Saturday, May 17, 2014

Of Authors and Publishers and Books

As I get closer to the publication of "Deliver Us From Evil", the second in my Community of Faith mysteries, I've started to pay attention to things most writers--and almost all readers--never notice. Unless they're done wrong.

I've spent time on Joel Friedlander's blog both looking at his monthly cover design winners and reading his advice about book formatting. Book formatting is setting things up that control the appearance of the inside of the book. It's also called interior book design. (Thus his blog name of The Book Designer.) It includes such things as font "face", i.e. Times New Roman or Arial or Courier, and font size. Do you use the same font for chapter titles as the text or a different one? If two different fonts, are they complimentary? Do chapters always start on a right-facing page or can they start on a left-facing page? Is there a graphic at the beginning of each chapter or between section breaks? See, I told you you never noticed most of this.

Unless the font size is too small or too big. Or the chapter heading font looks really out of place over the text. Or a title isn't centered.

Now, this doesn't matter very much for ebooks. One of the nice things about ebooks is that the reader largely controls the appearance. They pick the font they like and can choose to make the print bigger or smaller than it is the first time they open an ebook. They can even choose whether to read black text on a white background or white text on a black background or whatever the text color is on a sepia background. If they can't do these things, readers get annoyed. You'll know what I mean if you've ever downloaded a book where the font was so small it was impossible to read, and it didn't matter how many times you pressed that big A, it never got any bigger. That happens less now, but in early days not all publishers got it, and they tried to make ebooks exactly like print books.

But in print books, the appearance is more important, and, if you're self-publishing, you want the book to look as professional as if it were published by one of the Big Five in New York. One of the ways indie publishers decide on the kind of look they want for their novel is to choose what Chris Baty in "No Plot, No Problem" calls a "reference novel". In other words, you look through the books on your bookshelf, pick one whose appearance looks "right" or "good" to you, and try to match that. It's a subjective judgment, so I can't specify what "right" or "good" means.

Right now, I'm keeping an eye out for my reference novel. I'm currently reading "Safe From Harm" by Stephanie Jaye Evans. I really liked the first book in this series, "Faithful Unto Death", because it's the same kind of realistic Christian fiction I'm writing. I was curious as to what fonts had been used in the interior design of this book, so I flipped to the copyright page. I've previously noticed that sometimes the publisher will specify the font on either the copyright page or, if it's a unique or custom font, on a page at the back of the book. Berkley Prime Crime didn't do either of those.

But, as I scanned down the copyright page, ending the paragraph about "This is a work of fiction..." etc., was this interesting statement:
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
I'd never noticed that before. Does Berkley have a multitude of uncontrollable authors? When I was a programmer, it was common to refer to managing programmers as equivalent to herding cats. Programmers are notoriously independent and rebellious. But authors are usually cooperative people. After all, they change their books all the time to satisfy their agent or their publisher.

I was reminded of a blog entry posted not so long ago by Donald Maass, a formerly well-respected and still powerful New York literary agent, which was extremely disparaging of authors. In one memorable line, he compared writers to cattle who had to be culled from the herd. Needless to say, this caused quite an uproar in the writing community. Was there any connection?

I wondered when Berkley had found it necessary to add that disclaimer. I knew I had a copy of "Through a Glass, Deadly", written by my friend Sheila Connolly (writing as Sarah Atwell) as a work-for-hire for Berkley back in 2008, long before self-publishing took off. Not only did it have the same sentence about control of the author, it also had this additional disclaimer:
The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision.
Huh. Cozy mysteries often have recipes in the back. Fans like them. (Although I've never quite understood that. I don't actually cook very often. And I'm pretty sure male authors don't have to include recipes in the back of their books.) So, does Berkley have a test kitchen where they try out every recipe in one of their books to make sure it isn't poisonous? Or disgusting? What happens if a reader (now the readers have to be controlled) adds a seasoning or other ingredient that isn't in the recipe in the book? Will the Berkley Recipe Enforcement Team appear on the reader's doorstep and whisk the book out of their possession, along with a pot of stew?

The disclaimers probably have less to do with the book people at Berkley and everything to do with the number of lawyers they, or their parent corporation Penguin, employ. Lawyers tend to get carried away when there's any possibility of a lawsuit. That's why book contracts, which probably shouldn't be longer than three pages, are now these voluminous tomes that are impossible for a layperson to understand.

I usually try to end my blog posts with some pithy conclusion, but I'm not sure I have one here. That should have been obvious by the title of this post. I still haven't found my reference novel and I'm not sure what "Deliver Us From Evil" will finally look like in print. But I am fascinated by all these details, so, at least for now, you'll have to put up with my rambling.

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