Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Re-Presenting III: The Designer

Designers transform plain text into something that readers can fall in love with at a glance; but they also bring the chaos of a manuscript into order, sometimes catching problems that everyone else misses. I meet with our designer, Rita Lascaro, on the Upper East Side to talk about her life as a designer—she's saved more than a few of our books!

How did you start in design?

Long story. I went to Parson's school of Design to study illustration because, when I was in 8th grade, I wanted my drawings and paintings to be in magazines with my name in little type next to them. I found out when I got older that this meant being an illustrator. After I graduated college I never got enough work as an illustrator, so I started doing mechanicals for various designers—this was before computers when every word in a book was pasted down with one-coat rubber cement by some troll like me. Well, I started doing mechanicals for a Braziller freelance designer named Ed Smith. At that time, if you were in George's office doing something, he'd ask you to do something else. One day, when I was delivering a job for Ed Smith, George turned to me and said, "Could you design a book jacket for me?" I said "Sure,"—not knowing about type or anything—and I went home to do a painting, because that's what I knew how to do. That first book was a novel called The Past. I did a strange painting of three people in green swirls for the cover that, somehow, George accepted. I put some type on it and that's how I started designing.

So—I don't know this and I don't know how many people actually do—how did you manage to do design before computers?

Well, for one thing, you couldn't experiment as much with type. The client would give you pages and pages of typed text and you wrote in pencil on the manuscript what you wanted the type to look like—font, size, and leading. This was called specing type. Today, you use design programs like Quark or Indesign—but back then you did it in your head or with thumbnail sketches, using what you saw in type sample books or what you had learned from experience. Then you would give the marked-up manuscript to a typesetter and—I actually don't know how they magically did it—they would set the type and then print it out as repro. Repro was photographically-created type that came out of a typesetting machine in a roll, which was then chopped down into smaller sheets. You took a repro sheet, put rubber cement on the back, waited for the glue to dry, put the sheet on a plastic cutting board, got a straight edge, cut out blocks of type, and then arranged blocks of type on a mechanical board for each page. You'd have to separately glue down folios, running heads, headlines, captions, photostats of pictures—it took a tremendous amount of time and a bigger art staff than today. For a 300-page book you'd end up with 150 boards that you then had to carefully clean up with a rubber cement pickup to get rid of stray bits of glue. Just covering each board with a protective sheet of tracing paper cut exactly to the size of the board and taped to the top took forever. If you wanted to change one word in a line, you'd have to cut two parallel lines with your Exacto knife, one above and one below the whole line, cut between each word, remove or replace the incorrect word, and then shift all the words in the line so that they were spaced evenly. Sometimes you had to this between the letters in a word. Your mouth is dropping open, Maxwell! It was crazy labor intensive work; you needed a good eye and a good hand. Now you know why I don't charge for revisions: I can do them cheerfully now since the corrections don't involve knives and glue.

The next question obviously is: what was your big nightmare project?

I can think of one for Braziller: I was working with a Braziller designer named Dana Levy—he was wonderful—doing mechanicals on the first full book that I ever had to paste up. Dana had shown me his design, suggesting a certain number of lines per page, so I just started putting that number of lines on every page. But when I got to the last page of the book, I found that I was short copy. I didn't know that I was supposed to "cast off" and count to make sure that I had enough copy to fill out the book before I started pasting it all down. So I had to take up all the copy with rubber cement thinner and move the lines around to make the book fit the way the designer wanted it to fit. I remember a lot of glue, my hands cracked and dried from rubber cement thinner, and being very embarrassed that I had done it wrong. That was one nightmare project. But I would say that every book has some kind of nightmare, there's always a catastrophe. Remember the first book I did with you, dear Maxwell? I finished designing the entire book and then you realized that the Word file you gave me was not final copy. I did that book twice for you, my friend!

So what project was wonderful for you?

The book that I worked on for a couple of years with the Sleepy Hollow Country Club. My father was a member of the club and, at age 84, he was my agent, trying to get me a book deal with them. I not only designed that book, I did all of the picture research and I found that fascinating. I had a lot of control over the book, deciding which images to use, what size they would be, and where they went—it is very much a picture book—so that it ended up looking the way I wanted it to look. Sleepy Hollow was a club that my family belonged to for over thirty years and, even though I am not a golfer or a tennis player, it was an important part of my life. We spent almost every major holiday there for big family meals. We were there for family lunches, dinners, and barbecues. My father passed away while I was working on the project but, before he died, he helped me with the book from his hospital bed. It was very special to me.

Thank you, Rita, for talking with me.

I actually do have one great Braziller story to tell you before we finish this interview. I thought you were going to ask me for a memorable moment at the George Braziller offices, so I thought about this one. I worked on a book for Helen Frankenthaler—incredible artist—and she came to the office for a meeting on George's birthday. She brought a cake and paper plates and plastic forks for George. We all sat down, Helen Frankenthaler took out the plates and, in front of us, wrote "Happy Birthday George" on each plate. As she put the cake on them and handed them out, I know we were all thinking "I don't want cake, I just want to keep the plate with Helen Frankenthaler's handwriting on it!" But the plates were all ruined by cake and they were all thrown away. Helen told George that she baked the cake, but it was obviously store-bought. That's my memorable story.

I actually think we still have one of those plates somewhere . . . George managed to keep one!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Narwhal Award ® to Wyatt Mason

I am ashamed to say that I have not mentioned him before, but let me make amends by honoring Wyatt Mason with this week's Narwhal Award ®. Mr. Mason, whose Sentences blog represented Harper's Magazine online, posted intellectually stimulating notes on books both old and new for over a year. He considered not only recent publications, but possible publications, old classics, and the state of literature today. Unfortunately, Mr. Mason has now left Sentences, but I want to thank him for his work, and to direct readers to his wonderful posts.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Narwhal Award ® Gets A Logo!

Inspired by our Narwhal Award, Eva-Lena Rehnmark sent us this incredible logo! I'm now doubly inspired to continue these awards—and I challenge readers to keep their eyes out for exceptional people in the book community, too! Thanks to Lilla G. Weinberger for sending this along.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Great Janet Frame Titles from Braziller!

David Gates (New York Times ) reviewed Janet Frame's posthumous novel Towards Another Summer (Counterpoint) yesterday, declaring that "except for 'David Copperfield,' few novels have rendered a child’s viewpoint more convincingly and affectionately."

Janet Frame published many beautiful novels with us—at left, she can be seen seated at her typewriter, perhaps hammering out one the letters she sent (on mint-green paper!) to our office. If you're new to Frame's work, I recommend beginning with Faces in the Water, or enjoying the haunting Criterion Collection biopic An Angel At My Table. The film features one of the best and most heart wrenching bad-day-at-work sequences ever made—no one sees daily life more clearly than Frame!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Re-Presenting II: The Copy Editor

It's time for another look behind the scenes with George Braziller Blog.

BEFORE IT GOES TO PRESS, it goes to Maria Dering. Maria is a writer, editor, publicist, translator of Russian, French, and Czech, a historian, a lecturer—in short, she knows what she's doing. After wrapping up this season's most important project, we met near the Met to lunch and discuss the art of copy-editing.

George Braziller Blog: When did you start copy-editing?

Maria Dering: It was 1984. At the time, I was working as a technical writer for Smith & Barney, so I did a lot of documentation and interviewing about backroom processing procedures for stock trades and mutual funds. And I was very bored. So I started interviewing for new jobs. Along the way, I happened to meet somebody who worked for a book club, and she asked if I did copy-editing. I said "I don't even know what that is. I know what editing is, but what's the difference?" She said, "Go get the Chicago Manual of Style." [Laughter] I bought it. I remember my first copy was dated 1983. I started reading it and I said "Oh my God." You would think that somebody with a couple of degrees in English would know everything about grammar and style, but I didn't, so I really had to learn.

GBB: This brings up a good question: What exactly is copy-editing? When someone hands you a manuscript and says "Take care of this," how do you know what kind of copy-editing they have in mind? How do you know where to stop?

MD: I think it varies depending on the publisher and writer. I always figure that writers will get furious if I change too much, so I try to do less rather than more. But I read in the fabulous Chicago Manual that a copy editor has to know everything—basically you're a glorified fact checker, grammarian, and syntax technician, and you have to make all the pieces in a paragraph fit together. So I change as little as possible of the author's voice, but if poor grammar gets in the way, it's got to be fixed. When I wrote for HBO, every now and then they'd give me an article to edit, I'd clean it up and they'd say "Oh but it's lost its soul." I'd say, "No, the grammar has been corrected." You can't publish something that's incorrect. Maybe when you read it aloud it sounds wonderful, but when it's in print, it's different—it's permanent, and you look silly if something is wrong.

GBB: You reminded me of something when you mentioned glorified fact checkers—there was a four-page piece in the New Yorker about their fact checkers, and it actually did make fact-checking seem glorious.

MD: Well, you need to be a detective, you need to like problem solving, and you need a really good mind for trivia, because you never know when something is going to pop out of the attic in your head and become useful.

GBB: Do you remember a manuscript that was a nightmare for—

MD: YES. [Laughter] It was a chapter in a psychology book that was so colloquial and so conversational that it really wasn't suitable for print. The author got very angry when all I did was circle certain sentences and say “this is too slangy, you're playing a little fast and loose with facts, please tighten this up, please research this a bit more,” and so on. It's the only time an author has gotten furious with me in that way (and I found out that there had been trouble with this author before). I question why that chapter was even included, because it was jarring compared to the other chapters around it. It was the diference between an experienced psychologist writing and a student writing for a school project. It was that bad.

GBB: So that brings me to the opposite—what's a piece that brought you to new and fascinating things, that taught you something?

MD: Well, one was the Braziller book on Louis I. Kahn, because for that project, I had to really learn about that man. He was such an unknown figure to me that I had to research his life and work and projects. There were a lot of technical terms that I had to familiarize myself with, but I also had to look at blue prints and other books about him. It was fascinating.

GBB: What was it that first led you to Braziller?

MD: I needed a job! [Laughter] I had the directory of publishers, that big thick book, and he was in the B section. I called and I asked "Do you need a copy editor?" At that time, Mary Taveras was there and she said "O my God! We're actually looking for someone to read a manuscript for us right now!" That's how it got started. But I knew about Braziller because, in grad school, we all looked at the Très Riches Heures, and everyone drooled over that book. I knew him from that. I knew the name, I was looking for a job...

GBB: And now you've done over fifteen titles with us.

MD: It's been six years... ... Let's eat.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

George Braziller, Dingo

Our readers are probably wondering "Does George Braziller, Inc., have an official mascot?" Well, officially: no. But unofficially: yes! We have this Dingo named George Braziller.

George (the dingo) lives in Australia with Boro Wongar, author of Braziller titles Karan and Walg. George is getting up there in dingo years, but he still takes his walkabout every day. (This picture was taken in July, 2007.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Readers' Books Responds

Unable to accept yesterday's Narwhal Award® in person, Lilla Weinberger sent along this fine portrait of a co-worker at Readers' Books in Sonoma Valley, California. That reminds me—if you have any nominees for the Awards, please let me know their story!

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Narwhal Awards

I'm starting the Narwhal Awards® today to recognize booksellers, agents, publishers, and other industry folk who are doing something unique during these allegedly difficult times.

The first Narwhal Award® goes to Readers' Books in Sonoma Valley, California, a shop that recently made an unusual addition to its shelves—organic eggs. Readers' has begun selling eggs from the owners' family farm, and plans to follow up with vegetables and preserves this Autumn, so that bookworms can save themselves a stop to the grocery store on the way home. Co-owner Lilla Weinberger says that she has no intention of competing with local farmers' markets, but I'm sure that other local booksellers are feeling a bit threatened. I hope that this Narwhal Award® brings Readers' the attention it deserves—and I think we should all... take a page from its book.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bride Price Reviewed!

Buchi Emecheta's Bride Price received a thoughtful review on the Cuban In London blog yesterday—comparisons are drawn between Emecheta and Wole Soyinka, whose play Death and the King's Horseman recently premiered in London.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Will Barnet in ARTnews!

Will Barnet is center stage again, this time in an ARTnews review featuring our Will Barnet: A Sketchbook, 1932–1934. Here's what Deidre S. Greben says about the title:

"Will Barnet: A Sketchbook, 1932–1934 is an excursion unto itself. Discovered in files buried in Barnet's studio, the plein-air sketches of lovers, strollers, thinkers, and loungers were a relief from the labored compositions of the artist's early academic training. Their only purpose was the delight he obviously felt in making them. As a New Englander just arrived in New York, Barnet was drawn to Central Park, which he called a front lawn for Depression-era city dwellers packed into airless tenements. These bold, direct drawings capture the openness of the setting, but also the subtle interactions among the figures. As critic Robert C. Morgan keenly note in his introduction, these are intimate even romantic works of youthful discover, yet they suggest the foundations of a classicism that was to characterize Barnet's long career."

Friday, May 1, 2009

See What's New at George Braziller!

Summer is almost upon us, and soon publishers along Madison Avenue will begin running on summer schedules, which means a Monday-through-Thursday schedule for 9-to-5ers, and a Monday-through-when-I-head-off-to-Maine schedule for editors. Even so, George Braziller, Inc., is still working around the clock to bring you new titles in 2009 and 2010. Check out our home page and download a free copy of our Spring / Summer 2009 flyer. You'll learn about our upcoming projects, and some great back-list titles, too.