"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."
Okay, let's get this straight: The quotation is from Ralph Waldo Emerson's magisterial essay "Self-Reliance." It was neither a thrown-off quip by Oscar Wilde nor a Thoreauvian pronouncement; and if those words ever passed the lips of Harriet Beecher Stowe, it was in an act of quotation, not origination.
But the most frequently made and crucial mistake concerning this misunderstood nugget is the common elision of the second word: foolish. I've heard Emerson's statement sans modifier used to excuse all sorts of doubtful decisions and bad behavior—much of them within the realms of publishing. With that noted, I would like to utter a hearty "hear-hear" to his proposition, especially as it relates to the editorial process.
I must 'fess up to something that arises from my being an editor of a certain age. I have my own personal set of bugaboos—generally accepted writing practices and conventions that set my teeth on edge. Split infinitives just sound wrong to me. Most nouns, when transmogrified into verbs, make me want to sob. (You won't catch me journaling anytime soon.) And for some unknowable reason that probably reaches into my genetic composition, the word towards hurts my eyes and I always knock it down to its simpler sibling toward. (Full disclosure: I consistently change such things when editing.)
Like any editor, I've had my share of contretemps over those and other Fowlerian quibbles, but the one agreement that always results from such arguments is the necessity for factual and editorial consistency within any given project. It is dismaying, then, to read contemporary nonfiction (and even some fiction) that has been published without a "disinterested" and trained third party's review.
The need for factual consistency is self-evident. All it really means is that the author owes it to his readers to get his facts right and cite them consistently. Just recently, for example, in editing a scholar's essay, I came across a passage she quoted from a recent university press book. Within the space of approximately 120 words, the date for the same event was given as 1876 and 1867. Thinking my author was responsible for a simple typo, rather than doing the fact checking, I asked her to verify the source's wording and fix the wrong date. She discovered, however, that her transcription of the passage was 100 percent accurate. After discussing possible solutions—simply correcting the errant year; editing out both dates with ellipses—we settled on the old (and old-fashioned) standby "[sic]."
Any editor worth her salt recognizes the importance of editorial consistency, even if it isn't immediately apparent to the layperson. Lapses are the readerly equivalent of speed bumps: while they don't keep you from reaching your destination, they certainly slow you down and can cause problematic breaks in attention and concentration.
If you want readers to trust what you write, it must make sense to them. Material handled inconsistently can cause doubts about veracity as well as literary worth. As a freelance proofreader, I once called an author's attention to a pivotal character's hair color, which went from blonde (chapter 1) to brunette (chapter 7) to red (chapter 8) with no mention of how or why. Reportedly the writer was hugely startled and very appreciative. Had the character's multicolor coifs gone uncorrected, the entire reason for the murders she witnessed became moot.
But how can the editor maintain such consistency? A certain kind of nit-picky mind and attention to detail help, as does a well-trained memory. Before I had much experience, I was blithely unaware of the editorial booby traps that surely must have been present when I read. By the time I had developed my word-worker's chops, however, I had also relinquished my former reader's innocence. Now I am blessed and cursed with the kind of critical eye and facility that bring me to a full stop when I encounter inconsistent spelling or word usage.
There is also a tool that I consider a crucial element of good editing: a well-designed, carefully maintained style sheet. While I require one for every Vern Associates project, many of the editors with whom I've worked over the past ten or so years have had no idea what it is and asked me to define the term. Of those who relied on such guides, however, a couple used their own templates, which were better than nothing but ran aground in cases where tricky style issues didn't fit neatly into theie predefined format.
A useful style sheet—even for a multiauthor book—is not that difficult to develop or keep current, and using and updating it quickly become second nature. When your recognize how far toward assuring consistency this tool can take you, the small amount of extra effort doesn't seem foolish in the least.
One spring morning in 1998, Susan Rossen, the estimable executive director of publications at the Art Institute of Chicago, addressed a packed conference room in a New York hotel. I attended because I knew that, whatever the topic, she would be engaging, wry, and well worth hearing. The session's title gave no hint that its message had the potential to be earth-shaking, and I had no reason to expect that my entire notion of art book publishing was about to be turned on its head.
Taking her place behind the lectern, Susan hefted an enormous two-volume tome just published by the AIC: The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler. We received a short slide tour that included a few of Whistler's lithographs, some interior spreads, and related images. She briefly told of the book's history—that many years and much exceedingly fine scholarship and research had been devoted to bringing this catalogue raisonné to publication; that a museum patron had funded the book's development and production; that the folks in the AIC publications department had pulled out all the stops to make it the remarkable, luxe publication it obviously is. To wrap up the introduction, she cited specifications—992 pages with 864 illustrations bound in two volumes that together have a spine width of 3.5 inches and weigh 11.4 pounds.
I'm willing to bet that few of her listeners were prepared for what came next, however. Susan dropped the catalogue onto the adjacent table. A resounding whomp echoed for seconds as she asked
In this day and age, why do we continue to produce publications like this one?
I'm not certain she used the term whomp factor—it may have been thud factor—but I came away from that address with a new resource for judging relative merit and need for a proposed book project. While it has served me well in terms of metrics, its true value is its capacity to raise important questions and present conundrums about contemporary art book publishing that constanly require attention.
Susan's litany of hours, dollars, and materials struck at the heart of what art book publishing had been all about—and also caused me to ponder where it was heading. With technology for scanning, storing, and viewing images constantly improving, did it still make sense to produce mammoth, traditional printed books on rarified subjects for the handful of scholars and collectors who can afford them?
Looking back, I see that I had fallen into an already outdated art book publishing mindset. By the time of Susan's presentation, the 1980s' exuberance of that particular niche was as difficult to explain as waxed-repro-on-boards production practices. The recession of the early 1990s caused the speedy eclipse of the previous decade's publishing excesses. The "doorstop" book devoted to a single museum's collection and priced at $100 or more no longer topped holiday-gift lists and were filling up remainder bins. By 1998, only a couple of trade houses still unveiled significant semiannual lists of high-quality art books.
But the major game changer—the Internet—was only just beginning to influence the nature of art book "content" (as it has come to be called, sadly) and publishing. My colleagues in the field felt, as I did, fairly well insulated from what other publishing professionals perceived as the "threat" of digital media, even though they had yet to be able to see it as handwriting on the wall.
In the 1980s, a number of art historians with whom I worked still balked at reproducing artworks in color. They were concerned (sometimes justifiably) that photographers' and printers' capabilities and practices wouldn't render sufficiently fine pictures to make printed images reliable. Although color printing had advanced by leaps and bounds, a kind of snobbery had taken root that suggested that color pictures somehow connoted substandard scholarship. By the mid-1990s, of course, this sentiment had dimmed noticeably, and the majority of art book authors expected—many even required—inclusion of color reproductions in their books.
When it comes to digital publications, I've found no reliable way to comprehend which way the wind is blowing. Every guru who states that marketing is now predominately social media driven is countered by another who points to statistical evidence that a mere 27 percent of Fortune 500 companies utilize it. How, then, are we to arrive at a realistic understanding of contemporary interest in and opinion about electronic art publications?
Even though it seems that I learn about new leaps in digital-image technology every day, I find no indication today that the electronic publishing of quality books about art is poised to lead to any brave new experiments. And it is just such wariness that makes it clear just how prescient Susan's whomp-factor message was and how its corollaries bear careful, repeated consideration.
Picture credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com
At my office, on most any day, multiple articles arrive concerning the "deaths" of publishing, text or, really, printed matter of any sort. I fret, of course, about how the days of my chosen livelihood—I like to think of it as a vocation—apparently are numbered.
I readily acknowledge that I will probably always travel the information superhighway at just above minimum speed. But recently I've started considering the quality of all that information whizzing by me in both the left and right "lanes." Text and content have come to be generic terms of choice for "stuff to learn that is available online"; in the digital-design world, they're more frequently interpreted as "stuff with which you fill web pages."
Without exception, the news heralding advances in content delivery focus on clarity, comfort, and the speed with which the reader can absorb information and move on to something new. Today everyone is required to learn an enormous amount in order to keep up with our complex society, and the speed of delivery of this information load certainly shows no signs of slowing down.
But where does that leave the people for whom reading and/or spending time enjoying a fine illustrated book are pleasures, or even felt viscerally, as with any (gasp!) passion?
When I read online, I find that something provided in the context of an endless barrage of "content"—a photo amidst millions of other photos, for example—is very difficult to appreciate, let alone savor.* And that brings to mind the slow-food movement, which has developed out of some people's desire to experience growing, cooking, and eating food as something that goes beyond a mere nutrition-delivery system. Its advocates revel in using fresh, local ingredients and taking time to cook and appreciate delicious meals.
Some people also consider cooking to be an art form. I'm not well enough informed to offer an opinion about that, and I'm also reluctant to elevate beautifully made illustrated books to the status of "art." But art never offers a free ride: instead, it demands of anyone who wants to appreciate it attention, observation, and thoughtful consideration.
The books that I love (including some that I've had a hand in creating) are not just beautiful to behold, but also to touch, smell, and hear. Experiencing a wonderful book is, to me, similar to devoting time to looking at a photograph in an art gallery.
I can also be pretty sure that turning the pages of an illustrated book won't require me to turn off three pop-up advertisements during the course of my perusal. This makes me wonder whether any software developer has bothered to devise an app that respects the experience of reading, which, for the most part, leaves no room (or need!) for advertising? If you build it, I will go there.
* Savor: to experience slowly, in order to derive as much enjoyment and/or pleasure as possible...
When discussing a new project with a client, right after “How much is this book going to cost?” the second most frequently asked question is “How long is this going to take?” We’ve learned not to respond “It depends....” But it does—on all sorts of variables:
- The manuscript (“MS”)—has it been written? If so, how well? And if not, who’s going to write it? When will she begin? How soon does she expect to deliver the first draft?
- The art program—how many and what kind of pictures—photos, info graphics (“charts/tables/graphs”), etc.—are involved? Is it assembled? If not, who will put it all together? Are its sources spread far and wide or contained in a smaller, more circumscribed context? How extensive will permissions clearance be? (Therein lies the subject of a blog for the not-too-distant future, by the way.)
- Design—do you want a fairly straightforward tradelike design, or did you have something more elaborate in mind? Just how elaborate? And, by the way, just how long is this book? What is its trim size? Will you review most stages electronically (as pdfs, for example), or do you require hard copy (i.e., printed pages on paper) at each stage?
- Production and printing—does the budget permit printing domestically, or does it necessitate overseas printing? Will you deliver printer-ready image scans, or is VAI or the printer expected to create them from your reflective (that is, non-digital) art? Does a hard-and-fast due date apply, or can delivery of bound books be somewhat open ended?
These are just a few of the most cogent questions we need to answer in order to determine how long we project the gestation period needed for top-quality illustrated books. Let’s look at the first item above to get an idea of how broadly the manuscript variables can be interpreted:
Has the MS been written?
Yes: we can begin editing as soon as the project is contracted.
No: we will need to wait anywhere from five months to a couple of years before editing can begin, and rush jobs almost always result in more complex, time-consuming editorial phases.
What shape is the MS in?
Professional-quality prose written by an expert on the subject is apt to require much less time for editing, fact checking, and authorial handholding (say, a month or so) than a MS by a copywriter with no experience with book-length material. (We’d probably add another month or two in that case.) As for a first-time author just starting to feel his way into the topic, a conservative estimate of the time devoted to the editorial component is five to six months.
Of course, none of this is hard and fast. Books develop organically. Each has its own strengths and difficulties, both of which will have direct, unavoidable effects on the book’s growth to maturity. For example, I have breezed through editing text in half the time I initially allotted. Conversely, a few books written by established scholars have kept me busy four, even five times as long as I had projected at the outset.
So, what kind of ballpark estimate can we (do we) offer? Our rule of thumb for a fairly standard illustrated book is nine months to one year from delivery of first-draft MS, and for the most part that guesstimate has turned out to be pretty much on the money.
We can always suggest ways to reduce it if need be. Printing domestically, for example, cuts down on the back-and-forth shipping time during the proof-approval stage, which can end up shaving off a week or two. Domestic binderies can also ship books by truck, for delivery in a day or two, as opposed to four to eight weeks sea freight can require.
My partner has been known to kick my shin under the conference table for mentioning the time it took to produce and deliver a 128-page, 120-picture book from start—i.e., having no author, much less MS; no pictures; not even an archive—to finish (delivery of bound books printed in Hong Kong). The 27 weeks was possible and successful only because the specific individuals (client, writer, VAI participants, printer’s rep, printer, binder) in the team we assembled were all at their best during that period of late nights and long hours. Clearly, this was neither optimal nor foregone.
Because each new book is its own organic entity, it has its own bottom line for how much care it will need for development and production. Shortchange that time and you’ll suffer the consequences; overdo it and you’ll find a whole new set of not necessarily happy results.
Do yourself a favor up front: rather than rely on some sort of template-driven, hard-and-fast “rule,” take time to determine what variables apply. Once the ducks are in their row, you can base your book’s production schedule on a realistic understanding of its actual requirements.
Photo credits: (top) Tom Woodward; (bottom) Brandon Schauer