Book design has changed since publishing became a gigantic industry. Typesetting was once performed by trained craftsmen who apprenticed to masters before inking their own plates. Phototypesetting arrived in the 1960s and by the late 1980s, digital publishing transferred the job to a new generation of young, digital artists. Much of the old wisdom got left behind—paved over by the pixel. This article looks at a piece of design history—page layout—and places that history in a practical contemporary context.
Book Design: The Role of History
I bought my first Macintosh in 1987. I remember learning Pagemaker and stumbling over concepts like “leading.” Why not just call it line spacing? I learned about publishing technology and worked in the field, but it wasn’t until I started teaching college design classes (jobs I got because I knew the software) that I encountered the history of design and its value. My students were talking about Constructivism and the Bauhaus School and Pushpin Studios. I was all about Beziér curves, vector graphics, and the clone tool. The Graphic Design department chair looked me in the eye one day. “Get ready,” she said. “You’re teaching History of Graphic Design next quarter—and you’d better know your shit.”
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.
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.
I recently responded to a question in a writers’ forum from an author who was in the process of designing a cover for her novel set in a swamp in New Orleans. “I chose a ‘swampy’ font that hangs down over the art to make it look like Spanish moss,” she said. For her previous Zombie fiction book, she chose a typeface appropriately named “bullet in the brain.” Though these might seem like obvious choices, their obviousness is precisely what makes them a liability. This article offers a few thoughts on book cover design for genre fiction.
Book Cover Typefaces: You Get What You Pay For
Excellent typefaces often cost hundreds of dollars. Fonts on free font sites are very often either ripped off and renamed or designed by amateurs. Rarely will someone take the time to design a serious typeface and give it away. FontSquirrel and a few others offer some quality typefaces but gimmicky fonts often lack a full set of characters. For example, they may offer only capital letters and might omit dollar signs and other useful glyphs. Like free clip-art that’s available to everybody, free fonts get downloaded and used over and over and over. Paying even a small price for a typeface ensures that 99% of amateurs won’t be using it. Continue reading →
Use of Small Capitals—uppercase characters designed at lowercase scale—is one aspect of writing and book design that isn’t taught in grammar school. We all know every sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period. We all should know that writing in all capital letters is the typographic equivalent of shouting—a “capital” offense.
A Small Capital (or “small cap”) is a specially designed character—not a regular capital letter scaled down to a smaller size. Word processors and even some typesetting programs reinforce the abuse of small caps by offering a “small caps” shortcut that scales down the uppercase letters to match the height of the lowercase characters. A real small cap is different from a full-capital letter in subtle but important ways.
This article explores proper use of capital letters, explains the difference between big caps and small caps, and offers book design tips to help you manage abbreviations, names, directions, chapter starts and other typographic challenges. Many thanks to author and typographer Dick Margulis for editing and fact-checking.
Organic Design – Real design doesn’t look like a technology demonstration; real design looks like the work of a living, thinking person. In handwork, scuff marks from sanders or extraneous saw marks are unacceptable flaws. In digital design, the same standard applies; go beyond the software footprint to bring your work to life.
Part 3 of Book Design Basics explores better ways to present numbers on your pages. Numbers (called figures) look simple at first glance, but they present interesting typesetting challenges. Many digital typefaces offer several number styles but few designers know what they are or how to use them properly.
If you got to class late, Read Part 2 of Book Design Basics first to learn about optical margins, paragraph formatting and spaces.
Numbers (figures) come in four primary categories. Though they play a very small role in the text of an average novel, numbers still have an important effect on the appearance of your text. Tables, menus and recipes use numbers in different ways than text set in paragraphs. There are two figure styles: Oldstyle and Lining. Each comes in two flavors: Proportional and Tabular. An understanding of their differences allows your numbers to communicate clearly and effectively. Continue reading →
Though I create eBooks and write about them extensively, I’m a classic bibliophile who loves to feel the subtle emboss of letters stamped on paper with metal type. I was rummaging through the garage and came across an old copy of The Progressive Road to Reading Book 2 by Georgine Burchill, William Ettinger and Edgar Dubs Shimer. Published in 1909 and reprinted in 1920, it was probably my father’s elementary school reading book. (See it on Google Books here.) It has me reflecting on what is undoubtedly the greatest achievement in publishing.
When I gave the book to my six-year old daughter, she was drawn to it immediately. It’s different from her other books. The paper is yellowed. The inked letters are not so perfect as the digitally printed ones in her paperback library. It’s filled with beautiful, engraved images printed with a color overlay. Some of the spelling conventions like “to-day” and “to-night” and “to-morrow” are clearly outdated. The line breaks in the type are strange.* It’s charming.
Here is the first of a series of occasional posts that explore the contributions of great typographers and typography books to the book designer’s art. Designers, writers and publishers will benefit from Beatrice Warde’s eloquent perspectives on the craft of typography, the power of type and the importance of the printed word.
“The Crystal Goblet” was an essay included in Beatrice Warde’s book of the same name—The Crystal Goblet: 16 Essays on Typography.
Beatrice Warde – Excerpt from a Lecture to the British Typographers’ Guild
Imagine that you have before you a flagon of wine. You may choose your own favorite vintage for this imaginary demonstration, so that it be a deep shimmering crimson in color. You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. For if you have no feelings about wine one way or the other, you will want the sensation of drinking the stuff out of a vessel that may have cost thousands of pounds; but if you are a member of that vanishing tribe, the amateurs of fine vintages, you will choose the crystal, because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than to hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain. Continue reading →
The self-publishing revolution is (aside from the Internet) the greatest thing ever to happen to freedom of speech and expression, but self-published books are widely stigmatized as poorly produced. Why? Because they almost universally are. Moreover, the declining standards of mainstream publishers do not justify the mediocrity of self-publishers. In fact, self-publishers will find a competitive advantage in applying basic book design principles to produce books that are comfortable to read and pleasing to the eye.
After all those hours writing and editing, why not produce a book that conveys your good taste, attention to detail and care? Here are some simple but powerful book design tips to help your book achieve excellence. Continue reading →