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Friday, January 29, 2016

Some of Andrew Glassner's thoughts on publishing

Andrew Glassner left a reply on an earlier post that seemed too interesting to let sit in a comments section.   So here it is in its entirety.   I didn't ask Andrew, so keep in mind that he wrote this as a comment (not that I would change anything in an edit!).

Andrew's comment:

I like what you're doing here. To me, the interesting thing is that you're trying to avoid extra work that's been pushed on authors with the decline of the traditional publication model. That decline has been hailed as "democratizing" publication, which is true in some ways, but mostly not.

Here's what I mean. In the 1960's (as I understand it), to publish a book with math and figures, you'd type the book on your typewriter (or have someone do it for you from your longhand notes). You'd leave blank spaces for equations and figures, which you'd draw in by hand. The publisher would then often hire someone to redo your figures, and they'd lay out and typeset your book to make it look great.

Then TeX and LaTeX came along, and authors realized they could make their own pages. And they did. Before long, publishers required this, because why should they pay someone when they can get the author to do it for free? So now the author had to learn LaTeX and go through the sweat of typesetting math. But the publisher would still often hire an artist to redraw the figures. My first few books were developed this way.

Then drawing tools got better, and more authors started using them, and again the publishers chose to make that all but mandatory (if you swore you couldn't make figures, they would hire an artist, but I know that at least sometimes you gave up some royalties in return).

Then indexing packages became more widespread. And so, rather than hire a professional indexer (and this is a much harder job than you might imagine, if you haven't done it yourself), that too became the author's job.

And so it went, with authors now essentially required to produce beautiful, camera-ready works, with headers and footers and footnotes and properly formatted bibliographies and on and on.

The author's job went from "write a manuscript, indicate the math, provide sketches for the figures, and let the publisher take it from there," to the far more demanding "produce the entire book in every detail."

Since most people can get the tools required, this is indeed democratizing, in that most anyone can make a professional-looking book. On the other hand, it means the author must have enough leisure (or paid) time to learn the tools, and then devote significant more time to produce all the content to a professional standard. This is pretty much the opposite of democratizing - it says only people who have a lot of available time can afford to produce a book with equations and figures that holds up to modern standards.

You've found some great ways to reduce this burden. Well done! I've taken a similar attitude in my own works, when I can. I'm now very happy to illustrate my work with hand-drawn pictures, as long as they're clear and do the job. I wish I could get away from fiddling with LaTeX, but programs like the one at http://webdemo.myscript.com/#/demo/equation are a big help.

It's interesting to me that we've gone from the author's job being almost completely about writing words and merely indicating the rest, to the author becoming a self-contained and fully staffed publishing house (with typesetter, artist, indexer, etc.), to now where you're shedding some of those tasks (e.g., pagination) and automating others (e.g., screenshots of code with automatic coloring).

What you're doing really does make it easier to write a book (not merely cheaper for a publisher to print it), and I say "Hooray!" The easier it becomes to produce quality materials, the better off we all become.

1 comment:

Eric Haines said...

This about sums it up. Also, publishers rarely seem to hire technical reviewers any more, from what I can tell. It used to be that a book would be read through by at least one professional in the field before going to press. Usually the publisher would pay a few hundred dollars for this service. For "Real-Time Rendering" we lined up our own, having a large number of reviewers each review a chapter or three and eventually get a free book in return; these "payment copies" were part of the contract. In our case we wanted to control the process and reviewers, asking the best we could find.

I don't get the sense this is happening much any more; I hope I'm wrong (maybe they're just not asking me). I'm basing this mostly on seeing some fairly flawed books come out recently, ones where a technical editor could have pointed out the problems. I suspect it may be because making books is also now fairly easy for publishers - why spend that extra money having it checked? The author should be able to catch all his own problems, right?

So, has anyone been asked to technical edit a book lately?