By Stephanie Summerhays, Senior Production Editor at UC Press

Whoever coined the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words clearly wasn’t in the business of bookmaking. When it comes to producing books, even simple art programs require a kind of careful handling that many thousands of words do not. Poor planning or execution of an art program can result in problems that detract from your argument and your reader’s experience rather than enhancing them.

So what’s an author to do?

The Secret to Success: Production

Before we answer that question, let’s first take a moment to make sure we’re, ahem, on the same page. (Book pun absolutely intended.)

What’s an “art program”?

Photo by Büşra Yaman.

The term “art program” refers to the whole body of illustrations that appear in your book. This encompasses everything that has a graphic or visual element to it: photos, artwork, line drawings, charts, graphs, plates, musical examples, multimedia, and so on. It also includes tables since the text requires special graphic treatment.

What does it mean to “produce” a book?

“Production” is the broad term we use in publishing to describe the work that transforms your final manuscript into a published book (and ebook). Production is a complex process that requires the effort of a whole team of skilled experts: production editors, copyeditors, designers, typesetters, and printers, to name a few.

Why does production matter for art programs?

Production is when your art program becomes something tangible within your book. Every choice made during production—from the editorial style for captions to the margins on the book page to the paper selected for printing—influences how your art program turns out in print.

Because production choices play such an important part, crafting your art program with production standards in mind is key. With a little forethought and attention to detail, and with trust in your production team, you can set your art program up for publishing success.

Thinking about Art Programs: The Two Vs

In a good art program, every illustration has both editorial value and editorial viability. Keeping these two Vs in mind as you plan and prepare your art program can help you avoid errors, awkwardness, and unpleasant surprises when your art undergoes the all-important metamorphosis to print.

Assessing Editorial Value

Because every piece of art complicates production of a book, it’s important that every piece of art contributes meaningfully. Art that lacks context or significance can frustrate or confuse a reader, whereas art that visually elucidates your argument can offer your reader deeper or more immediate understanding.

As you consider the value of your art program, ask yourself these questions and be on the lookout for these red flags:

  • What aspect of my argument does this art support or encapsulate?
  • Does this art communicate something more effectively than the text can?
  • How will my reader gain understanding from this art?
  • Are the contents of this art appropriate for a visual medium?

Red flag: Images are primarily made up of text

Text works best when treated and typeset as text rather than drawn like an image. Is there a spatial or graphic relationship that’s important to convey? Your production team has many special text treatments available (lists, boxes, and sidebars are a few examples) that offer more flexibility on the page than a static image.

Red flag: Multiple images feature the same (or roughly the same) content

Avoid redundancy in your art program just as you would in your text. If the subject of some images is the same, do they offer contrast in other helpful ways (such as showing a change over time)? If not, select the one image that best captures what you wish to convey.

Red flag: Captions and alt text are anemic or too generic

Informative, interesting captions and specific, insightful alt text help your reader home in on the significance of an illustration. If you find yourself struggling to write captions or alt text that move beyond telegraphic, stating-the-obvious descriptions, reconsider whether the illustration really promotes understanding.

Red flag: Images are screenshots of websites or social media posts

Such content is often a combination of text and images, and it’s usually low-resolution to boot. Consider reproducing the images as stand-alone figures and the text as text (either in the narrative or in a caption). A more creative and flexible approach to reproducing web-based content can improve readability and graphic quality in your book, and it can help you avoid permissions infractions too.

Assessing Editorial Viability

Even an illustration with high editorial value won’t help your reader if it can’t be effectively typeset or printed. Most of our reading these days happens on a screen, where high-resolution content scrolls from top to bottom in a narrow box of infinite, uninterrupted length and where the size of text and images can easily be manipulated. Books are different—beautifully so—which means what works on your screen might not work as well in your printed book. Planning your art program with the physical constraints of book pages and printing in mind will ensure a better final product.

As you consider the viability of your art program, ask yourself these questions and be on the lookout for these red flags:

  • Are the art dimensions large enough and is the resolution high enough?
  • Does the art have good contrast between light and dark?
  • How does the art spatially relate to its relevant text or other book elements?
  • Will the art retain its meaning if it cannot appear exactly where I expect or envision?
  • Will the art reproduce well in print?

Red flag: Images are small, are low-resolution, or lack contrast

Images generally don’t print well unless they are at least 300 dpi when sized to the full dimensions at which they will be printed. And color images without sufficient contrast can become washed out when converted to black-and-white for printing. Your publisher and/or your institution’s research support office can help with such technical checks.

Red flag: Your art is too closely bunched together

Since book pages have limited printable space, and since art takes up far more space on a page than text, art can “drift” farther and farther away from its relevant text if too many illustrations and tables appear in quick succession. Allow sufficient narrative discussion between art pieces to avoid overcrowding.

Red flag: Art must appear in a specific location or configuration

Flexibility is key to success and satisfaction in an art program. Production teams work hard to support specific instructions for art, but when readability or feasibility is at stake, some requests can’t be accommodated.

Red flag: Art is muddy/fuzzy/blurry/noisy

Even with high-resolution images, some loss of clarity is typical during printing, and graphic imperfections can be exacerbated. Archival imagery—both images and reproductions of text—is especially susceptible to printing-related problems, and art crowded with labels, such as maps, can become impossible to read when compressed onto a book page.

Final Thought: There Is No “I” in “Art Program”

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of your art program, don’t worry: your acquiring and production teams can support you as you develop and refine your art program. Communicate early and clearly with your press about your questions and expectations. Combine your subject-matter expertise with their publishing expertise to determine together whether to repair, replace, or remove potentially problematic pieces. By keeping production realities and your reader in mind, you’ll be well on your way to an appealing and cogent art program.

Learn more about the UC Press FirstGen Program