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The lowly speech tag

I think it’s time for a general reconsideration of the convention around commas and speech tags. I’m sensing some grumbling among the ground troops (fellow editors), and I think it may be time for some brave style guide author or three to tackle the problem.

Here’s how I see it. In the sentence “Juanita said ‘I’m coming too,’” the quotation is a clause that is the direct object of the transitive verb said. Simple subject-verb-object (SVO) order, the canonical order in English. If, for variety’s sake, we sometimes switch to OSV order (“I’m coming too,” Juanita said.), we need a comma between the quotation and the speaker. Similarly, if we switch to OVS order (“I’m coming too,” said Juanita.), we need a comma. And if we go all weirdlike and use VSO (Said Juanita, “I’m coming too.”) we need a comma. In all three cases, we need the comma because of the inversion and not because of the presence of a quotation.

Now at some point (I haven’t been able to pin down when this happened, but I want to say post 1900), writers started to reanalyze the situation and came up with the “rule” that there is always a comma between the quotation and the rest of the sentence. So they back-applied this idea to standard SVO sentences and we ended up with “Juanita said, ‘I’m coming too.’“ And that’s the rule we all learned in school. Quite recently (2005 is the first example I can find, but that’s probably not really the first time), we started calling the SV or VS part a speech tag, and now people debate whether something is or isn’t a speech tag and therefore does or doesn’t require a comma. But I think this is just a result of not analyzing the sentence grammatically in the first place.

I think that if we start consistently dropping the comma in SVO constructions, we’ll all be happier, and the style guides will catch up eventually.

Judging a book by its . . . no, not just its cover

For most of my life, the public was willing to trust experts—in whatever field—to render judgment on what was better or worse (an argument, a product quality, an artistic work). The zeitgeist has shifted, and now the cultural norm is to distrust experts and reject expertise as a basis for judgment. This applies to book production as much as to anything else.

So if you have never taken the time to notice or have never been exposed to high-quality books in the past and all you have is the book in hand, with no formal education or training in print production, you might pick up a book in isolation and pronounce it well made. Okay, fine. If a hundred people pick up a book in isolation and pronounce it well made, then well made it is, according to public opinion.

But now let me approach the question from an expert’s perspective.

Over the last fifty years, give or take, older, more expensive production technologies have given way to newer, cheaper technologies. At the same time, automation has raised the bottom (made it easier for unskilled workers to turn out acceptable work). The average quality has gone up, but the level of quality that top publishers used to fund has largely disappeared in the interests of lowered costs and higher profits.

The rationalization of publishing by the kids who came home in the 1980s with their freshly minted MBAs and said “Dad, let’s take the company public; we’ll make a killing” has resulted in a world in which the only books publishing executives look at are their accounting books. No one is competing on the basis of the look and feel of the finished product anymore.


Judging the physical object

A given title might be printed in any of several different ways.

  • It might be a print-on-demand (POD) book. This is a book printed one at a time in response to an online order. It is different from the book it follows down the production line and from the book that follows it. The publisher was offered very little choice in terms of paper quality. The machine operator is not a printing professional and, even if they are, does not have the opportunity to calibrate the color printing for the cover. The printer makes money while the machine is running, so there is little opportunity to calibrate even the black printing.
  • It might be digitally printed by a book manufacturer. This process uses basically the same equipment as the POD process. But as several copies are going to be printed at the same time, the operator has the opportunity to make needed adjustments to ensure quality, and the publisher is given a much wider range of paper choices.
  • It might be printed on an offset press. This is a method used for higher production volumes. Some offset presses are sheet fed, meaning the paper comes to the printer as large sheets on a pallet, and the press lifts one sheet at a time off the stack. Some offset presses are web presses, meaning the paper comes on a continuous roll and is cut into sheets at the delivery end of the press, after it is printed. Web presses run at higher speeds than sheet-fed presses. They are often (not always) less precise.
  • And there are a variety of other technologies, including high-speed inkjet web presses on one end of the spectrum and slower-than-molasses Espresso Book Machines on the other end (the kind you can see in a large bookstore where you bring in your own book on a thumb drive and they print it for you).

The printing technology can have an effect on quality, so if you pick up a book to apply the criteria below, know that a different copy of the same book, sold through a different channel, might have been produced differently. (Was it purchased by clicking a link on Amazon? Was it purchased at an airport bookstore? Was it purchased at a chain bookstore? An independent bookstore? Direct from the publisher?)

In addition, there are several ways a book might be bound.

  • Softcover (available in several configurations)
  • Cloth (hardcover with cloth-covered boards, available in several configurations), with or without a dust jacket
  • Image-wrap (hardcover with an image printed on it)

With that preamble, and with a stack of books of varying ages and categories in front of you, here are the factors you should practice observing:

  • Pick up the closed book and look at all three cut edges. Are the pages flat or are they wavy? Is the book rectangular (check with a square)?
  • Lay the book on a table. If it’s a softcover, does it stay closed, or does the cover curl up? If it’s a hardcover, is the cover flat against the book or arched? How does the thickness and stiffness of the cover compare with other books of the same general type?
  • Is the design of the cover appropriate for the book’s genre?
  • Is the cover attractive? Is it executed well? Does it look professional? Does it include all the text and graphic components expected for the type of book it is (shelving category on the back cover, bar code, publisher name)? Is the author’s name spelled correctly? Does the title on the cover match the title on the title page?
  • Open the book to the middle. If it’s a softcover, is it a perfectbound book (pages glued to the spine) or does it open flat (cover separated from the back of the pages). If it’s a hardcover, does it lie flat or snap closed?
  • Is the paper a pleasing color, texture, and weight, or does it seem a bit off, a bit too cheap?
  • Grasp a single leaf in the middle of the book and hold it up to a light. Is the type on the back of the page perfectly aligned with the type on the front of the page? That is, are the margins identical at the top and outside, or is one page just a smidge above or to the outside of the other? This is called backup; and if they’re not the same, the flaw is called a backup error.
  • Now riffle through the whole book, keeping an eye on the running head (top line of text). If it moves up and down as you flip the pages, this is called head bounce. Riffle again, watching the outside margin for edge bounce.
  • Do the lines of type within the page exactly back up? This is only checkable if the two pages are just straight paragraphs of text. A lazy designer may feather the lines apart on one page to make the bottom margins align, but this is a serious design no-no.
  • Now look at a page overall. Do the margins seem well proportioned and ample, or is there too much type crammed on the page for comfortable reading?
  • Half-close your eyes so you’re looking through your lashes at a blurred page. Is the rectangle of type a uniform gray, or is it spotty, with light areas and dark areas?
  • Do facing pages balance (come to the same depth, so the bottom margins are the same across the spread)?
  • Are there widows (last line of a paragraph at the top of a page) and orphans (first line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page). Orphans are generally permissible in fiction, so you wouldn’t deduct points there.
  • Looking at the type a bit more closely, are there ladders (three or more lines in a row that end with a hyphen), stacks (two or three lines that begin or end with the same word), rivers (noticeable streaks of white where the word spaces on several successive lines happen to line up), pigeonholes (huge word spaces), runts (very short lines at the end of a paragraph), bad breaks (hyphenated compounds where one of the components is also hyphenated at the end of a line; words misdivided at the end of a line; awkwardly broken names, and so forth)?
  • Was care taken with the copyediting and typesetting in general, so that punctuation is consistent and helpful to the reader, proper typographer’s quotation marks, dashes, and ellipses are used, and so forth? Or did the designer just dump a half-edited Word file into the pages without giving it a second thought?
  • Is the typography and overall design of the pages consistent with the content of the book? Is it overdesigned to the point that the design elements distract from the content? Or is it underdesigned to the point that reading is annoying and uncomfortable? Is the design, in other words, interfering in the conversation between author and reader?
  • Flip through the book. Is foreword spelled correctly? Is acknowledgments (US) or acknowledgements (elsewhere) spelled correctly? Are the preliminary pages (prelims) numbered with lowercase roman numerals so that the book proper can begin on page 1 with arabic numerals? Does the copyright page contain all of the expected information? Does the book have an index (not all genres have indexes) that seems proportional to the text and well thought out?

Those are some of the factors a contest judge takes into account. Spend a few minutes examining some books yourself, and see what you can observe.

Printers, publishers, and . . .

Earlier this morning, on a mailing list, someone trying to sort out a list of printers began to ask a question by positing “There are many, many on-demand book printers/publishers online, some with very low prices.”

I responded as follows:

Stop. Right. There.

You’re dumping alligators, seaweed, hippopotamuses, and pond scum into one bucket just because they all live in water. So let’s try to sort them out into categories. Then it will be much easier to compare services and prices.

REGARDLESS OF WHAT COMPANIES CALL THEMSELVES OR SAY THEY OFFER, what we’re interested in is what they are and whether they provide the services we need. So let’s use our own bafflegab-free definitions and ignore the marketing materials.


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  • A publisher is someone who puts money at risk to produce and market a book.
  • A publishing services company is someone who provides services such as editing, design, indexing, or proofreading to publishers.
  • A book packager is a company that prepares books for publication on behalf of a publisher.
  • A printer is someone who owns printing equipment and accepts customer files for printing.
  • A book manufacturer is someone who prints and binds books under one roof.
  • Offset printing is printing from metal plates hung on a press and is typically used for 300 or more copies of a book.
  • Short-run digital printing is using digital printing equipment to produce one or more copies of a book for delivery to the publisher (or to a fulfillment warehouse).
  • On-demand printing is using digital printing equipment to produce a single copy of a book for direct delivery to a retail customer on behalf of the publisher.
  • A print broker is someone who accepts a job from a publisher and then forwards it to selected vendors for the required services.
  • A vanity press is a company that combines the services of a publishing services provider and a print broker and overcharges for both, making it impossible for a publisher that contracts with them to make a reasonable profit. Otherwise known as pond scum.

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Now, WITHIN A CATEGORY, it is possible to compare companies and evaluate whether one provides better quality or better services than another, and that can be a productive exercise.

There are book manufacturers who specialize in working with amateur publishers (high school yearbook staffs, for example) and have customer service reps (CSRs) who are adept at hand-holding.

Some of these companies also do a superb job of book manufacturing. Others tend to cut corners.

In contrast, there are book manufacturers whose CSRs are nothing more than traffic managers (friendly, competent, polite traffic managers). Any technical questions are forwarded to a technician, and the answer that eventually comes back may or may not be clear. These companies work directly with professional print buyers at publishing companies and with professional book designers, customers who are expected to provide trouble-free files for printing and clear specifications for the job. Within this subgroup of book manufacturers, some companies focus on quality and some focus on price.

Similarly, with short-run digital printers, there are companies that specialize in book manufacturing for publishers, and there are others that specialize in church cookbooks, machinery service manuals, and programs for the local high school football awards banquets. And, oh yeah, if you have a book of your weekly newspaper columns from the local shopper, they’ll throw that together for you too. So, again, you can compare on quality and price.


Instructions to authors who think an Excel worksheet is a table

This is directed to people who work in Excel a good deal of the time and who would like to see their worksheets reproduced in a book for which they are preparing a manuscript.


Print it.

That’s right. Print your worksheet. The part you want shown in the book. You probably know the size of the book page by now, and I’m guessing it is not 8.5 × 11 inches. More likely it is 6 × 9 inches or thereabouts. So set up your page margins to limit the printed area to, say 4.5 × 7.5 inches. (On US letter paper, you would do this by making the top and bottom margins 1.75 inches and the side margins 2 inches.)

Okay, what you have now is approximately the way your worksheet will look in the printed book. It’s permissible to run the table broadside (so the book has to be turned 90 degrees to read the table). The compositor may typeset your table rather than running it as an image of your actual worksheet, but the amount of type that can be squeezed into the page doesn’t change much when that step is taken. So if the information on your test print is too tiny to read, then it will be too tiny to read in the book as well.

The key thing to keep in mind is that your worksheet can have an enormous number of rows and columns, and you can navigate around it just fine on your computer monitor. But a printed table in a book is limited to the size of the printed page. You can’t just select a large region of your worksheet and shrink it down to page size and expect it to be legible.


What does this mean to you as an author?

It means that you have to think about the way information is organized for presentation to the reader. The way you have it organized now may perfectly suit your workaday purposes, but it may not work for your audience. So you need to select and organize the information in a way that will make sense to a naive reader. If you have a great deal of information to present, arrange it into a limited number of columns but allow it to run to a large number of rows. This will be printed on consecutive pages, and readers will understand it. If you instead have a limited number of rows running across a great many columns, there is no convenient way to make that comprehensible in a book. (Foldout pages are expensive and generally not available for short-run books. Trust me. Yours is a short-run book.)


What else?

After you create a new worksheet organized for the reader’s benefit, provide that as an actual Excel file to your editor. You may also want to provide an image of a table in your Word manuscript file, to show how and where you want the table to appear. But that is not sufficient in itself. The Excel file is needed as well, so the compositor has the table contents to manipulate and not just a picture that will then have to be typeset from scratch.


One more thing . . . equations!

Another problem that sometimes arises is the confusion between Excel formulas and equations. If you are explaining to the reader how to set up a worksheet, by all means cite your formulas just as you have them. But if you are expressing a mathematical truth, use an equation editor, or at least don’t complain when your editor uses one. As an Excel user, you probably don’t think about whether variables are set in italics or not. But in traditional mathematical notation, the choice of type font carries information (real information, defined by Claude Shannon as that which resolves an uncertainty). A letter set in italics is a variable. The same letter set in roman is a constant. In boldface it’s (usually) a vector or a matrix (depending on the context), and so forth. Greek letters are part of the picture, and faking them (using lowercase u instead of Greek μ, for example) is a no-no. In Excel, none of this is relevant. But for an equation on a book page, whether it’s a display equation or part of running text, it’s important. I’ll leave it up to you and your editor whether you assign variable names to business quantities or spell them out in their entirety (net profits = . . . vs. P = . . .). Just follow the conventions and everyone will be happy.


Okay, that’s it.

Set up the table with the book page in mind and provide the file to the editor. Follow mathematical notation conventions. Just doing those three things will make the whole editing and production process much smoother for everyone.

Thank you for your cooperation.

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