Friday, May 1, 2009

Team Effort

During a recent school visit to the Bronx Early College Academy in the Bronx, NY, a sixth-grade boy asked me if I “make” the covers for my own books. I sometimes find the photographs, I told him, but then a designer and a whole bunch of other people work to make the covers look the way they do.

I’m returning to that class on Tuesday to give a PowerPoint presentation on how a book is made. Like this post I’m calling it “Team Effort,” because despite all the glory that authors get, it takes several football teams’ worth of people to make a book. I asked Marty Ittner, who’s designed four of my books for National Geographic, to help me put together a list of all the stages a book goes through from idea to bound volume. Looking at that list is awe-inspiring and not a little bit humbling.

Sometimes the process does start with the author, if she is the one who has the initial idea. Occasionally, though, a wise editor will plant the seed. The idea for Bull’s-Eye, my photobiography of Annie Oakley, came from National Geographic Editor in Chief Nancy Feresten, while Jennifer Emmett at National Geographic initially suggested that I think about a book on the Olympics. That prompt led to two books, Swifter, Higher, Stronger and Freeze Frame.

After the idea comes the research. Although I once hired a research assistant to do some on-the-spot digging in California, I usually do my own content research as well as my own photo research. But even then I depend on scores of librarians and archivists to point me in the right direction, as well as experts in the field I’m writing about. If the subjects of the book are still alive, I try to interview them and people associated with them, too.

Once the research is done I start writing. I’m pretty self-directed, but I occasionally consult with my editor and bounce ideas off one or two trusted friends. Months or even years later, when the manuscript is done, it seems that hoards of people descend upon it to make it a book. The editor and sometimes her colleagues read it and ask for changes; the designer comes up with an overall look and then painstakingly lays out the pages; the photo editor helps find and/or obtain photos; the mapmaker creates the maps; the copyeditor checks the style and grammar; the design director consults on the design; the manufacturing people settle on a printer, buy the paper, and arrange for a prepress house to process the images.

When I and everyone at the publisher finally sign off on the designed pages of the book, the files with all the supporting artwork and fonts are sent to the printer. From there a whole other set of people take over, monitoring machines that burn the plates, ink the paper, stitch the pages together, make the cover, and trim and bind the finished book. Along the way people have scoured over proofs and done press checks to make sure the pages look like they’re supposed to. But the process of birthing a book doesn’t end with the binding. After that comes the shipping, the warehousing, the marketing and promotion, the order processing, and the bookselling. Instead of a few football teams, it’s looking like it actually takes a small city to make one book.

Even so, when all is said and done I still feel like it’s “my” book. But I wouldn’t be surprised or upset if some of those other people feel the same way.

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david said...
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