Do It Yourself Layout

How and why I lay out my own books.

I do layout for most of my books. That means I submit finished pages to my editors. What they see on the page is what the book will look like when printed.

I write the book as I lay it out, in Adobe InDesign CS. InDesign is an incredibly powerful page layout program, but I use only a fraction of its features. I start with a template that has all the elements of page design. I use text boxes to position text in the appropriate place. I actually type the text right into the text box — I don’t use InDesign’s separate text editing window. I use styles for paragraphs and characters. I’ve even taken advantage of InDesign’s nested styles to automatically format text like numbers in numbered steps and bullets in bulleted lists. That saves a lot of time and ensures consistent formatting.

I create figures using screenshot software on my “test mule” computer. That’s the computer I run the software on while I write about it on my production computer. My Macintosh test mule is an eMac; my Windows test mule is a Dell Dimension PC. Both are networked to my production computer, a dual processor Macintosh G5. I pull the screenshots over to the G5, open them with Photoshop, and run an action on them to convert them to grayscale (or CMYK, depending on the book) and save them as uncompressed Macintosh-format TIFF files with 72 dpi resolution. Then I literally drag the image icons from a Finder window to the InDesign document. I downsize them to fit, which also enhances resolution, and drag them into position. Then I use InDesign’s library feature to insert a pre-formatted caption, which I fill in for each screen shot. This is probably the most time-consuming part of layout. No, that’s not true. Callouts — those little lines that run from labels to exact positions on a screen shot — take far more time to do. I have InDesign library elements for other items, too, like thumbtabs (for my Visual QuickStart Guides) and callout lines (for my Visual QuickPro Guides).

I write each book a chapter at a time. When a chapter is finished, I create a PDF format file of its pages that includes printers marks such as registration marks and cut marks. (Can’t remember the exact names of these things.) I then upload the PDF file to an FTP site where my copy editor and production editor can download them. There’s a workflow over at my publisher’s place that varies depending on the editors assigned. What I see at the end of the process is printed pages that have been marked up by both editors. I get them a few chapters at a time via UPS. I normally take care of the edits in the afternoon, after submitting a chapter for the day. (I try to do a chapter a day for revisions and a chapter every two days for new titles.)

I review the edits and make about 98% of the changes that are requested. Most changes are of a typographical nature — I have a habit of repeating words and leaving characters out of words — but some are of a layout nature — rewrapping text to prevent widows, moving a callout up two points to improve spacing, etc. And of course, there are always a few grammatical errors that need fixing. (I wasn’t an English major!) Any time I don’t make a requested change, I note the reason why on the marked up pages. I don’t ignore a change without good reason. Then I print the manuscript and send it back to the editor with the markups. If the production editor is a freelancer, I usually have to print up a second copy for him or her. It usually takes about 30 minutes to turn around edits for a chapter, so I can knock them off quickly. The final InDesign and TIFF files get FTPed to the production editor or, if he or she requests it, put on a CD. The production editor sometimes puts a few finishing touches on the final files.

When I finalize a chapter, I also create a finalized PDF and upload it to the FTP site for the indexer. Sometimes, if the book is on a tight deadline, the indexer will work on draft pages. This is usually pretty safe, especially for revisions, since pages rarely have significant changes from draft to final. When the indexer has indexed all chapters, she submits a Word or RTF file to me via e-mail. I then pour the index into an Index template and reformat it to fit the number of pages allotted. Sometimes that means making the font size really small — my last book had 7.2/8.2 font for index entries. Other times, that means making font size and leading normal but increasing the spacing between paragraphs or above headings. The book’s total page count has to be evenly divisible by 8, and it’s my job to make sure I submit exactly the right number of pages. Fortunately, Peachpit is not normally page count driven. A book can be as long or as short as it needs to be — as long as the total number of pages is divisible by 8. That’s great for me, because I can write just what I need to.

Generally speaking, it takes about a week from the time I finish all chapters in my first draft to the time the final files and index are ready to send to the printer. It then takes about three weeks from the time the files get to the printer to the time I see a printed copy of the book. Add another week for copies to get to stores and you have a 4-week turnaround from finished manuscript to book available in stores. Obviously, this is the greatest benefit of doing my own layout. Let’s face it, computer how-to books are extremely time sensitive. To get a book out quickly, you have to prepare it quickly. I have a knack for doing my job quickly and since I don’t have to depend on someone else at the publisher to do time-consuming layout, each book can be turned around very quickly.

There are other benefits to doing my own layout. It’s great for me because I have a lot more control over my work and can write in a way that takes advantage of the book’s layout. I also get a bit higher royalty rate to compensate me for my additional work and the cost of labor I’ve saved my publisher. It’s great for my editors because they can see the “final” product as they are editing. So if the layout isn’t quite right — for example, a figure would be better on one page than another or could be improved with a callout — they can tell me and I can fix it as part of the editing process. Otherwise, the book would have to go through multiple editing processes, each of them handled by someone different who may or may not care about the quality of the book. I’m the author of my books and I care about all of them, so I do my absolute best to make sure they’re something I’d be proud to have my name on.

Peachpit, to my knowledge, is the only publisher that allows authors to handle what they call “packaging.” And they won’t let all authors do it. You have to prove that you have the ability to handle layout to their standards. I’ve been doing layout for my own books since 1996 and have produced over 40 titles for them, so I’m proven.

Other publishers don’t work this way at all. In fact, they are completely opposed to the suggestion that an author layout out the book. The reason: they are worried about losing control over the book’s contents. They don’t seem to understand that they do get final possession of the manuscript’s files and can make any changes they like before sending the manuscript to the printer.

One of my other publishers, in fact, has an extremely complex production process. First the author writes the manuscript using a Word template that has macros built in for formatting. Some of the macros work, others don’t. The author is required to insert special codes in the manuscript to signal certain types of styles. Meanwhile, the author creates screenshots, which are supposed to be submitted as full screen images. The author is supposed to print each one and mark where the image should be cropped. (I refuse to do that because it wastes time and paper and relies on a production person to get the cropping right. I send cropped images and I don’t even bother printing them anymore. Nobody complains. Frankly, I think they’re relieved that I’ve spared them this extra work.) From the author, the Word file and images go to a copy editor and a technical editor. The copy editor uses Word’s change tracking feature to mark up the manuscript and insert all the codes the author has either neglected to insert or inserted wrong. The Word file then goes back to the author for review. The author further messes up the file by using the change tracking feature to accept or reject changes. The author also gets comments from the technical editor and changes the Word file to make necessary corrections. A production editor gets it next and incorporates the copy editor and author changes to finalize the file. Then it goes into production, where it’s converted into a Ventura Publishing file (I kid you not) with the images inserted. The images are usually in-line images, meaning that text doesn’t wrap around them. It also means that the images might not appear where the author thinks they should. (But that doesn’t seem to matter much.) The author gets “proofs” of these pages, in print, and is required to mark them up and send them back to the publisher. About 10% of the author’s suggestions are incorporated into the final pages. To be fair, any change that corrects an error goes in but any change that tweaks the layout is basically ignored. The book eventually makes it to the printer where it is printed and sent out. Time elapsed from completion of first draft to printed copies: 8 to 12 weeks.

Is the quality of a book better when a professional publishing staff takes it from manuscript draft to printed book than when an author takes it most of the way? I don’t think so. But I also think that quality isn’t the most important aspect of book production to some publishers. But that’s a topic for another blog entry.

2 thoughts on “Do It Yourself Layout

  1. I would love to be able to do this – I have InDesign but haven’t spent the time to figure out how to use it (I’m quick with this stuff so it should be ok), but I’d really love to put my books in a mock lay out so I can get a sense for how it looks on the page (and not on an 8.5 x 11 double spaced 12pt TNR). I doubt my publisher would accept pages in this format, but I am planning to pitch a couple of projects to a some other small publishers where a finished project is more desirable. Do you have a template you’d be willing to share? Or some specific tips for the InDesign novice?

    Thanks, Maria!

  2. Your publisher will probably NOT want InDesign files. I’ve worked with many publishers over the years and only one has allowed me to do layout. All the others want complete control. Even when I proved to one publisher that I could exactly match the book’s existing layout and cut weeks off the production process, they still wanted Word files using their antiquated template.

    That said, if you take the time to prepare InDesign files, you’re likely wasting that time, since you’ll still have to create the files in the format they want.

    And since it’s very unlikely that your layout will match theirs, you really won’t be seeing what finished pages will look like when you create them with InDesign. Their finished pages will look different from yours.

    My advice: talk to your main editor or production editor about this. If they’re okay with InDesign files or letting you do layout, go for it. If not, don’t waste your time.

    If you want to learn InDesign, your best bet is to pick up a book about it. The “InDesign Visual QuickStart Guide” by Sandee Cohen is an excellent start.

    Good luck!

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