Friday, October 21, 2011

How Something Once Simple Became Complicated

Once, long ago (but in this galaxy) anyone who wanted to submit a manuscript to a New York publisher made certain that said manuscript was printed in Courier. Courier was the industry standard because it was the font of typewriters. Editors knew that a manuscript typed or printed in Courier with one-inch margins was estimated at 250 words per page, or 100,000 words for a 400 page manuscript. Of course, there weren’t actually 250 words on each page, but that’s the way it was figured because publishers were aware of the fact that empty white space takes up paper, too. In other words, it’s irrelevant if all your lines are this short:

“Holy cow!”

Or this long:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, etc.

Because what matters isn’t the actual number of words but how many lines it takes for you to tell your story. In other words, how many pages will be in the final published book?

Fast forward to the age of computers. While they resisted at first, editors eventually started accepting manuscripts typed in Times New Roman (which gives you a lot more words per page), Century School Book, Palatino, whatever. And then people stepped into the abyss and started using computer word counts. Now everyone is confused.

I’ve discussed this issue with editors, agents, and other writers, and while they all say, Yes, they use computer generated word counts, they also generally frown and say, Yes, they are misleading, and No, they really don’t quite know how to judge a book's length anymore, either. A book that comes in at 95,000 words as counted by a word processor can be as much as 125,000 words if figured using the old method. That’s a big difference! Authors who write lots of short sentences (“Holy cow!”) can come up with a much shorter computer-generated word count than verbose, long-winded authors given to writing long paragraphs of text, even though their books will end up the same actual number of pages.

So what do writers do? Most simply switched to Times New Roman and just go with the computer count. But there are still lots of hold outs. A huge, megaselling author I know still stubbornly uses Courier. Another NYT selling friend of mine uses Palatino and is if anything more confused than I am. Personally, I use Century School Book because I find it readable and it gives me a nice, old-fashioned 250 words per page. But I’ll admit that when my manuscript is running long, I’ll switch to Times New Roman because I know it will look shorter.

Yes, at some level we are all still in school, fiddling with margins and fonts, and deluding ourselves into thinking the teacher won’t notice.

(Ironically, the above image is taken from a 26 April 2011 article on Haggard and Halloo entitled "No more typewriters," and is about the shuttering of the world's last typewriter manufacturer, in India.)

10 comments:

liz fenwick said...

I miss typewriters a bit but not sure my kids have seen them anywhere but films...
lx

Charles Gramlich said...

I still have one mag I write for that wants Courier 12. Otherwise I use Times New Roman 12 and submit everything that way. Of course it doesn't really make a difference much with short stories. But Borgo press doesn't seem to mind the TNR. I guess they set everything on the computer anyway.

paz said...

Having only had experience with university presses, what I hate is the moving targets. Is it 85,000? Oh no wait, you can write 92K! Oh no, our mistake, it was 82K...

Steve Malley said...

Just to make it *extra* fun, different word processing programs will give you different word counts for the same story. A quick look back at Miss Snark's archives shows the knots folk used to tie themselves in over the issue.

In the end it's all economics, anyway. Ink is cheap relative to the paper in a book, so poor Elmore Leonard with his pages of short quick sentences won't be that much of a savings over printing the work of Cormac McCarthy. Whatever the font or the word count, it'll cost about the same to ship their books.

cs harris said...

Liz, I am hopeless with any keyboard that doesn't come with a delete button.

Charles, do they use computer word counts or the old-fashioned count?

Paz, that would drive me nuts. The one and only book I published with a scholarly press was so ridged on length I ended up cutting a huge chunk of my bibliography to meet it and just said, "See footnotes for other references."

Steve, What? That's hilarious!

Susan/DC said...

The last typewriter factory in the world? Gone? I don't know whether to be sad or indifferent. I kind of liked the clicking sound the keys made on an old-fashioned typewriter; it was both comforting and signified progress as I wrote my school papers. OTOH, I haven't used or even thought about a typewriter, manual or electric, in many years. I guess everyone everywhere uses computers these days, but I wonder about places where the electricity is not reliable -- do they use manual typewriters as backup or even there have they moved on completely (either that or someone is making a small fortune fixing the old-fashioned typing machines).

cs harris said...

Susan, I know, I was thinking, How can that be? Surely they need typewriters where they don't have electricity? I still have an old typewriter around that I kept for filling out forms, but I probably couldn't get a ribbon for it even if I wanted to!

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