How Books Are Made

The book-production process, a whirlwind tour

Arthur and his colleague Klara Skinner describe the entire book-making process in forty-five minutes.

This is an episode especially for process junkies: a whirlwind tour through planning, commissioning, tools, writing and review, manuscript development and editing, design, permissions, typesetting, digitisation, artwork, stylesheets, software development, page refinement, proofreading, indexing, testing, deployment, publication, and those inevitable reprint corrections. Whew!

Links from the show:

This episode was published on 6 September 2020.
Supported by Electric Book Works: publishing reinvented for the digital age.


Arthur Attwell 0:04
Hello, and welcome to How Books Are Made, a podcast about the art and science of making books. I’m Arthur Attwell.

Arthur Attwell 0:22
I started making books 25 years ago. I used to help my mom who was a publisher, looking for pictures or organizing files. Even then, it was kind of magic. In the 25 years since I’ve got to make books in many, many different ways. For many years, I used what we now call the traditional approach, which is that we prepare a manuscript in MS Word, we lay it all out in InDesign, before that, QuarkXPress. Then, we produce print PDFs to go off to the printer. These days at Electric Book Works, we produce books in a digital-first workflow, which means we could produce print books, but also websites and ebooks and apps from the same source of truth.

Arthur Attwell 1:06
Today, I’m going to talk about the book production process with my colleague, Klara Skinner. Klara worked for a big publishing company before joining Electric Book Works about 18 months ago. We’ve really enjoyed working with her. She brings a warmth and insight to book-making that’s an absolute pleasure. In the next half hour, we’ll try to cover the whole book-making process and then, in future episodes, get into the detail of the specific steps involved. Right? Let’s go.

Arthur Attwell 1:34
Klara, we are here at last to talk about making books. It’s nice to have you on the show.

Klara Skinner 1:38
Nice to be on the show.

Arthur Attwell 1:39
So this show is a little bit of an experiment because we are going to talk about the book production process as two colleagues. Klara, you work with me at Electric Book Works and we make books together. In this little run through, we’re going to try to take a whirlwind tour through the book production process and we’re going to try get that done in half an hour. There’s a lot to get done.

Arthur Attwell 2:05
The book production process, obviously starts with an idea, right. So someone wants to actually do something in the world with a book. I suppose we call that conceptualization and planning. Often their planning might happen in a publishing company, but it might also happen in any organization that needs to put a book into the world for a strategic reason, or for financial reasons or anything else. Klara, you’ve worked in book publishing and organizations that need to hire a production team to get a book done.

Klara Skinner 2:41
My history is with a trade publisher, before working at EBW, where I engaged in traditional publishing processes with clients and also assisted custom publishing clients with getting books made. So I’ve seen both sides of the coin, making books for sale, and then also making books for organizational reasons, which are sometimes sold, but not always.

Arthur Attwell 3:09
Yeah, so these organizations that need to publish but need to hire someone else to do it. They don’t have an in-house publishing team. That’s what we do at EBW, right, we make make books for clients. The same process would apply in a publishing company.

Klara Skinner 3:21
That’s right. As you said, someone comes up with an idea, and there’s some sort of conceptualization and planning work that has to go into thinking about what this publication actually is. That’s very formalized in our process. But for people who are looking for someone to help them make a book, they might have more of an informal way of coming to that idea.

Arthur Attwell 3:45
Absolutely. Making books is art and science end sometimes the art is, seems more fun than the science, but the science is often more reliable and consistent and you kind of want to mix them both, I suppose, to get a book going.

Arthur Attwell 3:57
When we plan, we have some standard key issues we like to look at, and particularly key problems we like to look out for and solve those. So that’s the first thing we do. We’re thinking through what the book wants to achieve in the world, who is going to do the writing, who is going to do the designing, where the thing is going to be published, what it’s going to look like. All of that is happening in the planning phase. Once we’ve got that plan done, we have to actually find some authors to write this. Sometimes those authors came with the idea, sometimes the authors were the people who had the idea, but very often, the authors are commissioned by the publishing team to write to a brief.

Klara Skinner 4:34
That’s right. So it would be important to look for people who have experience and knowledge and also have written something before.

Arthur Attwell 4:43
I mean, it’s an art that you get better at with practice, right? So while the commissioning authors stage is happening, at the same time, the production team is setting up the technical infrastructure for producing the book. If they’re going to be using a particular kind of software they’re setting that software up and getting it ready. If they’re going to be producing the book in multiple formats, like a website, and an ebook, and a print book, and an app, they’re gonna need to have all the bits and pieces in place to be able to do that. So for digital-first publishers like us, that would include repositories, the code base, setting up the tests, the deployment processes, and so on. Then, if you’re producing a book in the more traditional way, with InDesign, and MS Word to InDesign to PDF, then you’re making sure that your typesetter has the necessary software, that the whole team is working on the same versions of the software, that you all know where you’re going to be putting files that you’d like to share, you all know how you’re going to send files to each other.

Arthur Attwell 5:44
So at this point, when we’re setting up technical infrastructure, we’re also making this big decision about whether to publish this book digital-first, which is great for publishing as a website and an app and so on, or to publish in the traditional workflow, which is usually MS Word to InDesign to PDF. There are pros and cons to both. On the digital-first side, the advantage is that you get a website and an ebook and an app out of the same source of truth, the same manuscript, in the same place. Version control is really great. The downside is that you have much higher setup costs, and you need a higher level of technical expertise on the team to pull it off.

Arthur Attwell 6:25
On the other hand, the traditional way of doing things, which is MS Word to InDesign to PDF, the advantage there is that pretty much every typesetter is set up with the software you’re going to need. There are a lot of people you can hire, they’re not that expensive, so it’s generally in the short term a cheaper way to publish. But the downside is that you don’t have a built-in version control system and you don’t have a way to produce website content and other formats, digital formats, directly from your source material. Does that sound like a fair comparison of the two routes?

Klara Skinner 7:04
Definitely. I think some of the problems that arise in the traditional process are with vision control right at the outset, where a manuscript is being written and edited in a program like Word, where the team has to rely on emailing that document back and forth in its various iterations. I’ve often seen version confusion happen, where the incorrect version is actually sent to a typesetter, which can cause a world of pain. Then of course, once your content is in InDesign, it becomes much more difficult to shift things around compared to digital publishing process, where pages reflow much more easily and naturally. Also, if there are any issues with the page size for print editions, a whole book would need to be re-typeset and re-layed out, whereas in a digital publishing process, that would just be a minor adjustment.

Arthur Attwell 8:06
Because essentially, in a digital-first process, your layout is automated, 95% of it is automated with a little bit of human refinement at the end, so you get to change your mind halfway through and instantly change 95% of your, of your layout.

Arthur Attwell 8:21
I suppose this digital-first approach we found extends also to the software used for managing the project itself. Just the other day, you and I were discussing the fact that we love communicating with our clients and with our team in one project management tool, we use Basecamp, which is just great. It means that all our conversations are organized in their project, including our correspondence with our partners and clients, which is really great. It kind of breaks down when some of the people we’re working with don’t want to use the project management software. That’s a difficult dilemma. How do we deal with the fact that some people really struggle to embrace new project management or other software and want you stick with the old way, because it’s where they’re familiar? You want to accommodate them, at the same time, you just know that this new way of doing things where everything is so much more organized is a sensible long term solution.

Klara Skinner 9:17
It’s quite tricky. I think there’s so many benefits to working in systems that allow you to have ways of organizing information differently than you would in email and ways of dealing with content differently than you would if you were working on a Word document. So digital-first workflow really encourages the use of certain tools throughout the publishing process that can be used collaboratively like Google Docs, where you can comment and work together with people on one version of a document rather than wondering which is the right Word document to be using and having to send that back and forth to different people over email. It’s just so much easier to have everything in one place where you can have conversations and adjust content together with others on the team. The same goes for systems like Basecamp, where you have the option to organize material in a certain way and even add things like due dates and have a conversation about due dates or a certain task in a project, which is much more difficult to do piecemeal over email.

Arthur Attwell 10:32
We’re assuming, yeah, we’re all in a world where everyone’s working remotely as well. So keeping everything online and coordinated is extra important.

Klara Skinner 10:40
Yes. And I think our current situation is going to encourage people maybe to embrace that a bit more than they would have before. Because it is difficult to learn new things. But once you are familiar with a new piece of software that can do amazing things, it’s really a joy to have all those options at your fingertips for managing a project.

Arthur Attwell 11:00
Tools we’ve mentioned so far, since we’re talking about technical infrastructure. We love Google Docs, because of the collaborative editing and real-time single document approach. We love Basecamp for project management, but there are other solutions as well, so one can look around a little bit. We could certainly recommend those two for this part of the process and then for the actual book production there are other options, which we can do later if we have time.

Arthur Attwell 11:24
So now the technical infrastructure is set up, authors are commissioned, and now the authors are actually getting on with writing. I suppose the biggest challenge here is helping authors keep to deadline because writing is super hard, especially when you have a deadline.

Klara Skinner 11:40
I think this is where the importance of planning really comes into play. If you have a solid plan at the outset for your entire project, and you’ve briefed authors really well on what they need to do, and when they need to do it by, it makes everything a lot easier to achieve and more manageable. Part of planning, of course, is setting up some sort of schedule or timeline for the project at a high level, and then also drilling down into each little task. Isolating dates in that way makes it easier for people to stay on track and for project managers to determine whether a project is on track.

Arthur Attwell 12:18
You mentioned the project manager, that person who takes responsibility for watching those dates, that’s a, it’s like a full time job, if you’re managing a couple of projects. There’s a lot going on there, especially if we have multiple authors. We’ve also got this role we describe as the project director, which is the ultimate decision maker for the project, senior leadership position. They can make budgetary decisions, they have the power to overrule anybody. Usually when we’re working for a client, that’s the most senior decision maker at the client that we’re working with. Importantly, they see everything, right, everything ultimately goes through them. They trust their team to do their best work, so they’re not trying to rewrite everyone’s stuff. But they’re able to make decisions because publishing schedules, any schedules for any project, but especially book publishing, run on decisions, and that person needs to make those to keep things moving. I know, you and I have found that the best projects are the ones where the project director is able to make quite confident decisions, while trusting their, the team around them.

Klara Skinner 13:17
It’s so important. A project can get blocked so easily. And things can really start to fall apart if there isn’t one key person just taking charge and making sure that everything moves forward.

Arthur Attwell 13:28
One of their key roles, but also other people on the teams roles is the next stage in our little process here, which is manuscript reviews. Now the manuscript has come in from the authors, it’s usually in some kind of draft form, even if the authors think it’s quite final, everyone recognizes that the first draft is usually going to go through some stages of improvement. Who are the people who kind of, providing input on that work? How do you manage the author’s feelings at this point?

Klara Skinner 13:56
So often in projects that ends up being the authors themselves that review work unless they’ve been commissioned separately. Sometimes, teams producing a publication will actually be writing the content themselves and responsible for the quality of the content. That makes it a little bit more difficult, because when you’ve been engaging with content for a long time at a deep level, it becomes quite difficult to see where issues might lie. But if authors have been commissioned separately, and they independent to the team that’s producing the publication, it would be important for the publication’s team to be doing that review and then it becomes a little bit easier to manage the quality and give feedback to authors in a way that they can really take it on board. I think this is also an important part of the briefing process is to understand that this is a collaborative process and this is a collaborative way of producing content, and that authors need to not be precious about what they write, but that it needs to ultimately fulfill the goals that the client has in mind.

Arthur Attwell 15:09
Absolutely. Author’s names go on the covers and so we have this myth that the authors are the ones who created this text in its final form, and that’s just so far from the truth. You know, some of the best authors I know, in fiction and nonfiction, will credit their editors immensely for helping, for improving, and developing their work.

Arthur Attwell 15:33
Which leads me to the next stage in our process here, which is that very often the manuscript from the author will now go to a professional development editor, and this person is really going to get to grips with the author’s material and might move it around and might have big suggestions for changes, they might write some of the content themselves. This manuscript developer is a rare breed that could get into the mind of the author to replicate this style, but can also bring that kind of firm editorial hand to actually moving stuff about. But as you say, authors have to be brave, strong people to be able to take that kind of change to their manuscripts, right?

Klara Skinner 16:14
Yeah. Sometimes these developmental editors are actually authors themselves, which is a good thing, because they can see it from the author’s perspective, and they can be a little more gentle with the way they go about their job. To author any book, you definitely need to be a brave, resilient individual.

Arthur Attwell 16:34
So now, the manuscript might go through a few rounds to and fro between manuscript developers, the project director, and the authors. Now we’re at the stage where now it can go for the next stage, which is copyediting. Often, this is a tricky thing to distinguish between manuscript development and copyediting. How would you distinguish between those two things?

Klara Skinner 16:55
Development is really a formative process, I think, where the initial concept has been refined, and the content is really being molded into something that fits with the goal. Whereas more basic editing is really looking for issues of consistency, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and readability for the end user or the reader.

Arthur Attwell 17:19
If you really want to do a high quality book, you want a copyeditor who’s been copyediting for a while, has seen a lot of different kinds of projects. That can make a big difference to the polish on a manuscript.

Klara Skinner 17:29
Yes, I think a lot of people imagine that it’s just spelling and grammar that’s being fixed. So they can ask, so they can ask their friends or family members who love that sort of thing to do the job. But editors are actually highly skilled individuals that do a lot of work on a manuscript besides just fixing the spelling and, and grammar. Most importantly, they apply a really consistent style to the entire book

Arthur Attwell 17:58
Thats house style. That’s like, are we using s’s and z’s? How do we hyphenate in this book? What punctuation do we put at the ends of bullet point lists and so on?

Klara Skinner 18:07
Exactly, and how we treat dates and how we refer to certain people that are mentioned throughout the book, all those sorts of small decisions that really once the book is published, make the reading experience seamless for the person who picks up the book.

Arthur Attwell 18:23
That seamless reading experience is what we’re aiming for here. The perfect book is one where you, while you’re reading it, you have no awareness of what’s gone into creating it, because it’s so well created, that the content itself is just slipping into your mind without much effort.

Arthur Attwell 18:41
Okay, so while the editing is happening, the design is also happening, right? So often, newcomers to publishing think that design is just about the book cover, because obviously, that looks very designed, and therefore there must be a designer, but what often goes unseen is that there’s a designer that’s deciding on the design of the individual pages. Usually they’re choosing the font face, the font size, the margins, the line spacing. They’re deciding what chapter openers look like, they’re usually creating a specification for design that will then be applied throughout the book. They might also at that stage, start working on the book cover very often, though, the book cover designer and the book page designer might be different people, right? Because those are different competencies as well.

Klara Skinner 19:27
Exactly. Often the cover can come much later once the book is fully formed, especially in trade publishing, where it’s primarily used as a marketing tool.

Arthur Attwell 19:41
Another thing that’s happening at this point is permissions. If you’ve say, used a song lyric in the opening of a chapter, or you’ve quoted some poetry or you’ve used a picture of a artwork in the book, you have to go get the permission of the copyright holder of that song or poem or artwork, maybe even the gallery that owns the artwork, and so on, right? So someone is sitting, writing to all these different rights holders, figuring out who the rights holders even are, and making sure that you have their permission to use this stuff in your book, right.

Klara Skinner 20:16
Hopefully. But this is often something people don’t actually realize they need to do until someone tells them they need to do it.

Arthur Attwell 20:24
Well, they do it really late in the process, and then they just put a little note at the back of the book saying we couldn’t get all the permissions in time, so please be nice to us.

Klara Skinner 20:31
We tried our best. Exactly. (LAUGHS) So there are actually at larger publishing houses, whole teams and departments devoted to just obtaining permissions for work, especially in educational publishing, where a lot of the content is sourced from elsewhere. In trade publishing, sometimes the author is responsible for obtaining those permissions themself. Ideally, there could be done at the time of writing, or once the first draft manuscript is complete, and the author knows exactly what content they’ve got in there. Because it can be a really long, drawn-out process.

Klara Skinner 20:31
Often it’s difficult to establish who exactly holds copyrights on certain content. Even if you’re able to establish that it might be difficult to contact them, if you can imagine, content belongs to people who have, who died years ago and it’s now sitting with their estate, and so sometimes you just don’t hear back. Other times, if it’s a large organization that has a system for giving permission down pat, they could come back right away, but charge quite large amounts for use of their content. So it’s something that really needs to be considered quite carefully at the outset and decisions made at that time around what is crucial to the book and what could actually be rewritten in a way that makes it original and permission not necessary.

Arthur Attwell 22:05
As you’re talking about this, I’m thinking there’s a whole episode that we should do at some stage just devoted to permissions, because it’s deep and fascinating and can take forever. Okay. So I feel like that sums up what I would call a whole setup phase of a project, right? Everything’s underway, the manuscript is pretty much complete and edited, and, but it’s still a Google doc or a Word document, it now needs to actually become the designed thing that the designer has imagined, and that the permissions have been cleared for.

Arthur Attwell 22:35
At this point, this is the first fork in the road between digital-first publishing production process, and what we call a traditional publishing process. So let’s quickly describe the traditional process because it’s more familiar to most people, and in a sense, conceptually easier to wrap your head around. Where does that Google doc or Word document, go to first, go to next in the traditional process?

Klara Skinner 23:03
So in a publishing house, where they’re using a traditional process for making a book, usually that word document would go to a typesetter, who may also be the designer who’s established the spec, that you spoke about earlier. That person would be using probably InDesign to lay out the book. So they are transforming what’s in the Word document into something that looks more like what you imagine a book to be.

Arthur Attwell 23:33
Once they’ve done their first layout, they will send PDFs back to the team to say, Have I done this correctly? Have a look.

Klara Skinner 23:41
That’s right. So InDesign primarily is set up for making print books. There are some ways to use it to make epubs. But that’s a whole nother conversation. So the designer would be exporting a PDF for the publishing team to review and … actually, we need to talk about artwork also.

Arthur Attwell 24:08
Yeah, good point, let’s jump to artwork, then we’ll come back, go right through artwork now in traditional context, and then we’ll come back to digital-first in a second because it’s a little bit different.

Klara Skinner 24:18
Okay, so it, a manuscript might contain only text, or there might be text and images. In a traditional process before the designer can actually do the work of laying out the entire book they would need to have the final images that needs to appear in the book, and images or artwork, could be anything depending on the type of book, there might be photographs, they may be stock images, which are purchased from a site, there might be graphs which need to be redrawn by an illustrator or other illustrations. Even thinking about things like children’s books where that’s pretty much the majority of the content and not the text. The designer needs both text and artwork to be able to complete the entire layout. Then they would export a PDF for the team and the next steps.

Arthur Attwell 25:17
We’ll get to proofreading in bit, which would be the next stage in the traditional process. So let me rewind a little bit. So let’s imagine that instead of sending that MS Word document, or Google doc to a typesetter, you are choosing to go with a digital-first team. And we call it digital-first, little bit of a misleading, not very helpful term. But it essentially means that from the beginning, from the first steps, from the outset, we’re assuming that this product is not just going to be a print book, it’s also going to be a website, and it might also be an app, but it might also be an ebook. Therefore InDesign is not the best tool necessarily for that process and so we use some other kind of software, and some other kind of expertise and process. Since thats what we do at Electric Book Works it’s familiar to us.

Arthur Attwell 26:07
So our first step is what we call digitisation, where we’re essentially taking that Google Doc, and we’re, what we want to turn it into is HTML. We use a intermediary step called markdown, which is like a plain text format. But essentially, we’re getting that text not laid out in pages, but we’re getting the text content, super organized, almost like it’s in a database, like a machine is now going to lay this content out and we’re preparing it for the machine to be able to do that. And what are some of the things that we do, that you do, Klara, you’ve seen, when we’re digitising that just to help create the picture?

Klara Skinner 26:45
So there are some similarities here in a way between the traditional process of layout and our process of digitisation. Before a designer lays out a book in InDesign in the traditional process, someone would actually prepare that word document for the designer. So they would be doing things like indicating the treatment of headings to establish a hierarchy of information in the book, and they’d be putting in instructions for where to insert images, and what terms should be bold and italics and those sorts of things.

Klara Skinner 27:24
A designer or a typesetter isn’t always engaging with content at a deep level, so they need instructions on where to place things and how to treat things and how to design things. In the same way, in digitisation, we’re telling the computer how to treat things and how to lay out things. So we would be applying tags and certain treatments to portions of the content so that a machine can understand what to do with it. Those would be things like marking up headings, inserting images where they need to go, videos where they need to go, formatting other interactive features, like multiple choice questions, exercises, boxes.

Arthur Attwell 28:12
While this digitisation is happening, a software developer is usually writing the style sheets. This is the piece where the software developer is essentially automating 95%, of what the typesetter used to do, which is that they’re creating the instructions for the machine that will lay out the pages from your content, or lay out the ebook or lay out the website, and so on. Those style sheets are usually written in a computer language called CSS. So that gets written at the same time.

Arthur Attwell 28:40
Either way, whether you’ve gone the traditional route, and you’ve ended up with a PDF, or you’ve gone this digital-first route, and you ended up with the software developed, at the end of the process, what you’ve got is something for the, to go back to the team to review. Maybe it’s PDFs, maybe it’s a website version in the digital-first context. But either way, at this point, the book actually looks like a book now. The pages look like what the end user reader consumer will see. Right?

Klara Skinner 29:06
Yeah, and this is one of the most exciting parts of the process for me. To see something really come together and see how it’s going to be in the real world is a really nice rewarding step.

Arthur Attwell 29:22
Yeah, absolutely. This is where everyone gets quite a buzz. It’s pretty cool. These pages if they’re a PDF, or these web pages, now need to go to proofreading. So here again, we get a professional in. So proofreading is possibly the most misunderstood term in publishing, right?

Klara Skinner 29:40
Yeah, and also the most avoided step of the process. I think people often feel they can do without it but it’s, it’s so essential to creating a really well made book. It’s really the last chance you have to check your content before it’s in the hands of the public. In traditional publishing especially this is so important when the content has been through the hands of a designer and it hasn’t really been engaged with at a deep level since editing. A lot of errors can sometimes sneak into the process and there may also be things that the editors miss in the first rounds, or that become more, more crucial to fix or catch the eye more once the book is in layout.

Arthur Attwell 30:33
What’s critical here is that it’s a fresh pair of eyes, it’s reading, right, because anyone who has looked at this content before just can’t see the mistakes anymore.

Klara Skinner 30:41
Exactly. But at this stage in the process, you’ve been at it for months now. To think of actually deep reading the content and other time is probably beyond most people at this stage. Even if they do, like you say, there’s often things that will just slip by, because you’ve looked at it so many times.

Arthur Attwell 31:00
Once we’re really confident the text is ready for the public to see, even knowing that there might be corrections and changes in future versions, we can now make sure that the page layout is really beautiful. In the digital-first context, the machine, as I said, does 95% of the typesetter’s job, but that last 5% is for a human, right, a human eye to look at the page and say, You know what, actually, this figure needs to be just one line smaller so that we can fit this whole paragraph on the page. These words shouldn’t hyphenate across these two pages, we’ll just make a little tweak of spacing or words here to make this page work well. What is page refinement look like?

Klara Skinner 31:43
In our team, we usually do it ourselves, whereas in a traditional setting, everything is quite siloed and it would probably be the proofreader that’s actually marking those sorts of things up on a hardcopy for a designer to fix. When I say designer, again, designer typesetter, could be either, just depending on how the publishing house is set up. That’s the beauty of the digital-first process is that it’s much easier to implement changes at this stage, both regarding the layout and the actual content, whereas in a traditional setting, hard copies need to be sent back and forth between designer or typesetter and proofreader for multiple rounds of checking and implementation. So at each step, there are always two people involved, at least, possibly more. Again, there’s potential issues around version confusion and certain changes not making their way into the book. In a digital-first process, it’s a lot cleaner and I feel easier and one person could do it.

Arthur Attwell 32:54
Yeah, that’s a really important distinction between the traditional process and digital that you’ve hit on there, which is that the digital-first process is by its nature more collaborative in the sense that more than one person can work on the project at the same time, and more than one person can do more than one task. Whereas in the traditional process, the book moves in a very linear fashion between each member of the team, and it cycles back to them.

Arthur Attwell 33:18
You also mentioned hard copies. That’s a really interesting feature of book publishing in general is that so much is still done on actual physical paper. A lot of proofreaders are starting to mark up their corrections on screen using something like Adobe Acrobat or similar PDF reading software, where they can actually annotate the PDF. But it’s quite a tricky process to do sometimes with a mouse and typing in exactly what you want. Many proofreaders have got so used to using a pen and pencil to physically mark up paper and they’re much more efficient at that, that we still see paper moving around between people, which seems kind of crazy, but also makes sense, because paper is such a wonderful format for writing on and marking up micro changes, right.

Arthur Attwell 34:05
In a couple of episodes, I’m going to be talking to John Pettigrew, whose company Futureproofs is trying to take that paper markup experience to the screen. In fact, I say trying to, that’s unfair, they’ve be going for years, they doing it already, it’s great. But we see here an example of how it’s very difficult for people to change the way they do things because they’re trying to make a living, and when you’re trying to make a living, it’s very hard to take time to try a new tool and risk the expense and, and so on. So yes, we’re stuck in this paper proofs world where page proofs get couriered between publishing team members.

Klara Skinner 34:42
Exactly. There’s also a high demand for proofreaders who actually know how to use InDesign because they can proofread and implement their own corrections, which is exactly the beauty of the digital process I’ve described.

Arthur Attwell 34:56
Yeah. That’s also really interesting because it’s kind of a trust issue as well, right, because typesetters have spent years getting really good at using InDesign, they know all its tricks, and they’ve got all their shortcuts set up and they need to trust that when they open their InDesign file, no one else has changed anything that they don’t know about. Because if someone had access to their file and changed something, there would be no way that they wouldn’t know that something’s been changed. There’s no version control system that says, hey, you know, Alice just changed your file, you might want to check out the changes. You just just assume that you’re the only one working on the file. That’s where your trust in the file comes from. But that means that you are a bottleneck, as well, to the process. Being able to have different people work on the same files is really, really useful for time and for collaboration and for team trust, and so on. That’s one of the binds that working in a traditional InDesign process brings

Arthur Attwell 35:52
Right, we’re on to indexing. So not all books have an index. By the index, we’re talking about that list at the back of the book with all the concepts that has the little page numbers on it, in a printed book. Of course, in a digital environment a lot of digital books don’t have indexes, because there’s no such thing as a page number. Sometimes there’ll be lists of hyperlinked concepts but very often, people just fall back to, Oh, well, the book will have search, we’ll just use that. But of course an index is actually like a work of literature itself.

Arthur Attwell 36:22
An indexer, professional indexer who has been indexing for years, it creates indexes, what they’re actually good at, is understanding the hierarchy of concepts that exist in a book, capturing that hierarchy in a list of nested concepts and terms, and then deciding where those concepts of terms are actually spoken about in different places in the book, because you could totally have the concept of democracy discussed on a page without the word democracy ever been mentioned, right? But you’d want to index the concept of democracy and point it to that page. At this point of indexing, you’ve got a professional indexer, who’s developing that hierarchy and capturing it in a format suitable for the publication. It’s one of my favorite parts of the process, because it’s such alchemy to get a really great index out, and it’s so misunderstood. So many people think they can create an index themselves using some kind of computer program. It’s just, this is a human art, right?

Klara Skinner 37:18
Yeah, I don’t think a computer could do the same thing. Again, it’s one of those really nuanced steps in the process that people who have been doing this for years and have the skills to do it can really make all the difference in what this last part of the book actually is, at the end, compared to what it would have been if it was just generated on the fly.

Arthur Attwell 37:45
Yeah, absolutely. Unfortunately, for them, they’re also at the end of the process, so their time is usually super restricted, right, because now we’re starting to get towards what we call pub date, the day that this book is gonna be published, it needs to be out. Often there’s a strategic reason for getting out by a particular date. Maybe it’s an educational book, and it has to be ready for the first term, maybe it’s a trade book and it has to be ready for the Christmas selling season, which really means like, it needs to be ready to ship by like September, October at the latest, and now the index, who thought that we’re gonna have two weeks to index, the book now has five days, and now the index suffers, or the indexer suffers. Now we’re into the time crush.

Klara Skinner 38:26
Unfortunately, that’s the way it ends up working out a lot of the time, which is unfortunate. If you think about the time required to do the sort of index you’re describing, someone really needs to read, read the book really deeply and engage with it so much to be able to put together something that’s comprehensive and an enhancement. So two weeks, less than two weeks is really not much time in the greater scheme of things.

Arthur Attwell 38:57
Absolutely. I’d love to do an episode later at some stage where we drill down into indexing, get some of the kind of inside thoughts of a, of an indexer. And also talk about the ways that indexing might be reinvented in a digital format where we can retain the art of that conceptual hierarchy, but in a digital format, where there aren’t page numbers, but there are still links and connections and so on. So anyway, for another time.

Arthur Attwell 39:22
Okay, so now, the index is in, it’s part of the book, we’re into a final testing and review phase. Now everyone really needs to sign off on the book. I think the hardest thing about this stage is that people really don’t want to let go right now. They’re nervous. They have what Seth Godin calls their lizard brain, it’s freaking out. They’re panicking that this book is going to actually be in people’s hands. Now they’re just looking for problems to fix so that they don’t have to commit to shipping the thing. That can be really hard. But there’s also really important work to be done right now. Right? So what are we testing for are looking for, if we’re about to publish, this is the last test and review whether we’re got just a PDF or whether we’re doing a bunch of formats?

Klara Skinner 40:03
Right. So let’s talk about digital-first. In a web format, we’d really be checking that everything works. So often, there have been multiple rounds of changes, and the content has really evolved as we’ve gone along, so it’s important to click on things and make sure all the content is loading on each page, and that images are showing up. Then for formats like print, we’d be running through some sort of pre-press checklist to make sure that everything is correct before those files gets sent off to the printer. Because once the printers started, they work, there’s no taking it back. It’s really hard to fix things. So that’s doing things like checking you’ve got the right ISBN in on there, that your title is spelled correctly, and the author’s name is spelled correctly. You wouldn’t believe how many times books get sent off to print, and come back with errors in the title and author name. Also that all of the content is inside, that your number of pages matches what the printer is expecting to print. These checks would also be just a quick check of top and bottom of the page to make sure that nothing catches that eye.

Arthur Attwell 41:20
Okay, so now testing and review is done. The website is working, the epub passes validation, and opens and runs fine, the print book is looking good all goes off to the printer. Where are all these different documents actually going to now?

Arthur Attwell 41:34
We’re into the publication phase, what we call deployment and distribution. PDF is going to the printer. If you’re going to be doing an ebook, particularly on a platform like Amazon Kindle, or Apple iBooks, or Google Play Books, countless other stores, then you’re uploading your epubs to their websites. If you are publishing a website, at this point, you are making that website live in any number of the ways that websites can be deployed. The thing with web building is that unlike book publishing that has been dominated by one tool, InDesign all these years, web publishing, there are literally thousands of ways to build a website. Your team will have their particular way. But the point is, when people go to the URL of your book, the book appears there. Sometimes if you’re producing an app version of the book, you’re also uploading the app to an app store like the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.

Arthur Attwell 42:27
Something we forgot to mention is that in a traditional process, that typesetting phase, producing the PDF out of InDesign doesn’t include creating an ebook or an epub. Often at this stage, while the print book is going off to the printer, the InDesign files and or PDF are going off to an ebook conversion specialist who’s now going to turn that print book into an ebook version separately from the print process, and often the time it takes to print a book, which could be anything from two weeks to three months, depending where you’re printing and whether your book has to come on a ship from somewhere else in the world. During that phase, that’s usually roughly the same time that the ebook converter needs to get to turning your book into epub usually being the standard file format for for ebooks. So that way, you kind of get to publish your ebook when your print book arrives in your own warehouse.

Arthur Attwell 43:20
Another thing we also haven’t mentioned is print-on-demand, of course, because sometimes there is no warehouse, sometimes actually, where you’re delivering your print PDF to is a factory that’s going to print the books one at a time, as people order them. So sometimes you’ll be buying a book on Amazon and the book you’re buying might be a print book, but it doesn’t physically exist in the world yet. Once you click Buy, that book-printing factory will get that order print a single copy, send it straight to you, and you think you’ve got a book from a warehouse. But actually, magically, it came into existence days before you received it. Increasingly, a lot of publishers are moving to print-on-demand because it reduces their cost of keeping stock and the risk up front of doing big print runs.

Klara Skinner 44:05
Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. There’s a huge investment that goes into printing costs and that is the riskiest part of the business for a publishing house.

Arthur Attwell 44:15
Yeah, and often they’re guessing the print run. Obviously, the more copies they print, the cheaper it is per copy, but the more copies they print, the more money they’re spending and more space in the warehouse they’re gonna need. Yeah, it’s as I’ve discovered myself many years ago, it’s, expensive mistakes can be made getting those numbers wrong.

Arthur Attwell 44:33
There are often some perverse incentives within publishing teams, where some people on the team want to reduce the per-copy price and want the print run to be higher. Others on the team want to reduce the cost of stock keeping and the impact on cash flow and want the copies lower. Depending on who has the most power in that process, you will get one or the other outcome. Both are a gamble. So print-on-demand just takes so many problems away because really then while you’re paying more per copy, you’re eliminating a vast number of other potential risks.

Arthur Attwell 45:07
The book is now printed. It’s on its way to bookstores, the website is live, the ebook is ready to be purchased. But it’s not over, right? Because now, you’re going to want to change things in the book. Maybe you’re going to find mistakes, maybe you’re going to want to update content that has gone out of date, you might want to do a new addition in a couple of years time, depending on your business model. So we just know that there’s work to be done. No matter how hard you’ve worked, there are always things to be done after the book was first published.

Klara Skinner 45:38
Definitely. In a traditional setting, that necessitates a whole repeat of the process because you wouldn’t easily be able to accommodate a whole bunch of changes, reflow the layout, and output a brand new version of multiple formats at the same time. Whereas in a digital-first process, it’s a lot easier to do. You incorporate your changes and can quickly output a number of formats without having to wait for ebook conversion service, for example.

Arthur Attwell 46:15
Right. I think we made it. I don’t think we put it into quite half an hour, but we got pretty close, Kara, we’ve finished the publishing process of the book. I hope, Klara, you and I get to spend another session in future talking about these things. It’s been fun having you on the show. Thanks so much for being part of it.

Klara Skinner 46:32
Definitely more to talk about in future.

Arthur Attwell 46:34
Great. We’ll be back. Thanks so much. Ciao.

Arthur Attwell 46:38
You can send us your own book-making topics and conundrums and questions at and we’ll tackle those in future episodes.

Arthur Attwell 46:47
How Books Are Made is supported by Electric Book Works where my team and I make books, all day, every day in sunny Cape Town, South Africa.