To some, typography may seem like an arcane art form with little bearing on the real world of publishing.
All you have to do is look at the books pouring out of the self-designated “POD publishers” (a euphemism for subsidy or vanity publishing) or “self-publishing companies” (an oxymoron) over the past several years. Even those that have allegedly been typeset professionally by those companies for a fee.
My Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate defines typography as “the style, arrangement, or appearance of typeset matter.”
However, James Fellici provides a much better description in his excellent book The Complete Manual of Typography: “The rules of typography are centuries old, and although the technologies have changed, the goal has always remained the same: beautiful settings in the service of a pleasant and fruitful reading experience.”
You can typeset a manuscript with virtually no knowledge of typography, but you cannot do it well. To achieve the “pleasant and fruitful reading experience” that well-done books should provide, you must know at least the rudiments. If you’re going to do a lot of it, you should know far more — even including the history of the art (or craft, if you prefer), for understanding that history (from Gutenberg to the present) helps us understand why some books just look better and read easier than others.
I think of good typography the same way I think of good writing — if it draws attention to the art/craft, it is not doing its job well. Those who make it seem effortless and whose work is enjoyed for the experience, rather than the craft, are the true masters. Your readers will probably not realize how nicely your book is typeset, but they will almost certainly read it faster with better comprehension and heightened enjoyment. A poorly typeset book frequently yields just the opposite effect…and the reader may never understand why.
I own and regularly study a half-dozen books on typography. Like applying grammar while writing, you have to understand the rules before you set out to bend or break them.
And the tools you choose are just as important…unless you are a closet masochist. I have typeset books using only Microsoft Word, an excellent word processor but a poor typesetting choice. However, I have been using Adobe InDesign for several years now, and will never return to MS Word and its inherent flaws, idiosyncrasies, and irritants. There are other software programs available — some even open source and free — but InDesign has become almost an industry standard. And with good reason.
Of course, having the best tool without the knowledge of how to use it properly is no better than using a poor tool. You have to take the time to learn how to use your chosen tool well and to understand the ramifications of the decisions you make while using it.
If you want to use MS Word for typesetting, you really, really should own a copy of Aaron Shepard’s book Perfect Pages. Nobody knows more about making Word produce acceptably typeset books.
If you want to switch to InDesign, buy a copy of Pete Masterson’s outstanding Book Design and Production — following his advice will ensure a very good result with few problems. There is more to learn, but Pete will start you down the path to typographic enlightenment.
Of you can just pay a professional typesetter to take your manuscript and turn it into a typeset masterpiece. If you only plan on one or two books, that might be your most cost-effective solution. If you plan to self-publish a lot of books, you have to decide if you want to learn to do yourself or let a pro do it so you can concentrate on writing.
There is no one right answer for every self-publisher.