. I invite you all to grab for just such a year.

New Chapter

Add comment November 26th, 2016 01:01am admin

First time in months where the perfect confluence of events—something to say and the time to say it—are in the house.

Speaking of the house, we’re in a new one … and so is my studio. I’m told that the room my studio is in now is actually smaller than the one I had in our last home. But I shared that one with my wife and here workstation. Now she’s got her workstation in another room and I have a sofa in place of it.

The other thing that I find makes my new studio so much more conducive to working well is that behind me are sliders leading to a deck that overlooks the golf course we now live on. And as golf, like book design, captivates me, I am thrilled.

But the move slowed down work prematurely this year. I stopped promoting and looking for new projects once we knew we were selling the old and serious about finding the next. Just the same, it was all I could do to finish projects I had in house.

Interestingly, even with no new work coming in since mid-summer, my usual by-Christmas-business–is-dead song need not be sung yet, as it looks like I’m still on target for two new books to start before the year ends: the third in a four-book children’s series and a book of music criticism on the works of Beethoven.

And I am poised to pick up again on the book I began writing some time ago about using the open-source page layout program Scribus for book design and layout. To celebrate I’ll be doing this on a new computer, a much faster, 27-inch iMac (still with the second monitor, the 23-inch Cinema Display I’ve had for some years now), running under the new Macintosh OS, Sierra.

I am doing my best to continue with the software I’ve been using for some years now. While I apparently have not reach an expiration date on that older version of Adobe’s Creative Studio, CS5.5, as well as QuarkXPress 2015, I am preparing for a time when I may just have to hold my nose and subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Studio to continue using InDesign and Photoshop.

None of the above is to say that I am over my anger at Adobe’s “pay-in-perpetuity” plan, but there is a high degree of comfort I will admit to when it comes to working in the Adobe suite. Nevertheless, writing the book will give me a better feel for alternatives. And there is still Quark, which, contrary to many I’ve heard from, remains a viable and improved program with tools for making ebooks that offer further value.

So things couldn’t be much better. Thanksgiving arrived at a particularly appropriate point this year. I hope everyone else is feeling the same and events are proceeding just as happily and successfully for all.

Even When I’m Busy … I Wait

Add comment July 1st, 2016 01:32pm admin

Yesterday I had an email exchange with someone new about a possible children’s book project. She sent me an email initially just asking about my availability and for a price. I sent back my standard, “I’ll make myself available if we can strike a deal.” And I asked my standard handful of questions about the nature of the project and the files she’d make available to me. She asked for a price again, answered most of my questions, said she had attached three illustrations to the latest email, and asked me questions about the usability of the three illustrations. I told her that only three illustrations had been sent.

This exchange took place while I was doing corrections and edits (hopefully, final) on two books.

I finished up the email confab by asking whether she had seen my price. Since then, not a word.

* * *

This morning I woke around nine to find two emails that had been sent about an hour-and-a-half earlier. They were from a woman I did not know, at a company or other entity with which I’d been in contact a week or two earlier. The first email asked if I could speak with her tomorrow, Saturday. I wondered if she realized it would be Saturday. And a holiday weekend, to boot. She must have, as the second was sent immediately after the first and asked whether I was available to speak today.

That was easy: of course, I would speak today. Immediately, if not sooner. Actually, I said that noon would be fine.

By now it should not surprise that I have not received an answer of any kind.

* * *

What is it about the eager ones? The get your attention; and then they shut down. What a way to go into the long weekend!

Business Upgrading

Add comment May 30th, 2016 12:55pm admin

One of the continuing expenses for any business using a computer is upgrading software. Now the purveyors of all that software would have us install an upgrade every time they come out with one. But it’s not that simple. Business owners can’t always indulge the tendency, should they have it (and I do) to be technology junkies who always want new and shiny. This may be particularly true for graphic designers and artists, including book designers.

In my case, the inclination is strong toward wanting a new machine—iMac, iPad, iPod Touch—every time they come out with one. The exceptions are iPhone—I don’t own one, as I don’t use a cell phone often enough to care about the familiarity, convenience, and ease of use that having another Apple device would bring me. The Apple computers and idevices I already have fill all my e-needs, from working to monitoring my runs to providing for my television viewing. And the biggie: I will never get rid of my 17-inch MacBook Pro. Apple’s discontinuing the 17-inch size in its laptops definitely puts a damper on my Apple fanboy inclinations. I need the size to display to facing pages at a time of the books I work design and lay out.

Then there are the software upgrades. Having worked for over 25 years as a book designer, my preferences have run the gamut. I started with PageMaker, at the time only capable of single-page documents, and quickly moved over to QuarkXPress when I became aware of it, because multipage docs, books, were possible. I also liked the precise way Quark handled type. Instead of sticking religiously to the pasteboard metaphor, Quark allowed for items to be positioned on a doc by typing in exact numerical coordinates. To me, this was deal-maker.

I avoided InDesign, the supposed Quark-killer, for some years, despite Quark the company becoming less nice and less responsive to its customers than Adobe, because I didn’t care for InDesign’s type handling compared to QuarkXPress when I tried out demo versions a couple of times.

And a funny thing happened, just when I found a version of InDesign that finally seemed to do a better job of handling type, I ran into possibly the nicest person ever to work at Quark. I was working on my first children’s book, Mishka: An Adoption Tale. It’s so long ago, I forget exactly what the problem was that the printer—in China—was having with the illustrations I had placed in the layout—it became my problem, not the illustrator’s—so I wound up contacting Customer Service at Quark and got walked through fixing the problem.

Afterward, the woman at Quark who had helped me off the ledge was very modest about how she saved her day, no matter how profusely I thanked her. In fact, she told me to watch my mail for a little gift “for [my] trouble.” Imagine that, she helped me and was sending me a gift! Well, when it came, it was a CD full of “Extras” for Quark. The only problem was that I was working with version 6.something and these Extras required version 7.

At that point I wasn’t exactly getting enough book design work to spend the hundreds of dollars on software upgrades as often as I would have liked. So I emailed my new friend at Quark, thanked her, and asked if she wanted me to return the CD. She said, “No. Watch your mail again.”

Days later I received a full copy of Quark 7.02. For free. When I thanked her, she said—and this quote is exact; I still remember it—“This is one of the nice things I get to do now and again at my job.” And she went on to say she was leaving Quark for a new job with a new company, so this was a great way for her to close out her time there.

Soon after that, as I said, I started to use InDesign and gradually shifted over to it exclusively. That free Quark 7.02 upgrade was the last time I upgraded Quark until just last year. After Adobe went to its monthly fee, subscription method of selling its software, I was done with Adobe. Like my 17-inch MacBook Pro, I plan to ride my version of InDesign (and the rest of Adobe’s Creative Studio 5.5 suite for as long as it worked on whatever computers I am using). I so dislike being told I must rent their software eternally, instead of purchasing it outright whenever I feel ready for a new version.

That brings me to the last, perhaps most important, of upgrades: Macintosh operating systems. Now, normally, I want to upgrade the OS every chance I get. With incremental, “security” updates I always do so immediately. With big, “name change” OS updates—i.e., from Lion, to Mountain Lion, to Yosemite, and now to El Capitan—I wait a couple of months and read what feedback and reviews that I can on the new OS and then upgrade the MacBook Pro, nominally my “backup machine.”

I did just that a few months ago. I had to install a version of the Java Runtime Environment—not the latest version—for InDesign to work; but I did and it does.

So, for some reason, just before I went to bed last night, around midnight, I decided it was time to upgrade the iMac to El Capitan. I find it easier to do this late like this, so that I’m not in bed and watching and waiting for the pot to boil. Plus I very rarely sleep through the night, so I can check that it’s downloaded, tell it to install, and have it tip-top by morning.

All that went well. I simply forgot about the Java installation. It’s easy enough. Just have to find the correct version. Well, long story short, perhaps I should have waited on this part, as I was sleepy. I wound up installing the latest version of Java. Which left me fuming in the middle of the night. I found something that showed me how to uninstall the latest Java, using the Terminal app.

The Terminal is generally techier than I like to get. I’m not sure why. The few times I’ve needed it, things have gone well. It may be all the warnings I’ve read about the inadvisability of “playing” with Terminal. Well, so I copy and pasted the two lines of code into the Terminal window. Then I went back to bed.

This morning, after a quick Google for the version of Java that I need, I downloaded, installed, and now I’m back in business.

Maybe the middle of the night isn’t the best time.

“Reality Bites!”

Add comment May 2nd, 2016 09:40am admin

My apologies to the motion picture makers who first used the title above, but it was the first phrase I thought of when I was informed that Pascha Press, the indy publisher of When My Baba Died and its associated workbook, for whom I served as Creative Director, was suspending operations.

Publishing remains a rough business. When there was only traditional publishing, big companies that essentially decided what books were available for readers around the world—this after globalization and consolidation of many, many publishing companies worldwide left just six then five mega-publishers—would make or break new writers and recycle the same batch of proven bestselling authors and their periodic latest works. Then—the way I see it from my perch as a freelance book designer thanks to the personal computer revolution—desktop publishing came along and led to the legitimizing of “vanity publishing,” which gave way to the self-publishing revolution.

It was said once that, “The power of the press belongs to he who owns the press.” [My apologies for the sexist pronoun, but that’s the quote.] Turns out the real power may have been in the ability to accomplish pre-press and production on a desk in one’s bedroom or on a laptop at the library. And once the ability to publish e-versions became available at—in some cases—virtually no cost to authors, the dogs were let out. Once and for all.

Books that once would have found their way blocked by the gatekeepers of traditional publishing—to be sure, some deservedly so—got their chances to find audiences both in print and on e-devices. To be sure, the absence of gatekeepers makes it all the more important that authors make their best efforts to choose their subjects with some care, write well, get their manuscripts professional editing and design, and develop and execute a targeted marketing plan.

When I began my career as a freelance book designer some 25 years ago “with a net”—that is, “on the side” from my unrelated 9-to-5 job—I worked for a few traditional publishers and some smaller publishing companies that specialized in Catholic literature and science, math, and other professional journals. The past six or seven years, however, self-publishers alone have filled my production calendar. And more and more of those self-publishers have formed their own publishing companies.

I realize that individuals forming their own publishing companies did not result from anything I said, but I have been telling clients and potential clients for some time now that choosing to self-publish is a decision to go into business as a publisher, even if just one time for their one book. Additionally, there is something of an imprimatur given by having the name of an actual business entity, a company or corporation, on the cover and title page of a book.

But as the publishing business democratized, the competition for eyeballs—and, more importantly, for people willing to lay out their hard-earned money for the privilege of possessing and reading print books and their various e-versions—has spiraled ever-upward. That makes the marketing and promotion of book sales most important.

And it doesn’t always go well for these independent and self-publishers, which saddens me, as I don’t just earn a living from book design. I also just plain love books. Especially print books.

So I am saddened by the decision for Pascha Press—the publisher of the very original and vital children’s book, When My Baba Died (and its accompanying workbook)—to shutter its operation.

I would still implore anyone who has or knows anyone with young children who have faced or are facing the prospects of a loved one’s passing to contact Pascha Press directly or Amazon and purchase a copy of, When My Baba Died and the workbook.

More from Book Design 101

Add comment April 14th, 2016 02:01pm admin

And then there’s the downside to freelancing as a book designer so far away from my clients.

The waiting.

Drives me crazy.

Every book has judgment calls on my part, where I make a decision in the first pass on how I want something to look. Then when I get it back for corrections, I find my vision’s either been confirmed or else the client’s called for a change.

Sometimes, however, it’s simpler. Like a book’s textfiles show the placement art or graphics (photos, drawings, etc.). Now the way a lot of authors do it is to just place the graphics in the Word file–MS Word is how I get text 99.99% of the time. This is the wrong way to do it. The art never places correctly at fine resolution that way.

The better way is to just note the placement of the graphic, whether it’s a photo or something else, and then send any and all artfiles, at correct resolution—600 dpi for line art and 300 dpi for photos or grayscales; for extra credit they should be in .tif format–either individually in email, or by uploading a compressed folder of them to a cloud storage sight like Dropbox, or to an FTP site.

This is not to say folks who send things this way are awful people. But best practice–a better, more efficient workflow–that results in the best looking pictures goes the way I described above.

And it keeps me from banging my head against the wall. (Kidding. I’m kidding.)

Big Takeaways from Over 25 Years as A Freelancer

Add comment April 7th, 2016 03:23pm admin

Sounds funny to say, I suppose, but now after giving up the safety net—i.e., a secure, full-time day-job—that enabled me to freelance as a book designer/layout artist for more than twenty-five years without any worries caused by the uncertainties of steady work and paydays that go along with freelancing, I have had more than one epiphany about the whole “game”.

The first one is not entirely new. However in the spirit of giving something to people new to freelancing I repeat it now: If you don’t have enough work to support yourself, and the projects you get don’t pay you enough money for a proper living, try raising your prices. I was given this advice early on in my freelance career. It seemed counterintuitive. I mean, I could not find enough clients to pay me x, and now I should try to get hold of additional clients to pay me more than x?

But that was the conversation I walked into on an online forum for freelancers, so long ago I know longer remember the forum’s name, though I do remember the first name of the woman who ran it: Betty. Over an extended period of time—weeks, I think I remember—a couple of seasoned professionals kept at it, making the case that it was true that no paying client would take a freelancer, especially a new one, seriously if they didn’t take themselves seriously. And the first way to demonstrate that you take yourself, your skills, seriously, is by presenting yourself as someone who commands good rates, professional rates.

That worked for me. It was the start of my being held in some kind of professional regard. And looking back, I see it differently now, to wit: How can you expect others to value your work highly if you don’t. Nevertheless, over the years I have found it necessary to remind myself, again, of this truth.

My next revelation is the more surprising, however.

When I left my day-job, forgoing the safety net it provided, I was determined to freelance full-time. I do not believe I am old enough to just pack things in and retire from all the kinds of work I’ve done for most of my life. I intended to hit the ground running, spending a good part of my day on self-promotional activities. I was positively committed to this plan and the ultimate result: more freelance book design and layout work than I had ever had before.

But a curious thing happened. Reminiscent of the kind of creative visualization the circle I was in spoke of some thirty or forty years ago, a boatload of work simply showed up before I could do anything additional in the way of promotion or marketing my services. At the risk of sounding airy-fairy, I don’t need to be able to explain how or why in order to buy into the notion that my being 100% on-board somehow attracted all the new work.

I recommend highly committing wholeheartedly to your work.

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