My involvements with small presses have so far been only as a customer, and I’ve yet to have a really bad experience in dealing with any of them—just the occasional delay in shipment, usually for production reasons. Maybe I’ve been lucky, or I just have good taste in small presses. 🙂
The most annoying issue I’ve had with some small presses (not SRP) is poor proofreading and typography. I’ve seen books where the text was obviously scanned and OCR’d but never proofread at all, with errors on nearly every page, sometimes making it difficult to be sure what the author actually wrote. I’ve seen books with such narrow margins that the text extended nearly into the gutter (which is particularly bad with paperbacks, since it requires putting stress on the spine to spread the pages far enough apart to read everything). SRP’s books, in contrast, are a pleasure to read: comfortable to hold, well designed, and proofread so well that in my entire shelf of SRP titles I think I have found only two or three typos.
The time-consuming labor of proofreading seems like it would be a huge burden for a one- or two-person small press. One question I have for you is, how would you characterize the time and attention you put into making your books as error-free as possible? Or does your typesetter friend Ken take on most of that work? – Craig Dickson
I apologise it’s taken me so long to get to your question, Craig, which is definitely a good one! Angie McKeown asked a related question:
Could you talk a little about this high-end finish as it relates to your planning and logistics (are there things that are different than if you were producing cheaper books for example), and how it has impacted on your up-front costs and if you pitch your brand differently because of it.
I’m going to take my usual meandering approach in my response. As with so many of these questions, the answer is intertwined with myriad other thoughts. But hopefully I’ll keep such crowding to a minimum and try to answer your questions as best I can.
I can’t remember now which book it was, but it was one of our earlier ones. It might have even been Rosalie Parker’s The Old Knowledge (2010), which was our first hardback. Anyway, I’d sent a review copy to a well-respected editor. They wrote me a nice response, generally complementing the book’s production values. But there was one element that they singled out for praise: running headers. For those who don’t know, the running headers appear at the tops of the pages and usually display the book title, story title, author’s name, or a combination of these things. Grab a book nearby and have a quick look to see if it has running headers. (See if you can find one without them—which do you prefer?)
If you ask me, I think running headers in a book much improve the publication. Are they strictly necessary? Nope. Not in the slightest. You can read a book without running headers with no trouble at all. But do they make the book smart? Absolutely.
Let’s look at another example Craig brought up in his question: page margins. Have you ever seen a book that squashes as many lines onto the page as possible? You can delete the running header and gain a couple of lines. You could also expand the type area to the edges of the page and fit even more text in. Decrease the typeface and you can cram in still more text per page. Why do this? Well, for one, a book with fewer pages is cheaper to produce and therefore cheaper to buy, right? But is the reading experience at all comfortable? Does it show the text the respect it deserves? Probably not. For me, margins frame the print area so that the text doesn’t overwhelm the eye. So while margins don’t have to be as wide as six-lane highways, just don’t skimp. It can look amateurish. (Sorry, but I think it’s true!)
Designing a book is a skill—one that not everyone who publishes books takes the time to cultivate or, sometimes, even consider. My own approach to publishing is this: don’t cut corners. So much work goes into these creating Swan River Press books. As a publisher, it’s part of my job to communicate to the author that I respect their words; and to readers that their time and experience are equally valuable. One doesn’t do that with the publishing equivalent of austerity measures. My goal is always to make the best book I can. Another way to put this, and to steer this answer more toward Angie’s question: in for a penny, in for a pound.
These days just about anyone can put text into a pdf and upload the file to a print-on-demand service provider. The effort required can be minimal. For some people that’s fine—so long as the words get out and into the world, the medium is of no concern. I’ve chosen to define Swan River a little differently. I want readers to feel that they’re getting something of quality, something that’s gone through a considered process in which deliberate design decisions have been made. I do this by investing money into production values. This includes things like sewn-binding, lithographic printing, and those lovely head- and tail-bands. My hope is when someone picks up a Swan River book, they will get a sense pretty quickly that it’s not a mass market production.
There are other expenses too. As Craig mentioned, there’s also proofreading. And as Craig also hints, lack of proofreading is a common enough pitfall in the small press. Swan River is not a one-person operation. While I usually give all the texts a first-pass edit and proof, Jim Rockhill is our formal proofreader. Sometimes I’m embarrassed at what I miss when he returns a text to me, but that just makes me all the more grateful for his services and expertise. I’ve learned that a second set of eyes is crucial. A trained second set of eyes is indispensable—and will cost you. Oof, I know! But again, don’t cut corners. (Certainly the odd typo will sneak through—I spotted one the other day in The Green Book 13 that I hadn’t caught!! Let us never speak of it again.)
Similarly, Ken Mackenzie does all our typesetting—keeping those running headers in order and the margins pleasingly spacious; while Meggan Kehrli does all our design work, including choosing those head- and tail-bands. Ken is far better at typesetting than I ever will be. Meggan’s design sensibilities and training would run circles around my feeble attempts any day of the week. Of course it would be cheaper to do it myself, but, ladies and gentlemen, you do not want me designing book covers. A smart publisher will find good people to work with and pay them. It’s worth it in the long run. Trust me. Don’t cut corners.
This obviously has an impact on up-front costs, as Angie rightly points out. It’s definitely not easy, and one of my future posts will more directly address financing—a subject I’ve been dancing around since the start of this column. Finding readers and building a customer base is also extremely difficult. Suffice to say, I prefer long-term investment in quality as opposed to cheaper and faster. In fact, there are some titles in our catalogue that are losing money. Not because they don’t sell, but because I’ve decided to dump so much money into their production. Our recent sesquicentenary edition of Green Tea (2019) is an example of this. It’s illustrated, comes with a specially commissioned audio adaptation of the story, plus a bunch of postcards. I’ve no regrets about this at all—the book came out exactly as I wanted it to. Design is one of the things that sets Swan River Press apart from the others, and readers who do find their way to us appreciate that. Plus it’s also something of which I can be proud.
So I hope I’ve answered your questions, Craig and Angie. Thank you again for taking the time to ask, and let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to clarify. Naturally all of the above waffle is simply how I do things. It’s what has worked for me for the past decade or so. If you’re a publisher or self-publisher with a different approach or alternate goals, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Finally, if you’re interested in Swan River Press’s design methods, have a look at this previous post in which I lay out how we put together Insect Literature (2015)—possibly one of my favourite books to work on.
If you liked this post, have a look at the rest of our Thoughts on Small Press series.
My inaugural post for this series of posts is here. As always I can be contacted by email, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below. Please share this post where you think is appropriate. I’m looking forward to hear from you!
Did you enjoy his post and want to support the press? Check our titles in print—you might find something interesting!