10 October 2006

The Shape of Fantasy Novels Today

Working at a book publisher spoils one's pure enjoyment of books. When publishing vets open new volumes, they don't start off by reading. That would be too natural. Instead, they look at the copyright page for printing data, scan the acknowledgments for familiar or unfamiliar names, sniff to see if it's a POD copy (yes, they have distinctive smell--not that there's anything wrong with that).

So yesterday I bought my copy of The Pinhoe Egg, the latest Chrestomanci novel by Diana Wynne Jones. And the first thing I noticed wasn't the focus
on adolescents having to work as household servants (continued from Conrad's Fate, the last in the series) or on sibling relationships (continued from practically all Jones's books). No, I looked at the leading.

"Leading" is book-design jargon left over from the era of type set by hand. Between each line of words printers placed a thin strip of lead to keep the letters in place. The more strips or the thicker the lead, the more space appeared between lines. That amount of space is called the "leading" (rhymes with "sledding"). The term has survived because typewriting's "line-spacing" isn't quite as precise.

The Pinhoe Egg has a lot of leading. It also has a slightly larger size of the same typeface--Granjon--that Harper used in its 2001 reissue of The Lives of Christopher Chant. As a result, the older book has 4.77 lines per inch while Pinhoe has 3.66. Furthermore, the new book has a smaller trim size, so its text block (the amount of space covered by the main text) is smaller. All of which means that a novel which might be about the same word count as its predecessor fills over 500 pages instead of 330.

Not too long ago, publishers thought readers would balk at the bulk and expense of such a thick book. That's why Christopher Chant is a tall, willowy volume, relatively speaking. But now in this post-Rowling world, fantasy readers seem to want thick books that they can dive into, and leading is one way to indulge them.

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