I love spy novels. And I love spy films. I especially love how modern technology is portrayed when things happen in real-time—every computer works perfectly and the good guys always have incredible techno-wizardry at their disposal. But what I also love is the idea of the “burner phone,” the pre-paid, disposable phone that works instantly when the protagonist needs it. In essence, the burner phone is a test phone. The hero can do things with it that he or she can’t with the “real” phone, and then be done with it. This got me thinking about books, as most things in life do. The “burner” book or “test” book is an essential part of the book-making process, though it often gets overlooked by novice book-makers worldwide.
Name something that comes from the creative world that is perfect on the first try. Are novels written in one draft? Do architectural plans always succeed on the first try? Does a black and white negative get printed perfectly in the darkroom on the first print? Does a flawless painting emerge on a blank canvas the first time the painter applies their oil or acrylic? Spoiler alert: the answer is no. Everything that is born from creativity tends to reach peak impact upon revision. The same is true for making books.
Here are some things to remember when you’re preparing a test book:
1. Determine what kind of test book to make
Anytime I want to make a new book to showcase the best of my artistic ability, I have to decide which features my test book will include. This is the time to address any concerns or questions I have going into the project. What don’t I know how to do? What am I uncertain of? Should I use 10 pt type or 11 pt type? What about my typeface? Should I run images with borders or should I go for the full bleed? I can look at my computer monitor all day long, but the monitor is not the same as seeing my work in print.
2. Make your test version smaller than the real book
Think small. If you are creating a 200-page, 11×13, hardcover photo book, you don’t need to make a 200-page, 11×13, hardcover test book. You can choose a 20-page, softcover, 7×7 with the same paper and still experience how the larger book would feel without paying the larger book price. Look, we all make mistakes. I make them all the time. So why not make the mistakes on a small, informal, inexpensive version of your masterpiece?
3. Think of it as an experiment just for you
Nobody else will see this test book. It does not define you as an artist but rather defines how intelligent your book-making process really is. Talk to any accomplished book-maker about making test books and you will get the appreciative nod of those in the know. The test book should be your playground for the experimental.
4. Include different versions of images and text
Once I’ve determined my story, and the images are ready to go, I take black and white images, toned black and white images, color images, and any scanned additional artwork and I import them into the test book. The book will show me how these different items print on the paper I’ve chosen. Do I need to open up my images a half stop, or lower my contrast? What about the design? I can try different things, but I don’t have to fret about anything being perfect. The same applies to text. I choose three or four typefaces, write a random sentence (like a line of dialogue from my favorite spy movie), and I run that same sentence at 8 pt, 10 pt, 12 pt, and 14 pt for comparison. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back to old test books to guide me in my typography decisions.
5. Stay optimistic and try to have fun
Making a test book can be fun and work as an enormous pressure relief value. So many times, I run into novice book-makers who are afraid to hit print because they worry they’ve made a mistake. As a realist, I always say “The odds of perfection are low, so why not make a test book and take away some of that pressure?” There is nothing more stimulating, more motivating than getting a wonderful book in the mail, but there can be nothing more deflating than getting a book that isn’t quite what you envisioned. So, stack the odds in your favor and try making a test book. Yes, you will pay your twelve or fifteen dollars, but think of the money it will save over time.
What often gets lost in the book-making process is the idea that it should be enjoyable. There are plenty of challenging things in life, but book-making should not be one of them. Sure, compiling a book is often like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, but ultimately it should be a positive experience, and the test book is a strategic, affordable way to make that happen.
Are you ready to print a test book? Choose your book format and get started now.