Monday, August 24, 2015

It’s also about how it looks: A book isn’t just what’s written inside it . . . .

You can’t just judge a book by its cover. Or even by the words inside.

Last week I sent off the files for the three volumes of The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories. They’re now in the hands of the publisher, Steve Emecz, who will be arranging the behind-the-scenes parts with the printers that turn all of the hours that people spent writing stories (and that I spent editing them) into something physical.

Coming out of this experience has left me still in a heightened editorial mode. When I read other books now, I see things, and can’t unsee them. (“Where’s that missing comma, Clive Cussler?!?”) There are the obvious mistakes, such as misspelled words and run-on sentences. And then there are small issues, such as missing commas in a series or other punctuation errors. I hope that I caught all of that in the new MX books, but I know that, in over 1,300 pages, a few things will still have slipped through. Have mercy on me.

One thing that is very obvious to me now when I look at books is how things are set up internally. Lately, I’ve been re-reading the Solar Pons stories. Now, I won’t preach here too much right now about how you should read the Pons adventures, because that’s a different topic, but you should. There’s a great deal of information about Pons at my friend Bob Byrne’s website to get you going: The original Pons stories by American August Derleth were meant as a continuation of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The Pons tales are set in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He wears a deerstalker and Inverness, and his adventures are narrated by his Watsonian flatmate, Dr. Lyndon Parker. They are very much in the Holmes tradition. Derleth wrote over seventy Pons stories, and after his death, the series was continued by British author Basil Copper. I’ve also written a Pons “origin” story – “The Adventure of the Other Brother” in The Papers of Sherlock Holmes Vol. II, (Spoiler – Pons is NOT the other brother!) and a new online set of Pons tales, to which I’ve contributed two, will be appearing – hopefully later this year – as edited by Bob Byrne.

Now the reason that I mention this is that, as I’m re-reading the Pons stories, I’m doing so from a number of different editions. The stories (in book format, after some initial magazine appearances,) were originally published by Derleth’s own imprint, Mycroft and Moran, from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. When I was a teen in the late 1970’s, the Pons books were issued in paperback by Pinnacle, and those were the first versions that I bought and read. In the early 1980’s, the stories were edited – with some controversy – by Copper into a two-volume Omnibus hardcover set, issued by another of the late Derleth’s publishing imprints, Arkham House. Finally, a few years ago a big 8½” x 11” two-volume set, reprinting the original versions before Copper’s edits, was issued by the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box (BSDB).

I have all four sets, and I’ve been rotating between them as I re-read the Pontine Canon. I didn’t mind Copper’s edits so much, as he arranged all of the stories in chronological order – much like Baring-Gould did in his Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which I admire. Copper also corrected some of Derleth’s misplaced Americanisms in the stories to more correct British usage, which is the main part of the controversy, but when I was younger, I never noticed the difference.

A few days ago, it was time to re-read the Pons story “The Adventure of the Unique Dickensians”, a Christmas story set in 1920. As might be inferred from the title, there are a lot of nods to Charles Dickens within the story. Recently, I had acquired a copy of this tale in Chapbook form from The Mysterious Bookshop. Having his own publishing imprints, Derleth occasionally released his tales in this form, in addition to magazine and book publication. Since I’d just bought this chapbook version, I decided to read the story in that format, and that was when – since I was still in deep editorial mode – I started thinking about the differences in the way things look.

So I have five versions of this story, and none of them are particularly painful to look at. The chapbook is clearly the easiest to read, as it has the biggest and most readable print, and extra pages to spread out over its half-size 8½” x 5½” sheets. The next easiest is the Mycroft and Moran edition, the original book version in which it appeared, (in The Chronicles of Solar Pons.) Next comes the Omnibus version, as edited by Copper. The print is much smaller, approximately 9-point, but it’s still not too unpleasant, and once you get into the story, you don’t notice it. Then comes the big BSDB version, with the stories printed in smaller-type and in double columns. Still readable once you get in the swing of things, but not as pleasant as a smaller and lighter book with standard page set-up arrangements. Finally, in order of decreasing enjoyment, is the Pinnacle paperback version, both because of its aging yellow paper, but also due to the layout on the page, which somehow allows one’s mind to get distracted instead of staying in the story.

I don’t know all the technical reasons for this, but sometimes a book is just hard to read, and I’m not talking about the content. You’ve all had this experience. Something might be one of the best things you’ve ever read, but if it’s unpleasant to look at in a book, the experience is somewhat spoiled. (I’m not talking about e-books here, obviously. If I have a choice, I want something real, although my wife and I disagree on this point.) For example, I’ve been reading Burroughs’ Tarzan books since I was a teenager, but my copies for the longest time were the old Ballantine paperbacks, with yellowish paper (getting yellower and browner every year), and the alleys (the blank space on the outside of a book page) and the gutters (the blank space on the inside near the binding) are miniscule. You almost have to crack the spine of the book to read the print that runs down into the gutters. Additionally, the print is very tiny and hard to read. It’s just too jammed up to enjoy completely.

Compared to this, for instance, are some of the Robert B. Parker Spenser books, especially those from the mid-1990’s, which seem to be mostly blank space. These books have huge alleys and gutters, as well as massive spaces at the tops and bottoms of the pages. (I don’t know if that part has a technical name.) The print is big, the spacing between the lines is widened out, and the short chapters mean lots and lots of new chapter headings, and those headings are a half-page of blank paper every time one shows up. Definitely not unpleasant to read – I can fly through one of those 300-page books in a few hours – but I always have the sense that it’s really a novella that’s been expanded to justify the cost of a full-sized book. (The same thing just happened with the new Harper Lee book Go Set A Watchman. There’s a lot of blank space in that book too.)

When I was setting up the three volumes in the new MX collection, I had to find a balance between readability and discomfort. The alleys and gutters are about three-quarters of an inch, and the spaces at the tops and bottoms of the pages are not too wasteful. The lines are single-spaced, and the paragraphs are indented, and not separated from the previous paragraphs by a space, such as one would find in a technical paper or high school report. (A lot of new authors are paragraphing this way in their books now.)

And the margins are justified, and not a ragged right margin, as is often seen nowadays. When I was ten years old, and trying to write my own Hardy Boys books, I bled inside while trying to get my margins to line up on both sides like the real books, but on an old typewriter, you just cannot line up that right margin. With the invention of word processing programs, justifying the right margin is possible, and all our failed attempts to look justified in the old days are now achievable. (I wish I could get this blog to right justify.) I had a boss who insisted (after being told this by an expensive marketing company) that reading is easier if you don’t justify the right margins, and he would take reports or even letters and unjustify them. I disagree with this thinking. One of the pinnacles of our civilization is that we can now justify any document on our own, without relying on a professional printer to set it up for us. Why wouldn’t you justify your documents?

The font size for the new MX collection is 11, not too big, and certainly not as small as what was being considered at one time (9-point) to cram all of the stories into one fat volume. I used good old basic Times New Roman font, because it looks good on paper when you’re reading it. Too many people aren’t aware that a number of fonts that are designed to look good on a web-page are not made for the printed page, and vice versa. (For instance, cross-bars and serifs are widened or thinned as needed to show up better.)

In the rise of print-on-demand (POD) companies, it would behoove authors to take a look at some bestselling books, and notice how they are set up, in terms of page layout, line spacing, font, and margin justification. Too often the author thinks that just getting the work down on paper is all that’s involved, and then the work is done. The work must be read and re-read and re-read again, looking for mistakes and better ways to say things, and also to make sure that the plot hangs together – no unanswered questions or dead-end threads. Have someone else read it too – you never see your own mistakes, and the more you go over it, the more your brain bridges right over an error. (I’ve read and spell-checked this essay three times, and no doubt there are errors in it somewhere.)

And then, since it’s on the author’s head to do this when dealing with POD companies, lay out your book in such a way that it looks professional. Don’t be afraid to have blank pages before and after the main body of the work, just like the books of old. Think about when you’re holding a book, and what will be on the left-hand and right-hand pages, and adjust accordingly within the file, adding a blank page here or there if necessary to shift things where you want them. Start stories or new chapters on the top of the page, and not in the middle of a previous page. If you need advice setting page numbers or figuring out other technical issues, don’t be afraid to ask. Someone will be glad to help. Check it again and again before you send it off. Finally, if you get a good setup with the margins, paging, and layout the way you like it, save it as a template into which you can copy-and-paste your next book – a piece at a time, so not to mess up your carefully constructed formatting.

If you’re writing a book, remember from your own experiences as a reader, and think about how you want your book to look and present itself, in addition to the actual words inside. It’s like your child, and you want it to make a great first impression!

1 comment:

  1. very interesting to see the thinking that goes into the layout and creation of a book.
    Ive never read a Solar Pons story . . can you recommend a good starting point ?