Monday, July 23, 2012

The Art of Book Design

Even those of us who've purchased e-readers miss certain aspects of the print book. Perhaps it's the paper: its color, texture, or ragged edge. Perhaps it's the elegance of the font, or design of the headers. As we pay homage this month to the print book, I wanted to take a look at the unsung hero of book beauty and reading comfort: the book designer. Assisting me is Glen Burris, of Baltimore, MD, an award-winning book designer who has worked for Johns Hopkins University Press for more than twenty years.

~

Kathryn: What exactly does a book designer do? Who do they collaborate with, and how does their work fit into the production of a book?

Glen: A book designer takes an edited manuscript and, using his or her expertise, determines the appearance of the printed book. This involves determining the page layout (page margins and type area), type specifications (sizes and appearance of the text, titles and subheads), sizes and positions of any art, and layout of display pages (such as the title page and the table of contents). These details are usually given to a compositor who creates the actual pages; sometimes, however, the designer also sets type and lays out each page. The designer selects the papers, boards, and cloths used to print and bind a book. The designer designs the covers or dustjacket of the book and creates the materials required for their printing. The designer supervises all of the work required by these processes to ensure that the final product matches their specifications.

~

Kathryn: What kind of backgrounds do book designers have, and how do they contribute to the process?

Glen: Book designers come from all walks of life but most commonly have a graphic design background. They will have been taught the art and science of type (typography); its principles and rules are essential in the creation of beautiful, readable books.

Book designers know the processes by which books are printed and bound. Book designers know something about the processes used to reproduce photography.

~

Kathryn: I tried three times to read A Tale of Two Cities, even though I'd previously loved Dickens. Plus, it’s a classic—shame alone should have pulled me through it. I finally picked up a different version from the library and had no trouble. I concluded it must have been the book design that kept me from being able to read it. Why is book design so important, and how does it support the reading experience? 

Glen: The best book design is, paradoxically, invisible: the reader encounters the text without any interference and reads effortlessly. This involves selecting the right size type, setting it on the right line width, and spacing the lines correctly. Different types of reading require different type settings: a novel is different from a dictionary entry, which is different from a technical or scholarly work.

~

Kathryn: A huge loss for me, in e-books, is in the design. Every book looks the same on an e-reader. Do you fear book design is a dying art?

Glen: The current e-readers, in order to make the page layout more flexible, actually violate some important rules regarding wordspacing, hyphenation, and line length—making the texts harder to read. I expect e-readers will become more sophisticated in time. More books and more kinds of books will be read on them. But book design will not die: people will still want beautiful books, whether paper or digital.

~

Kathryn: What was your favorite project to have worked on, and why?

Glen: What I like about my job is the variety. I've designed poetry, short story collections, science reference works, fine art photography books, as well as many scholarly and technical books. I'm currently working on a field guide to fishes. My favorite projects have all been with writers, photographers, and artists who were passionate about their work and wanted the physical book to reflect that passion.

Glen designed all three covers pictured here for books recently published by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, was published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

Glen Burris is an award-winning book designer with over twenty years of experience at The Johns Hopkins University Press.



Bookmark and Share 

16 comments :

  1. The loss of design in e-books is a tragedy, even if temporary. As a designer myself, I am keenly aware how the design of a book affects my reading experience. I am currently reading an excellent non-fiction paperback by a pair of first-rate journalists. But the cover is busy and incoherent, the type is too small and set solid (no space between lines), and the typeface and layout are boring rather than energetic like the subject. The design, rather than invisibly enhancing the experience, keeps pulling me out of it. Too bad.

    Glen's sample covers are an elegant illustration of another element of book design that can be particularly important for series authors. Although each is very different, the three covers also share a subtle common design aesthetic that says they are connected, in this case coming from the same designer, one who is versatile but who also knows who he is and how he wants to communicate the tone and substance of a book. Very impressive.

    ReplyDelete
  2. E-book publishing is still so new. For convenience (I think), and to save money, the software that's used to upload the books wants to avoid too many variable, especially in fonts. Print is another story, even if you're self-publishing, because you create a PDF file (at least for Create Space) which "takes a picture" of your manuscript and doesn't really care what your fonts and wing-dings are.

    Likewise, e-readers haven't been made to understand too many different formats. BUT -- I have a NOOK color, and I've got all sorts of choices with basic formatting. I can change font, size, background color, line spacing, margins ... but these are all designed for ease of reading rather than "pretty".

    And, coincidentally, I'm sharing the design process for my next cover over at my blog today.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm with our guest on this one: "But book design will not die: people will still want beautiful books, whether paper or digital." This industry is simply going through change and there really isn't anything to mourn. The good news is that e-books will eventually guarantee that print books are worthy of the materials used to produce them, and the astonishing environmental impact of remaindering will go away forever. I have more than a few opinions about cheap paperbacks, but will spare you. ;) Anyway, it's a very interesting post, and just a reminder to our readers we have two other book designers who have been guests here as well if you'd like to search for more book design information.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Even the best content suffers from poor design. As Larry pointed out, it pulls the reader out rather than enhances the reading experience.

    One of the major changes that has occurred in the migration from traditional to independent publishing has been the author's need to become accountable for many (if not all) facets of the process. This responsibility includes, among other things, cover as well as interior design.

    As for e-books, we can only hope that refinements will come as they grow from awkward adolescents into sophisticated (?) adults.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It should be noted that everyone producing e-books including all traditional publishers have pretty much the same problems with plain e-book formatting. I think that's part of the reason apps are being used more in Europe, because the design flexibility is greater. I'm guessing this is the programming direction e-books are going, and with more interactive and other enhanced features, too. But that's a post for another day.

    ReplyDelete
  6. A book, for me, appeals to almost every sense. The weight, the smell of the paper and ink, the visual impact; perhaps taste comes into play when we talk about devouring books? :)

    It's the look that draws me in first. I get a daily list of free Kindle titles chosen simply because of how interesting their covers are. When it comes to people, looks are definitely not everything. But books? That's another story. Thank you for an interesting post.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Larry: I enjoyed reading your well informed comment. Everything from header design to paper color and texture to the space between lines (I hear they aren't calling it "leading" anymore) has always contributed to the pleasure of our reading experience.

    Like Dani, I look forward to the day when book design will re-enter the digital experience. Right now it's pretty much a rectangular word dump, and an unruly one at that. Now that digital is here to stay I'm ready for the upgrades to begin!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Terry: What a happy coincidence—thanks for sharing the link to your cover design process. I like that eagle the best, too. It's like he's putting on the breaks and wanting to back up, screeching, "Oh no!"

    ReplyDelete
  9. Linda: Since we can't be experts in everything, if we want our books to woo readers, we must hire our own experts (or become experts ourselves, which is problematic when writing alone takes so much time). We've said that numerous times here at BRP, right? Yet some elements of book production people don't even think about—because, as Glen said, good design is invisible. The page of a well designed book is not just an invisible box with text haphazardly tossed in any more than a livable room is a box with furniture tossed about. The design makes a difference.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Kathryn, thanks. Dave Fymbo and I have just put the final touches on the cover -- minor tweaks, but they make the cover better. Plus, eventually, just like with editing, you have to say, "it's not better, just different."

    I'll be posting the final product on my blog later this week.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

    ReplyDelete
  11. Silfert, I agree! I once bought my mother and father a case of wine comprised of bottles chosen just because of the beauty of their labels (note: not a good way to choose wine, but the sale to a new customer was made!).

    ReplyDelete
  12. I wish some of the under-thirty set would stop by and comment. They like the convenience of their gadgets and it's all about content for them. Who needs those mildewy old books that eat up old growth forests anyway? That's my indirect way of saying you can spot old school comments (which are really just rooted in our youthful habits) from a mile away! ;)

    ReplyDelete
  13. You're so right, Kathryn. That hiring of the right experts to do the jobs that are not our genius is part of the responsibiity of indie publishing. The privilege of being published — whether by a big house, a small publisher, or self — is not free in any sense of the word. We owe professionalism to our readers, our fellow writers, and ourselves.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Kathryn, (my other comment got cut off)... what a fascinating interview into this occupation. I have much more appreciation for what goes into this art. And I too have noticed the loss of easy-to-read design in ebooks. I have also had trouble reading some books due to the design and have found many of these are older books from 30+ years ago. Thanks for opening my mind to the possibility I might not be able to immerse myself in a book due to its design and could try another designers version of it.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I agree. Book design makes a HUGE difference! Excellent interview and great information. Thanks to both of you!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thanks for stopping by, Donna, and for reading, Heidi. May we all truly appreciate all that went into those beautiful print books we won't part with!

    ReplyDelete

The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...