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Typesetting

Dave Sheets

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This past Sunday at church, there was a software error that resulted in the apostrophes not displaying on any of the slides during the congregations singing. It was pretty funny truthfully. Everyone noticed. Many people didn’t realize exactly what was wrong, but they could tell that something was a slight bit off.

And that made me think about bad typesetting.

Good typesetting is crucial to your book’s success. That’s a statement that you might not believe, but it’s true. A book that doesn’t have good margins, that has page bottoms that bounce around, that is set in an unreadable font, that book is going to struggle to succeed. Why? Certainly it’s not because most readers have spent hours thinking about what makes a book readable. Rather, when a book is poorly typeset, it sets itself apart by departing from the norm that readers have had reinforced to them in nearly every book they’ve ever read.

There was a hardy boys mystery where the problem was a hidden message between pages 7 and 8. The solution was that it’s impossible, of course, to place a secret message between pages 7 and 8… they’re the front and back side of a single leaf, there is no between!

Except if the typesetting is poorly done, of course.

So, what makes for good typesetting?

There are elements of good typesetting that are absolute. There are other elements that are a bit more of a moving target. Here are some of the absolutes:

- Page numbering is consistent with the Chicago Manual of Style (and yes, that takes care of the Hardy Boy mystery, right there. A whole generation of men are depending on it!)

- Typefaces for body copy are well-chosen. Tradition (and readability) call for a nice serif font, like Adobe Garamond or Palatino or Sabon (my favorite!). Of late, I’ve seen a few books where the publisher has chosen to toss tradition out the window and has instead opted for a San Serif font. I could hardly make it through the content.

- Additional elements are well-designed and consistently applied. There’s nothing worse than seeing a headline that is bold, with a special typeface in one spot, and then italicized in another. Your typesetter should have a style document that reminds him or her of the decisions they’ve made, so that they don’t reinvent the wheel in chapter 14.

- Consistency is key. Once the reader is a chapter or two into the book, they should feel at home, visually, throughout the rest of the book. Consistent design helps that experience.

- Reflect the cover. If the designers can work together so that the interior reflects the design choices made in the cover, you’ll create a consistent experience all the way around. Readers will notice — even if they can’t explain what it is that makes the reading experience feel so cohesive.

One last story before I go… very early in my career, I had proudly typeset a book, using a cool typewritery looking font to make headlines pop. Or so I thought. The book went to press. I knew that the printer had it scheduled to print a certain weekend. I came into the office Monday, and my boss called me over.

“Andrew,” she said, “Did you use Courier in this layout?”

“Yeah, isn’t it cool?” I said.

“It’s cool, but the book never made it to press this weekend. The software in prepress outputs to Courier when a font doesn’t embed properly. The pressmen assumed that the plates were no good and moved on to other projects.”

It was a rookie mistake, and a pretty funny one. An experienced typesetter would’ve known to at least flag the issue to the production team, so that timelines wouldn’t be compromised. Most designers from that time avoided Courier altogether, knowing that it would cause pressmen to halt a job. (Technology has moved on from those days.)

Good typesetting is essential to publishing a great book. Make sure you learn the conventions or work with someone who already has.