I recently completed a very large project editing and producing a scientific book. I thought I would share what I learned in the process.

Producing a scientific book is one of those projects that can take a considerable amount of time to complete but do look rather good when they are done. About a year ago I was commissioned to help the rather successful LAB Symposium, located here in The Netherlands, produce a commemorative book in celebration of their 10th edition and the fact they had been going for 30 years.

The result (the book) had a print run of 1000. It was presented to approximately 700 delegates that attended the 10th Edition of the symposium at the end of August. About 300 others also received the book in the following months.

There are a few graphics from the book below and you can download a hi-res (>7mb) sample of the book here.

So, what was involved?

The content of the book, which is based on the writing of over 30 international academic authors, is a bit of a hybrid between serious academic reviews and lighter reflections of previous editions of the symposium. My job was to edit the content, bring it all together into a coherent flowing story and make sure the book was ready in time for the conference. The final result was 90,000 words, well over 150 images and graphics and the book delivered on time (phew!).

I’m not going to say so much about the editing. It took time and, as expected, some parts needed more attention than others. I decided in the beginning that I would stick to MS Word (even though it has its issues) and mark-up/comment the manuscripts in the usual way. This was a good approach as I knew most/all the authors would be comfortable with this. I also provided short editorial reviews describing what I had done and why. I think this helped as there were not too many rebuttals to the changes I proposed. One addition that I proposed was short author biographies at the end of the chapters. I wanted to try to bring out the human side of the science a bit more so putting a face to a name and what they did seemed like a good idea at the time. The result was 10 manuscripts and hopefully happy authors. So far, so good.

Then came the next steps… typesetting, design and getting the book to the printers. Now, these are processes that an academic publisher would normally sort out on behalf of the author(s) of a book. In this case, there was no publisher. So what to do? It was basically either outsource or DIY finishing the book. The biggest challenge would be to meet the requirements of the printer – PDF, hi-resolution images, vector graphics, page count divisible by 8 etc. This seemed fairly reasonable and after a discussion we decided to go the DIY route. Here’s how I did it and what I would probably change the next time.

Typesetting

This is laying out the book as it will appear once it is printed. In a classic case of using resources that you have around you, I plumped for Apple’s iWork Pages. It’s like Word but has features that make it more amenable to typesetting. It also has a native ability to export to a PDF. I spent hours searching/ worrying if the resulting PDF would be of sufficient quality for printing. So I will state this now, in the most optimized, SEO’d way that I can think of:

Apple’s iWork Pages can output or export a PDF that has no reduction in image quality and is suitable for producing a printed book via modern printing processes and technology. You need to use File > Export > PDF and select “best” in the Image Quality drop down box.

Pages is not perfect though for typesetting, as I found to my cost when I lost some rather important italic formatting (that was a bad day and a long night putting it all back again). It is good for placing images as long as you specify exact locations (i.e. type in (via cm, feet or inches) the location of the images and do not line them up by eye).

Learning: I promise that I will use Adobe InDesign next time… as it is designed for the job (and priced accordingly!).

Images

There were a considerable number of images in the book. To process these I used Adobe Photoshop Elements. It did a decent job on the resolution of the images that were taken recently (i.e. 72 dpi > 300 dpi). The older photos that had been scanned were also ok as they came out the scanner at 300 dpi. Unfortunately some of the other photos were supplied at very low resolution (I suspect taken from institutional websites). In one particular case, there was very little I could do.

Next time, I will use Adobe Photoshop (the full priced one) as this has an option to convert to CMYK colour profiles, which is a considerably better colour profile for printing. The result for most of the photos was still ok, with only a few coming out darker than expected.

Learning: Colour profiles make a difference when it comes to printing images. All future images will be processed according to the medium they will end up in.

Vector Graphics

These are diagrams, graphs etc that however far you zoom in, they will never become pixelated. They are different to pixel based images in that they are built from curves that are mathematically calculated. It sounds complicated but actually an Apple Mac can cope easily with this (phew! yet another great decision when I started this business). To my great relief you can use either PowerPoint or Keynote to produce or re-draw the graphic. Then, instead of exporting, you print… but to a PDF. The result is a vector graphic and a very high quality image in the final print.

Learning: it is possible to get around an issue if you think about it carefully, do some googling, read the instructions and have a Mac.

Proofing

This is where the author has a final check of the typeset chapter/ manuscript. The issue is the PDFs that result from the process above can be far larger than is possible to attach to an email. What to do? This time, I leveraged iWork.com. It was simply a case of uploading the file and sharing with whoever it needed to shared with. There are options for commenting in the text and discussing the document. Notifications also get sent via email when someone completes their review. This worked really well. I even received some encouraging feedback using this approach.

Learning: I will probably use iWork.com again. There are other systems out there and the area is developing quickly but for what I wanted to achieve, it ticked the right boxes.

Copyright permissions

We were really conscious of this as a great deal of academic content comes with re-use restrictions. In one case we found that copyright had been handed over by the author to a journal and that we had to ask again to re-use their own original content. However, (surprisingly) academic publishers have made it really easy to obtain permission. It’s called copyright.com. Usefully most journal content from the very big publishers also comes with “rights and permissions” links that takes you directly to the correct page at the site (check it out the next time you are viewing a paper online). It was simply a case of plugging in the usage, clicking send and back comes the response. I think in only two cases we had to pay a small amount for permission ($3.50!). Unfortunately the picture is not completely rosey. In some cases we did have to wait for human contact and this meant we ran out of time to get permission before going to press (vacations are a pain).

Learning: getting permission is cheap and easy but starting earlier would have been wiser in this case.

Cover Design

This is a specialised skill and luckily the printer that the client chose offered to do it for us. So, I proposed some mockups to the client. We then settled on a final design and sent this to the printer to do the rest. I am guessing that the design dimensions will depend a lot on the paper weight used in the book and the size and weight of the cover. Finally, it worked out. I should also mention the image of the genome map that is part of the design. It reflected well the evolution of the area in that genome sequencing has become vital for the progress the area has seen. It is also taken straight from the pages of a paper published by PLoS. The genius part is that because all content there is published under a Creative Commons Attribution License we could happily download a very high resolution tiff file of the image, add it to the design and run with it very quickly. All we needed to do was put a credit on the inside cover. A perfect re-use of content and open access publishing.

Learning: Cover design is a specialised skill best left to the printing professional. Open access really does have its benefits!

ISBN

We decided to obtain an ISBN for the book. This would mean it would be retrievable and would mean the book being officially published (which also meant the authors could add the book to their own publication lists). It was a surprisingly easy task. I expected (wrongly) that I would be jumping through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops. But no! It was simply a case of filling in an online form at the national register (ISBN.nl), paying the bill and within about 10 minutes a set of 10 ISBNs appeared in my inbox. It was really that easy. My only obligation was then to send a copy of the book to the National Library here in The Netherlands. The really neat thing is that with this we could, if we wanted although we didn’t in the end, also obtain a unique barcode and graphic from the same site. Useful!

Learning: Getting hold of an ISBN is easy and do-able. In the process I also inadvertently became a registered dutch publisher.

Final thoughts

Although the project somewhat grew from the original editing commission, I think we ended up with a great looking and reading book. It was a big project and I think it took all of us a bit by surprise. However, we got there in the end and the feedback was very positive. Would I do it again? Yes, definitely.

Do get in contact if you would like to talk through such a project.

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