Did you know that while it’s perfectly acceptable for writers to submit work to publishers in a Word document, a publisher will never send a Word document to be printed?

Word is considered too “unstable” to print from. Content is too easily manipulated. Pagination and text move around too easily. The hard copy can come out different from what’s on the monitor.

So publishers require PDFs, usually generated from desktop publishing software programs like QuarkXpress.

After you’ve proofread and spellchecked text in Word, you can import it into Quark and begin the painstaking process of what editors and publishers refer to as “interior design”.

There’s fun stuff like selecting fonts and layout and page size. The laborious (and some would say tedious) part is in the details: alignment, justification, tracking. This is the bulk of the work, especially if it’s poetry or different genres mixed together. Bilingual texts, in which the originals and translations are laid out on facing pages, is particularly tricky.

I know this because I recently completed typesetting an anthology titled Shadow Plays (forthcoming from Parthian Press). Quark is quirky, but anyone can learn the basics in a day or two of training.

You will probably never have to typeset a book – let alone your own – but it’s important to have an appreciation for the work of the person whose job it is to make text electronically presentable.

The strange and beautiful thing about typesetting is that after a certain number of hours, text stops being text.

It becomes images.

Your eyes are not content processing portals but vulturine hunters: for missing periods, errant commas, extra spaces, uneven lines. You exult upon finding improperly inverted quotation marks. It’s weirdly fun.

Like any mechanical process, typesetting has moments of Zen. But mostly it involves sitting somewhere quiet going over and over and over and over and over the same piece of writing until it looks immaculate on the digital page.

If publishing is, as they say, midwifery, then typesetters are the nursing staff. Cleaning shit up. Making sure the blankets are tucked in. Checking stats. And going unthanked.

Until now!

Thank a typesetter today.

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MEGAN POWER lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Visit her blog: http://meganpower.blogspot.com

14 responses to “Typesetting 101: How Books Are Made”

  1. Jude says:

    InDesign is another software program extensively used. A little bit more user friendly than Quark too.

    I agree wholeheartedly with you regarding typesetters. They are the unsung heroes of the publishing world. A well-laid out piece of text is beauty in itself.

    • Adobe CS4 is amazing. I’m not in book publishing but am a communications analyst in health care as my full-time job and I use Adobe InDesign (as well as Illustrator, Photoshop, etc.) every single day for various projects including magazines, newsletters, directories, and brochures. I tout the Adobe Creative Suite to anyone that will listen.

      Thank you typesetter. I had a friend who took a course in college on this and was sort of blown out of the water by the responsibility and attention to detail. He enjoyed it.

      • Megan says:

        Hi Jeffro,

        Interesting & rare to have a healthcare job which allows you to be creative. You’re lucky.

        And your friend is right, the attention to detail is taxing and borderline sick.

        But having had this experience I think I would prefer to typeset my own book (assuming I actually publish one before dying), because while the typesetter is really invested in making it look professional in terms of spacing & margins, widows & orphans, etc. it’s the writer who needs to examine and re-examine how their commas read and what effect the paragraph breaks have, etc.

  2. Megan says:

    Hi Jude. Thanks for commenting. I haven’t touched InDesign. People say it’s better for complicated design projects like art books but that Quark is the superior layout program for straight up text. What do you think?

    The book I edited includes poetry and prose. It’s a lot more fun to format poetry, I gotta say.

    Very pretty baby in your gravatar.

  3. Jude says:

    I’ve used both programs and have found that Quark is ‘clunky’…but then I’ve met people who love Quark (all 2 of them!)

    A few years ago I was a graphic design tutor and every year a different group of students had a project to do in Quark. Every year the students hated using Quark. Worried that I may have projected my dislike of the program onto them, I tried a new tactic on my next class. Leading up to the project, I would extol the virtues of Quark, declaring loud and far what a wonderful program it was. Qu’elle surprise… they still hated it!

    The business I now run involves teaching the Adobe programs. In the past 3 years I have not yet met anyone who wants training in Quark. The program of choice seems to be InDesign. It’s a typographer’s dream. If you’re really into type and all its idiosyncrasies, this is the program.

    However like anything, it’s personal choice and what you’re used to. For what you are doing, Quark is as good as InDesign, but my guess is a typographer/typesetter would choose InDesign for all the extra bells and whistles.

    And thank you Megan – the baby is me… (many years ago now). The light saber came afterwards.

  4. Megan says:

    Awww that’s you? What a beaut.

    And your punctuation is flawless.

    ha. I love Quark because it’s the only one I know! I’m temporarily living in the UK & the Quark training I took was grant-funded. I wonder if maybe InDesign just hasn’t taken over over here yet?

  5. Jude says:

    My students used to call me ‘anal’ about my punctuation… ha ha!

    Possibly UK is still using Quark. In New Zealand, a few years ago, the South Island was using PageMaker while the North Island used Quark. And there’s only a little creek that separates the two islands!

    Good that you got funding. UK’s good like that – little grants all over the place!

    • Megan says:

      So true. Britain loves it some federal funding. Hello, BBC. If CNN was federally funded, could Anderson Cooper fly into Haiti before aid groups?

      Here’s a geeky typesetting dilemma I had – single or double quotes for speech? The trend is towards single and it does look better until it comes to apostrophes then you’re screwed.
      A sentence like, ‘I’m…’ looks terrible. “I’m…” looks alright.

      I like italics for speech too but then what do you use for characters’ thoughts?

      • Jude says:

        Oh… it’s too early in the morning for my brain to function properly… but I’ll try.

        Usually double quotation marks are used for speech but it’s not an absolute rule. Apparently double quotation marks are preferred in the States (as they are in NZ) but both single and double are used in the UK.

        When using speech within speech I usually use single quote marks, eg. “Megan asked, ‘What is used for characters’ thoughts?’ ” recalled Jude.

        Most publishers would have a ‘house style’ regarding such things as characters’ thoughts and how they like speech to be formatted.

        A small book on punctuation called Eats, Shoots and Leaves (I would have used italics for that title if I knew how to), came out a few years ago. It was a best seller apparently. Worth getting your hands on.

        Oh what a subject – I guess you could follow the ‘rules’, but then as I always say, “you need to know the rules first before you can break them”.

  6. Today I was teaching Descartes to seventh graders, so pardon my massacre (it is intentional), I live therefore I learn. You are a clever cookie aren’t you? I will wait for all the knowledge and transcontinental observations and vignettes to be distilled down to your masterpiece.

    • Megan says:

      I am not half as clever a cookie as you.

      A selection of three of my transcontinental observations and vignettes are now available on Amazon.co.uk for 6 pounds. Just to tide you over until my masterpiece is, you know, actually written.

  7. jmblaine says:

    I knew you back
    then you know
    read that inaugural
    before you used
    like vulturine
    & I have to tell you
    I can totally
    that you are in your
    & very near purpose
    I can tell it
    in your tone
    there’s life
    there that
    wasn’t there
    from that
    Texas apartment

    Power to the Pony

    (i like your blogspot picture
    with the brown hair)

    • Megan says:

      BFFs since 1.0

      Oh how I miss that Texas apartment though. It was posh. Residence is like a penal colony. Only we can come and go freely.

  8. Beza says:

    MLP, I agree with your comment about being: “the writer who needs to examine and re-examine how their commas read and what effect the paragraph breaks have, etc”. I found this even harder when your first language is a different one and not only you are trying to translate your thoughts into paper but your own colloquial way of talking. I have to say I dislike when people proofread my work because I feel the spirit I put into my words is somehow lost in translation and even more in editing but, in reality that is the way it has to be and I still have no clue where the commas are used in english….

    Anyway, this is just a simple and humble comment as a non-professional writer 🙂

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