Archive for September, 2009

Stream of Consciousness: From Luddism to Deer to E-Books

Add comment September 30th, 2009

The first thing I got involved in this morning was reading a rather dimwitted statement of one man’s feeling that social media are pretty much useless. He had posted on a forum about publishing—himself a small publisher, I gather—sounding as if he rejected social media out of hand without trying his hand at reaching potential book-buyers that way. Perhaps the fact that it was very early morning, I had not taken my morning run, nor even completed morning ablutions, but I simply needed to dash of my own quick, perhaps nitwitted response.

… [I]s it just human nature to reach a point, an “old-time” comfort level, where anything new seems too odd or … well, too new to embrace? … I agree there are too many marketers of marketing, promising easy success and wealth, but I still suspect there’s a way to mine for paying customers for whatever you product [is]—books, freelance services (in my case).

I did not expect a reply. I was not surprised with one.

After posting my little diatribe I went for my run and—funny how the human mind works, or perhaps just how my mind works—I was immediately caught up in all the usual scenery on my route. I got to this one corner, turned and started down the stretch bounded on one side by a wooded area that comes right up to a home. Among the trees were the gang of eight or nine deer I see every morning if I get out early enough. I began the game of averting my eyes and staying as close to the curb as I could, in hopes of not intruding on the deer and causing them to bolt.

They let me come closer than ever before running off.

In an instant I found myself thinking how the deer, unlike the guy I railed against, had done something pretty new and bold: they had stood their ground and checked me out. Of course, they eventually found the good sense to not trust a human and ran off, but not before impressing me by doing this new thing.

Just as quickly, my mind shifted to—don’t laugh—the thought of how I tend to lament the apparent decline of print publishing. I am not enamored of e-books, Kindle, and other such new age readers. But I realized, during this connect-the-dots-interval from Luddite to deer to e-books, that it is high time I learned how to repurpose print books reading on electronic devices.

After my shower I checked an article I downloaded recently that gives a step-by-step for formatting books for Kindle. The first time I read the article, I followed its instructions for locating and downloading the two free utilities from that one needs for the process. The first is Adobe’s Digital Editions freeware; the second, Calibre, open source e-book conversion software. I had downloaded them both some time ago and they sit on one of my hard drives.

The new addition to my “projects” list is learning to translate a book created in InDesign into an e-book.

I wonder if there will ever be enough demand to make such processing a career choice.

Another Anniversary Approaches

12 comments September 24th, 2009

The twenty year mark from when I bought my first Macintosh computer in November of 1989, a IIx, approaches. Before that, from 1985 on, I had been an Apple Computer fan, but I belonged to the family of Apple II users—at first on a IIe and then a IIgs. At that point all I knew was that computers fascinated me, I wanted a personal computer of my own, and I desperately wanted to do something using computers.

Initially, I thought I might learn to program. I fancied the idea that I could imagine and then create some cool program that would be marketable and earn me a living. But gradually it dawned on me that—to borrow from the writer’s canon—I should do something I knew. That led me to thinking about books and publishing. I had been a copy editor and proofreader for some years before and enjoyed a fair idea of how words on the printed page ought to look.

Coincidentally, a friend from my civil service day career, showed me something he had printed on an ImageWriter II dot matrix printer from his Mac Plus. He got remarkably better-looking type than I did from the same printer on my Apple IIgs. My print looked, well … like what it was: dot matrix print. His, thanks to the miracle of Postscript and the Macintosh OS looked very, very nice.

So I got myself the Macintosh IIx, LaserWriter IInt, and began to play with some garage-sale software—Microsoft Word, Excel, and PageMaker. For Christmas that year, I treated myself to full versions of QuarkXPress, Adobe Illustrator and PageMaker, and Adobe Garamond and Futura typeface families. This was before I discovered mail-order software houses and their discounted prices; consequently, I paid noticeably more than necessary.

It took three years before I actually got my first book to lay out. Still more time passed before I jumped from production to design. Now I prefer to lay out books that I design—covers and interiors—so that the vision of a book’s appearance that I execute is my own.

And in all the years since, as my tools and skills improved, a handful of constants grew clear to me.

First, the book designer and the layout artist have one job: to bring the author’s words and any pictures to the reader. Anything else is gravy for the designer, maybe unnecessary, and sometimes a distraction that proves the designer incompetent—no matter how great the book looks.

I often wonder whether anyone can argue this point. Is there a book designer who believes that a book becomes about the designer and less the author once the design process begins.

Next, at least half the occupation of the freelance book designer/layout artist is finding that next paying project.

Does anyone know a way around this? I mean, besides becoming a Chip Kidd or David Carson.

Finally, there is always one more great and interesting book—perhaps saying new things, more likely revisiting things I learned previously and read before—that I will enjoy leafing through and reading.

Anyone who read this blog before my site and everything else was hacked into, costing me my archive—so far—knows the books I rave about: Bringhurst, Hochuli/Kinross, Hendel, and the rest. Anyone name a book I have never mentioned?

* * *

Here’s the thing: I obviously jumped the gun with this 20th anniversary thing. Mostly because I want to get my readership back. So I am giving away my copy of Andrew Haslam’s Bookdesign, a book that can be something of a textbook about making books or a source of inspiration when starting out on a book design and not having an idea with which to begin.

All you need to do is comment on this blog, or answer one of the questions above, or ask one of your own, from now through Halloween. Around November 1 I will pick someone from the commenters/answererers/askers and send him or her the book. (First I’ll contact the winner for his or her address.)

A mirror image of my desktop now

A mirror image of my desktop now

The Other Kind of Client

Add comment September 22nd, 2009

Opposite the wide-open approach adopted by one client, as I described last time, is the fully hands-on manner of another of my current clients. This can, and did, work as well as the first case. While the confidence of a client to proceed with a design exactly as I choose, and hearing him answer “You’re the designer,” to every question I ask feels really great and often leads to special work, pleasing a client in the most efficient way on a time-constrained project always benefits from the client’s ability to express what they want clearly and with few words.

So this second client hired me to create a cover, as well as for the design and layout of their book’s interior. The text itself has not been completed; but they needed the cover quickly to include it in their new catalog.

“I’ll send you the 2 photos to use on the cover,” my contact person, the publisher’s managing editor wrote to me in an email. “Look at our book, In Hostile Skies, which should be on our website … This is a similar book and can be treated in a similar way, as long as the design is not identical.”


The same but different would seem to be the starting point, as below, although not particularly interesting. And definitely not inspiring, I think, to a potential buyer of the book.


My problem with this first cover was the wasteland of green in the bottom half of the cover. I also thought it appeared as if bombs are dropping on the General. So I tried switching things around.


There are things about my second effort that I liked—again, the color of the background against the color of the duotone, for instance. But the logic or, rather, the illogic of the plane in the sky dropping bombs at the bottom of the cover bothered me some. And after staring at my two attempts and the cover from the earlier book, I realized I might be starting to lose objectivity. I thought it was time to use my two efforts as a starting point for some feedback.

“Okay, here’s a direction for tinkering,” said the managing editor. “Let’s start with the second one, with the planes at the bottom, since, as you say , the other one looks too much like it’s the general who is being bombed!”

Next the publisher’s director spoke up:

“I would recommend eliminating the grey-blue screen and instead expanding the bomber picture to cover the entire background with—as you indicated—the bombed-out cityscape [a second photo was sent to me] at the bottom (fading into each other, no hard edges). The color photo of Arnold—which is good—should fade into the black and white background photo, instead of the hard-edged black frame. Lastly, perhaps change the color of the type to something that will ‘pop’ and also complement the picture of Arnold, maybe a warm red or burgundy. The font need to be changed to something more modern, hip.”

I loved the idea of the cityscape below planes dropping bombs. Whether it would work remained to be seen. More unsettling was the idea of a typeface to “jazz up” the look. Then I remembered an idea of my own that I rejected early on, one that I thought too obvious: a typeface with an Asian feel to it. And fading the two background photos into each other made me love Photoshop more than ever.


This last was rated “a go,” underscored by the author’s blessing: “Please pass on to the designer my warmest thanks for the outstanding work on the Cataclysm cover.”

My point is that client input can be helpful and part of a project’s success—when the client is clear and concise.

A New Book Interior

2 comments September 14th, 2009

Some projects make for great fun. At the moment, I find myself in one of my best runs ever for that kind of work.

First came a book interior design and layout with a new client, a small college press. As I usually do with a new client, one of my chief aims was to see how much autonomy they were comfortable giving me. It was a pleasure to be trusted and hear, “You’re the designer,” in answer to most of my questions about trying something new, whether the mix of typefaces or unifying all display materials in text—the rule under display heads, the color of alternating rows of tables, and boxed displays—in the same shade of gray.

On such a first project I look for nothing fancy, but seek to make a book that pleases the client and makes the book maximally accessible to readers. Secondarily, I try to feel out what a client is open to and how much—again with that word—autonomy I will be granted.

I hit the proverbial jackpot with the next book this client sent my way, an uncensored look back at some of the history of a Texas town. Over the last year or so, I have told anyone who listens of my desire to do a coffee table book of photoessays. This loose history provides just the opportunity I looked for.

So here is how I formulated my design …

Another idea I have had for quite some time is the idea of near-square pages—especially for photograph-intensive pages. After thinking about all this, I wondered whether an oversized coffee table book was a suitable expense for a small press. Thus began a series of compromises and adjustments—all my own; the client never limited what I tried to do. In fact, when they finally said something of a correcting nature, it was to point out one sample page had both a regular folio and a drop folio on it.

I began to explore the near-square as a page proportion. Leafing through Bringhurst’s trusty The Elements of Typographic Style, I came upon one with a height-to-width ratio of 1.1. Bringhurst, however, showed four really narrow columns. What was interesting about this grid was that, if you collapsed the gutters between these four columns and the rotated the group as one 90°, the resulting rectangle made of the stacked columns would be the same exact proportion as the page proportion.

Now, because I am something of a numbers fanboy (even at an advanced age), I thought this pretty cool. But I didn’t like the look so much. I wanted, for a change, the width to be longer than the height. And when I played with actual numbers, thinking first to have the width-to-height in that 1.1 ratio, it looked just a little more than I wanted. I finally settled on a page that measured 9.25 inches wide by 8.75 inches high.

Next I switched to a three-column page, a large area of white space from running head and folio to first line of text. Again, I did all the computations as Bringhurst’s formulas defined the margins, gutters, and column widths. And then I pinched here and there, let out now and again, and arrived at the size and position of my textblock. This allowed for just the variety in size and placement for all the photos this book will contain.

Next time: A Client’s Script for a Book Cover

Mercury Retrograde

Add comment September 7th, 2009

This may sound like just so much superstition to some. And coincidence. Or perhaps “coincidence” is all many of us can think to call it when a number of similar events occur in the same time period. Anyway, here’s the tale …

As best as I can remember, a number of times each year the planet Mercury appears to reverse its orbit and move backward. During these times Mercury is said to have gone “retrograde.” Astrologers believe that two of the effects of a retrograde Mercury are miscommunication and the failure of machinery and electronic equipment.

Well, Mercury is retrograde and has been for some time now. I am not certain, however, for how long to this point. Since May my website and this blog have been hacked, getting me bounced temporarily from Twitter; our burner has needed to be replaced, as did our stove; the replacement for the stove arrived damaged and itself had to be replaced; and my four-year old dual processor G5 PowerMacintosh failed.

The website and blog are back. The blog just sort of, as its archives remain missing in action and “the look” is still in the process of returning. The new burner installed okay, but trouble with the area that housed it required a return visit from the installer to get right. I already mentioned how the new stove also needed replacing. (The latter did result in a better stove for the lesser price of the first.)

The computer would have cost more to repair than its current value. It was a real workhorse; I have no regrets and feel I received my money’s worth. I wound up buying a new iMac that is more computer than any tower I ever owned. And I now have a two-monitor setup.

Throughout all this I managed to keep working on the new (as of April) laptop, a 17-inch MacBook Pro. I did a round of corrections on the teacher’s guide to a boxed set of materials for teaching students to read and write, as well as first pages for a book on wind turbines and sample pages for a bawdy history of Waco, Texas.

With a machine on my desktop, however, I return to business as usual, with vastly improved tools. I will again blog about the business, life, and work of a freelance book designer.


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