Christina Vasilevski

Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience

Book Design Thoughts, Part 1

I did something noteworthy last night: I attended the first class in the last course I need to complete the publishing program at Ryerson. It’s a course on book design, and it looks like it will cover a lot of the things I’m interested in: typography, clean aesthetics, creating an intuitive flow of text, and so forth.

This course should also provide some structure for my thoughts on how books can (or should) work. When I read a piece of text, I imagine the line reading for it in my head, and determine how it could be said to achieve the greatest rhetorical impact. I hear punctuation. I imagine many editors do this, even if they don’t state that they do, and that this is one of the reasons why they become editors in the first place – to make the text sound as good in real life as it does in their heads.

But anyways, I digress. I can hear punctuation. I can analyze the content with some level of success. What I really need more guidance on is form. While I can design things (this website being the best example of that), there are a lot of unspoken rules about visual layout that I’ve probably perceived, but never articulated. Things like:

  • the proper balance of white space to text on a page
  • choosing a set of complementary serif and sans-serif typefaces to use within a single document
  • insetting images into a page so that the flow of text isn’t impeded

Judging from the first class, I think I’ll have no problem with the lessons, and I’m also really looking forward to getting some formal training with InDesign. Next week I’ll need to bring some books to class that I think have been both well- and poorly-designed. I can already think of a few examples. But I’ll save my thoughts on that subject for next week.

Imagining a Book from the Ground Up

My most recent work at Ryerson has left me in a tizzy – a midterm and an assignment due for the same class on the same day. I think I did well on the midterm, but the number crunching on the assignment kept me up late. I’m not bad at math, but the particular formula I needed to remember just wasn’t coalescing. So eventually, I just figured “I know what answer I need to get, I just don’t know exactly what he prescribed for us to get there.  I’ll just use my own fomula to get to the same conclusion.”

I don’t know if it worked, but at least I’m still here!

Now, the interesting thing is that I’ve also received my next book production assignment: design your own book.

You heard me!

Imagine that you’re a production designer giving a printer the specs for any book in your imagination. YOU have to figure out what information the printer needs, including such things as page count, trim size, page breakdown, paper stock, etc. Then, on top of that, you have to figure out the interior design. It’s rather scary sounding, but maybe it’s just the kick in the butt I need to give InDesign a whirl.

I’ve decided to use this as a platform to imagine the published version of a story I’ve got running around in my own head: A quasi-post-apocalyptic thriller involving people who can heal others without the need for medical implements, and those who want to control them.

I’m imagining 6X9 trim size, groundwood paper stock, and maybe some embossing on the cover – and yes, perfect binding, thank you. I’m intending to make a generic mass-market book. What’s really interesting is that I never knew how much went into making a book before; now I feel a little better about paying full price for one.

Other than that, I’d like to give a shout-out to a lovely artist, Dylan Meconis, who draws the comic Family Man. I emailed her today because her most recent comic showed that one of the female leads enjoys reading The Metamorphoses, and as friends of mine know, I love me some Ovid. If you’re interested in webcomics involving German academics in the 18th Century, Jewish converts, and werewolves, check the comic out. Plus, Ms. Meconis will be in Toronto during the second weekend of May, so I can’t miss that!

Thoughts on Fonts

This Monday’s book production class focused on typography: the history of typefaces, typographic terminology, and design principals to keep in mind when working with typography.

In particular, our teacher hammered home to us this fact when dealing with different varieties of type: fonts are not fonts. What we consider fonts when we work with word processing programs are actually typefaces. True fonts are actually subsets of individual typefaces. Thus, Arial itself is not a font – it’s a typeface. However, Arial Bold or Arial Narrow Condensed are correctly considered fonts. As an editor, I can understand his insistence on adhering to proper terminology, but honestly, when you’re fighting against twenty years of misuse by Microsoft, you’re fighting for a lost cause. Just give it up already.

Anyways, other thoughts on fonts: as with most others in the field, my teacher hates “Comic Sans” with the heat of a thousand suns and thinks it should be obliterated from the face of the earth. While I’m not nearly so emphatic, I do agree that it is one fugly, overused font. His hate of Comic Sans is possibly only counteracted by his love of Caslon.

My knowledge of the different font families and the evolution of styles isn’t so comprehensive as his, but I do admit to liking and disliking certain fonts, for entirely arbitrary reasons:

Like:

  • Garamond (It just looks nice.)
  • Palatino Linotype (I remember using this font when I helped out with my high school’s yearbook.)
  • Trajan (Mainly I like the name – best emperor of the Roman Empire, yo!)
  • Century Gothic (It’s so round and curvy – it looks really nice in larger point sizes.)
  • Arial  (Utilitarian! Available on almost every computer, unlike Helvetica!)
  • Georgia (Interesting use of descenders and ascenders in numerals!)
  • Clarendon (Mainly I just like the exaggerated tail that is seen on the capital “R” of this font.)

Don’t Like:

  • Comic Sans (No. Just no.)
  • Papyrus (This means you, Avatar.)
  • Trebuchet MS (It looks anorexic and spindly at smaller font sizes.)

Another Monday Morning

Today is Monday, and we should all know what that means: another day of class at Ryerson. This term, I’m taking a course in book production, so I shall soon be introduced to the fascinating world of paper stock, binding methods, printing techniques, CSS, XHTML, and so forth.

I really hope that this course will improve my knowledge of the industry and place several new editorial tricks up my sleeve. There’s a longstanding complaint that the production department is the invisible strongman of the industry – publishers expect the production staff to produce top-drawer work even if the book has had its budget adjusted half a dozen times, yet if you ask your typical bystander what a production manager does, you’ll be met with a blank stare.

I think I’ll really enjoy book production the more I learn about it – I’ve always been a sucker for detail, and the minutiae surrounding paper stock seems tailor-made to deal with that. Plus, the production department gets the coolest toys! Photoshop, InDesign, massive printing presses – what’s not to love?

Publishing and Digitization

I’m studying part-time at Ryerson University in the Certificate in Publishing program offered by the Chang School. Currently, I’m taking the mandatory overview course on educational publishing, and finding that particular part of the industry to be very different from what I’ve already learned about: ancillary materials, curriculum guidelines, professionally peer-reviewed proposals, and Canadian adaptations of international works are all very new to me.

However, my next assignment will allow me to delve into a topic that’s concerned me a lot during my courses: the effect that new technologies will have on the publishing industry. How exactly can publishers expect to maintain their current revenue levels once ebooks become more widely accepted, especially considering how the music industry has foundered in the past decade? I have to write an essay on the topic of digitization in the educational publishing industry, and while I may not address the question above, it still remains relevant.

In fact, one of my current professors has actually said that he can see digital publishing hitting traditional textbook publishing “right between the eyes” in about five years time – his quote, not mine. That particular image has really affected me because it highlights, more than most others, how much of a sitting duck the publishing industry is. With people like Cory Doctorow pushing the envelope and finding not one, but several ways to sell his book outside of the traditional publishing industry, what happens when more authors follow suit? What happens if the economy tanks even further, and textbooks become even more expensive in comparison to income, thus driving up second-hand sales, online piracy and illegal photocopying, thus resulting in fewer book sales and a higher per-unit cost, thus making students even more disinclined to buy expensive texts?

These are very tough questions to answer. I can’t hope to scratch the surface on them in my essay, but they’re really food for thought.