Archive for May, 2011

Cake and Eat It

Add comment May 23rd, 2011

My, how things have changed! When I wrote this for the hacked blog over three years ago, traditional publishers were on a much sounder footing than today. Additionally, self-publishing had not yet lost its “vanity publishing” stigma, nor become the sophisticated business model some authors have made it. Indeed, some of my most profitable projects and must pleasant clients were with self-published books.

My experience is that steady projects and paydays usually result from hooking up with established publishers and book packagers. And by “established,” I really mean traditional publishing companies, run as businesses rather than acts of love; ones that have a number of authors in the fold. In the case of book packagers, this means ones that do production for at least a few publishers.

In my estimation, such smaller clients often do not seem to think like businesses. They sometimes do not appear to value freelancers as other small businesspeople. Often it seems that they seek to pay their contractors in the most economical way they can, forgetting that they should want to work with freelancers who value the work they do to much the same high degree that the publishers value their books.

More’s the pity, because a lot of times the more interesting book projects that cross the transom come from micro- and self-publishers—at least those few who do not publish books about self-publishing and how to self-publish. Unfortunately, these tiny book projects do not often result in the best paydays.

I find, then, that the most satisfying way for me to work is to have my cake and eat it, too. That is, a steady diet of an established publisher or two’s books enables me to afford to work for these smaller clients. That way, I earn the income I need and I get to design and lay out interesting, even amusing at times, books. And the only way I know to ensure such a balance of clients and projects is by not worrying about turning down low-paying work until I have enough work on the rolls that pays sufficiently.

Making Books: Design and Production, From the Art of the Deal to Sealing the Contract

Add comment May 18th, 2011

Another look back to one of the pieces from the hacked blog, this one worth repeating periodically, actually, because negotiating prices for projects is always with the freelancer.

Art of the deal? Uh-huh. Right. As a beginner, I took what I could get—especially if the project was math-related, as I wanted to develop a “specialty,” typesetting equations. Having no real experience when I started, I created samples using various exercises from tutorials for both PageMaker and QuarkXPress.

During the time I was working on the science journals, I was contacted by the managing editor of a small religious press. I had not contacted him directly. Rather, he told me, I had contacted another publisher, a friend of his, with one of my blind email inquiries. The friend had no use for my freelance services, but he sent my information to the managing editor of the small religious press.

I worked on six or seven books for them, using the same simple layout for all the books that I designed for the interior pages of the first one. We agreed on a rate of $6 per page, pretty good for a simple book filled with plain text, no tabular material, and no math, I thought at the time. They had offered that price the first time we spoke; no negotiation took place.

About that time I began to think more about taking a more active role in deciding how much I was paid. I knew this would involve a willingness to decline projects occasionally, something I could not imagine doing without some discomfort. But I learned.

The way I come up with bids for a project is by starting off with ranges for each of the tasks involved. First comes the interior design phase. I consider everything—from initially speaking with the client about the project to get some flavor of it, reviewing some of the book’s text and any art that will be used in the book, to passing back-and-forth sample ideas and finalizing those sample pages into a template—part of this first phase. I figure this part of my price based on a range of flat rates.

The second part of the process is the layout of interior pages. For this I give clients a per-page rate. Sometimes this phase just flies by, and other times it seems to drag. But when a client sends me a clean file that has been marked up efficiently—this, of course, for straight layout jobs—I have the opportunity to work very quickly and, depending on the per-page rate, I can make out very well at times.

Designing and executing a cover, though not something I do as often as interiors, can be one of the more fun parts of a book. But as it is the first thing prospective readers see when they spot a book, a great deal of care must go into what the cover means to convey. Because of that, the time necessary to conceive and execute a cover, as well as the price charged, can fluctuate wildly.

I add these three figures together for a flat price for the project. And then, when putting the bid in, I note that two rounds of corrections are included, but that any author’s or editor’s changes that affect a sizeable number of pages will be billed at an hourly rate.

I also tell the client that I may be willing to show some flexibility with my price, especially if the project is one that I find interesting or of some import. I close by asking what they had in mind for a budget on my involvement in the project. After that, they either agree with my price, come back with something lower, or excuse themselves and I move on. If they come back with another price, I will either accept or counter. If they clearly have no intention of paying the minimum I think the job is worth, then I politely excuse myself and move on.

ATTN: New Type Designers—Buy This Book: Letters of Credit

Add comment May 15th, 2011

Well, I never did deisgn a typeface. Book design work came in while I was still pondering the question of what one could do to make the same old letterforms, numerals and the rest in new ways. But I actually enjoyed reading this old piece from the hacked blog and want to share it anew.

I thought I first saw mention of Walter Tracy’s Letters of Credit as an answer to “Name one design-related book you highly recommend” when I first blogged on Four (Sometimes Multi-Part) Questions for Book Designers. Turns out, however, that a quick review shows that not to be true. So I have no idea who brought it to my attention.

But I must say that I highly recommend it.

As someone who has become much interested in type design—I guess I would like to design a text type that embodies everything I want to see in such a typeface—I am looking for a how-to for organizing the whole effort from drawing to using the piece of open-source font design software, FontForge. Letters of Credit is as close as I have come to finding such a book.

Here are seven reasons or pieces of information why:

  • According to Mr. Tracy, the ratio of a letterform’s x-height to its ascender should, ideally, equal 6:10, or .6.
  • In Chapter 7, on “The Forms of Letters,” he gives pointers on how many of the letterforms, both upper- and lowercase, ought to look; and poses the essential question for any designer of types: How, then, do designers contrive to create new types that preserve the natural features of letters and yet are visibly different from others of their kind?
  • Mr. Tracy makes the case for lining and non-lining (old style) numerals. The latter “followed the style used by professional scribes, who had chosen to form the figures in a mode similar to that of the lowercase letters.” That is, “3, 4, 5, 7 and 9 were descender characters; 6 and 8 were ascending; and 1, 2 and 0 were of normal x-height.”
  • He divides the roman alphabet into four groupings: letters with a straight, vertical stroke; round letters; triangular shapes; and “the odd ones.”
  • Most aspiring type designers, I would guess, can draw or have done hand-lettering. I, having started to write fiction at a very early age never took to either. So, what is probably the first issue of concern for most type designers, is already my second concern. I speak, of course, of the space built around each letterform. Mr. Tracy kindly tells us straight off that H is the basis “for spacing of the capitals,” followed by O. He goes on to explain some about how to work out this most delicate an important of details.
  • He cites Edward Johnston, “regarded as the greatest calligrapher of the twentieth century,” as having established a type stroke weight by the way that is natural to calligraphers, “from the breadth of the pen.” The ratio of the thickness of the stroke to capital height is strictly set at 1:7.
  • In discussing an italic type of Frederic Goudy, Mr. Tracy says—somewhat condescendingly, I must admit—“[Goudy] seems to have recognized two important facts: that the angle of an italic need be only a few degrees from the vertical, and that the lowercase letters should be narrower than the roman.”

I can point to spots in the book where Mr. Tracy writes in almost a catty tone. Frankly, it becomes amusing after awhile, as I find that the whole business of type design grows solemn very easily. I think type designers do at least seem to have an easy time taking themselves seriously. But there is much that I find practical and priceless about this book, as in the seven points above. Likewise, when quoting W. A. Dwiggins on the manner in which he begins to draw his letterforms, and at what size, the neophyte designer gets a sense of how to shape a method for beginning to design types.

If only someone would write the book that shows how to apply such thinking for use with FontForge.

Making Books: Design and Production, How I Started

Add comment May 12th, 2011

I love looking over my old takes on how I began to do all this. And, of course, I blogged about it a lot when I began the first blog. Much of those “takes” were lost when the old blog got hacked, but here’s a piece—part of a series, actually—that captured nicely

Recently I was asked whether I would like to guestblog somewhere on becoming a freelance book designer and layout artist. In the midst of a very busy spell, I declined. Weeks later someone on a publishing freelancers forum posted a whole list of issues that beginners have questions about and I took note. Finally, when an online friend suggested that it might be time for me to run a series on my own blog covering the design and layout of a book from start to finish, I agreed, deciding to first cover the road to becoming a freelance book designer and layout artist.

* * *

In 1992 I owned a Macintosh IIx computer and a LaserWriter IINT. I possessed about fifteen years’ experience as a proofreader of science and mathematics books and academic journals. That experience was gained prior to 1992, mostly at a poorly-run computer typesetter and the kind of place that made me think, If I had the equipment, I could do this work better and more economically by myself. Hence my having the Macintosh and laser printer.

I give myself credit for one thing from the start: I knew that the most important question, one that never goes away, is, How do I find work? To this day, I admit that I get edgy when I am in-between projects.

My first tries at freelance graphic arts work were through the Sunday newspapers. I mailed out a cover letter and my résumé hundreds of times. I included samples that consisted of résumés I had typeset for others, as well as a single fanfold brochure created for a friend. I sent out hundreds of these little packets. About 2% brought in responses of any kind, all but two negative. I got two projects this way, the teacher’s edition of an algebra textbook and a brochure for a medical supplies company.

A 2% response rate may be pretty good, but I thought it was dreadful. For all the postage and money spent on supplies, two paying jobs in over a year did not cut it.

My first break came the old-fashioned way: a good friend who was proofreading for a small, local book production service mentioned that they were looking for someone to help with layout. I contacted them, used my friend as a reference, and freelanced for them from my studio at home for a couple of years. It was repetitive, low-paying work, but I needed seasoning, and I viewed it as an opportunity to get paid while developing my skills.

I first went on the Internet in 1998, by way of a free, text-only service provided by the local library system. It changed how I searched for work. I began to email a cover letter and my résumé, in addition to the old way via post office mail. And, of course, I looked for online jobs boards that specialized in publishing jobs and freelance work.

My second big break came when that “old-fashioned way,” a friend in the right place, came through once more. I answered a jobs board posting seeking a layout artist for a Florida science journals publisher. The response I got began: “Steve, is this really you?” Remarkably, a friend from my days at the poorly-run computer typesetter years before, happened to have moved to Florida where she became the production supervisor at that science journals publisher. I worked for them for three years, as I loved the steady work and enjoyed polishing my math typesetting skills, at very low rates. When my friend left, I was able to stop working for them, too, without a trace of bad feeling.

Sometime in 1999 I had begun attaching PDFs of my résumé and the few work samples I had to the email body, which served as a cover letter and emailing that whole package to every publisher in the current year’s Writer’s Market that published an email address in that directory. And I stopped wasting money on hard copies and postage. I do this twice each year.

Since then, except for a couple of “snail-mailed” promotional postcards, I only seek work via email and the Internet. I regularly check a handful of sites listing freelance opportunities. I flatly avoid all the “meat market” bid-for-work sites. A client who will hire someone accepting a low-ball rate is not the client for me at this stage of the game. If someone pays bottom-of-the-barrel, then that is the level of experience they are entitled to and will likely get (which may still be pretty good work; or maybe not).

The one thing I learned from these early experiences was that we freelance graphic designers, production editors, layout artists, and book designers can be our own worst enemies. That is, the longer we accept sub-par rates, the longer they will be offered—often on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. On the other hand, it’s all too easy for the well-fed, experienced designer to tell the hungry, inexperienced writer to turn down paying work of any kind. My advice errs on the side of understanding that we all need to get our foot in the door.

But I think we all need to know how to measure when we have passed through our “inexperienced” phase and when it is time to start turning down sub-par rates so that—being practical here—if nothing else, the next generation of novices can cut their own teeth working for the low-paying scavengers. And I mean that affectionately, pleased that I did get the experience I needed.

Next time: Steady Work, Agreeing to Rates, and Negotiating Agreeable Rates

Ideal Clients/Ideal Vendors

Add comment May 9th, 2011

Another piece from the old, hacked-into blog, this one raises the issue of the conndrum designers—not just book designers—face when the choice to simply get through a job bumps into the creative urge to do something better and the client doesn’t want “better”.

Last week, John Boardley, the owner-proprietor of the very fine blog, I love typography, brought me into a discussion about difficult book design clients. Someone, in the course of a comment, mentioned that they were in the middle of a difficult book design project, where the client was dead-set against a spec that he (the designer) knew would make the book look immeasurably better than what the client demanded.

Less than helpful, I pointed out—in a less trite manner—that the customer is always right. It’s their dime. And yadda yadda.

It got me thinking about the mindset of publishers—usually smaller ones, as the larger publishers generally understand why they hire designers—and self-publishing authors when they engage the services of a book designer. I remarked that I often work on what I refer to as “straight layout” projects, from templates supplied by publishers. Often, these projects go the most smoothly, as the templates are tried and true, having been used for long-running series of books. But as a designer, while they pay the bills, the books on which I do “straight layout” are usually not the most fun, as they require no exercise of creativity from me.

I ended up posting to the maillist for the Yahoo group for self-publishers. I pretty much asked it all in my subject line, “How Much Leeway Do You Give a Book Designer?” The answers were interesting to the point that they addressed the question; and varied. To sum up, some publishers agreed that to get what they pay for, to some degree it is necessary to step out of the way at some point and let the designer design. And the designer point of view, that working for a publisher or self-publishing author who is stubbornly set on things in opposition to the designer’s best judgment is best avoided, was also represented.

But I never felt as if anyone got out of their own corner. That is, no one addressed my real question about how they strike a balance between the publisher’s need to have some control over the designer they hire while giving that designer the freedom to do great work. And having been extremely fortunate in working for nearly all first-rate clients who viewed me as a member of their team, I came away with nothing more concrete than the notion that the more successful I am at giving the client exactly what pleases them, the more likely it is that they will remain clients with whom I choose to work.

Marketing 101

Add comment May 5th, 2011

Long time since I last posted. My bad. But I’ve been working to get a few books out that are near the end. And I have been working on “booking” this blog—that is, turning the blog to this point into a book. I have more in mind than simply running the entries into a book format, however. I plan to edit and rework the entries into a more cohesive, flowing and unified work. The piece that follows is from the hacked-into precursor to the current blog.

Aside from living a life, nothing satisfies me quite as much as using time away from work productively. No, this is not to be a back-to-school riff about working vacations. Rather, I mean that forced downtime, when no book design and layout projects are in the studio or on the horizon. I refer to the point where my mood turns well beyond the finger-tapping, knee-bobbing stage, when I start wondering whether the landscape for freelancers in publishing has taken a depressing downturn.

What I learned and accomplished this summer surprised, enlightened, and enriched me.

Last year, 2006, was a breakthrough. Busier than any prior year, the work continued well on into this year. Mostly straight support work, the projects lasted until the beginning of June. Nonstop. Then, just past this year’s halfway point, I finished the last of a string of military history books. And my first page design and layout of a children’s book left for the printer. I began to wait for whatever would occur next. But I intended for this to be a period of active waiting. I turned to the half of the freelancer’s business that makes or breaks the working part of the business: promotion.

I had not altered the way I marketed my services in eight or nine years. This consisted of a pretty much daily scouring of online sites and sources for freelance work, as well as emailing my résumé and work samples to hundreds of publishers twice yearly. Since this past April, however, I finally have a website of my own. On it are samples of my work. So instead of risking the annoyance of potential clients with my attachment of work samples, I included a link to my website.

I did not design the website. How that came to pass is another story, a whole other story. Suffice to say, it took a kick in the pants, administered by an online friend, Brian Stegner, to move me along. Brian, it seems to me, is an encyclopedia of very many things computer—especially Macintosh. He understood how stuck I was on finding the way I wanted a website of my own to look. He got me untracked, advising me to get something up—a framework—and proceed from there. And it was a wonderfully talented, young designer, Jasmine Wabbington, who conceived the appearance, arranged all the files, and flavored the site.

For my part, I was astute enough to grasp how a website makes up only half the equation, and that a blog completes the platform from which I reveal who I am and what I do.

Brian and Jasmine erected that platform.

I was concerned about my resolve in keeping up the blog—especially once I got busy again with books. So I cultivated the habit of spending some time each day thinking about different topics for this blog. Even on days when I did not write. And I set the goal of three entries per week, although two satisfy me. What I did not count on was how interested I would become in seeking out other blogs that opine on my subjects—book design, freelancing, typography, books on those subjects—to read and comment on. There was no way to guess how this would lead me to people who would interview me.

The upshot is that yesterday I sent sample pages for a new book design project—sort of a manual and how-to for dealing with poverty and empowering the impoverished—to the book’s publisher. Last night I began the layout of another new book. This morning I received an inquiry from an author in South Africa who has a book design proposition.

Oh, and the publisher of the poverty book loves what I showed him!

Funny to go back over this piece and see the history. I am reminded, too, of how my book design practice has grown.


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