Re: book production references (long)

Subject: Re: book production references (long)
From: Dick Margulis <ampersandvirgule -at- att -dot- net>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 15 Sep 1999 20:37:53 -0400

A list member wrote to me off-list with the following query, quoted here
anonymously as I have not yet received his or her permission to cite by
> What reference work or works would you recommend regarding book production?
> More of a practical nature, rather than historical or academic approach, is what I am looking for.
> I'm asking because book publishing is a major interest of mine, and your comments on booklet production indicate you are knowledgable on the subject.
> Thanks for any light you can bring to bear on the subject.

The question is deceptively simple. Its unstated premise is that one can
learn about book production by reading books. Interesting premise. I
grew up with the maternal admonishment that, "your grandmother always
says, 'anything you want to know how to do you can learn from a book.'"
So I am predisposed to believe that. Further, I've made a decent living
as a technical writer (since before I knew that such a job title
existed), explaining in writing how to do things.

Despite all that, however, I find that no matter how clearly I or any
other tech writer explains something in words and pictures, a great many
people (myself included) actually learn more effectively by doing than
by reading. Surgeons learn their craft through the ritual, "watch one,
do one, teach one," not by reading about a new procedure and then
walking into an operating room to perform it on a patient. For a
homelier example, I baked bread for a living for five years or so. I
frequently find myself explaining in plain text (in a newsgroup devoted
to breadbaking) professional bakery techniques to people who have never
been inside a bakery but want to know how to do something at home. It is
devilishly difficult, let me tell you, to tease out in words what a
particular sort of dough should feel like in the hands or how hard to
push on a lump of dough to make it do what you want it to do.

So here I am presented a question about a craft I know a fair amount
about (not everything, not more than anyone else on this list, just a
fair amount). I've read a lot of books on the subject. But most of what
I know of the practical aspects of production I learned on the job.

The question is deceptively simple in another dimension as well.
Producing a beautiful--or even a workmanlike--book begins with the
design of the book. But without craftsmanship on the shop floor, even
the beautiful design cannot be expressed as a finished product. The
entire production stream, from design conception to printed, bound
volume boxed for shipping requires attention to the details of a number
of crafts. All have been written about, some in more detail than others;
but most require practical experience, too.

So, where should I begin (trying to remain in the context of "practical,
rather than historical or academic" references?

Okay, let me take a stab at it:

First, learn some of the basics of typography and book design.

I see that Robert Bringhurst's _Elements of Typographic Style_ is
recommended highly by people I respect. I have not read it yet.

The Mac is Not a Typewriter, by Robin Williams, also gets good reviews.

I recommend all of Edward Tufte's books.

I recommend anything you can get your hands on by Bruce Rogers. _Pi_ is
a favorite title from Rogers.

Also check out Dover Reprints for other older titles on book design and
typography. There is much of value there, even if it was written before
the advent of digital type. Look for more Rogers and anything by
Frederick Goudy, Robert Ruzicka, W A Dwiggins.

In general, I recommend studying and collecting examples of well
designed books from various periods.

Find an antiquarian book shop and inquire about "books on books." If the
particular dealer you go to first does not specialize in that category,
he or she will know someone who does. In any case, you will find
examples of beautiful, well-made books and if your eyes are educated (by
your reading) to absorb rules about proportional margins; point sizes,
line length and leading; font mixing, use of white space, design of
figure legends, etc.; you will learn a great deal just by browsing.

Moving on to how to execute the design you have conceived, the PageMaker
documentation set contains a tremendous amount of practical information.
I highly recommend it.

Beyond that, I would urge you to tour some printing plants of various
sizes, from smallish job shops to large book manufactories. If you are
frank about your desire to understand their processes in order to be a
more knowledgeable customer, most will be more than happy to accommodate

For everything that is not covered by these resources, I suggest you
subscribe to Adobe Magazine (free from Adobe) and point your news reader
to a selection of appropriate newsgroups. comp.fonts, fa.typography,, comp.text.desktop, comp.text.pdf are good
choices. You can find others that specialize in Quark, Interleaf, or
other applications you may be using.

This is a start. Others may have more to add.


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