The Invisible Word Count

[Kellie Hultgren gives us her perspective on creating layouts in the TFCB list.]

If a picture really is worth the proverbial thousand words, then I’m thrilled to be in charge of between sixty and a hundred thousand words per TFCB title—not including captions! Images are almost as important to a TFCB book as the words: they support and expand upon the text. They also improve the reading experience by creating visual variety on the page.

As a production editor, I select and place the pictures that will illustrate several TFCB books each season. Photo selection starts when a book’s text editor submits a photo wishlist to the photo research department. This chapter-by-chapter list requests the images the editor thinks should appear in the book. Entries might be general—for instance, “two adults shaking hands”—or they might be very specific—“President John F. Kennedy shaking hands with a teenaged Bill Clinton during a Boys Nation tour of the White House on July 24, 1963 (Kennedy photo). The photo researcher hunts down as many of these requested images as possible, suggests alternatives to pictures he or she can’t find, and delivers a bundle of picture possibilities to the PE.

It’s now up to me to select the images that will illustrate the book, using some general guidelines from TFCB. Content is my first concern. Does the image illustrate the events or concepts discussed on the page? If the picture doesn’t directly illustrate the text, does it add new information about a related concept or event? The older the book’s intended audience, the more new information the image and its caption can add. Image quality is the next most important concern. I s the picture clear and well composed? Does it fit the space available? I prefer to use an attractive picture whenever possible, of course, but sometimes the most informative picture is not the most artistic one.


A book’s images should also reflect diversity. In our Visual Geography Series titles, I try to balance the number of men and women shown, and to show people of different ages and income levels in both rural and urban areas. VGS books also describe the different ethnic groups that make up a country’s population, so I try to include pictures from as many ethnic groups as possible. At the same time, I try to avoid using too many pictures that focus on a culture’s exotic aspects. It’s often easy to find pictures of ethnic subgroups celebrating their cultural heritage during highly publicized festivals, but it’s important to show them going about their everyday lives in sections on the economy and government as well as the more colorful chapter on culture.

Some series have specific photo requirements. Each book of TFCB’s new Decades of Twentieth-Century America series covers ten years of history in 144 pages—closer to 130 pages when you take out the pages of reference materials. For each volume, the authors and editors requested some of the most iconic photographs of the time, pictures that have since come to define entire decades. In America in the 1920s, for instance, I used a film still of actor Harold Lloyd dangling from a giant clock in the 1923 film Safety Last. 1920sSafetyLast

But we also sought out pictures of ordinary people at work or at play, like the two riveters photographed at work in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1918, used in America in the 1910s.

With all of these considerations, it can be tough to balance a book’s images. But sometimes subject matter makes it even harder. What do we do when the book addresses acts of extreme violence or graphic medical issues? Come back for a future post on choosing photos for challenging texts.