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The Hardworking Magic of Book Design


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One of the things that has struck me most forcibly throughout my career as a writer and, later, as publishing director of a small press as well, is how important good book design is. Humans are visual creatures and an unappealing, amateurish or confused design will turn us off immediately, even if we cannot explain why. A design that might be technically accomplished but too much ‘in your face’, overshadowing the content, is not right either. Great design is both invisible and yet very much present, working its stylish magic in the way that’s most appropriate to the book contents. Great design is crucially important of course for all kinds of illustrated and photographic books; but it’s also  important for books that are centered on text, such as novels and narrative non-fiction. And that holds across the board, whether you are traditionally or self-published. It’s really worthwhile looking at award-winning book design, such as, in Australia, winners of the annual Australian Book Design Awards. Bad design conversely can be highlighted publicly, such as this ‘walk of shame’ list of badly-designed covers of classic novels.

Behind the magic is all sorts of hard work. In all books, design isn’t just about covers: it’s also about the internals. It’s not just about placement of text and images in an illustrated book; but also about how the pages of text-based books look. The type and size of font used, the spacing, margins, how title pages and other such ‘extra’ pages are presented, the placing of chapter headings, and much more to do with the layout generally: there’s a lot involved, which readers and even authors may not be specifically aware of but which publishers and designers work on together, closely. For the internals, font size and type are of course readily understandable in terms of design attractiveness and clarity but other more technical issues include putting text too close to the margins or too close to the bottom, where a reader’s hands might cover it, or the quaintly-named ‘widows and orphans’ problem of line-chopping, which can occur in typesetting and carry over into design headaches! For the cover, meanwhile, it’s vitally important that text and image work harmoniously together, that the cover image reflects the content and that the text be clear and stand out without overwhelming the image. There are also other aspects of the cover which have to be kept in mind, as designer Beattie Alvarez reminds readers in the recent book Inside Story: it’s not just about the front cover, but also the back cover, and the spine. All has to be designed so that it forms a harmonious whole.

With novels and other long text-based books, authors will be consulted by publishers on the general cover design but not usually on the internal design. However you can, of course, comment on it when you get to see it, and in that case it’s useful to be at least a bit familiar with how design works. If you are self-published of course you will have a lot more say—you will in fact need to work closely with the designer to decide on the full look of the book. In that case it’s very much worthwhile to have a look at other books whose design you like and which are appropriate to the genre you are working in, so you can have an informed discussion with the designer. There’s also lots of  hands-on information available in books and online, such as Ingram Spark’s downloadable guide to book design, but if you’re self-published it’s strongly recommended to use a professional book designer, if you haven’t got book design skills yourself. Informing yourself however about the process is a very good basis for understanding and thus respecting the work a designer does. Plus it is a fascinating area of book production!

Over to you: what have your experiences of book design been, as a writer, and/or a reader? What are your ‘pet peeves’ and ‘pet pleasures’ when it comes to book design? Any top tips?

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About Sophie Masson

Born in Indonesia of French parents, and brought up in France and Australia, Sophie Masson is the multi-award-winning and internationally-published author of over 70 books, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, she has a PhD in creative practice and in 2019 received an AM award in the Order of Australia honours list for her services to literature.

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