Examining book formatting: The Sword of Midras

Before I started writing my own books, I honestly didn’t really notice how books were formatted. There were little things I noticed, like pretty graphics, but I didn’t really pay much attention. I didn’t sit and examine them or anything like that–I just wanted to get back to the story. Once I started digging into what goes into book production, I became a lot more appreciative of the aesthetics and thought maybe I should consider looking deeper into what’s done in modern books.

The Sword of MidrasWhen I came across The Sword of Midras by Tracy Hickman and Richard Garriott in a dollar store, I figured there were worse ways to spend a dollar than checking out a fairly recent book. I’m fond of Tracy Hickman’s work, too, so I figured I’d actually read it, too. You know, for research.

So at a glance in the dollar store, I picked up on a couple things:

The trim size is 8.5 x 5.5 inches, which is a fairly standard size for both hardcover and trade paperback books now. The book claims 332 pages, so I estimated the word count at 83,000–a little slim for an epic fantasy, so that was an interesting tidbit. It’s published by Tor, the fantasy and science fiction branch of Macmillan.

It also appeared to be a tie-in for a franchise, Shroud of the Avatar, which I later learned was Richard Garriott’s new MMO and the spiritual successor to his previous game, Ultima. Near as I can figure, the book was penned as a combination backstory/marketing effort, reaching markets that might be interested in Shroud of the Avatar. Since a lot of gamers I know are avid fantasy readers, it seems like a reasonable decision.

The cover art follows current trends of slightly more impressionist digital painting. Only the focal point–the statue–is really rendered, while most of the rest is just sort of hinted at with broad brush sweeps and scribbled highlights. This style is especially popular in video game concept art, so again, makes sense given the market.

From that cursory inspection, I felt I had a firm idea where this book belonged in the shelves and who they were trying to nab, so I paid my dollar and tax and took it home for a deeper look.

Sword of Midras map

Like all proper fantasy books, the first few pages include a map. This particular map sort of intrigued me, as it was clearly generated using a hexagonal grid. There are a lot of software options that give results like this, so I’m curious how the map was made. Some elements are hand-drawn, and the coastlines have been manually varied a little bit to help reduce the very mechanical appearance of the hex grid, but it’s still noticeable and extremely prevalent in the rivers and roadways. An unusual choice, but one I think will become more common as publishers look for ways to trim costs… and independent authors hunt for ways to do things themselves.

The book’s chapters are titled, which is less common outside of fantasy, but hey, I like chapter titles. You can look forward to titled chapters in some of my upcoming series. The book is also divided into sections, which I see less often these days, but each section reads like an episodic installment. The prologue is, curiously enough, formatted differently than the rest of the book. The prologue features the chapter number (in this case, just the word ‘prologue’) as a large header, a simple but attractive divider, the chapter title in italics, and then a header image.

I actually really like that layout–it’s similar to what I have in mind for my own fantasy books. The image used is definitely the sort of artwork you’d see used on item or skill icons in a video game, so that should appeal to their target market. But after the prologue, we have the first section break.

Sword of Midras section break

The section breaks are titled as well–lots of titles, jeez–and the break pages are nicely formatted, with lots of images. At a glance, they appear to tell a bit of the story, themselves. Once I spent some time reading, I found that assessment was correct. However, the chapters within the sections break are formatted with a different heading style, and while it’s attractive enough in its own right, I was a little disappointed since I found the prologue formatting much nicer. I also would have liked to see the section images paired with the chapters they belonged to, as I felt that would have been a nice touch. Things to consider for my own books in the future, I suppose!

Sword of Midras chapter headersOtherwise, there isn’t much to note. The chapter header graphic remains the same through the rest of the book, with artwork only inserted at the beginning of each section. The chapters introduce drop caps, which is fine, but I was a little peeved that they didn’t take the time to set quotation marks into the margins when chapters began with dialogue. The Chicago Manual of Style says dropping the opening quotation mark is acceptable ahead of drop caps, but it’s strange to devote so much effort to the rest of the styling and then not take a few seconds to insert the quote-in-margin–especially since there are only 2 or 3 chapters that start with dialogue. Regardless, I prefer Oxford over Chicago, so fight me.

That’s all for this book, though. What did you think? Anything you liked/disliked? And more importantly, would you like to see more books assessed this way? I have a whole shelf full that I’d be happy to devote to the cause. 😉


All artwork and text portrayed in images are copyright Portalarium, Inc., and are shared in this post for editorial purposes only.

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