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Archive for November, 2013

Questionable practices

Published

Many of you know that I live with an author: my partner and wife Eileen Gunn is a well-respected short story writer, whose first collection, Stable Strategies and Others, was published in 2004 by Tachyon Publications. Not surprisingly, I designed and typeset that book (and ended up doing a good bit of design for Tachyon, sometimes covers, sometimes interiors, over several years). We also developed a visual identity for the book and its marketing campaign – a necessity in today’s publishing world – where I had fun putting the incendiary cover image to work in other contexts.

EileenGunn.com

Now I’ve designed her second collection, Questionable Practices, which will be out in April from Small Beer Press. The interior text design echoes the earlier book, but we gave this one a distinctly different cover design – though one that I think will sit comfortably on a bookshelf next to Stable Strategies. The publisher has just sent out ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) to reviewers.

The cover for Questionable Practices went through three entirely different versions, as these things often do (not counting the innumerable iterations of each still lurking on my hard drive). It’s in the nature of commercial book publishing that the publisher needs a cover image, for publicity and marketing purposes, long before they need a finished book; indeed, often enough the text isn’t finalized until long after a cover image has been widely distributed. When I was working as a typographer at Microsoft Press in the mid-1980s, we used to get outside “designs” from a local studio that simply provided cover sketches and sample pages with typical interior design elements; these were done long before the book was even written. Not only did we have to execute the final covers, but we often had to invent designs for new interior elements that came along as the books were written and edited. Eventually, since we were doing half the design work anyway, we took the interior design in-house.

Eileen’s stories don’t fit into obvious categories; they’ve almost all been published as science fiction, but she refuses to ever repeat herself, and her work rejects easy classification. When I designed the cover for her first collection, I was trying to do something that would stand out both on the general-fiction table and in the science-fiction section of a bookstore. As I discovered, though, few bookstores were willing to shelve copies of the same book in two different sections; it was always one or the other. Today, with online marketing and bookselling, perhaps it’s easier to place a book in multiple categories at the same time. In any case, today a book cover needs to be clear and work well as a little thumbnail image, not just at full size on the physical book.

Naturally, each of the three cover versions for Eileen’s book seemed perfect to me at the time, but in the end the one you see at the left worked best – and will be on the book. As a completely objective and nonpartisan observer, I can say: watch for it.

[Update, Jan. 16: I just sent the book to the printer today. Publication date: March. Typeface: Dolly Pro.]

Structured writing for the web

Published

At the end of June, at the Ampersand conference in Brighton, Gerry Leonidas gave a shout-out to an early version of the prospectus for Scripta (“Typographic Think Tank”) in his talk. I had somehow missed this until Tim Brown mentioned it in an e-mail recently inquiring about Scripta. I can highly recommend Gerry’s talk, and not only because he quotes me (7:07–7:49 in the video). Although he starts out with a disclaimer that “this is a new talk” and he’s not sure how well it will hang together, in fact it’s extremely coherent; Gerry is both articulate and thoughtful about the wide range of questions (and, rarely, answers) involved in typography on the web.

Gerry used my “wish list” from “Unbound Pages” (in The Magazine last March) as a jumping-off point for his own ideas about the structure of documents and the tools that he wants to see available. He wants tools for writers, not just for designers, that will make it easy to create a well-structured digital document, one that will maintain its integrity when it gets moved from one format to another (as always happens today in electronic publishing). Gerry’s own wish list begins at 20:47 in the video, though you won’t want to skip the entertaining steps by which he gets there.

What he proposes is a way to separate the sequence of information from its relative importance and interrelatedness. “This is what I really want: I want someone to go out there and take Markdown, which I use constantly, and take it from something that clearly has been written to deal with streams of stuff with some bits thrown on the side … and allow me to have this extra intelligence in the content – while I’m writing it – that will tell me how important something is, what sequence it has with other things, and will then allow me to ditch quite a lot of this stuff that is happening there.” The “stuff” he wants to ditch is all the hand-crafted formatting and positioning that makes a digital document cumbersome and difficult to translate from one form to another.

The problem is, as Gerry admits, training people to write with structure in mind. (Every editorial designer who has tried to get writers to use paragraph and character styles will break out into a hollow laugh at this point.) What he’s advocating is tools that will make this easy to do, instead of something that only makes sense to experts. I think he was a little disappointed that nobody leapt up at the end of his talk to say, “We’ve already done that!” But perhaps he has planted the seed.

A brace of book launches

Published

I’ve been to two very well attended book launches in Seattle this week – both them within walking distance of my home. The first was for Nicola Griffith’s new novel Hild, at Richard Hugo House on Wednesday; the second, last night, was for Judith Gille’s self-published memoir, The View from Casa Chepitos: A Journey Beyond the Border, at the Elliott Bay Book Company. It was gratifying to see both venues packed.

Nicola’s book I have no connection with other than knowing and admiring Nicola and looking forward to reading each of her novels. Judith’s book I do have a connection with: I designed and typeset the interior. (I had nothing to do with the flamboyant and effective cover, which was designed by Dorit Ely.)

I got to use Mark van Bronkhorst’s recently released OpenType Pro version of MVB Verdigris, which was completely appropriate to the visual feel that Judith wanted for her book. I even got to confront the interesting problem of how to treat a chapter opening with a drop cap, when the first word is the beginning of a quote in Spanish, requiring not only opening quotation marks but an opening inverted exclamation point as well. I could have finessed the problem by de-emphasizing the punctuation marks somehow, but in the end we decided that it worked with some judicious spacing and fiddling around. (Oh, yes: our chapter-opening convention also included small caps for the first several words, which in this case required italic small caps. Happily, Verdigris Pro includes them.)

Chapter opening from 'The View from Casa Chepitos'

I’ve already read and enjoyed Judith’s memoir, a thoughtful and empathic account of becoming a part-time resident of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Now I’m enjoying Nicola’s lively historical novel, in which she creates a believable milieu and a strong character for the 6th-century Anglo-Saxon abbess, Hild of Whitby.

One thing that both books have in common is strong women – including the authors.