A Revolution in Book Design: What is the difference between manuscript display and structure?

Old-Style typesetting in metal
A revolution in book design: Because type is no longer literally set in metal, Front Edge is able to invisibly mark words, phrases and entire sections of a book to indicate special purposes. In this column, Production Director Dmitri Barvinok takes us into the back shop of a cutting-edge publishing operation as we style a book’s text.

Thoughtful manuscript formatting and treatment is integral to the overall structure and experience of reading a book. Most readers are familiar with the general elements of a book—like chapters, footnotes and appendices and how they should be arranged, but not every reader stops to consider the purpose of inline style choices like emphasis, bolded words and indentation—except when those elements are distracting. When used correctly, inline styles inform readers of the author’s intent without spelling it out in a visible side note.

Our Front Edge Publishing BookEdge Software Suite emphasizes the importance of book content over display, and uses that to inform the look of various final formats, whether they’re ultimately designed for a screen or a printed page. That means the book creation process is divided into two big parts: determining the role of each word in a book’s structure and determining how that role is displayed for the reader.

This is different from traditional publishing methods, in which a book’s structure informed its display directly. Since printed books used to be the only end result of publication, publishers were primarily concerned with how content would look in a very specific format. That meant determining display and structure was one decision. Here’s a common example: a word is emphasized by the author, so it should appear in italics.

Today, a word may be emphasized by the author, but that doesn’t mean it should always appear in italics. Book design traditionally displays the author’s emphasis and foreign phrases with italics. This works for a standard printing of a book, but it’s not very flexible. By differentiating between emphasis and foreign phrases at the content level, as Front Edge editors do, the content is suddenly capable of much more. The content can be used for new purposes, serving new audiences, like readers learning English as a second language, in a much more accessible way. Imagine reading an English book while you’re learning English. You’d notice some words are emphasized, but if the display doesn’t differentiate between emphasis and foreign phrases, you’d waste a lot of time looking up other emphasized words in the English dictionary, not realizing they’re foreign phrases. If this hypothetical book had an edition printed specifically for English learners, the publisher might choose to display emphasized words in bold, rather than italics, and keep foreign phrases in italics. This ultimately signals to the reader that bold words can be easily found in the dictionary, while italics denote non-English phrases. The display may have changed, but the author’s intent is intact, all without editing the source manuscript files.

This is why Front Edge Publishing tools separate the meaning of a word or phrase from its final display. By marking intent during the copy editing process, future layout decisions can made quickly and easily.

Enabling future-proofed and remixed content

Correctly and consistently identifying manuscript structure instead of display allows for future revisions, updates and remixed content to be created without needing to edit the original manuscript further. This saves editors and designers time and ensures the author’s intent is not lost.

Not all current and future digital reading devices may be designed to display italics, or even need to. In the case of accessibility, devices that are primarily used with text-to-speech programs for sight-impaired readers rely on emphasis that can be indicated in other ways. This means the author’s intent to emphasize something must be displayed or indicated differently, which can be done easily if emphasis is marked in the content and not locked into a specific look. A lack of italics is no excuse for omitting an author’s intent.

This system also provides an advantage when analyzing and working with already-edited text. Italics aren’t just used for foreign phrases and author emphasis. They’re also frequently used to denote cited titles of other published work. Put yourself in the shoes of an editor responsible for creating a bibliography for a thematic manuscript composed of multiple already-published pieces. If the manuscript wasn’t formatted to prioritize structure over display, you’d need to review every chapter for italics in an effort to find all cited work. If cite titles are denoted at the content level, rather than just being styled with italics, you save a lot of time by running a search specifically for the cite titles style, even if the titles look italicized in the final product.

What does this mean for authors?

Prioritizing the structural meaning of a manuscript over the final display is great for authors! It means author intent is maintained through the point of publication and beyond, for future editions, revisions and customizations that are made accessible for specific audiences.

When submitting a manuscript to a publishing house that practices identifying structure over display during editing, take extra care that you are consistent in the way you indicate your intent. If bold denotes vocabulary words, make sure that’s true throughout the manuscript. Or, if you have a reason for using bold in a different way later in the manuscript, determine if the context makes that clear. Don’t hesitate to tell your editor directly either. They may have some feedback for the best way to display your author intent.

About Dmitri Barvinok

Director of Production Dmitri Barvinok works on the digital development, print layout and distribution of new books. He coordinates Front Edge editors and designers and works with the BookEdge software suite.

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