The World’s Greatest Book

I’m Dave Bricker, MFA: author of fic­tion and non­fic­tion, edi­tor, graphic designer, inter­ac­tive devel­oper, and design edu­ca­tor. I help writ­ers turn well-crafted man­u­scripts into beau­ti­ful, high-quality books. My web­site offers straight talk for writ­ers about pro­duc­ing and mar­ket­ing excel­lent books, eBook tech­nol­ogy, book design, typog­ra­phy, writ­ing, lit­er­acy, and the pub­lish­ing business.

Thank you for read­ing. Enjoy your pub­lish­ing journey.

—Dave Bricker

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, and the Nature of Truth

time-machineA few years ago, I attended a nonfiction-writing work­shop where I was told by the instruc­tor that to qual­ify as non­fic­tion, a work must adhere as strictly to truth as pos­si­ble. But such an edict rests on the naïve assump­tion that truth itself is know­able. The clean, white divid­ing line between fic­tion and non­fic­tion is, itself, a fic­tion. Truth is as neb­u­lous as fantasy.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, I spent a num­ber of years liv­ing aboard a small sail­boat, trav­el­ing through the Bahamas, cross­ing the Atlantic to Gibraltar, and liv­ing among a com­mu­nity of inspir­ing, col­or­ful peo­ple who chose life afloat over ter­res­trial exis­tence. I made sev­eral attempts to write my sto­ries, and finally pub­lished my mem­oir twenty years later.

I began by writ­ing indi­vid­ual sto­ries, one at a time. Eventually, I had a col­lec­tion of almost fifty. I placed them in mostly-chronological order and began to work them into a book with a sin­gle story arc that tied them together. Fifty sto­ries became one big one.

For research, I dug into my past and con­ducted inter­views with peo­ple who were “there,” some of whom I hadn’t spo­ken with for two decades. Opening long-closed doors was scary and exhil­a­rat­ing, and it revealed curi­ous things about the nature of truth. As I asked ques­tions, rem­i­nisced, and lis­tened to the mem­o­ries of those who shared pieces of my adven­ture, I found they remem­bered things I didn’t. I remem­bered things they couldn’t recall. Some of the things we both remem­bered, we remem­bered dif­fer­ently. “No, that was me who said that to you!” If some absolute, fac­tual ver­sion of truth lies beneath the mem­o­ries, per­cep­tions, and other aspects of con­scious­ness that fil­ter real­ity, get­ting at it is a roman­tic fan­tasy. Facts are col­ored by mem­ory, view­ing angle, and time. Truth is an unat­tain­able absolute. Read More About Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, and the Nature of Truth →

A Manuscript is Not a Book: Ten Tips for Manuscript Preparation

In my work with writ­ers, I come across many com­mon tech­ni­cal prob­lems with man­u­scripts. These usu­ally spring from the best of inten­tions as the writer attempts to cre­ate the feel of the fin­ished book within the man­u­script. Though they’re try­ing to be help­ful, it requires more of the typesetter’s time to strip out all of these styl­is­tic addi­tions. When it comes to man­u­scripts, sim­pler is better.

Here are ten tips for writ­ers to con­sider while they cre­ate their man­u­scripts and ready their books for the design and pro­duc­tion process.

1. The dou­ble space — Digital type­faces have care­fully designed kern­ing tables that con­trol spac­ing between var­i­ous pairs of let­ters. That way a cap­i­tal “A” can nest closer to a cap­i­tal “W” than it would to another cap­i­tal “A.” Most style man­u­als spec­ify sin­gle spaces but if you want wide spac­ing, ask your type­set­ter to insert emspaces. Emspaces are sin­gle characters—wide spaces, not double-spaces. Double-spaces were a con­ven­tion that attempted to get type­writ­ers to imi­tate the wide spac­ing seen in book typog­ra­phy prior to the early 1960s when elec­tronic type­set­ting meth­ods took over. The first thing your type­set­ter will do is con­vert all your dou­ble spaces to sin­gle spaces but if you can break the double-space habit, you’ll save a step. Read more about sen­tence spac­ing here. (Really! Read it, espe­cially before commenting.)

Don’t put dou­ble spaces after a period. Your type­face already knows how much space is required.

Additionally, con­sec­u­tive spaces are often used by writ­ers who don’t under­stand how to set tabs and indents. An indent is not equiv­a­lent to five spaces. Indentation is con­trolled in your word processor’s para­graph set­tings dia­logue or by manip­u­lat­ing the rulers above the text (see below).

Don’t use con­sec­u­tive spaces to move text around. Use tabs and jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. When it comes right down to it, don’t use dou­ble spaces at all. Continue read­ing

Publishers are Missing the ePub3 Boat

eBookSupportEPub3 eBooks offer a cor­nu­copia of tech­no­log­i­cal promises, but a recent study shows that eReader device man­u­fac­tur­ers have been slow to embrace the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Granted, the sta­tis­tics are not weighted to empha­size one fea­ture over another. You may find sup­port for “fixed lay­out” to be more impor­tant than sup­port for “font embed­ding.” But the ePub3 eBook for­mat was launched in October of 2012; pub­lish­ers and device man­u­fac­tur­ers are miss­ing the ePub3 boat. This arti­cle sug­gests pos­si­ble rea­sons for the format’s lack of sup­port and sug­gests alternatives.

The Readium exten­sion for Chrome (Google’s web browser) sup­ports 72.5% of ePub3’s features—and it runs in a web browser, not in an eReader device. Popular ded­i­cated eReader hard­ware scored lower with Kobo sup­port­ing only 46% of ePub3’s fea­tures, the Kindle Fire sup­port­ing 32.3%, and Barnes and Noble’s Nook sup­port­ing only 16.7%.

Notable is that the eRead­ers offer­ing the best sup­port for ePub3 are those that lever­age the capa­bil­i­ties of a web browser. Over 50% of eBooks are con­sumed on devices other than ded­i­cated eReaders—and most of these devices already include on-board web browsers. I pro­posed in an ear­lier post that the browser may well become the pre­ferred eBook deliv­ery chan­nel. That was almost a year ago and only a few major pub­lish­ers have even shown up at the ePub3 dock. Read More ePub3 →

Book Design — Revisiting Classic Layout for Print and EBooks

ipadView2Book design has changed since pub­lish­ing became a gigan­tic indus­try. Typesetting was once per­formed by trained crafts­men who appren­ticed to mas­ters before ink­ing their own plates. Phototypesetting arrived in the 1960s and by the late 1980s, dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing trans­ferred the job to a new gen­er­a­tion of young, dig­i­tal artists. Much of the old wis­dom got left behind—paved over by the pixel. This arti­cle looks at a piece of design history—page layout—and places that his­tory in a prac­ti­cal con­tem­po­rary context.

Book Design: The Role of History

I bought my first Macintosh in 1987. I remem­ber learn­ing Pagemaker and stum­bling over con­cepts like “lead­ing.” Why not just call it line spac­ing? I learned about pub­lish­ing tech­nol­ogy and worked in the field, but it wasn’t until I started teach­ing col­lege design classes (jobs I got because I knew the soft­ware) that I encoun­tered the his­tory of design and its value. My stu­dents were talk­ing about Constructivism and the Bauhaus School and Pushpin Studios. I was all about Beziér curves, vec­tor graph­ics, and the clone tool. The Graphic Design depart­ment chair looked me in the eye one day. “Get ready,” she said. “You’re teach­ing History of Graphic Design next quarter—and you’d bet­ter know your shit.”

Read More About Book Design and Classic Book Layout →

Not Selling Books? Did you do the Math?

tickertapeYou threw a grand party but nobody came. Your novel is so good but you’re not sell­ing books. What hap­pened? You were sup­posed to appear on Oprah’s show. Terry Gross isn’t call­ing you for an inter­view. You may be an ace at man­ag­ing dia­log and avoid­ing clichés in your writ­ing, but what do you know about the pub­lish­ing busi­ness? Did you do the math?

Notwithstanding the fact that Oprah’s Book Club has been off the air for years, the quandary is sim­ple: Even if you set your seller com­mis­sion at 20%, A $20 hard­cover book deliv­ers $4 to the book­store and about $12.50 to the printer/distributor. Your cut is $3.50.

Most pub­lish­ers give 50% of the cover price to the seller. Better bump your price up to $32! $16.00 goes to the seller, $12.50 goes toward print­ing and ship­ping, and you’re left with $2.50/book.

Like anyone’s going to pay $32 for a book!

Did you pub­lish through a van­ity press? Add your “publisher’s” com­mis­sion to the price of every book. And they’ll be set­ting the price, not you.

Now fig­ure in other costs: graphic design, type­set­ting, editing—and heaven for­bid you should actu­ally get com­pen­sated for your writ­ing and research time. How many books will you need to sell at a given price point to break even?

Read More About Selling Books →

Writing is Design — Writing Dialogue: He Said. She Said.

dialogDialogue presents chal­lenges for writ­ers. Some pre­fer to sim­ply declare what was “said.” Many authors feel that “said” is both tra­di­tional and invisible:

“I’m going to write some dialogue,” said Bill.
“I look forward to reading it, ”said Helene.

But this style is not invis­i­ble. Some nar­ra­tor is telling us what happened—as if the char­ac­ters spoke in some other time and place and we’re hear­ing a play-by-play of their con­ver­sa­tion after the fact.“Said,” is past tense. Others object to the mind­less rep­e­ti­tion of “said, said, said.” Read More About Writing Dialogue →

Writing is Design: The Grammar of Book Design

impossible_triangleAre images anal­o­gous to words? Is what makes a sen­tence sound “right” the same thing that makes an image “pop” or a jazz solo “burn?” The sim­i­lar­i­ties are note­wor­thy but the dif­fer­ences are impor­tant. Just as the best of writ­ers seek the guid­ance of an edi­tor, smart pub­lish­ers rely on book design­ers who under­stand the “gram­mar of design.”

Good design, like good writ­ing, com­mu­ni­cates clearly and effec­tively. It all boils down to some sort of arche­typal math. The “golden rec­tan­gle,” for exam­ple, has pro­por­tions that are pleas­ing to every­one. Though much of design is pure opin­ion, some of its power is as mys­te­ri­ous and uni­ver­sal as love. But at least part of it can be described in terms of how a page pro­vides intu­itive visual clues to its ele­ments’ hier­ar­chy of impor­tance, and to what the lit­eral and sym­bolic mean­ings of those ele­ments are.

Visual con­fu­sion and ten­sion are fine as long as there’s some sort of pay­off that makes the visual anx­i­ety worth the angst; M.C. Escher was a mas­ter of that. In the same way, we can write play­ful sen­tences that present amus­ing con­fu­sion; they’re log­i­cally impos­si­ble but they sound right. Optical illu­sions cre­ate con­flicts of per­spec­tive. Semantic illu­sions are sim­i­lar; they’re simul­ta­ne­ously gram­mat­i­cally cor­rect and log­i­cally absurd:

Do you walk to work or bring a lunch?
What is the difference between an orange?
On a scale of one to ten, what is your favorite color?
I'd like a large with no ice, please.
Is it faster to Chicago or by bus?

Others present annoy­ing con­fu­sion; they’re log­i­cally cor­rect and easy to under­stand, but they sound (and are) wrong.

I think York is the best town in which a person could live in.
Why couldn't they just build it gooder?

The mean­ings of the sen­tences in the sec­ond set of exam­ples are much clearer than those of the first exam­ples but they reg­is­ter as “wrong” all the same.
Read More About the Grammar of Book Design →

Writing is Design: Shy Away from Timid and Passive Writing

shy_puppy“Passive writ­ing” refers to a spe­cific set of gram­mat­i­cal cir­cum­stances where empha­sis switches from sub­ject to object.

The money was stolen by Jill.

instead of

Jill stole the money.

This is con­fus­ing if you’re writ­ing about Jill but per­fectly accept­able if you’re answer­ing a ques­tion about what she stole (or if you’re writ­ing an “unan­tic­i­pated cir­cum­stances were encoun­tered by our agency” speech designed to shift the reader’s focus away from your lat­est polit­i­cal trav­esty and onto the “cir­cum­stances”). But other styles of writ­ing can appro­pri­ately be described as “pas­sive.” This arti­cle refers to them as “timid.”

Timid writ­ing is one of the most com­mon prob­lems I encounter while edit­ing; it’s the bad habit of the hum­ble writer. Especially when writ­ers first start out, they don’t want to appear arro­gant or overly assertive so they avoid absolutes in favor of merely admit­ting possibility.

It might rain.
It could get better.
This may be the answer.

Timid writ­ing is char­ac­ter­ized by wishy-washy woulda-coulda-shoulda lan­guage. Quite often, it’s not gram­mat­i­cally incor­rect; it’s just weak. Bold writ­ing is not arro­gant; it’s con­fi­dent and direct—things you should be as a writer. Try these suggestions:

It's going to rain.
Things will get better.
This is the answer.

Read More About Timid Writing →

Writing is Design: Boring Words & Generic Descriptions — Not Nice!

boring_wordsGeneric descrip­tions are tell­tale signs of lazy writ­ing. Add color to your writ­ing by replac­ing overused and bor­ing words.

It's such a nice day today.
He's very bright.
My dog is really funny.
Bill is a good soccer player.
Shari is in a bad mood today.
I received some happy news in my mailbox.
Barbara was sad to see Jim leave.

These words are com­monly used in speech; they’re close-at-hand when we need a descrip­tion on the fly. But unless a writer is inten­tion­ally emu­lat­ing infor­mal speech, these words make watery, vac­u­ous, and weak addi­tions to writ­ten prose.

Read More About Boring Words and Generic Descriptions →