This is an excerpt from Your Book, Your Way: How to Choose the Best Publishing Option for Your Book, Your Wallet and Yourself. You can purchase a copy of this book through Amazon.com.
This may seem like a strange question to ask, but what are you doing when you read this sentence? Are you looking at every letter in it? Every word? Did you notice the comma after the work ask or the question mark following the word sentence?
The act of reading is actually an act of decoding. When you think about it, the letters printed here are nothing more than ink strewn around in particular shapes.
Language is a code. In English, our code consists of 26 letters, ten numerical symbols, and a handful of punctuation marks that function like conductors for a symphony orchestra.
When we read, we don’t focus on single letters nor do we see every individual word or punctuation mark unless wwweee sssslllloooowwww ddddoooowwwwnnnn
In actuality, our eyes flicker about a page of type, stopping and starting on a word here, another there. In most cases, we recognize common words by their shapes, and infer a lot of the meaning of a sentence or paragraph from a small number of key words, context, and language patterns.
For example, in English, we expect and do find our adjectives in front of our nouns as in “red apple.” In French, adjectives arrive after the noun in a sentence as in “pomme rouge.” We rely on writers, editors and publishers to serve up our reading material in a manner that adheres to the code in our language as we understand it.
What happens when we come across a book that doesn’t adhere to these standards? Let me give you an example by telling you a story about my friend Carol.
Carol is not a writer, not an editor, not involved in the book publishing industry at all except in her capacity as a voracious reader. One day, I ran into her outside a local bookstore where she had purchased an obscure volume on an obscure topic that was of great interest to her. She was excited by her find, couldn’t wait to get home to read it.
About a week later, I ran into her again. “How was the book,” I asked.
She flew into a fury as only a disappointed reader can. “It was awful, full of misspellings, no captions under the pictures so you had no idea what you were looking at. The margins in the middle of the book were so small, you had to constantly tilt it to see a word. Nothing at the top of the page to tell you what the chapters were about, missing page numbers. I took it to the bookstore and got my money back.”
Carol’s book, which was self-published, did not adhere to the commonly accepted and expected standards of editing and book design that we rely on for understanding what we read.
So where did these standards come from? Mostly from a printer named William Caxton.
You can download a PDF of the Editing Chapter from Your Book, Your Way here.