By: Rhienna Renee Guedry
The work of production in book publishing is the work of white space and the imperceivable. To quote Joe Sparano: “Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.” And yet it can be challenging to identify the difference between production and design (in part because they are inherently linked together, and sometimes even the work of the same person in smaller operations). We rarely hold a trade hardcover book and think about the choices made, or how those decisions impact how we read and even the content itself (e.g., how a sans-serif font can inform your brain that a particular type of content exists therein).
Unlike a typographical error or a badly Photoshopped book cover, production work is more about what you do not see than what you do. Good compositors transcribe proofreader’s edits and request a better silhouetted image in equal measure; they fix orphans and widows because the block of text “just didn’t look right” otherwise.
The intersection of editorial and production takes place during the stages before a book is printed. In Book Business, Jason Epstein talks about “the essential work” of a publishing workflow wherein “manuscripts are turned into books only by hand, one step at a time…this work may take years as authors with the help of editors construct their manuscripts, so that when the book finally appears—if it does; some never do; the process is fraught with hazards and disappointment—the editor’s emotions are almost as committed to the outcome as the author’s.” But the production team is also engaged in the workflow, making decisions that are time sensitive, nuanced, and often just as significant as a misspelling or factual error.
Though every publisher approaches it differently, each of them begins a book project with a blueprint of some kind (a style guide, a “cookbook,” a launch meeting, or maybe just a series of post-it notes on the back of a door somewhere). Large educational publishers demonstrated that these meetings preceded any book project by several years, and led to the creation of a living document containing answers to every possible production question, from the fonts chosen to the exact size and placement for global graphics. Production and design collaborated here, and the document then became the project’s Bible, where all the answers could be found by anyone working on the book.
Once the project started rolling, one would assume that such a document ensured that there was no room for error, but often addendums and changes would start to pop up (e.g., the original graphic looks too much like X so we’re changing the colors), thus changing what editorial was looking for, as well as what related contractors were responsible for.
This, to me, demonstrates a perfect example about how publishing folks are expected to make room for “the very tangible process of putting ink on a page, or correcting errors,” etc. Every person working on a given book project is tasked with the anal-retentive application of styles as were predetermined, and yet also expected to be malleable and open to countless changes, revisions, and late-breaking developments.
There is such a thing as production style, though some are completely invisible to the eye of even the most sophisticated book reader, because they exist in the production files themselves. Production style includes things like how a designer creates and updates the book files (presumably InDesign or Sketch, or something more obscure in old-school publishing houses), decisions about what content exists on which layers, image repository and/or file management, even processes about who works on what file and how, all are some of the unspoken way a production style takes place. Are there overrides done that go against a publisher’s style, but are made for good reason? Of course. Might compositors add a hairspace around characters, words, or phrases as needed? Certainly. Might they also locate a glaring error (made in transcription or missed by editorial), and fix it without ceremony? Sure. There are countless of these “transparent” production style decisions made on every book project to make the finished product look as good as possible. This encapsulates production style: it is nuanced and fluid, untrackable, and varies depending on the experience and preference of the production person.
In the world of editing and proofreading, there are many different ways to skin a cat (pardon the saying; no cats were harmed in the writing of this paper). Editors may favor em-dashes over parentheticals, though both can function correctly. Production and design folks may also apply their own flourish or style, the same way a given editor might prefer to use the oxford comma anytime a serial list exists in a sentence. Hair spaces, leading and kerning, file management, and tags are just a few examples of production style, which may not always be a part of a publisher’s style guide (though they should be).
Certainly the point of divisions of labor in publishing is to rely on experts to do what they do best, but it’s useful when each person working on a project has, at minimum, a working understanding of each aspect of the workflow. To this end, there are a few things every editor and designer should know about production, and vise versa.
Part I. 4 Things Production People Should Know
- Editors Are Human. Mistakes Happen: Expect Them & Move On. There’s an unspoken expectation that editors are insufferable perfectionists, wordsmiths, and language nerds, and that nothing could ever possibly be overlooked. However, a typographical mistake could mean all kinds of things: an error introduced somewhere in a final round of production, a limitation on the number of rounds of review that were budgeted for. Editors are constantly working against their own brains’ effectiveness. It is an act of complacency or attrition; an endurance test that plays with the inevitability of missing obvious mistakes after reviewing content numerous times. Even experts are likely to make mistakes, and their tired brains can sometimes create problems just as readily as they correct them. Production should consider this when they approach any number of rounds of review, and be forgiving with the expectation of perfection.
- Know Your History. The laborers who were operating mechanical typographic machines were skilled workers who had learned the equipment necessary for book production just as another might have followed a career path in carpentry. It can be assumed that in some cases, these laborers may not have been literate; even if they were, that their priority was to the completion of a job done without mechanical error more than that of a concept such as, say, a poet’s use of a line break. Production should be aware of their own vocation’s history, if for no other reason than to to breathe a sigh of relief that times and technology has changed, and there is now a division of labor in publishing, and a growing sense of ownership, expertise, and pride that comes with working as compositors or editors.
- Know Your Proofreader’s Marks. In order to effectively make changes to a book production file, one must be able to interpret the edits coming from an editor’s desk. While increasingly done on screen in text editing software such as Acrobat Professional or Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature, the fact is many editors still prefer working in hard copy. A production person who has to query that “funny squiggly character” and doesn’t know that it means transpose this for that is adding time and cost onto a project, and likely also is the subject of an eye roll or two from the requesting editor. Production people should spend time becoming familiar with basic proofreader’s marks, as well as editorial lingo, in order to be fully competent working in publishing and collaborating with editors.
- Leave Editorial Changes To Editorial. Maybe you’re a production person who started reading Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies and felt a call to action. As much as possible, refrain from doing someone else’s job, as it is guaranteed to end poorly. While employers imply collaboration and taking initiative are huge assets for their staff, when it comes to projects like we work on in publishing, it simply never pays off when departments assume the role of other departments. Sure, if you find a glaring typographical error in the text that has gone unchecked, fix it; if an editor requests a change to a word that’s positively wrong, query it. We all want to work on projects that we take pride in, and that means something as close to error-free as is possible. That all said, it is rarely advantageous to engage editorial in a pissing contest of the wits: are they suddenly using passive voice, or does your personal knowledge of the history of Pez dispensers posture you as an expert who can contradict an oversight made by fact-checkers? It’s a case by case situation, but it’s important to let some things go.
Part II. 5 Things Editors Should Know
- Hacking The Layout Is Not A Solution. Just as some production people feel qualified to suggest editorial changes, editors often have very strong feelings about production and design elements. Certainly, this is a boon to most publishers: editors are involved every step of the way in production, and part of proofreading and editing is not just about the words on the page and typographical errors, but the work of discerning elements that might appear askew on a page. As an editor, you should absolutely possess hawk eyes for things like extra spaces or bad kerning. But requests for changes should be limited to content and matching the style guide, and should never include requests like, “please put a little white space here,” thus deviating from an approved template.
- Production Does Not Have Time To Read Through a List of Markup & Comments Between (or On) Rounds of Proof. If you’re an editor or proofreader, you probably love any occasion to mark something up, or to query the writer or another editor. Often, many mistakes are discovered and righted during this process, but save a few exceptions (new globals or a prevention of errors in later versions), this does not mean that production needs to follow along like it’s Waiting for Godot. Make an effort to keep notes specifically to production short and sweet, and clearly call out any directives that might impact subsequent rounds of proof. Further, if production is already hard at work at a particular round of review, save queries and comments for the next official round of proofing.
- Changes Between Rounds May Include Tweaks You Didn’t Authorize: Acknowledge & Move On. If you’re an editor who likes to do side-by-side review (of the previous round of edits and the current proof), chances are you’ll occasionally locate something that changed but was not requested by editorial. Editors, protectively if not instinctively, may feel like this change was unwarranted because it did not come from their red pen. However, it is important for editors to understand that some content does in fact change because of production (e.g., a known issue with glyphs, or an orphan or widow that was noted and corrected on a previous page). While noticing that “something changed” is key to being a good editor, it’s equally important to acknowledge that some changes were made by production for good reason, and wasting time squabbling (“Why did this move? Please restore”) is not the best use of anyone’s time.
- FPOs (“For Placement Only”) Are Time Consuming. With more complicated book designs and layouts (read: not text-only trade books), templates usually contain placeholder boxes for where graphics, images, or photography will later populate the page. It seems to be the tendency of many to mark early rounds of proof when nothing exists in these boxes to place a temporary lo-res or different linking image, as though the content cannot be proofread without some colorful shape filling up a sad, empty box. Editors: if it’s not integral to the content on the page, you should not be requesting placeholder imagery in lieu of final and forthcoming art during early rounds of proofing. Production’s job of linking and placing “dummy” images that then have to be relinked and replaced with a live, hi-res image is a tedious and frustrating addition to rounds of review. Verifying the quality and correctness of images when they are ready to be set in place can happen as late as Final Proof, when there’s plenty of time to get things right. Focus on the content first and the imagery second, when it is ready for confirmation.
- Do A Heavy Editorial Review First, Not Last. This last point is somewhat related to the previous point regarding placement of temporary imagery. While there are certainly many ways to approach review rounds, editors need to place more emphasis on thoroughness for the first few rounds of review. Production should not have to anticipate major composition corrections, segments of new content, or major overhauls in the copy late in the review process. Instead, start with heavy corrections in the beginning, and consider final reviews to just be the opportunity to “spot check” and verify changes. It is easy enough to swap out an image in a late round of proof, but transposing many paragraphs or deleting multiple spreads can cause chaos and frustration in the 11th hour of any production person’s day. Since most production workflows get more and more compressed as the schedule ticks forward, the most amount of grace and leniency is at the front end. Don’t save major changes for the end, knock them out when you know you’ll have a chance to re-verify them later on.
Between new technology and dedicated publishing professionals, the quality of publishing projects has steadily increased year after year, certainly leaps and bounds from idiosyncratic printing and manual labor of the past. Gone are the days of editors working on triple carbon copy sheets for proofing. With a greater understanding of publishing as a whole, editors and production workers can find ways of minimizing confusion and error, and ultimately increase both productivity and quality. The tools we have today paired with the passion of people in this industry has raised the bar for book projects. The intersection of these departments will continue to improve with a shared understanding and appreciation of how to work together. And the result? More beautifully-made books, and better collaboration between production and editorial teams.