Design matters

The Biblical observation that men do not hide their light under a bushel but raise it high to light the whole house applies equally to the work that already has been done on your manuscript and the work still to come that will transform it into a book.

The purpose of the editing, and indeed of the author revisions preceding it, should be to polish the text and ensure that it communicates its meaning. But thereafter the book design and subsequent typesetting become hugely important – if content is king, it should be dressed accordingly; the book design should illuminate the contents, not obscure them.

Time and again, publishers fail to heed this imperative and the result can be that a major work fails to gain the recognition it deserved.

What should have been a prize-winning study

I still regret one such instance in my career when, due to my failure to keep the author in check, her opus magnum ballooned to an alarming number of words and illustrations. I also designed the book and at first glance it was beautiful. Even so, it weighed in at over 500 pages, a hundred more than it was first announced at. The book went on to almost win an important book prize; arguably it should have won. For me, however, the moment of truth was feedback from Winnie, a trusted Singapore colleague, who complained that she had tried several times to read the book but ‘got tired’.

Was it the design? I believe so. The font size was too small; the number of characters per line was way over the 65 that is the golden mean (more like 89). The result will have been eye strain for many readers. In a nutshell, there was a readability issue. Probably, the book should have been 600 pages long – or edited more assertively.

This is just one way in which a bad book design can get in the way of readers fully appreciating an author’s argument. A layout that is ugly or boring is just as bad, likewise one whose text uses fonts that are unsuitable for extended reading. Also problematic is a book size that is unhandy (too big or too small, awkward or tiresome to hold, etc.).

Enter the queen

Many readers will struggle with a bad book design (often unconscious of what is bothering them) if they consider the contents important enough. Here, however, the presumption is that the work is to hand. But what actually ensures that a reader buys or borrows a copy of your book? Is it the contents? The marketing? Actually, in many cases, what sells a book is its appearance, its initial impact, something that briefly attracts the reader’s eye to that book and guides her hand to take it off the shelf.

Once a copy has been sold, it’s quite different; what you say becomes more important than appearances. But – for a brief moment – the look and feel of your book is paramount. Content may be king, but design is the queen who by appearance attracts the most initial attention.

The cover matters

The internal book design can be important in the purchase decision-making, but only after the book has been picked up. Initially, then, the most important design element is the book cover (or jacket), something that some publishers don’t seem to care about. In a recent post on H-ASIA, Peter Matanle of the University of Sheffield complained that:

… the cover is really important for a book yet some publishers do not pay sufficient attention to this aspect of book design, preferring simply to make it conform to a series or even publisher style. Often there is no information about the book anywhere on the front or back cover beyond printing the main title and author’s name. Often there are no unique graphics on the cover and no endorsements or short summaries on the back cover to entice a reader in.

His explanation for this (bad) behaviour was that:

… the publisher may be more interested in creating its own brand image than in taking care over the content of the volume, and that the publisher is actually not that interested in post publication marketing either …

Actually, I rather suspect that the publisher’s behaviour is largely shaped by the expectation that nearly all copies sold will be to libraries, and they tend to buy on the strength of the book description, the price, etc., not on the book’s appearance. However, with the continued collapse in library market sales, such a policy seems rather short-sighted.

Like it or not, bookshops and individual book buyers matter, and that means that the cover matters, indeed design matters.

Sounds like it time that you meet the designers.

(Post #2 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

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