A MONK’S WISDOM: CURATING and PUBLISHING 20 YEARS OF SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE

Introduction

The story of publishing Father Donald Raila’s Lessons from Saint Benedict is also the story of how I came to be a book publisher and book designer.

Fr. Donald, a monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, is a lifelong friend who I first met when I was a small child accompanying my anthropologist parents to summer research projects at the monastery. Just after finishing college, I took a visit to the monastery where Fr. Donald showed me a collection of quarterly letters he had written over the last 20 years to oblates (lay people associated with monastery). These letters were little gems of spiritual guidance based on the 1500-year-old Rule of Saint Benedict.

I said to Father Donald, “These are really good. You should collect a bunch of them and publish it as a book.”

He responded that he had no interest in undertaking such a project himself, but, if I wanted, I could take on the project of selecting the best letters and publishing them.

I said, “Why not,” and so my journey into the amazing world of book publishing began.

The Project

Going into the project, I knew the finished book had to be impeccable. Not only was the author looking forward to the completed book, but so was the monastery, the community of lay people affiliated with the monastery, and a vast network of other Benedictine monasteries, oblates, canonical law experts, and scholars. The bar was set high and I had to publish a book that was perfectly edited (from conceptual editing to copyediting to proofreading) and designed.

The first challenge started with the actual letters. There were nearly 100 letters, and most of these were written using a typewriter and no electronic copies existed. To start, I sat down with the letters and selected the best for the book. Each letter is quite small, usually 500 to 1,500 words. Father Donald and I organized the letters around themes, such as joy, grief, career, etc.

Once we had a good selection, I then began turning the physical letters into Microsoft Word documents. For most of the letters, I was able to scan them into a PDF and use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to extract the words. However, a few were too damaged for the OCR software to read them. In these instances, I simply re-typed the letters. No small feat.

With the letters in an easy to edit format, we then took the book through several rounds of editing. The book editing process was as follows:

  1. Conceptual editing (editing for themes, structure, style, and flow)
  2. Copyediting (technical editing for grammar, spelling, fact-checking, and legal)
  3. Proofreading (final reads of drafts of the printed book looking for typos and other oversights)

The editing process took us several months. With it completed, I immediately sent a draft of the book off for an imprimatur and nihil obstat. These are essentially seals of approval from legal experts within the Catholic church and verify that the book does not contradict Vatican law or doctrine. While most books will never require such a designation, it was an interesting process to work through, somewhat similar to scholarly peer review at prestigious journals.

Design

The Rule of Saint Benedict dates to 516 AD. At its core, it is a set of precepts written to guide monks living communal ascetic lives. Father Donald’s book distilled and explained this ancient wisdom for the modern day.

When I set out to design Lessons from Saint Benedict, I wanted something that reflected the rich tradition of religious texts that came out of Europe. In particular, I thought of the handwritten manuscripts created by monks prior to the printing press, and I thought of the incunabula (books printed prior to 1501) created in the early years of Johannes Gutenberg’s press and other printers’ presses.

An eighth century edition of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Note the outlined initial or drop cap.

Book Interior Design

The typeface for the interior text needed to be highly readable, attractive on print, and, ideally, of a style that spoke to the tradition of the book’s subject. In the manuscript depicted above, readers will notice the weight of the typeface. It is bold. This is known as blackletter or gothic script. While beautiful, and perhaps useful for the title font, this style of typeface would be unreadable in a contemporary book and just not practical.

Instead, I looked to roman serifed types. In particular, I was drawn to Adobe Garamond, which is an excellent adaptation of Robert Granjon and Claude Garamond’s typefaces produced in the sixteenth century. This typeface spoke to the early days of the printed book (i.e. made on a printing press) but was ready for use in a modern setting using desktop publishing software.

The choice to use a drop cap was also inspired by these early books. In this case, I was able to use an outlined and bold type to resemble pre-printing press books such as the edition of the Rule of Saint Benedict displayed above. I used the same type for the chapter number.

The book interior typesetting of Lessons from Saint Benedict.

Readers of Lessons from Saint Benedict will also notice the use of two distinct printer’s ornaments, also called dingbats, throughout the book. The first ornament I created in-house. It is three overlapping circles intersected by a line. Again, this ornament was created to enhance the meaning of the book. Three is an important and recurring number, and the circles can represent many things depending on the reader’s interpretation, including the trinity or unity.

The second printer’s ornament used is a more traditional section break. For this, I looked at what many early religious texts used to designate sections and then found an appropriate glyph in an existing type.

Book Cover Design

Book covers must convey the contents, and even tell the story, of the book on one page. This is a tall order for any book publisher or book designer to fulfill.

For Lessons from Saint Benedict, the message we wanted to convey to the reader was one of bridging the gap between centuries old spiritual knowledge and the present day. To do so, we needed to display tradition and authority in balance with modernity.

A profile of Saint Benedict dominates half of the front cover. The other half is reversed Century Gothic coming out of a black background. A traditional image, modern lines, and a typeface that is contemporary but speaks to the past.

The back book cover is quite simple: black ink on a white background, the inverse to the front page. With one exception, there is a dash of red that harkens back to the ancient tradition of rubrication wherein parts of manuscripts were written in red text for emphasis.

Printing

This was the first book for which I ordered an offset print run. We printed 2,500 copies. At the time, still being new to owning a business and publishing books, I knew I needed to sell out that first printing within a year or risk having precious capital tied up in books gathering dust.

I did extensive market research, marketing, and pre-sales. With that, we were able to sell out the print run within a couple of months of the release date. I knew that after the initial bump in sales we would enter the long tail of book sales. With the offset print run sold out, I transitioned to Print-on-Demand (a.k.a. digital printing) for all future copies needed. This strategy paid off, allowing me to continue providing the book to customers worldwide without the expense and waste of unsold books sitting on shelves gathering dust. Indeed, I still recommend a similar approach for many of the clients I work with today.

Concluding Thoughts

In a way, this was the book that started it all for me. The very subject of the book, knowledge millennia old, forced me to dive into the depths of book design and production. In this world of design and creation, there are vast stores of knowledge and craft that cannot be learned in one lifetime. And in that is the wonder of book creation, book design, and book production—there is more than a lifetime’s worth of knowledge to study and craft to perfect. Book publishing and design are truly occupations for the lifelong student.