what is “book thinking”?

I first heard that term from Sas Colby, a gifted book artist, when I attended one of her workshops years ago. And since then I have been thinking a lot about books. Not so much about the content in the book, but about the book itself. Its physicality. Its underlying conceptual structure and how that manifests in the organization of the material and in its design.

This blog is written primarily for personal historians and others who make a living producing books for a private audience, but I hope it will be of interest to anyone who loves the bookmaking process and the book as physical object. In it I plan to share what I have learned about how to think about a book project, organize its content [particularly images], design and produce it—and make a profit doing so. Occasionally I will set all of that aside to simply marvel at the wonder of the book itself: its history, its design and structure, its physical substance, its significance in history and culture. If you’re interested in artist’s books, or books as art, or book arts, or any some such combination, I’ll delve into that area of bookness as well from time to time.

So what do I mean by book thinking? It’s organizing material—words and images—into a coherent conceptual structure that ultimately reveals itself in the physical form of a book. That’s about as abstract and post-modern as I’m going to get on that topic. Because what I really want to talk about is that often overlooked middle part: the practical aspects of creating, designing and producing non-fiction books and earning a living by doing so. [I’d love for you fiction people to stick around and I hope you get value out of what I and my guest bloggers have to say, but I just wanted to let you know that I’m a non-fiction kinda gal.]

Even though this blog is called book thinking I’ll be writing frequently about photos because, not only is that my other passion, but also because most of the books I work on are personal, business or organizational histories—memoirs, if you will—and these books always have pictures and other imagery. They are a vital element in telling the story and they add another conceptual and visual dimension to the book. So do the choices that involve the size and shape of the book, its paper and binding, colors, other imagery and typography so I’ll be writing about those areas as well.

And because this blog is written for people who actually want to make a living designing and producing books, I will spend a lot of time exploring practical issues. Issues like how to manage all the physical and digital assets that go into a book project—text files and photographs and illustrations—and that can bring you to your knees in tears if you don’t have a well thought out workflow system. Issues like managing projects and subcontractors and client expectations. And issues that can cause conflict when the trade practices of the various professionals involved in bookmaking—designers, digital photo specialists, illustrators, printers, binders—are not understood.

Two analogies I frequently use to explain this business is that of filmmaking and contracting. Producing even a seemingly simple film or constructing a modest house requires a number of people to bring the idea into tangible form. In comparison, bookmaking is way easier. I have written, designed, printed and bound a number of my own books. But for maximum effect and profitability, putting together a sterling team is necessary. So I will also articulate the different types of skills—and temperaments—required at the various stages of book design and production. I’ve noticed that these skill sets have become conflated over the past 20+ years by what used to be called ‘desktop publishing’—a term we don’t hear anymore—and is now simply ‘how we produce books’.

So, for those of you who want to think with me about books, I’m writing this blog for you. If you’re a writer and want to know more about how to work with other professionals—particularly book designers—you too. I’m in awe of the many talented book designers I’ve come across via Twitter and other people’s blogs, and I hope this blog is another node that contributes to the ongoing conversation about our profession. And for those of you who are just crazy about books—and photos—as both conceptual and physical objects, I hope you will add your voice as well through comments and links.