Sunday, October 17, 2010

Authors and Production and Compositors, Oh My

Let's say you write a terrific manuscript for an exciting new textbook. Your developmental editor and acquisitions editor have provided solid guidance, and you've listened to and acted on that guidance. Now it's time for your manuscript to go through the production process.

In the production process, the words (usually formatted in Microsoft Word) are married to the interior design (usually laid out in Adobe Quark) to create the look and feel of the final, published book. Integrating manuscript into an interior design involves a number of key steps, each of which can both rectify and introduce errors into the text. Perhaps the scariest, and the one we seem to have least control over, is when the manuscript is sent to a compositor.

A compositor is responsible for pouring the author's words into the assigned page layout and then placing photos, illustrations, sidebars, and other elements onto the page. The publisher provides detailed instructions to the compositor, but when it comes to laying out a page, the handler's eye and experience play a large role in the success of that layout.

Sometimes the compositors do great work, and for that they should be applauded. But  sometimes they don't, particularly for more complicated designs. More often than not, it seems,  page layouts can return with, shall we say, less than stellar designs. The author and editors must then identify each problem and indicate where and how to fix it. Humans being humans, though, some errors inevitably make it through, and the proofing-and-correction process must continue until the pages look right.

We in publishing know that this step—composition—can prove enormously frustrating for authors who don't know all the million things that can go wrong during production. They may end up ranting at the developmental editor or acquisitions editor, demanding that something be done.

That's when I wish this whole textbook-publishing process was smoother, more consistent, and less frustrating. Alas, it isn't.

Publishing is an unwieldy behemoth, with bundles of intertwined workflows and a plethora of disparate and often widely dispersed individuals working on each book in the hopes that someday, if everyone plays their cards right, an actual book comes out at the end.

Know what? It almost always does. So hang in there and trust your Editorial and Production partners to get the job done. Eventually.