Children’s book illustration & design

At the Vancouver ceremony for the 2014 Alcuin Awards, one of this year’s judges, Robin Mitchell Cranfield, moderated a lively panel discussion about the unique considerations in children’s picture book publishing. On the panel were:

Nugent began with a bit of background about children’s picture books—a timeless form that’s actually not all that old, emerging in the Victorian era as toy books meant as novelties to entertain children. According to Barbara Bader, a scholar in the field of children’s literature, “A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a child.” Nugent explained that whereas a storybook can be completely understood without images, a picture book’s narrative results from the interaction of words and pictures. Reading a picture book is not a linear process; children will flip the pages backward and forward as they try to make sense of the story.

A picture book’s words and images interact in three ways, said Nugent:

  • enhancement, where they complement one another and are not redundant—the words and pictures fill in different details;
  • alternation, where words and pictures take turns telling the story—seen most often when the author is also the illustrator; and
  • contradiction, where the words and pictures do not agree—a tension that creates humour or irony.

Nugent aspires to this contradictory symbiosis of words and images, because “teaching humour is an essential life skill.” Contradiction can reveal an unreliable or naive narrator and thus playfully empowers readers with knowledge that the narrator doesn’t have.

Children may be the readers of picture books, said Mitchell Cranfield, but who are the buyers? And how do they affect the way picture books are marketed? Gillingham replied that the interesting thing about a children’s book as a product is that there are gatekeepers: parents, teachers, and librarians choose which books to put into kids’ hands. The book must appeal to both the children and the people giving the book to the children.

The cover is the primary marketing tool, said Gillingham. “It can be a bit icky to think of the book as a product or to think about its cover as packaging, but we do want books to get into the hands of readers.” Children’s book authors and illustrators can expect their publisher’s marketing department to become involved in cover design because it is a sales tool. But unless the book can be tied to a holiday—say Mother’s Day or Father’s Day—the publisher typically won’t have the budget to do much marketing, and authors and illustrators are often expected to market their own books.

“How do we reach and represent the full community of children?” Mitchell Cranfield asked Flett. “Are there communities being underserved?”

“There are so many communities being underserved,” said Flett, including people who are LGBTQIA, people of colour, people with disabilities, and people from ethnic or cultural minorities. Published demographic data are hard to come by in Canada, but the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison releases statistics about children’s literature in the U.S., and it last reported that, in a sample of 5,000 books:

  • 180 were written or illustrated by African Americans,
  • 38 were by aboriginal authors or illustrators,
  • 112 were by authors or illustrators of Asia-Pacific ancestry, and
  • 66 were by Latinos.

For more representative diversity, said Flett, “we need more books written by the community member, not on behalf of that community member. We need these books in schools, homes, and communities.” Picture books that feature diversity are often what Flett considers “tourist books,” which may focus on holidays, for instance. There is much less about everyday life. Flett would like to see books that are now shelved in the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit section of the bookstore also in other sections, because “ultimately they are, like the majority of books, about humanity. And if we do not include diverse books, we’re implicitly exclusive.” She recalled an interaction she had with a young reader—a foster child—who was excited to discover that the main character of The Moccasins was also a foster child. Flett made the case for diverse books in all genres so that children with all sorts of backgrounds and experiences have characters they can relate to.

Mitchell Cranfield asked Morstad what children’s books mean to her. As a parent who loves art and design, Morstad replied, she’s interested in books that appeal to both children and adults—“books that tackle big subjects and that don’t underestimate children’s understanding of big subjects” like the emotions that come with death or sex or depression, for example. She enjoys books that are “deceptively simple but have philosophical or more complex components.”

“Kids have questions, and some are hard to answer,” Morstad said. “A book can be a great place for those conversations to happen.”

Mitchell Cranfield talked about her own work adapting a book for a TV show and remarked that when you’re reading with a child, “content gets presented to children in a filtered way.” Children can let you know when it’s too much for them. With a TV show, she had to be more careful about making sure the content would be “safe” to a broad group of viewers.

Flett likes the idea of empowering children in books. In Dolphin SOS (winner of the 2015 Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize), for example, the youth are themselves involved with the rescue in the story. Flett also mentioned Simon Ortiz’s The People Shall Continue, recently featured on the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog. Ortiz’s storytelling presents the history of Indigenous peoples, including treaties and reservations, in a matter-of-fact way, never once using the word “plight.” The book reflected how people simply tell each other stories: “These are the stories; these are the songs.”

Mitchell Cranfield asked Gillingham how changes in production have changed book illustration, design, and content. “What does the future of children’s book design look like?”

Gillingham said that digital art in children’s books “used to look a lot more digital.”

“I appreciate illustrators who continue to use their hands but use digital tools to make the process of making a book easier,” she said. “I love when there’s still evidence of the hand.”

Gillingham recalled when, not that long ago, illustrators had to send, nervously, their original artwork via courier, when there was always a possibility of loss or damage. “I love that we don’t have to worry about those things now,” she said.

As for the future of children’s book design, “I see it getting less compartmentalized,” she said. Traditionally, authors and illustrators were kept separate, but “I see that breaking down. Authors and illustrators are finding each other.”

“I see illustrators becoming more design savvy,” she added, speculating that the change might be tool driven, as more illustrators work in the digital realm. They’re more conscientious about page composition and the interaction between type and illustrations.

Nugent agreed that the process is much more collaborative. She said that she felt editorial pressure to create a sleepy-time ending to one of her books, When Cats Go Wrong. “With cuts to libraries and schools,” she said, book publishers have refocused their marketing toward parents, and in North America, “a picture book is used to separate parent from child at the end of the day”—a function that books in other countries don’t have to have.

Nugent had to rework the last spread of her book, which had depicted an active scene, to create a more calm ending. She admits to resenting the request at first but came to realize that inspiration was bottomless: she could find it regardless of the constraints she faced. “People don’t like to think about marketing considerations, but we have to respect that people are putting money into producing the book.” she said. She ended by encouraging everyone to check out the IBBY Silent Books Exhibit featuring wordless picture books from around the world on at the Italian Cultural Centre until October 22.

Vanessa Ricci-Thode—Alternatives to editing: working on a self-publisher’s budget (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

What can you do for self-publishing authors who don’t have much to spend? Author and editor Vanessa Ricci-Thode shared some the strategies she’s used to help authors who can’t afford editing. Although she focused on fiction, many of her tips will apply to nonfiction projects as well.

Do a manuscript evaluation

For a flat fee, Ricci-Thode will evaluate a manuscript up to 100,000 words and provide the author with a topic-by-topic report outlining the main changes that the author should make to

  • premise
  • plot
  • structure
  • characterization
  • dialogue
  • setting
  • point of view
  • voice
  • mood or tone

She may also comment on other features, such as the story’s symbolism, humour, or reading level. Although she won’t edit the manuscript—and hence won’t mark it up—she will insert comment bubbles in the document so that authors can see examples of the kinds of problems they might  consider fixing. Ricci-Thodes suggests using a “triage editing” mindset and tackling the biggest problems first.

To learn how write a constructive evaluation, Ricchi-Thodes suggests the seminar on fiction editing offered by EAC’s Toronto Branch or Ryerson University’s fiction-editing class.

Suggest crowdfunding

If an author doesn’t have enough of their own money for editing, they could try raising enough money through crowdfunding platforms, including

Many of these platforms allow authors to connect with their readers by offering rewards for their sponsorship.

Suggest low-cost editing options (with a caveat)

If an author is desperate for editing, you could point them to low-cost editing options on freelancing sites such as Elance or even Fiverr. However, because many people claiming to be editors compete internationally for freelance contracts, these sites can be exploitative. Further, the quality of the editing will be a crapshoot.

Whatever you do, said Ricci-Thodes, don’t let an author talk you down. Don’t sell yourself—or your colleagues—short. You may be willing to reduce your rate to work on a particularly exciting project, but make sure your client knows the full value of the services you’re giving them.

Point authors to resources on writing and self-editing

For authors that need a lot of work, recommend books or websites that will help them hone their writing skills. During the session Ricci-Thodes listed the resources she recommends (her commentary in parentheses):

On craft

On style and grammar


Audience members chimed in with some of their own suggestions (in no particular order):

Also, encourage authors to join a critique group or writing circle that has experienced writers.

Offer mentoring or “mini-evaluation” sessions

Ricci-Thodes offers face-to-face meetings in which she can offer an author tips based on a short writing sample and answer specific editorial questions. She lets the clients set the agenda for the meetings, for which she charges hourly.


For more editor-recommended, editing-related resources, check out my blog post from our September 2014 EAC-BC meeting: Hitting the books: Professional development tips.

Hiring other freelancers: expanding your business with colleagues (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

Veteran editor Laura Poole led a lively panel discussion about working with freelance editors. The other panellists were Carol Fisher Saller, who gave us an insider’s perspective from the University of Chicago Press, and Janet MacMillan, a long-time member of both the Editors’ Association of Canada and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders in the UK.

Poole now regularly subcontracts work to an associate that she mentored, but she’s also found another source of subcontracting revenue simply by having an incorporated business. One of her clients enacted a new policy of not working with sole proprietors, which cut out a large chunk of their regular freelancers. These freelancers now invoice through Poole’s company, adding a markup to their totals to pay Poole for her services.

The books division at the University of Chicago Press publishes up to 300 books a year and has an in-house staff of fifteen editors, and 40 percent of the copy editing is done by freelancers. Saller told us that the press almost never approaches freelancers who haven’t contacted them first. They get plenty of resumes in the mail all the time and have many on file.

MacMillan said that she doesn’t like to use the term “subcontract” and prefers to think of other editors as associates or collaborators. She’ll reach out to other editors when she’s working on large projects or if she knows they have special expertise that she lacks.

MacMillan never charges a referral fee, saying “I’m exceedingly uncomfortable with it. A nice thank you would be enough.” She expects that people to whom she’s referred work will also pass along work to her at some point. In contrast, Poole will request (or pay, if she’s on the receiving end of a referral) a 10 percent fee for referring work to her colleagues. What she tells clients is that she’ll train the subcontractors on their style. “You show that you’re putting skin in the game and working to maintain your reputation,” she said. This fee applies only to the first project involving that particular editor–client pair, and on subsequent projects, they can work out their own payment terms.

To find out about other freelancers, MacMillan relies on her network and looks at how people present themselves on their websites or their profiles in the Online Directory of Editors. She’ll also recommend editors she’s mentored formally or informally. “I would never refer work to someone whose work I didn’t know or that I didn’t know personally,” she said.

Poole draws on her network of editorial trainees and sometimes runs focused searches on LinkedIn to find the right person for the job. She keeps track of people’s specializations so that she’ll have someone to recommend if a client is looking for that expertise.

What about training? “We do train in-house entry-level editors,” said Saller. “We don’t train freelancers. We can tell almost instantly if someone is a likely candidate. We require experience with other university presses, and we can tell from their cover letter and resume if they have good communication skills.” The University of Chicago Press will train freelancers on its process and may ask editors to edit a trial chapter, which the press will pay for.

MacMillan will work with a colleague through the first or second project and will always provide feedback, particularly if the project didn’t go as well as she’d hoped. “ If I didn’t tell them where they went wrong, I wouldn’t be fair to them,” she said. “Quite frankly, we’re all off sometimes. It’s best to remain humble and remember that.”

Likewise, Poole is invested in helping her associate editor further her career and regularly gives her pointers. “If you hire freelancers, give them feedback,” she said. Rather than simply never hiring someone again, critical but constructive feedback means that you care and want the editor to get better. “You have to separate business and friendship,” said Poole. “Let’s talk business and not take it personally.”

“We also learn from more junior editors by how they react to feedback,” added MacMillan. “They’ll say, ‘I did it this way because…’ and sometimes that ‘because’ will make you think. The learning experience goes both ways.”

Sometimes the problems may have been that you, as the hiring editor, didn’t clearly communicate expectations or standards. Lee d’Anjou, in the audience, suggested always using written contracts to define the project scope and expectations. EAC’s Professional Editorial Standards may also help you define the tasks you’re hoping your subcontractor will do.

The University of Chicago Press highly values editors who work independently. “We do appreciate when people ask questions,” said Saller, “like asking if something needs to be done.” But occasionally some freelancers ask too much, too often. Knowing when to ask and when to do is part of editorial judgment that comes with experience.

Editors looking for subcontract work should be careful about how they approach other editors. Being presumptuous or demanding—for example, saying “Can I see your client list?” or “Will you send me work?”—will make editors bristle. Poole especially dislikes people who write, “I’d be happy to take your overflow work.” “I don’t have overflow work,” she said. “If I can’t take the work, I don’t do it. A better approach would be to say, ‘Can I support you to expand your business?’”

Both Poole and MacMillan said that they’re always transparent with their clients about whether they’ve used subcontractors.

I was disappointed to discover that the University of Chicago Press doesn’t credit its editors, neither in-house nor freelance. Last year, what turned out to be a dream client approached me because she’d seen my name on a publication for a similar organization. I’ve written about credit lines before: they cost the publisher nothing but can be extremely meaningful to the editors, designers, and indexers who work on a project and can use it as part of their portfolio.


For more on subcontracting, see my summary of a related panel discussion we held at an EAC-BC branch meeting.

Authoring and delivery platforms for open educational resources (webinar)

The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER) hosted a webinar about a few platforms for authoring and delivering open educational resources (OER). CCCOER was founded almost eight years ago to expand access to openly licensed material, support faculty choice, and improve student success. It has more than 250 member colleges in twenty-one states. The organization understands that faculty need user-friendly authoring tools, institutions had to integrate OER into their existing course management infrastructures, and students had to be able to easily search and use OER. Representatives from three OER platforms explained their tools in this webinar. I’ll cover all three, but my focus will be on Clint Lalonde’s presentation about Pressbooks Textbook, because it’s the most relevant to publishing in BC. (Slides of the session are on Slideshare.)

Courseload Engage, presented by Etienne Pelaprat, User Experience Director at Courseload Inc.

Courseload is a platform that offers students access to text-based OER, video, audio, journal articles, library content and catalogues, proprietary content, and other uploaded content through a single application that can be integrated into existing learning management systems. Courseload has the flexibility of allowing institutions to curate their own content based on learning objectives, and it manages all of the metadata (including library catalogue data and ONIX feeds). This metadata allows institutions to generate custom catalogues and course packs, and the system tracks content use via analytics that may help institutions optimize discoverability and respond to student demand to improve their learning outcomes.

PressBooks Textbook, presented by Clint Lalonde, Open Education Manager at BCcampus

BCcampus’s Open Textbook Project was launched to provide BC post-secondary students with access to free textbooks in the forty subject areas with the highest enrolment. Rather than start from scratch, said Lalonde, BCcampus wanted to take advantage of existing textbook content already in the commons. The focus would be on adaptation, although they would also create some new content.

For students, the open textbooks had to be free for students to use and retain and available in several formats. For faculty, open textbooks had to be high-quality material that would be easy to find and adapt.

Hugh McGuire had predicted that the book would merge with the web and that books would be created web first; he founded PressBooks with that idea in mind. PressBooks is an open source WordPress plugin that allows authors to write once but output in many different formats, including HTML, EPUB, and PDF.

BCcampus worked with a programmer to customize PressBooks for easy textbook authoring, and the result is the PressBooks Textbook plug-in. It works together with to allow students and faculty to annotate content. Lalonde and his team also added an application program interface (API) that facilitates searching and sharing with others on different platforms and allows the textbooks to become more than just static content. Unfortunately, Lalonde explained, PressBooks Textbook isn’t fully open source at the moment, because it relies on a proprietary PDF output engine, the license for which institutions would have to pay.

BCcampus’s next steps with this plug-in include

  • integrating accessibility features via the FLOE Project
  • finding an open source PDF engine to replace Prince XML
  • expanding the output formats to include Word-compatible ODT files.

Lalonde has blogged about PressBook Textbook’s architecture.

Open Assembly, presented by founder and CEO Domi Enders

Non-traditional students and adjunct instructors are less likely to be reached by OER initiatives because they may work remotely much of the time and are poorly integrated into an institution. As a result, they have limited access to their peer communities. Domi Enders wanted to develop open learning system that would not only give users access to OER but also give students or adjunct faculty the continuity and agency they need to remain engaged with their learning and teaching. Open Assembly can be integrated into existing learning management systems and allows users to collaborate in content curation. By offering users a space to meet and create new knowledge, it facilitates peer-to-peer learning in a way that helps remote students and faculty stay connected.

Writing about First Nations (Read Local BC)

As part of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia’s Read Local BC campaign, Laraine Coates of UBC Press hosted a panel discussion on writing about First Nations, featuring:

After Coates acknowledged that the evening’s event was taking place on unceded Coast Salish territories, she launched into the program by asking each panellist to describe their books.

Written as I Remember It was Elsie Paul’s idea, said Raibmon, and consists primarily of teachings and historical stories from Paul’s life. Paul, one of the last remaining mother-tongue speakers of Sliammon, wanted to create a booklet of teachings to share with her family. Raibmon thought Paul’s stories would interest a wider audience, and they decided to work together, along with Paul’s granddaughter, Harmony Johnson, to turn the booklet into a UBC Press book, which was organized into chapters based on key themes, including grief, education, spirituality, and pregnancy. “All of these stories were told and lived in a completely different language,” said Raibmon. “Elsie has lived a fascinating life, and she has a lot of interesting stories to tell.”

Jean Barman has written about BC history before, but “I’d always acted as if French Canadians didn’t exist in the province,” she said. She wanted to redress this deficiency and find out more about them. “That’s the nice thing about being an academic,” she said. “I get paid to find out!” As she did research for the book, her focus expanded from the French Canadians themselves to the fur trade that brought them to the province and the indigenous women who kept them here.

Jennifer Kramer co-edited Native Art of the Northwest Coast with art historian Charlotte Townsend-Gault and Nuuchaanulth historian Ḳi-ḳe-in. They wanted to challenge the “one monolithic idea of what native Northwest Coast art is”—the red, black, and white ovoids and formlines we so often see. The book unearths 250 years’ worth of commentary about Northwest Coast art from multiple perspectives, beginning chronologically with writings by Captain James Cook and including contemporary native artist–authors, to show the heterogeneity and richness of the region’s artistic past and present.

Coates noted that although the three books are different, they all deal with Aboriginal lives and legacy. She asked the panellists what they learned in their research.

Barman said that although over 90 percent of the men and all of the women she researched for the book were illiterate, she could still find traces of them in fur trade records or in the work of other people who had written about them. Barman looked at the relationships Aboriginal groups forged with the newcomers—particularly the way indigenous men encouraged their daughters to interact with the fur traders so that they could get access to trade goods—as well as the motivations French Canadian men had to stay rather than return to Quebec.

Raibmon said that unlike Barman’s project, hers “came with a workaround of the problem of finding traces.” Elsie Paul invited Raibmon to pull together audio material to create a book and allowed her to learn from the inside out, interconnecting teachings with history.

Kramer’s goal with her book was to consciously and actively address the problem that the majority of writing about Northwest Coast art has been by non-native authors. She wanted to bring in as many voices as possible to undermine the narratives repeated by Western, non-Aboriginal authors. “As an anthropologist, my number-one concern is, ‘Who am I to write about someone who isn’t me?’ We have this chronic problem or paradox: museums represent people who want to represent themselves. How do we get around that power imbalance?”

Kramer described the critical shift in the 1990s toward reflexivity, making the research process open to reflection and collaboration. “First Nations don’t have just one perspective, either,” said Kramer. “They’ll have many opinions. There’s no one way to write this. It’s not about correcting an incorrect history—it’s about acknowledging all the ways of knowing.” Kramer saw the draft of the book as a living, breathing archive, and she expressed apprehension about taking it to press and fixing it to a page. “It might have been better as an online blog, like Wikipedia, with many people engaging. We’re in this engagement together, and we’re co-creating these products of representation.” She also mentioned the discomfort that some of the artists felt, having the huge responsibility of representing not only their own artwork but also their culture, by extension.

Raibmon’s experience uncovered a bit of that tension as well. “Elsie did not get permission from the Sliammon people to write the book. She didn’t want to be seen as taking authority or speaking for her community.” She added that the university set up procedures requiring researchers who work with First Nations communities to get band approval, but “that’s not always appropriate. Elsie found it offensive that UBC wanted to get band council agreement so that she could tell her story.”

As a historian, said Barman, “I carefully document where all the bits and pieces come from so that others can add to them or challenge them.” She wants to make it clear that she’s telling a story, not the story, and there will always be pieces that are right to some and wrong to others. But if we don’t risk criticism and put your work out there, we’ll never learn, and our knowledge will never grow. “You’re doing something, but at least you’re doing something.”

Barman described a perennial difficulty that comes with historical research and writing: what to do about names. “What do we mean by the Northwest Coast?” To Americans, it includes Alaska and Washington but sometimes also Oregon and northern California. “What do you do before we had borders? What was something named in the past, and how have names changed? These issues can get you into conflict.”

Kramer agreed that names carry a lot of weight, and people can react strongly to them. She wanted her book to take an unconventional look at Northwest Coast art, which would naturally entail unconventional names and terms, yet still be discoverable to people using more familiar search terms. “That one would be accused of cultural appropriation is always a fear,” she said. Many First Nations groups have a very real fear of theft, given the historical theft of their land, their children, their sovereignty. But she had to grapple with the reality that no one member of the community could tell her that what she was doing was acceptable or give her a blank cheque. “You have to know you’re doing it with a good heart, that your intentions are clean.”

Kramer asked Raibmon if she had a voice in her book or if she felt as though she had to keep quiet and let Paul take the lead. The approach to narrative was different from her usual approaches, said Raibmon, but “the goal was to get Elsie’s voice on the page.” She still made a historical argument, but in an engaging way that foreground’s Paul’s voice. “I hope people who read the book will still see the historical connections, the connecting themes.” She added that she didn’t consider herself to be the historian and Paul to be her subject. “We were two historians working together, from different historical traditions. Personally I didn’t feel any tension from letting Elsie decide what topics would go in.”

“I didn’t actually understand why certain topics were off limits,” Raibmon continued. “Why are certain stories so important? There were chapters that were super important to them, but I didn’t understand it at the time. I learned how long it can take to let go of our assumptions that block our understanding… I understand now. But if my authority had trumped Elsie’s, I wouldn’t even have remembered the question, let along learn what I’ve learned.

“Elsie had stories of other families, but she didn’t feel that was appropriate to have in the book. She didn’t want to assume the stories would offend them. Cultural difference is understanding human difference.”

Writers on editors: an evening of eavesdropping (EAC-BC meeting)

What do writers really think of editors? Journalist and editor Jenny Lee moderated a discussion on that topic with authors Margo Bates and Daniel Francis at last week’s EAC-BC meeting. Bates, self-published author of P.S. Don’t Tell Your Mother and The Queen of a Gated Community, is president of the Vancouver branch of the Canadian Authors Association. Francis is a columnist for Geist magazine and a prolific author of two dozen books, including the Encyclopedia of British Columbia and the Connections Canada social studies textbook.

Francis told us that in the 1980s, he’d had one of his books published by a major Toronto-based publisher, who asked him about his next project. Francis pitched the concept for what became Imaginary Indian: the image of the Indian in Canadian culture back to 1850. His Toronto publisher turned it down, concerned about appropriation of voice. “I took the idea to friends in Vancouver,” said Francis, “and in some ways it’s my most successful book.” He learned from the experience that he’d rather work with smaller publishers close to home, many of which were run by people he considered friends. He thought his book with the larger publisher would be the ticket, but it was among his worst-selling titles, and he was particularly dismayed that the editor didn’t seem to have paid much attention to his text. “To me, this is a collaborative process, working with an editor,” said Francis. “I’m aware that I’m no genius and that this is not a work of genius,” but his editor “barely even read the thing.” He found the necessary depth in editing when he worked with his friends at smaller presses. “Friends can be frank,” Francis said.

Bates, whose P.S. Don’t Tell Your Mother has sold more than 7,500 copies, became familiar with how much editors can do when she hired them through her work in public relations. For her own writing, Bates knew she could take care of most of the copy editing and proofreading but wanted an objective but understanding professional who would advise her about structure and subject matter. She looked for someone who would tighten up her book and make it saleable. “I’m not that smart a writer that I can go without help,” she said. “I wouldn’t do anything without an editor.” In fact, she allocated the largest portion of her publishing budget to editing. After speaking with several candidates, Bates selected an editor who understood the social context of her book and help her “tell the story of prejudice in a humorous way.”

Frances Peck mentioned an article she read about a possible future where self-publishers would have editors’ imprints on their books—in other words, editors’ reputations would lend marketability to a book. “Is that a dream?” she asked. “The sooner, the better, as far as I’m concerned,” Bates said. “There’s a lot of crap out there,” she added, referring to story lines, point of view, grammar, spelling and other dimensions of writing that an editor could help authors improve.

What sets good editors apart from the rest? Francis says that he most appreciates those who have good judgment about when to correct something and when to query. Some strategies for querying suggested by the audience include referring often to the reader (“Will your reader understand?”) and referring to the text as something separate from the author (i.e., using “it says on page 26” rather than “you say on page 26”). Bates said that she really appreciated when her editor expressed genuine enthusiasm for her story. Her editor had told her, “I’m rooting for the characters, and so are your fans.”

Lee asked whether the popular strategy of the sandwich—beginning and ending an editorial letter with compliments, with the potentially ego-deflating critique in the middle—was effective. Francis said, “I hope I’m beyond the need for coddling. I guess you have to know who you’re dealing with, when you’re an editor.” Some editors in the room said that the sandwich is a reliable template for corresponding with someone with whom you haven’t yet established trust. We have to be encouraging as well as critical.

Both Bates and Francis urged editors to stop beating around the bush. Francis said, “You get insulted all the time as a textbook writer. You have to grow a pretty thick skin.” That said, Francis wasn’t a big fan of the book’s process of editing by committee and says it’s one reason he stopped writing textbooks. In addition to producing a coherent text, the textbook’s author and editors had to adhere to strict representation guidelines (e.g., the balance of males to females depicted in photographs had to be exactly 1:1).

Lee asked the two authors how they found their editors. Francis said that his publishers always assign his editors, and “I get the editor that I get.” So far his editors have worked out for him, but if he’d had any profound differences, he’d have approached the publisher about it or, in extreme cases, parted ways with the publisher.

Bates said that for self-published authors, the onus is on them to do their research and look at publications an editor has previously worked on. “There will always be inexperienced writers who don’t see the need for editors,” she said, but at meetings of the Federation of BC Writers and the Canadian Authors Association, she always advocates that authors get an editor. Bates suggested that the Editors’ Association of Canada forge closer ties with writers’ organizations so that we could readily educate authors about what editors do.

Open textbooks and the BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit (webinar)

In fall 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project was launched to reduce the financial burden on post-secondary students, who spend an average of $1,200 per year on textbooks. As part of Open Education Week, BCcampus hosted a webinar about the project as well as the associated BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit, created to help people who develop learning resources to make them as accessible as possible from the outset.

Open Textbook Project (presented by Amanda Coolidge)

In 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project received a grant of $1 million to develop open textbooks for the top-forty enrolled subject areas. It received another $1 million in 2014 to create resources for skills and trades training. BC has now committed to working together with Alberta and Saskatchewan to develop and share open textbooks.

Many people think open textbooks are e-textbooks, but what makes them open is their Creative Commons (CC) license: they can be copied, modified, and redistributed for no charge. Instructors can therefore change open textbooks to suit their courses, and students are able to get these books for free. In two years the project has saved more than five thousand students over $700,000 in textbook costs.

BCcampus carried out the Open Textbook Project in three phases:

  • First, they collected existing textbooks with CC licenses and asked faculty to review them.
  • Second, they modified these books based on faculty reviews. At the end of this process, they had covered thirty-six of the top-forty subject areas.
  • Finally, they funded the creation of four textbooks from scratch.

Open textbooks are now being used in fourteen post-secondary institutions across the province, and BCcampus has eighty-one textbooks in its collection. To create these materials, they use Pressbooks, a plugin that lets you write once and publish to many different formats.

Accessibility testing (presented by Tara Robertson)

Tara Robertson helps run CAPER-BC, which provides alternate formats of learning materials to twenty institutions across the province. They specialize in accommodations, including remediating textbooks for people with print disabilities. One reason the Open Textbook Project is exciting, said Robertson, is that instead of taking something broken and fixing it, she now has the opportunity to make the textbooks accessible from the start.

Seven students with special needs volunteered to test the open textbook resources for accessibility, reading selected chapters from textbooks in five subject areas and offering feedback on their usability. Robertson also ran a focus group with five students. She found recruiting testers challenging, and she acknowledges that the students who participated in the focus group, all of whom had visual impairments, were not representative of the many students that had other print disabilities. Still, the testers offered a lot of constructive feedback.

The chapters the students reviewed each had features that might interfere with assistive technology like text-to-speech software: formatted poetry, tables, images, quizzes, and so on. Testing revealed that the software would skip over embedded YouTube videos, so the textbooks would have to include URLs; formatted poems were problematic when enlarged because readers would have to scroll to read each line; and layout sometimes led to a confused reading order.

Robertson sees the accessibility consultation with students as an ongoing process to refine accessibility best practices.

BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit (presented by Sue Doner)

BCcampus has just launched an accessibility toolkit for faculty, content creators, instructional designers, and others who “don’t know what they don’t know about accessible design.” Their aim is to build faculty capacity for universal design and to highlight the distinctions between accommodations and accessibility. Accommodations involve individualizing resources and providing alternative learning options for students who identify as having a disability. If we were proactive about creating materials that were accessible from day one, we’d have no need for accommodations.

Universal design recognizes that different students learn differently—some prefer visual materials, whereas others prefer text, for example. It offers students multiple access points to the content, and it’s better for all students, not just those who register with their disability resource centre. For example, aging students may appreciate being able to enlarge text, and international students may benefit from captions to visual material.

The toolkit offers plain language guidelines for creating different types of textbook content with a student-centred focus, using user personas to inform key design concepts and best practices. It asks content developers to think about what assumptions they’re making of the end users and how those assumptions might affect the way they present the material.

It might take a bit of time for creators of some types of content to catch up with all accessibility features—for example, video and audio should, as a rule, come with transcripts, but a lot of YouTube content doesn’t, and you may run into copyright issues if you try to offer material in different formats.

The next steps for BCcampus are to incorporate the toolkit into the development process for all new open textbooks they create, to modify existing textbooks for accessibility, and to encourage the province’s post-secondary community to formally adopt these guidelines. The toolkit, like the open textbooks, are available under a CC license and can be thought of as a living document that will change and grow as different types of content (e.g., math) becomes amenable to accessible design.

Doner sees these steps as “an opportunity to create a community of practice—a new literacy skill.”


This webinar (along with others offered during Open Education Week) is archived on the BCcampus site.

Seth on cartooning, book design, and the Canadian aesthetic

Cartoonist, book designer, and illustrator (though he prefers the term “decorator”) Seth took the stage on Thursday after the Alcuin Awards presentations to talk about his influences; cartooning as an expressive, symbolic language; and the design features he’s identified as uniquely Canadian that he’s incorporated into his own design aesthetic. Guided by questions from another titan of Canadian book design, Peter Cocking, Seth led us on an eye-opening tour of his artistic process.

“Let’s talk about where you came from,” said Cocking. “You have a very pronounced style. What were your influences?”

“I’m a book designer now—I do a limited amount of book design—but primarily I’m a cartoonist,” said Seth. Growing up in small towns in Ontario, before the Internet, he absorbed culture from the pop culture. “As a child, you don’t judge it with an adult aesthetic,” he said, “but there was some stuff—you were connected to it for a reason.”

Peanuts, for example, had a profound effect Seth. “It was not really written for children, but children responded to it.” Charlie Brown was an outsider character, which elicited a lot of empathy. Charles Schulz “set the standard for how I wanted to work as a cartoonist,” said Seth. “The cartooning was really his handwriting.”

Marvel Comics also captured Seth’s imagination. “Like every kid,” he said, “I loved the superhero comics of that era.” Like Schulz, artists like Jack Kirby drew in clear lines. “The figures were quite strange. The anatomy wasn’t quite right. That’s when I realized that cartoonists were working with a symbolic language. Cartooning is not about drawing. It’s about creating symbols that people instantly recognize. Drawings in a cartoon are more similar to typography.”

Later on Seth discovered the work of Robert Crumb, whose work proved to Seth that “you can do anything you wanted as a cartoonist.” Crumb’s work, he said, had a dirty vibe to it—“literally filthy. Yet there was something really enticing beyond its pornographic qualities. It could actually impart a genuine feeling of lust.” In contrast with many cartoonists who were just drawing to make a buck, Crumb was one of a handful of great practitioners who redefined the idea that cartooning “could be a personal medium.”

Particularly intriguing to Seth was that Crumb’s work “looked like it had come from some earlier era.” The quality of the cartoon looked like it was drawn in the 1920s, but the content came out of the hippie subculture. Seth realized that Crumb “was digging around in the past for inspiration.”

Seth’s other influences include the Hernandez Brothers, as well as Georges Remi’s The Adventures of Tintin, in which “the shapes were simple. He was not concerned with rendering. It was all iconically drawn,” reinforcing the idea that cartooning is symbolic.

“Cartooning is a graphic language,” said Seth. “People sometimes say it’s like a combination of film and literature, which to me has always been a poor idea of what a cartoon is. To me, it’s more a combination of graphic design and poetry. Comics are about condensing things—condensing time and space.”

“They can be as complex to read as poetry,” said Cocking.

“Sometimes people ask if they should be reading the words or the pictures first. To me that’s always been a peculiar question. I always read them at the same time.”

“Some people don’t understand the language of comics,” said Cocking. “They don’t know what a thought bubble means…”

“Yes,” said Seth. “In Japanese comics, characters will sometimes have a puff of smoke coming out of their nose, which means great sadness. That’s just as foreign to us as the sweat beads we have flying off our characters in North American comics. And we don’t really have words to describe these devices.”

The New Yorker’s cartoons made an impression on Seth as well, particularly Peter Arno’s bold, brushed lines. “As a cartoonist, you always have a temptation to tighten up,” he explained. A maximum of expression in a minimum of lines.

“We’ve talked about your influences,” said Cocking. “Now let’s move on to some of your own work.” Showing images from Seth’s book design on The Complete Peanuts, Cocking noted the “attention you bring to Schulz as an illustrator—really showing graphic quality.”

“People take for granted what he did,” said Seth, “but it was groundbreaking.” Schulz was one of the first post-war cartoonists to take a modern approach of using “very few lines. He kept things very simple.”

“Charlie Brown is not a drawing of a child,” said Seth. “It is Charlie Brown. This was Schulz’s hand—it was his handwriting.” Schulz was writing his own life into the strip,” Seth explained. “When he was having an affair, Snoopy was having an affair—and his wife didn’t pick up on it!”

When Seth first approach Schulz’s widow, Jean Schulz, with the idea of The Complete Peanuts, he already had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do. “Peanuts had never been very well packaged,” he said. “People were selling the image of Peanuts as a popular item. I wanted to take down the tone of the books. The strips really had a melancholy mood.” Initially Seth envisioned fifty volumes, each with Charlie Brown’s face on the front. In the end he compromised, including two years per volume and featuring a few of the other characters.

The end papers in all of the volumes were a compilation of the settings, devoid of characters. “I wanted to establish a feeling for the place—this netherland of suburbia,” he said. “It was never clear where they lived. But it was somewhere with four seasons.” Seth wanted to highlight the strip’s underlying nature: it wasn’t really funny; it was meant more to be moving. On the occasional spread Seth allowed himself to assemble settings and build scenes with elements from Schulz’s strips. “I was drawing with his hands.”

Seth’s book design was heavily influenced by the work of Thoreau MacDonald, son of the Group of Seven’s J.E.H. MacDonald. Thoreau MacDonald was Canada’s premier book designer before the 1960s: he was a pen-and-ink artist who had a “cartoonist’s sensibility,” said Seth. He incorporated hand lettering seamlessly into his designs and illustrations. “There was a great earnestness to the work,” said Seth. “His work felt Canadian to me. Why does it feel Canadian to me?”

This question prompted Seth to gather Canadiana: old pamphlets, books, other ephemera that exemplified “Canadian vernacular design.” He was driven by the need to explore cartooning as a personal medium. “A lot of my peers were Americans,” he explained. “We were part of a little movement. I was one of the only Canadians in that group. Is there anything different in what I’m doing? What is an essence of Canadian imagery? Maybe I was insulted by Americans who thought, ‘Well, you’re just American.’ I started to inevitably feel some sense of national identity.”

From his collection, Seth distilled three features he identified in the Canadian postwar aesthetic: imagery from that period always had

  • an idea of landscape,
  • some official reference to the government, sometimes heraldic symbols of Britain or France, and
  • humility.

“There was something about them that was small,” he said. American images of the same era were always more impressive, almost always more proud. “I always thought there must have been some Ministry of Enforced Drabness,” said Seth.

These themes made it into Seth’s own work, such as in his graphic novel, George Sprott. “Every page could be read on its own, so it was easy to add pages in between. I could edit a work that already existed and really pay attention to pacing.” The front cover, with the title, George Sprott, 1894–1975, “is a tombstone,” Seth explained. “I like sadness, I must say. Life is sad. There’s an underlying tone of melancholy that goes through people’s lives.”

Cocking noted a musical quality to Seth’s work and asked him whether he thought in musical terms. “Yes,” he answered. “Pacing is so important. You’re always thinking about how you’re controlling time. Rhythm is super important.”

“Cartooning is a tiny little medium with a few symbols—a toy medium, a miniature world. There are endless possibilities for what you can do with that,” said Seth. “It’s remarkable the amount of variation that’s barely been touched. The medium is being completely redefined by the people working in it.”

Interspersed among the cartoons in the George Sprott collection are photos of cardboard buildings Seth crafted in his basement. “I made a world called Dominion—a Northern Ontario town that I invented where all my stories take place.”

Another of Seth’s projects was designing and decorating a new edition of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, which, as Cocking said, “celebrates and mocks the drabness” of the quintessential Canadian town. “It’s a mean book,” acknowledged Seth.

“What was important to me, as is always, was to get a sense of place.” The dust jacket is Seth’s depiction of the town during the day, the book’s title central and bold. The cover, in contrast, is the town at night, and features no type at all. “It’s going to end up at a second-hand bookstore, and nobody will know what the book is,” he said. “There’s an old cartooning rule: show, don’t tell. So when people draw literally what’s written on the page, I always think that’s a wasted opportunity.”

Seth took his mastery of covert symbolism to another level with The Collected Doug Wright. Wright was “Canada’s master cartoonist,” said Seth. His work was “very, very Canadian.” He created a pantomime strip—with no dialogue—and he worked from the late 1940s to the 1980s, when he had a major stroke and died a couple of years later. As Seth was thinking of how to assemble the collection of Wright’s work, he recalled that Wright’s father, away fighting in World War I, had written the boy a heartfelt letter of fatherly advice and pride shortly before he was killed in battle. Seth landed on the idea of having the Wright collection subliminally take the reader on a walking tour of the Vimy Memorial in France. He studied photos and plans and storyboarded the tour before echoing each of his sketches in the designs of the spreads in The Collected Doug Wright.

Seth’s archival sensibilities came naturally to him: “Cartooning is a collector’s world,” he said. He developed an affinity toward collecting, and “the more you do it, the more it becomes archival, historical. You’re not just an artist; you’re also a historian.”

Rethinking the block quote

I recently noticed my tendency to skip right over the block quotes in a book I was reading and figured there are probably others who do the same. My brain likely took the diminutive type as a cue that the quote wasn’t as important as the main text—but was this effect what the author intended?


Nonfiction authors use long quotes for one of two main reasons*:

  1. They have made (and would like to highlight) their own point but are using another authoritative source to buttress the argument.
  2. They want to draw special attention to the other source.

*(Be wary of the more disingenuous reason some authors use block quotes: to boost the word count of their manuscript.)

The problem is that, particularly in the second case, the traditional typographic treatments of block quotes may not do justice to the author’s intent.

Typographic styling of block quotes

According to Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, “Block quotations can be distinguished from the main text in many ways. For instance: by a change of face (usually from roman to italic), by a change in size (as from 11 pt down to 10 pt or 9 pt), or by indention.” He continues, “Combinations of these methods are often used, but one device is enough.” Bringhurst also advises using a white line or half-line at either end of the block to distinguish it from the main text.

A change from roman to italic can be problematic; as Access Ability: A Practical Handbook on Accessible Graphic Design advises, italics should be used sparingly and only to enhance communication. Long passages in italics can be hard to read, and since block quotes are usually set as blocks because they are too long to be run in, they are almost by definition ill suited to italics. There are typefaces with very readable italic fonts (Minion comes to mind), but in general italics are harder to read than their roman counterparts.

A change (usually a drop) in size can also be problematic: for readers, text in smaller type—think footnotes or back matter—means that the text is less important and can typically be ignored.

Worse are some websites that use greyed out boxes for block quotes. Rather than highlight the text, the screen is a cue to me that what’s in the box is of secondary importance.

Indention of block quotes has an interesting history: During the Baroque and Romantic periods, long quotations featured quotation marks at the beginning of every line (a practice I’m sure readability advocates are glad we’ve done away with). “When these distractions were finally omitted,” wrote Bringhurst, “the space they had occupied was frequently retained.”

Editorial considerations for block quotes

Editors may be able to give some input to the designer about how to style block quotes, but in many cases those kinds of decisions are beyond an editor’s control (particularly for freelancers). How do we minimize the risk that a quote an author wanted to showcase doesn’t get demoted to afterthought status? Here are some questions to consider:

1. What is the author’s purpose for using the quote?

In a lot of texts, particularly academic ones, quotes do play only a supportive role. In those cases, smaller type may be warranted, as a way of keeping attention on the main text.

However, it gets tricky when you work with texts where the author’s motivation for using quotes varies throughout. In those cases, lobby the designer for a neutral approach to styling a block quote, or reconsider using block quotes altogether.

2. Do we really need a block quote?

Is it important for the author to use the entire quote? Or can you refine it to its essence and use a run-in quote, which—if it means the reader will actually read it—may have more of an impact? Take out as much of the filler as you can. Even a shorter block quote would be better; long blocks of text, particularly in small type, are unwelcoming to readers.

3. Can we draw attention to the block quote through emphasis?

When authors add emphasis, either through italics or boldface, to an existing quote (along with a note that they’ve added emphasis), I admit I stop and pay attention. But don’t overuse this device. If it shows up more than once in a manuscript, it may be a good indication that only the emphasized portion of the quote should be used, run in to the main text.

4. Can we consider alternatives to the traditional block quote?

In a book I recently proofread, long quotes were simply set as regular paragraphs with quotation marks. The quotes never spanned more than a paragraph, and there were few of them, so this approach worked well for this particular text.

If the traditional block quote would not serve the text well, consider other options.

5. Can we communicate intent to the designer?

If possible, let the designer know the purpose of the quotes. It would be impractical—not to mention inconsistent, and crazy making for the designer—to set a different style for quotes you want to highlight and those you want to downplay, but communicating the general tenor of the quotes to the designer may yield a design that better suits the author’s text.

Design options for block quotes

1. Indent only

A neutral approach for block quotes is to eschew decreasing the type size or italicizing and simply set it off with indents, with a line space before and after. The indents provide a visual cue that the text is a quote, but the type size suggests to the reader that it’s at least of equal importance to the main text. Keeping roman type retains readability.

2. Consider a complementary but contrasting typeface

If the main body is in serif type, for example, maybe block quotes can be sans serif, of equal size.

3. If the author wants to highlight the quotes, consider making them bigger

Block quotes in larger type than the main text are almost unheard of, but if emphasis is the author’s intent, this option may be worth considering.

When designing block quotes, don’t be afraid to experiment, but use judgment, of course. Deviating too much from standard expectations can make the styling look like a mistake, and overusing any device can lessen its impact and yield an ugly design.

The main takeaway is the importance of communication: talk to the editor or author, and try to ascertain the purpose of the quotes before deciding how to style them.


(The irony isn’t lost on me that my WordPress theme’s default is indented italics for block quotes. Only time will tell if I’ll tweak the CSS or if laziness will prevail.)

Food for thought: the expanding universe of cookbook indexing—Gillian Watts (ISC conference 2014)

Gillian Watts, a past president of the Indexing Society of Canada, is an avid cook who’s always been drawn to cookbook indexing. Frustrated by not being able to find what she needed in a Time-Life series of cookbooks she owned called Foods of the World, Watts began cataloguing the recipes and ingredients in the series using index cards. She has since indexed about 140 cookbooks on a variety of topics, from breadmaking to gluten-free recipes to Indian cuisine.

Why index cookbooks?

There’s a big market for cookbooks today, particularly those focusing on healthy foods or cuisine from other countries, as well as those written by celebrity chefs.

Cookbooks are also comparatively easy, if you already know how to index. They’re “not a strain on intellectual faculties,” said Watts, and you can make “quick bucks, though not necessarily big bucks.”

What’s more, cookbooks are fun: every book has a different challenge, a “different world of sensory delights,” although, warned Watts, they “can lead to frequent snacking.”

Indexing approach

As with any index, know your client’s preferences before you begin, although sometimes the publisher doesn’t know what they want. In cookbooks there seems to be a preference for letter-by-letter sorting, and generally you need only one level of subhead. “Only once did I have to go to two levels,” Watts said.

Some publishers ask indexers to use special formatting, such as italics or bold, for main entries, particular techniques, or images.

“As a matter of practice,” said Watts, “I over-index. It’s easier to cut stuff out later rather than add it back in.” Watts keeps the main headings lowercase singular, to take advantage of her indexing software’s autocomplete function.

Bear in mind that the cookbook author had a reason for giving the recipes the titles they have, so try to preserve the original syntax when indexing. Also, Watts will index any ingredient in a recipe name, even if very little of it is used.

Knowing how to cook is a huge asset to a cookbook indexer; it’s important to understand the flavour profile of ingredients. An experienced cook, for example, would recognize that 1/4 cup of cilantro has more flavour than a 1/4 cup of parsley—and that it would have more influence in 2 cups of sauce than an 8-serving stew.

Cross-references are also important: often fresh and dried ingredients are used very differently.

Watts keeps a “staples list” that sets the threshold for which certain ingredients (e.g., beer, breadcrumbs, butter, carrots) make it into the index, but, she emphasized, you need to be flexible. In books for parents or for people with health problems, foods normally considered staples (e.g., flour) may become important to know about—and hence important to index.

For common cookbook terms, Watts has added a series of abbreviations to her software that autocorrect to the longer word—e.g., ch will render as chocolate. This trick saves her keystrokes and is especially useful for terms with accented characters.

The metatopic can be tricky for books that focus on a particular ingredient. For a book about quinoa that Watts worked on, where every recipe included quinoa, she indexed special forms of quinoa, such as “quinoa flour” and “quinoa flakes,” and implied that anything not listed simply used quinoa.

In cookbooks that have a health component as well as recipes, the index entries sometimes make “awkward bedfellows.” You may end up with “unappealing juxtapositions of symptoms and recipe items” and may need to get creative with wording. In one project she recommended using two separate indexes in order not to ruin the reader’s appetite.

Editing and trimming

Once you’re done data entry, edit the index, eliminating all one-entry headings. Check all cross-references.

The number of entries isn’t the same as the number of lines; some recipes have long, descriptive titles. The number of entries should be about 85 per cent of the lines available.

If space is at a premium, get rid of entries beginning with cooking techniques; people look up food, not techniques. Staple products and flavourings are also good candidates for cuts. “Sometimes you have to cut your pet entries,” said Watts, and “it’s important not to clutter the index with trivialities, even if they sound yummy.”

You may also want to group similar ingredients, such as berries, nuts, seafood, and so on, for space. “Sometimes I cheat and use the flavour profile rather than the actual food,” said Watts. For example, the entry “apple” would include applesauce, apple juice—basically anything that tastes like apple.


If the universe of cookbook indexing appeals to you, Watts recommends the following resources:

Watts also suggests looking at indexes in your own cookbooks. Which are useful? Which are irritating? And makes them so?


(Related: See my post about cookbook indexing using Microsoft Word.)