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.
NITIAL CAPITALS have historical roots in the early days of book design; their use predates the printing press and the invention of moveable type. Today’s initial caps are not as fancy as those carefully rendered in gold leaf in ancient scriptoriums, but their association with classic book design remains strong. Initial Capital letters are often referred to generically as “drop caps” though a drop capital is actually a specific style of Initial Cap.
Some modernists discourage the use of initial caps, citing a host of typographical problems, but “Once upon a time” just wouldn’t be the same without a great big letter “O” at the beginning. Though not appropriate for every book, initial caps announce the beginning of a chapter with classical style. They suggest that the text you are about to read transcends mere data; this is literature.
Illuminated letter P in the 1407 AD Latin Bible on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England
This post examines different styles of initial caps and discusses the challenges of transitioning smoothly from large initial characters to the much smaller characters of body text. Digital tools and shortcuts make it easy to create initial caps but the easy way isn’t always the best way. Serious publishers understand the subtle differences between good typography and great typography. Many thanks to author and typographer Dick Margulis for editing and fact-checking.
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.
I particularly like this section on dashes, hyphens and dots because it goes beyond typographic aesthetics to explore how we can communicate more effectively as writers. The subtle intricacies of hyphens and dashes affect all authors whether they typeset their own books or not. Knowing how to punctuate correctly empowers you to control emphasis and handle challenging sentences that contain parenthetical asides, omissions or incomplete thoughts. Here, good typography is an extension of good writing.
Many writers are unaware that the simple dash comes in several flavors. Because dashes are often used as alternatives for other types of punctuation, they are explained here in context with the marks they substitute for.
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 →
Book design is a lost art. Though book design discussions usually focus on covers, consider how much more time a reader spends staring at the text. An elegant book block is just as important. Decades ago, professional tradesmen practiced the fine art of typesetting. Today, book design is often executed (pun intended) by amateurs. As easy as it is to set type, many fine points of typography are commonly overlooked. Fortunately, for the design-aware, digital tools like Adobe InDesign make it possible to produce pages that aspire to the old standards of hot metal type. This is the first of a series of articles offering book design tips to help polish your pages.
Sacrificing comfortable margins is unfortunately a good business decision, even if it’s a bad design decision. As the book industry has grown, page margins have shrunk. Text is packed ever more tightly onto the page. Why? A big publisher may print 30,000 copies of a new author’s book. That’s a huge financial risk. If more text can be fit on each page, the print run uses less paper and less ink, resulting in huge savings.
Fortunately, self-publishers don’t have this problem because print-on-demand (POD) allows for the production of one book at a time. Using classic margins and printing a few more pages per book adds negligible cost while giving POD publishers a competitive edge. Continue reading →
I recently responded to an article on Publishing Perspectives by Andrew Pantoja that innocently advises self-publishers about sources for cheap book covers. It is technically easy to create your own cover; therein lies the problem. It’s also easy to sew your own parachute. I have seen successful covers made by amateurs but I’ve seen plenty of authors proudly displaying horrible design abortions.
Why hire a pianist for a wedding when you can get a digital piano cheaper? This same flawed logic is often embraced by do-it-yourself cover designers. It substitutes obtaining a tool for solving a problem. It’s even more embarrassing when the purchaser of the piano can’t hear the difference; a guaranteed room-clearer.
Graphic Design is not about making something “pretty” or even finding something you personally “like.” Design is a craft practiced by professionals who not only understand how to use their tools, but how to choose and mix typefaces, combine colors, achieve tension and balance, and avoid cliches. Graphic design uses text and images to solve a problem or achieve a goal. As with dentistry, there’s much to be said for working with a professional. Continue reading →