Finalizing the cover

16 February 2010

Ask any young woman and she will tell you it’s not her brain that counts with ‘real’ men but her body. So says the cliche, but there is an uncomfortably big grain of truth in this observation.


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Content matters

Although content ultimately matters – you are unlikely to buy those cornflakes again if they taste lousy – initially, all too often the wrapping counts a lot.

So it is with book covers, as we have discussed earlier. Surface appearances, fripperies.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that this long thread of posts on the design and typesetting process ends on a(n almost) frivolous note. Most posts in this section have dealt with the layout of your text and illustrations – the contents, the serious stuff that your readers are waiting for. And yet, when it comes to the production of your book, chances are that you – like most authors – will show little interest in the page layout but keen interest in every aspect of the cover design.

Time, then, to finalize this surface matter. Unfortunately, all too often, the issues raised are not frivolous ones.

A simple matter

In the best of times, the process of producing a cover is straightforward enough for the cover designer (or typesetter) to finalize. S/he has the cover design and, within this framework, it should be a simple matter to arrange the various cover elements – title, author name(s), illustration, blurb, publisher logo, bar code, etc.

Long time coming

Straightforward enough, indeed. The problem is that covers are not always produced in the best of times. Or, rather, that they are produced in all times. This is a job started early in the production process – if not right at the beginning, right when the book is first announced – and yet it is one of the last things to be finalized before printing.

In between, there is ample scope for things to go wrong. Here are a few of the issues that can arise:

  • The cover illustration is unusable. This can easily happen if only a thumbnail cover image was produced at the design stage and the low-resolution illustration supplied by the author was good enough for that but not for the real cover. The catalogue, for instance, may only need a cover image that is about 33 x 50 mm whereas more likely the final cover will be 152 x 228 mm (6″ x 9″) in size.
  • There is a disconnect between cover and contents. A schism between the cover and page design is not really acceptable (e.g., elaborate, ornate script on the outside with severe, clinical type inside) but it happens, and it need not matter. More problematic is if (say) the author’s name is written one way on the cover, another way inside. Or (heaven forbid) misspelt. Likewise, if one of the editors drops out and the cover designer isn’t informed.
  • The spine width is wrong. Another disconnect. The final extent of the book determines the spine width. If the total number of pages change, then the spine width needs adjusting (no problem – just needs to be communicated).
  • The cover illustration isn’t credited. Another disconnect. A cover photo credit perhaps should always go on the cover but this isn’t always possible or appropriate. But if the credit then fails to appear inside (in the list of illustrations) then there may be an unhappy copyright holder to deal with long after the book has been printed.
  • The back-cover text is too long or too short. The blurb written for the catalogue will probably be shorter than that on the back cover. Indeed, new text should really be written but it can easily happen that the catalogue text is recycled. Also, there may be an endorsement to be added (but which hasn’t yet been received from the fine folk in Editorial).
  • The author hates the cover. The cover image used in the catalogue wasn’t to the author’s taste but s/he was pacified with the assurance “Don’t worry, we’ll do something better later”. Later has now arrived and the author is still unhappy.

No, not simple matters at all, and hardly frivolous.

Outputs

Once upon a time, covers were designed and created on huge pasteboards. No more. Everything is digital, everything delivered as a PDF file – in other words, in the same way as the inside pages of the book. Among other advantages, this allows authors to participate in the cover proofing process (if allowed by their publisher). But more about that later.

And that is the design and typesetting section finished. Next post, I move on to the proofing stage.

(Post #22 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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Design matters

5 January 2010

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.)


Elements of a book

28 September 2009

Planning a successful book requires that you first conceptualise your study (more about that another time). But, once you have done that, then it’s time to plan in detail. Essentially, you need to build a structure for your book, one that not only considers how best to present your argument but also ensures that it is of a suitable length, that it includes what needs to be included (and excludes the rest), and that it has the narrative pace and coherence that will draw the reader through your text – in short, that it is a satisfying (even uplifting) experience for the reader.

One of the first steps in this process is to map out your manuscript. Here, it is a good idea to be quite clear what is (and need not be) required – in short, to understand the various elements that should eventually constitute your book.

Generally, these elements come in a specific order:

  • (Half title page – something the publisher makes)
  • (Half title verso page – also something the publisher makes)
  • Title page (your publisher will change this, of course)
  • (Copyright page – something the publisher makes)
  • Table of contents
  • Lists of figures and tables
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements (if not part of preface)
  • Author’s notes, lists of abbreviations, chronology, etc.
  • Introduction
  • Body chapters
  • Conclusion
  • Appendices
  • Glossary (if not in front matter, a placement common with many European publishers)
  • References/Bibliography
  • Index

Not all books contain all elements, but before you start it is useful to have thought through if, say, your book should include a list of abbreviations or a glossary, as these are much easier to write as you go along rather than after the main text is finished.

Note also that those elements constituting your manuscript are fewer than the final elements making up your published book. Here the difference is that your publisher will insert extra material in the prelims, most importantly a copyright page. These are bracketed in the list above.

These are elements which you need not worry about. Focus instead on shaping (and getting started with writing) your manuscript.