A Porcupette’s Adventures in Typesetting, or, You CAN Teach an Old Nerd New Tricks

If you know me, you know that there are a few key truths that can pretty much sum me up as a human being. First, I love books. (Well, duh. No one gets into publishing due to a deep and abiding love of profit & loss statements.) Second, I like to try new things. Whether it’s trying exotic food, meeting new people, or learning a new skill, I am always up for a challenge. And third, I am a huge nerd. I enjoy a good bit of coding now and again, and despite an education firmly rooted in the Liberal Arts, my browser history is rife with searches on PHP queries, regular expressions and the more esoteric functions of CSS. All of this being the case, it is no surprise that my latest undertaking at the Quill had me staring, mesmerized, at my computer screen for much of the day yesterday.

The reason for yesterday’s screen fixation was typesetting, but not just any old typesetting—oh, no. This stuff was very nerd-approved! All of my freelance typesetting work is done using InDesign, a powerful publishing suite that basically functions like a word processor. What you see is truly what you get, and there isn’t anything stopping a curious thirteen-year-old from using InDesign to typeset their dystopian vampire romance novel. Not so with the PQL method.

Here at the Quill we use an interesting style of code to tag our manuscripts. The tagged manuscript gets fed into a a sequence of stream editors, and then through an open source typesetting app called groff, which produces postscript files that are then rendered as PDF suitable for use in our printing process. The code is sort of similar to HTML (for anyone who is into making websites) in that instead of, say, highlighting a word then clicking a button to make it italic, you enclose the desired text within tags like [i] (for ‘italic’) and [r] (for ‘let’s go back to regular old roman text, please’). I won’t get into the minutiae of manuscript markup, but I will say that there are several powerful and dead useful commands that I would LOVE to see adopted in HTML/CSS because it would make ebook production (especially for poetry) a helluva lot easier.


What I will say is that though there is a bit of a learning curve involved in this method of production, I’m beginning to see why it is such a useful and practical way of making books—at least for PQL. For one thing, you’ll never have a problem opening a marked-up file. If you typeset a book in InDesign, you’ll need InDesign to open an editable version of the file. And in ten years, who knows whether the file will be compatible with the latest and greatest software. Typesetting a book via coded markup is great because all you need is a basic text editor to do the job. And even if the software that compiles the code is out of date or unavailable, it isn’t difficult to convert the groff code PQL uses into HTML or whatever other type of code you like. Indeed, I’ve been able to do just that to generate our Sticky fingers ebooks.

Now at this point, I’m sure you’re all thinking, “Goodness gracious, Steph, you are such a geek! Why are you boring us with this stuff?” The reason, dear Quill Fans, is that all of this is actually widely accepted as a smart idea in publishing circles. The methodology that we use here at PQL has been fully functional (and basically the same) since Nelson Adams taught it to Tim Inkster at Coach House in 1984.

People have been advocating a code-based workflow (usually XML-based) for years. It is the ultimate way of future-proofing your files and making them accessible and available for future formats because the form of the book remains separate from the content. Consider the current process for making ebooks out of backlist titles. Rather than slicing open an old, out-of-print title and scanning every page to pull usable content, publishers can run a program and spit out an ebook, or a print file, or maybe some new and awesome format that we haven’t even thought of yet.

If that’s not exciting, I don’t know what is.

portraitThank you all for putting up with my fangirling in this post. Hope you learned a little something about our processes along the way! Many thanks to Tim for correcting my terminology and explaining the process for me.


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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.