Dymocks’ author-driven publishing platform, D Publishing Network, launched on Wednesday night. It’s been months of hard work (and the reason my blog posts have been few and far between of late) but incredibly rewarding at the same time to have been involved in what has, essentially, been a massive IT project.

My role with Nexus has been as both designer of the book templates and also general publishing consultant, helping project members with either bookselling and IT experience (or both) to understand book production for both print and ebooks. Things like why the printers’ specs are important and where they need to be implemented, CMYK/RGB and dpi/ppi for images, how authors might use and apply styles and sections, and book conventions such as which sections go in the front of the book, the middle and the back. It was particularly gratifying at the launch to see the fruits of all our labours in two printed books (a B-format novel and a C-format business book, both shown below), that have gone through the system.

Interior pages of the B format design, showing the start of a chapter.

Interior pages on the printed B format book

One of the biggest challenges was designing a set of book templates that will work in an automated process in which the user (that is, an author) controls the application of styles and elements to the content. One of the early decisions made was to place some parts of the templates beyond the users’ control so that they can’t make elementary and unprofessional mistakes. For example, the user enters the book title in the book title field, and the title is used for the verso running header as well as on the title page. Similarly the words entered in the chapter title field causes those words to appear at the top of the chapter page (under the chapter number, if entered), on the recto running header, and also to be pulled automatically into the table of contents. This level of control was needed to avoid unprofessional user choices for the main visual and structural elements of the book, and also to eliminate errors. It’s no good having the running headers and table of contents pick up all styles called “chapter title” if a user is able to apply a random style to their chapter titles – they would be missing from the running header and table of contents.

It helped that the project uses some of the best book design and automation software in the business. I have experience with older versions of Typefi Publish as a former customer, and more recently Typefi Systems engaged me to manage and produce their marketing collateral, so I was already familiar with its capabilities. Knowing that Typefi Publish was powering the back end meant this was a project I could take on and be confident of great results. Typefi Publish uses Adobe InDesign so we could take advantage of its granular controls to apply rules for widows and orphans, hyphenation, and so on. Since the project uses the latest version of InDesign (CS5.5) we could also include the ePub template design along with the print book designs. The system takes the author’s manuscript and converts it to XML and delivers that XML to the Typefi Engine at the back end, which means the same content is delivered to both the print template selected by the author and the ePub template. No post-conversion to ePub needed!

Although the design is controlled by the templates, and the application of styles to certain content such as titles is also controlled, there is considerable freedom in the application of styles to the main body content of the books. For most of their content, users are able to select from a range of components: headings (down to three levels), paragraph styles, text boxes, tables and images. All of these components had to be designed with a set of rules that would work no matter what order they come in, while using a minimum number of styles so as not to provide too many confusing choices. For example, professional typesetters will set up a range of styles to use in different situations: there may be as many as 10 different variations of ‘body’ for use after headings, before quotes, and so on. That’s not including another style for quotes, another for bullet lists, another for figure captions. Even heading styles may have variations within the one level, depending on where the headings are used on the page. A professional typesetter will choose the correct style to use in every instance. An inexperienced user, however, may not.

Interior pages on the printed C format book, showing text boxes

Interior pages on the printed C format book, showing text boxes aligned to the outside margins of recto and verso pages

A point of clarification: D Publishing is not a system offering authors the ability to typeset their manuscripts. It’s a system that allows them to put manuscripts into a professionally typeset template for print and ebook. So users don’t actually have control over the styles – they can’t choose to increase the spaces between paragraphs or change the fonts. There are good reasons for this: D Publishing wanted the output to look professional, so all the design choices – like font, leading, spacing, margins and so on – are taken outside the user’s control. This of course allows authors to focus on their words, and not the point size, which can only be a good thing. It also makes for consistency: the user can be confident that every first-level heading style will be consistent throughout the manuscript. If the styles are applied consistently, then there won’t be unprofessional-looking books with smaller fonts in one section or font A in chapter 1 but font B in chapter 2.

But users do have the choice as to whether they apply a heading style, and which level, or a paragraph style as body-text or quote. So the system won’t be completely fool-proof: technically there is nothing to stop an author putting every single paragraph into a quote style (indented from the margin with a smaller serif font than the body text) or a heading style (larger sans serif font with space before and after), or from using all first-level headings in chapter 1 and all second-level headings in chapter 2. Since all manuscripts are different, there is only so much control you can impose without making it extremely limited.

This freedom, however, allows scope for wide variation so it is quite unlikely that, as far as the content is concerned, all these books will look exactly the same. Chapter numbers, for instance, are not automated, nor is the case fixed. The part that is fixed is where the number is positioned: above the title at the top of the first page of the chapter (because that’s the conventional, and sensible, place for it to sit). So the author can insert any of the following text as the “number” into the chapter number field for their chapters. For example, the seventh chapter in their book could be entered as:

7
Seven
Chapter Seven
CHAPTER 7
VII
Section 7
Section G
Chapter the Seventh
chapter seven
violet

Okay, the last one is a bit far-fetched, but it’s possible someone may have a book with seven chapters named for the colours of the rainbow. The template allows for this, whether the chapter is called:

 7 [number field]
Violet [title field]

or

violet [number field]
At the edge of the rainbow [title field].

The fields are whatever the author fills in. The design of the chapter numbers, titles and subtitles also had to allow for empty fields and long titles and subtitles.

It was this kind of thinking through the logic of allowing for what most authors’ manuscripts may contain that was most challenging for the book template design. I think my vast publishing experience helped, as I was able to draw not only on my experience of books I’ve seen published (as a typesetter) but also on manuscripts that have not been published (as an editor and writer). Being able to apply structural logic to content is as much a part of book design as choosing fonts.

I’d like to think we’ve anticipated most authors’ needs, and there will only be a few exceptions. The system is live now; as authors use it, we’ll find out how well we’ve done with the first set of templates. Importantly, we’ll also be able to add further templates, styles and components based on real user feedback and live content – because that’s what it’s all about, after all: providing authors with the tools to present their writing at its best for the benefit of their readers.

© Linda Kythe Nix 2011. All rights reserved.