As a graphic designer, I see numerous parallels between the values that create engaging imagery and the values that create engaging prose. So many designs fail because the designer arranged elements on a page without questioning their purpose, hierarchy, or relationship to the intended message. Good writing is characterized by the same conscious application of order, balance, tension, tone, spirit, relevance, and clarity as good design. As a designer might scrutinize a page to evaluate margins, kerning, and font choice, a writer can search for style patterns that illuminate weak, lazy, or formulaic writing and missed opportunities to create stronger prose.
This article is the first in a series of “Writing is Design” tips. The advice offered concerns writing patterns that can be easily searched electronically within a manuscript. And such style problems are unlikely to be revealed by spelling and grammar checkers. You’ll need to ferret them out yourself or use a style checker like AutoCrit.
This third installment of Judging a Book by its Cover looks at great book cover designs that won the 2012 Design Observer 50 Books-50 Covers award. Part 1 explored how most book design rarely rises above “competent.” Part 2 looked at the state of self-published book covers. But rather than criticize blindly—it’s too easy to proclaim that a design fails or succeeds—both articles explain what works and what doesn’t work about a variety of covers.
After exploring a field of generally mediocre-to-poor examples, I want to try to answer the most difficult question of all: what does work in design? No magic formulas exist. Many designs succeed simply by avoiding some of the weak practices described in the earlier articles. Other designs succeed for many reasons—and ironically, those reasons—and even the perceived success of the work—may not be obvious at first glance. Continue reading →
Part 1 of Book Cover Design: Judging a Book by its Cover critiqued “professional” covers taken from Amazon’s Editor’s choice list. Read that article first as it provides background for this one. The article looked at design elements that worked and identified some that didn’t. This section looks at covers of indie books. As a group, these covers represent the state of self-published books quite well. Certainly, it’s easy to describe a design as “weak” or “ineffective.” But understanding and articulating why a design doesn’t work is more difficult.
To clarify, I don’t like making any distinction between self-published books and traditionally published books. As we saw in Part 1, design standards for trade books aren’t very high. This should represent a golden opportunity for self-publishers to present their work as a gourmet product. Instead, after spending years writing a book and polishing a manuscript, too many writers bypass professional editors and designers, believing they can produce satisfactory work on their own. The results are shown below. To a large extent we are responsible for the stigma attached to self-publishing.
If you’re not a graphic designer, this article won’t catalyze any grand transformation. But it will hopefully help you see more deeply, recognize the value of working with a professional, and assist you with distinguishing between real cover artists and overconfident pixel-monkeys. As a self-publisher, only you can set the standards for excellent work. Set them high.
How can indie writers and self-publishers use a blog to build an author platform? The visitor stats for this site will soon cross the 150,000 page-view threshold and I expect to hit 200,000 by year’s end. Other bloggers have much higher visitor statistics. This article explains how to publish online content to build community around your books.
Build an Author Platform: Set up Your Blog
A blog (short for web log) is a publishing platform that enables you to publish static pages (About the Author, My Book, etc.) and a chronologically ordered stream of articles (called posts). My favorite engine for blogging is WordPress. WordPress is free and most web hosting services have an automatic installer that sets up a WordPress site with a few clicks. I also published my own installation guide on this blog. If you don’t want to buy a domain name and a web hosting account (or have decided that this article is already getting too technical for your tastes), start with a free account from WordPress.com. You can upgrade to your own, fully-customizable copy of WordPress that runs on your own server later. (Download your own copy from WordPress.org when you’re ready). Google’s Blogger.com is a popular alternative. It’s quite functional and it’s free but WordPress is infinitely more customizable.
Nothing screams “amateur” like a poorly crafted book cover. The standards for book design aspired to by trade publishers are not all that high, but self-publishers routinely fall short of them. If you want your book to be taken seriously, package it like you’re serious about it. Perhaps the greatest tragedy in literature occurs when a well-crafted, meticulously edited bookblock is paired with an uninspiring cover.
This article reviews a selection of “professional” book covers to explore what works and what doesn’t in book design. Rather than go straight to the top and bottom of the design spectrum, the examples are pulled at random from Amazon’s Editor’s Choice list. I assume they’re trade-published books but the distinction between traditionally published books and self-published books is irrelevant; good (and bad) book design comes from all corners of the publishing universe. I chose these as a random sample of books that sell well.
Part 1 of this article explores mostly “competent” covers. They aren’t all excellent or groundbreaking, but they convey some sense of professionalism and attention to detail while communicating some essence of what the book is about. As a designer, I care much more for some of these covers than others, but whatever I might think of them, their aesthetic qualities didn’t stand in the way of the books’ success.
This article began as a response to a post on a writers’ forum. An author submitted a book for review and had his work rejected out-of-hand simply because it was self-published. Self-publishers grumble about this insult regularly.
The National Book Awards (among many others) has the same policy. Here’s the response I got when I asked to have my publishing company added to their list.
Are you a self publisher? If you don’t publish books other than your own or go through a print on demand outfit, you are unfortunately ineligible for the National Book Awards.
What do you think a professional editor’s pay scale should be? Assume that a proofreader would be at the bottom of the scale and a developmental/line editor would be at the top. An examination of the work editors perform sheds some light on the matter.
An accurate proofreader—not a full-blown editor but a reader capable of ferreting out problems with spelling, grammar, and style—has spent years learning the details of language and even typography (knowing when and how to use hyphens, endashes, and emdashes, small caps, and other typographical conventions is part of the job description). Clearly, we’re talking about a skilled, educated and experienced professional here, even if the editing is done only at a technical level. Isn’t that person worth $50,000/year—at least?
Next add to these skills the ability to read a narrative deeply, find inconsistencies, recognize overused patterns, understand the fine points of language and storytelling, and convey these to an author as useful, sometimes hard-hitting but never insulting critique. This kind of professional is difficult to come by—this editor understands both the left-brained, technical points of fine writing and the right-brained art of communicating stories, ideas, emotions, experiences, and streams of consciousness and perspective for which there are no names. We’d sell this talented person short by offering $100,000/year but let’s use that number for the sake of discussion. Continue reading →
With the arrival of the Internet, the common man got the power to publish—anything—for free—for the first time in history. Then PDF brought replicas of printed documents to the screen with clarity, accuracy and security. Flash brought the power of animated vector graphics and a powerful programming tool to the web browser. Then the eBook brought reflowable, resizable text and inspired new reading devices—perfect for displaying long, paginated documents. But somewhere along the way, an important promise was broken. All of these technologies empowered the Internet’s unprecedented freedom to publish—except for the eBook.
Ebooks and the Promise of the Internet
EBooks violate the fundamental promise of the Internet. Anyone can publish a website. Anyone can offer content for free or sell whatever they want from a website. Small commissions to payment processors and web hosting costs notwithstanding, the Internet empowers a seller to engage directly with a buyer. Ebooks break this promise; the writer should be able to engage directly with the reader. The writer should be able to sell directly to the reader. Imagine if you had to pay your web hosting company 30% of your gross every time you sold an item on your website—that’s exactly what eBookstores do. By separating the eBook from its proper home—the web browser—big media companies grow fat. This article explores the relationships between the web browser, PDF, Flash and eBooks—and how those relationships affect you.
Few subjects arouse more passion among writers and designers than the debate over how many spaces should follow a period. If you adhere to a style manual, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t specify a single-space. Chicago and MLA specify one—debate ended—but the popular arguments in support of the single-space after a period (arguments I must confess to having perpetuated in previous writings) turn out to be mostly apocryphal. The single-space after a period is a simple style evolution—and it’s a fairly recent one. This leaves traditionalist typesetters like myself in something of a quandary; staunch advocates for the single-space must question whether their “classic” design work is authentic.
This article surveys book typography from the 1700s to the present. The survey is small and the examples come from various publishers in different parts of the world, but the trends revealed are, at least, a catalyst for deeper exploration. As a “core sample,” the images suggest a certain path of typographical evolution.