Saturday 3 December 2011

Submissions Etiquette

Standard formatting
There’s a sort of default standard for submitting work: double space, single side of A4, a font similar to Times new Roman 12, pages numbered and an indication of how many pages and where the “manuscript” ends. This is often the case, even when one is submitting electronically.
Occasionally a publisher will ask for something else, especially for competitions. It is of course absolutely imperative to follow those instructions to the letter, no matter how bizarre they sound; the publisher / competition organiser has put them there for a reason.
I don’t think I’ve ever rejected anybody simply because they have not obeyed convention. However, if the submission is border line, the fact that the work is incorrectly formatted may swing me to reject. It says that the author is an amateur and may not be able to go through the editorial / proof-reading process. That person may cost me more time. Significantly, I can only remember accepting one submission that was brilliant but wrongly formatted. I wouldn’t rule out others but I can’t actually remember them.
Working with electronic submissions
These days, even if the text is submitted as hard copy, the work with editors is usually done electronically. There is a swing now anyway towards electronic submission. The type-setter has gone, and has been replaced by design teams using Quark, Acrobat, or In-Design to change the Word document into a camera-ready PDF that a modern printer (I mean the machine, not the person) will recognise. And that is where another round of fun can start. A text that had looked fine when it arrived may contain all sorts of gremlins that won’t stand the conversion. Authors compromise texts by:
  • Using a Word "named style" other than "Normal" for the default paragraph format.
  • Using lots of different Word "named styles" for things which look exactly the same on the screen.
  • Forcing paragraph indents by any means other than setting the default indent for style "Normal" (i.e. no inserting blanks, tabs or any other trick)...
  • ...Indeed, using the tab character anywhere at all. If you want to tabulate text, insert a proper table. You can always hide the lines.
  • Using multiple consecutive space characters.
  • Inserting blanks lines for any purpose other than starting a new section of the narrative i.e. not for forcing page throws, making titles stand away from the text or any other forced formatting. The defined styles can do that. The pages in a book are usually not A4. So, this is just wasted effort.
  • Inserting blanks at the end of a paragraph.
  • Hiding tables for forcing formatting.
  • Adding headers and footers manually.
Love or hate Microsoft, why not use it to get these things right? It makes the conversion go more smoothly.  
Shared responsibility
I can hear some saying, “Isn’t it the publishers’ job to produce the clean text?” Yes, indeed it is. But it slows down the whole process if a text is very untidy. Time is money. And if there are too many mistakes some will get missed, creating more post-proof work. In fact, designers can lose the original shape of a document, if it has not been formatted correctly, as they insert it into the book. This is the bane of the small indie publisher and is a waste of time for the Big Six. In both cases it affects the price of the book to the customer and the amount of royalty you might earn. Okay, someone’s badly formatted text will turn into a book sold at £5.99 the same as your similar but well formatted text. But all that extra work the designers have to do will gradually push up the price of all books. It’s also distressing for authors when the text comes back not looking the way they expected it to look.   
Amazon’s quirks
Another dimension comes into this, however, which is beyond the author’s or the publisher’s control. When publishing to Amazon Kindle a text can look fine, may have been rigorously controlled by a designer, and even looked right in a preview provided by Amazon, and yet collapse in its public-facing view. I don’t normally complain in public like this, but we have mentioned it to Amazon, I have seen many very poorly formatted books on Kindle and there are already plenty of forums about it There is much I love about Amazon, as a customer, a writer and a publisher, and there are some things that drive me insane. This is one of them.
In one of our books recently, Kindle failed to “print” “ŷ” correctly, even though the preview had shown it as correct and that preview had even been read on a Kindle! Amazon added insult to injury by even showing that in the “look inside” feature on its web site. Very frustrating for both us and the author. Maybe, though, it will give you an idea of how important it is to get formatting right.
A need for a new etiquette
Perhaps the etiquette needs to go deeper now. Some publishers still use old mark-up language syntax when working with authors which is actually virtually the same as HTML. It can be very time-consuming for non-fiction and academic writers who have to put in titles, sub-titles, charts and illustrations. However, at least it means that designer and writer understand each other – provided that the writer gets it right which is not always the case.
It would be convenient if all publishers used the same style and could provide a universal Word template though this is unlikely to happen; there are almost as many house styles as there are publishing houses. At least, though, the author only needs to convert to that style at the point of publication. The publisher can often even do that for you quite easily if you have used a consistent Word style throughout. The main problem occurs when you manually change something within a style.
So, is the new etiquette, don’t apply a style, then manually change how your text looks on the screen? If it needs to look different, define a different style.      

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