Progress with my book project

I have been working on a photo book about the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. No, let me rephrase that, it is a book about the aircraft operating at this airport, whether those are planes based there, just visiting, regular airline flights, etc. I have just ordered a “proof copy”, the first physical copy of the book, so things are definitely getting very real now. The final book has 150 pages and about 300 large color photographs.

Cover and sample pages

Interesting about this project has been figuring out how to actually produce what we used to call the “camera-ready” version of the book; in practice, this is a PDF file from which the physical book is printed. 150 pages with 300 or so photographs is not exactly easy to put together. At first, my thought was to use Adobe InDesign page layout software, but this would have meant a lot of manual labor, making sure all the pages have a uniform look, all pictures placed correctly, etc. And what would I have to do if I in the middle of this process decided that I didn’t like the chosen “look and feel” and wanted to make changes across all the pages? Very quickly I ditched the idea of using InDesign and started looking for more “automated” solutions. As a software engineer, this is in my nature, I suppose…

Years ago when I wrote my doctoral dissertation I used software called LaTeX to typeset the work. LaTeX has been, for many many years, the gold standard of manuscript preparation in the academic world, used for composing conference papers, journal articles and indeed books as well. Producing something with LaTeX is a bit like writing software, and the tool is “programmable” in a way that let’s you easily automate repetitive or recurring tasks (now some people say that “easily” is not necessarily the right word here, but as a long-time LaTeX user, I find the tool useful and I can be productive with it). LaTeX can also automatically produce the table of contents, an index, and it is easy to specify what goes into those. Below is a snippet from the “source file” of the book – note that codes like “20111119-105252” are names of photo files:

\smaheading{Bombardier Dash 8}
\begin{smapage}{20111119-105252}{20161004-083045}
\picabove \smaairline{CommutAir}'s Bombardier-built
\smatype{Bombardier DHC-8}{DHC-8-202}
\smaregistration{N364PH} (c/n 524), operating for
\smaairline{United} Airlines, takes off on 2011-11-19.
\picbelow The same aircraft about five years later,
landing on 2016-10-04.
\modelnote{The number in the nose has been changed
sometime between when the first and second picture
were taken.} 
\end{smapage}
Layout “templates” created for the book

I had, however, never seen anyone use LaTeX to produce a book consisting predominately of photographs… the great strength of this tool, from the standpoint of academic writing, is that it largely lets you forget issues with formatting and typesetting. What if I wanted to use this tool to create pages where I needed absolute control where everything is placed, exactly? Turns out, this is possible, albeit I had to do fair amount of programming to make this happen. At the end, I have a system where I can, for each page, simply state the names of the picture files I want on that page, and write their captions. The software does everything else, and each page will end up looking exactly alike – and by this I mean that each picture is placed very precisely, each page has the same “geometry”. I ended up organizing the whole book preparation process very much like how software products are created, with many of the same tools (version control, automated builds, etc. – if you are a software person you know what I mean). I am very happy with the result. The added bonus is this: If I want to produce more books (and I do), all the hard work with respect to typesetting has already been done. Now it is really trivial to produce other photo books.

The book “Aircraft at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport” will be available soon, from my Web site as well as from Amazon.

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