In 2007, the world’s largest trade book publisher, the Random House Group, turned over $603 million (£279 million) – more than the entire economy of many small countries. As modern publishing continues to evolve in to an enormous business, it is the printed book which remains the cornerstone of the industry’s income. However, as the number of books published throughout the world increases so too does the competition to attract the consumer dollar. So how can a publisher shorten the odds?
While the content of a publication may well contain the next Booker Prize, if the presentation is lacking style and substance then all the effort of writing may amount to nought. Book design should reflect the energy expelled by the author in the creation of their piece. A successful publisher should understand cleverly designed books are more easily marketed. But what is a well designed book? A book can go in almost any direction and it’s any one’s guess which will be the most effective. Any time you think you’ve discovered a successful formula someone will come along with a completely different approach and rewrite the rule book for what works and what doesn’t.
Yet this rule-breaking approach isn’t always appreciated by marketing and sales whose experience and track record may be contrary to the artist’s design concept. The publisher needs to aware of, and act on, all concerns and issues. For while every designer worth his or her salt dreams of walking away with a prestigious award, not every job will result in an APA Book Design nomination. Enthusiasm needs to be tempered with the corporate need and the customer want. Many publishers adopt a certain style when selling their writer’s efforts. Books in a series or from a particular author may display a consistent design which aids customer recognition and approval. On occasion, designers are restricted in their brief as publishers strive to maintain a certain look or feel, whether it’s the placement of a logo or a uniform typeface (i.e. Penguin Classics paperback editions).
When briefing a designer, publishers needs to convey a number of points. These may include budget constraints, author input, and demographic preferences. The design, and in particular the cover, can act either as a precursor to what’s inside, or as a smoke screen so as to not give away the plot. Books destined for blockbuster status may have the added benefit of die-stamping to add glamour to the kind of paperback you see on airport magazine stands. They can be stamped blind, giving a subtle three-dimensional effect, or inked, or foil blocked in gold, silver, or other metallic colours. Publishers also need to be aware of the subtle differences when designing for digital and offset printing. As an example, when designing a digital four colour process cover, achieving true black will require a little tweaking by the addition of 30% Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow (CMY).
The book’s interior is just as important as choosing the correct cover. After all, this is where the reader will spend most of their time. Yet the problem faced by all designers is one of subtly. For while a majority of modern readers still prefer to buy and read books that have a professional edge they don’t look for a professional design. In fact, if they notice the design at all it’s a bad sign. For despite what designers would like us to believe, studies show that usually the only time a potential reader notices the design of a book is when it’s a bad one. Having then subconsciously marked the book as amateur, they put it back on the shelf. Publishers need to be aware that the process needs to be seamless. Customers should see the book, pick it up, start reading. If they see the book, pick it up, and start to feel unsettled, the publisher will loose a sale.
The point is there are dozens, if not hundreds of things a professional book designer knows to do (or not to do) and when these countless steps have been done properly nobody notices (except, hopefully, someone in the business of handing out awards). Publishers need to acknowledge the expertise of a designer while at the same time nurture the relationship so there’s a win-win for both parties.
One of the leading classical scholars of the twentieth century, Moses Hadas, was once quoted as saying, “Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I’ll waste no time reading it.’ Hadas’s comment highlights the impact design has on a reader’s perception. In the few seconds it takes a potential customer to glance over the title and read the blurb on the back cover they have either made up their mind to buy the book or move on. You can (and should) judge a book by it’s cover, after all, well designed publications stand a far better chance of being supported by retailers – which, for the publisher, means money in the bank.
Book designers in the 1920s were central in the development of modern advertising in the United States. Artists like S. A. Jacobs, whose typographic expressions ranged from exquisite Renaissance-inspired designs to books for avant-garde music and dance, helped define the modernist design aesthetic. It is this link to the past which publishers must embrace to ensure the significance of book design remains relevant in to the future.
Bartram, Alan, 500 Years of Book Design, Yale University Press, 2001.
Haslam, Andrew, Bookdesign: A Comprehensive Guide, Laurence King Publishing, 2006.
Meggs, Philip B., A History of Graphic Design, John Wiley & Sons, 1998.
Neuenschwande, Brody, Letterwork: Creative Letterforms in Graphic Design, Phaidon Press, 1993.
Pipes, Alan, Production for Graphic Designers, Laurence King, 1997.
Poynor, Rick, Typography Now Two: Implosion, Internos Books, 1998.
Williams, Robin, Design Workshop, Peachpit Press, 2001.