Proof Copies: Do I REALLY need them?

Yes.

We could end it there and call this the shortest blog entry I’ll ever write. But that wouldn’t be much fun, would it?

So let’s talk for a while about WHY you need proof copies of your book.

We’ll start with a few basic presumptions. We’ll presume that you’ve written your manuscript, that you’ve re-written it several times, that you’ve had it edited (hopefully professionally!) and made the necessary changes. We’ll presume that you’re releasing a paperback and that you’re industrious and decided to do the page layout and formatting yourself.

Are we all on the same page? Good.

Given these presumptions, how long would you guess you’ve spent staring at these words on your computer screen, even after you’ve finished writing them? Over the course of your many drafts and edits, how many times have you read over the same words? The answer is many – you have spent many many hours reading the same 70,000 words many times over.

And that, my friend, is the main reason why you need physical proof copies of your book. The problem isn’t that you’re lazy or stupid or sloppy.  You’ve read through every word of your book over and over again to catch even the smallest mistake, but that creates a whole different problem.

You see, the human brain has an incredible capacity to translate actual information to meet its own expectations. Have you ever read that email that gets forwarded around every few years where the letters in the words are all jumbled up, but you can still read it because the first and last letters are in the right place? Or have you ever glanced at a sign quickly and done a double-take because you think it says something wildly inappropriate? On closer examination you will probably discover that the actual words on that sign aren’t what you thought you saw. This happens because our minds work as our own visual Universal Translators (no Trekkies here? Would a Tardis reference be better? … No? oh never mind!) The point is that the brain is very good at taking the mixed up visual data that our eyes capture and fitting it into the empty slots of what we EXPECT to see. It’s a kind of mental shorthand that enables us to understand what is being presented to us even when it is visually incomplete or incorrect.  The more familiar we are with a visual cue (sign, symbol, word, sentence, etc.) the more easily we recognize it, and the less work our brain has to do to translate.

That’s a very handy trait under certain circumstances, like when reading signs on the side of the highway or skimming through your facebook feed.  It’s a lot LESS handy when you’re attempting to do something like proofing your own writing.  The more time you’ve spent on a text, the more familiar you become with it. The more familiar you become with it, the more likely your brain is to implement its handy-dandy visual translation trick when information is incomplete or incorrect.  That’s why you can read a sentence very carefully on more than one occasion and never realize that there’s a word missing.  This is doubly true if you are constantly looking at the information in the same format (in a Word document on your computer screen, for instance).

So how do you trick your brain into turning off this less-than-helpful superpower? The key is to find a way to make the words less familiar. Take them out of the setting that you’re used to seeing them in. Force your mind to actually engage with the text, rather than allowing it to see what it always sees. There are ways to do this before you get to the “proof copy” stage of the book-making game. Printing out your manuscript is one way of doing it.  Putting it in a drawer for a month is another. Both of these ideas work because they take away the familiarity factor. Words on a page read differently than words on a screen. Words that you haven’t seen in a month read differently than words you worked on yesterday.

But let’s say you’ve done that a half-dozen times or so. Do you still need to order a proof copy of your book?

YES

Because this is the only way that you will see exactly what your consumer will see.  And for whatever reason, things that didn’t stand out to you while you were formatting your text or editing your manuscript will become glaringly obvious when you see it in on that magical 6×9 page, held in your hand, and flipped through for the first time.

Let me tell you – I am a meticulous person, and if you’d asked me at the time of submitting my book for printing if I’d needed a proof copy I probably would have laughed. But I ordered a proof copy anyway. And a week or so later, when I received it and read through it, I was SHOCKED at the errors that I found. It wasn’t that there were so many – but they were so blatant, so obvious, that I couldn’t fathom how I’d missed them! There was even one on the first page. How mortifying is that?!?

So if you’re planning on self-publishing your book take my advice – order a physical proof copy before you hit that “publish” button. Believe me, it’s better to wait the extra week or two and find the typos yourself than it is to skip that step and have those typos found by readers. Remember, it only takes one or two glaring errors to convince a reader that they are dealing with an inferior product. And that’s not the impression you’re looking to leave, is it?

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Designing Your Book’s Interior: Dos and Donts

OK, this is one of those topics that gets my inner uber-dork all happy and restless and eager to show off its arcane and useless knowledge. Normally she (I’m talking about my inner uber-dork here) is content to sit quietly and let me pretend that I’m a normal person with normal levels of interest in normal things. But then there are days like today, when a topic starts rolling around in my head, one that’s of specific interest to her … and then she quickly gets a little hard to contain 🙂

First let me say, if you’re serious about designing your own book layout you must MUST go and read everything you can from Joel at the Book Designer blog (thebookdesigner.com). Everything I learned, all of those arcane rules that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I learned from him. If you have specific questions on things like copyright, front-matter, back matter, or really ANYTHING regarding the design process, you can probably find the answer in one of his many articles on the topic.

That being said, here are my favorite DOs and DON’Ts of designing your book’s interior:

DO include the appropriate front matter. What is the appropriate front matter? Well, you’ll want a title page (on the right-hand side) and a copyright page (this can be on the left, on the back of the title page) at minimum. Many books will also have a table of contents, an acknowledgements page, a dedication, a foreword, a preface, or something else in that vein before we see chapter one. You can decide for yourself what you need. But the important thing is that you need something.

DO make sure you credit everyone on your copyright page (better safe than sorry – especially when you’re using someone else’s art work on your cover, or quotes from the Bible in your text, for instance)

DON’T mis-number your pages. Page #1 is on your right hand side … always … no matter what.  Open a book right now – where is the first page? It’s on the right. It’s always on the right. If your right-hand pages are evenly numbered, it’s a sure sign that someone didn’t know what they were doing.  It’s ok to be a rookie, but that’s no reason to make rookie mistakes, right?

DO pick a readable font for your text. This is about more than being legible (although that’s important too). What you’re looking for here is a font that encourages the reader’s eyes to keep moving. It should be simple and “ordinary” enough that that you don’t notice it. It should be spaced nicely – you don’t want your book feeling cramped or stretched out because of a poor font choice. Many experts in the field suggest using a serif font like Garamond (as opposed to a san serif font like Ariel) because it draws the eyes ever forward. Many people who know a lot more about this than I do agree that Garamond is a decent starting point. But personally, I find it incredibly difficult to read when italicized, so if you’re like me, and likely to use serious volumes of italics in your text, that’s something you might want to take into consideration.

DON’T format your book like you would format your blog. Words read differently on the printed page than they do on your computer screen. When we write for blogs we are assuming that people are reading on their computers – where discreet chunks of text make scrolling and reading easier, and so we use block styling for our paragraphs (that’s a paragraph that has no indentation at the beginning of the first line, but has spacing between it and the paragraphs before and after it). Books don’t work this way though. People are used to reading books as one continuous piece of text. We’re used to seeing no spacing between paragraphs, and a simple indentation on the first line to indicate a new paragraph has begun. So unless you have a good reason (and I mean a GOOD reason) for using additional spacing between paragraphs, you’re better off sticking to simple indentation and leaving it at that.

**Regardless of whether you choose to use spacing or indentation, under absolutely NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you be using BOTH!

DO give your text room to breathe. This is not a contest to see how many words you can fit on a page. That doesn’t mean you should use 14 point font (normally 10 or 11 is fine). But it does mean that you should consider things like the sizes of your margins, and even your line spacing, when designing your layout. It’s amazing how much more “open” a page can feel when you give yourself a little extra spacing between lines. Remember, reading is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, and if your words are so crammed together that your reader can’t keep his or her place, or if your margins are so small that there’s no room for a reader to actually hold the book … well that gets really un-enjoyable really quickly.

DON’T forget to make this look like a book. You will need to design things like your running headers (that’s the info on the top of your page that tell the reader something useful – like the name of the book or the chapter that they’re in), page numbers, and chapter titles. Remember that they don’t have to be the same font, let alone the same size as the text in the book. This is where you can get creative and give your pages some character. Just make sure that whatever you do is legible, attractive, and fitting for your genre. And if you aren’t sure what’s fitting for your genre, go to the library or your local bookstore and head straight for the shelves you hope to see your book occupying. Open 10 or 20 books and flip through the pages. Look at the design elements used. It won’t be long before you can see patterns emerging.

DO pick a style and stick with it. There are rules you need to follow, but you are creating your own work of art here, so there are also stylistic choices that you will need to make along the way. Just make sure that you’re consistent in those choices throughout the book. Don’t switch fonts for your chapter titles half way through the book. Don’t change how you handle quotes or footnotes or whatever. It can be hard to keep track of these things when you’re formatting hundreds of pages of text, so take notes as you go. Create a cheat sheet, and update it whenever you make a change. It will keep you from making this mistake.

DON’T put anything on your blank pages (no running headers, no page numbers, and certainly no “this page is intentionally left blank” … have you ever seen that in a “real” book?  I don’t think so!) They’re blank for a reason. Leave them that way.

DO remember to make it look pretty. You’re designing this interior. It should look designed. Not overworked, not fussy, but intentional and beautiful.

Was this helpful? Do you have any dos or don’ts of your own that you’d like to share? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you.