Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Book pages need human intervention. Software is not enough.

When I started my publishing company in 2008, I had a lot to learn so I bought about 40 books about publishing.

Many of the books about self-publishing were self-published and many of them were extremely ugly.

They had terrible typography.

The worst sin was bad justification.

(above) Type is said to be "justified" (or "full justified" or fully justified") when all of the lines of type in a paragraph (except for an indented first line and a short last line) are the same width, and extend from the left margin to the right margin.

The lines of type in this blog are like most blogs and websites, a growing number of magazines and some books. The type is flush left/ragged right. "Rag-right" is much easier to produce, and many people accept it. 

Justified type has a more formal, polished look. Ragged is obviously less formal. People can rightfully claim that justified type is abnormal and artificial, and ragged right is normal and natural. Text from typewriters (remember them) is normally rag-right. Some typewriters can justify, but the result is usually ugly.

A lot of very ugly justified type gets printed, particularly in newspapers with narrow columns (below). This old newspaper clipping shows lowercased "avenue" and "street." Apparently it was deliberate, not accidental, and was the official 'style' for the paper.

The problem exists in narrow book columns, too (below). Sometimes the only way to improve the word spacing is to switch to rag-right, or make the column wider. You can also experiment with changing some words. This can take a long time, may be futile and may not be an option. The paragraph in the sample has nothing to do with today's topic, but may be interesting.

Below is a bad example of justified full-width text from Release Your Writing by Helen Gallagher. Helen's pages are just five inches wide, and that size leads to pages that are often uglier than the six-inch pages used for most "how-to" paperbacks. It would be better to have wider pages or go rag-right.

Despite lots of recent changes in publishing, justified type is still the dominant format for book printing. It can look beautiful, but takes more time and money to do right. The block of text shown below is from one of my books. I won't assert that it's beautiful, but it's better than a lot of text from self-publishers -- and it's easy to produce with Microsoft Word. If I can do this, so can almost anyone.

Some self-publishers are content to merely dump words onto pages and rely on their software to arrange the words properly.

That's not enough.

A book needs a human touch.

You must carefully examine each line in each paragraph on each page so you can improve justification by changing words, spacing and hyphenation.

It's a lot of work and takes a lot of time to do it right -- but it's the right way to produce a book. (See exception at bottom.) There's no easy way. There's no shortcut. You must invest the time to go line-by-line, over and over again, or your book will look like crap.

Compromises are often necessary and every book I've seen has some problems with justification. Self-publishers seem to have many more problems with justification than professionals do -- and the self-pubbers may not even know that they goofed.

I purchased U-Publish.com 5.0, co-authored by Dan Poynter. This book has no hyphens, and the word spacing (below) is atrocious.

Dan boasts that he is “the father of self-publishing,” “the leading authority on how to write, publish and promote books,” and is “on the leading edge of book publishing.” I don’t claim to be the leading authority on anything, but I could have made the paragraph much nicer:

A self-publisher has an extra burden to produce a high-quality product. Self-pubbed books are initially suspect and must prove their legitimacy, and a bad self-pubbed book reflects badly on other self-publishers. Ironically, the ugliest and worst-written book I’ve ever seen tries to give advice to self-publishers. It was apparently never edited, or checked by a human being at its publisher.

The limitations of the Internet create the need for typographic compromises. As people get used to typographic abominations online, those abominations may become more acceptable in print. However, just because you can get away with ugliness, it doesn’t mean you should.

IMPORTANT EXCEPTION: Most ebooks allow the person reading to manipulate the text, so there is probably no point in trying to achieve nice justification.
 Ebooks designed for reflowable text and user-selectable type size can produce some terrible-looking pages. Shown below is part of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, from a Kindle edition.

TIP: Be careful if you are justifying a book that was already completed with ragged-right type. Most lines will expand to the right margin, and sometimes words that used to fit on one page will "creep" onto another page. You may have to change the page numbering for chapter beginnings, or cut words or make illustrations smaller to get what you want.

TIP: Sometimes the spaces between words will look lousy, and you'll have to experiment with hyphenation, and sometimes switch to shorter or longer words, or add or subtract words, to make things look right.

TIP: Be very careful to check the last line in a paragraph (as shown up at the top). Sometimes even two or three words will be spread out full-width, and they'll look very stupid. You can just select the line and re-do it as flush-left, or (in MS Word) tap the Enter key after the last word in the line.

A while ago I got flamed in a discussion about book design by someone I'll label as ignorant, egomaniacal and belligerent. He insisted that pages of text that are full-justified are harder to read than text that is ragged-right. He also insisted that it's proper to have two spaces -- not one space -- between sentences (an obsolete artifact of ancient typewriters).

At one point he tried to bolster his argument for the extra space between sentences by pointing out that he had typed his flames with the extra space, which made them easier to read. Despite his vast (half-vast?) experience, he did not know that web browsers ignore the extra spaces which he deliberately inserts.

He backed up his minority position by citing his alleged 30 years' experience writing and editing. I saw no point in continuing to argue, and bailed out. With great restraint I resisted the urge to encourage him to perform an act of self-copulation.

I found a good comment about justification by Shannon Yarbrough in "10 Things You Should Know About Self-Publishing" published on The LL Book Review: "I have never, never, NEVER seen a traditionally published book that lacked right margin justification and I’m tired of self-published authors telling me that they did it that way because it’s easier to read. No, you didn’t follow the rules because you didn’t do your homework, or you don’t know how. I know that’s harsh, but it’s the truth and it’s one reason I will turn down a book for review right away." 

I could not have said it better. Thanks, Shannon.

More about typography in my upcoming Typography for Independent Publishers.

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