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Sunday 28 January 2018

The Awfulness of Modern Book Design and Production

It’s very hard to sell books, I’m told, and that’s one reason why publishers try to keep them cheap. Modern printing technology has slashed production costs to such an extent that the cost of the paper used is a major component. As a consequence, many books are printed on paper which is not much better than newsprint. Costs can also be trimmed by keeping type fonts small and line spacing narrow: you can easily pack 80 000 words into 200 pages or less, though if you bust a word limit the consequence is sixteen new physical pages since it’s still the case that a single uncut printer’s page contains sixteen text pages and you can’t get rid of any spares – they will be there at the end of the book.

Even though marketing is key to a book’s success, publishers economise on a book’s appearance. When I look at the dust jackets or covers on a Waterstones book table,  I imagine  they have all been prepared by freelancers taking at most a couple of hours to do the work and probably being paid a hundred pounds or less. That’s true even for best-selling books. Whereas food supermarkets have stripped-down packaging for their Essentials or Basics ranges, publishers strip down all their ranges.

I’m surprised that authors put up with all this. True, most of them (us) are desperate to be published so accept almost any terms. But Top Ten or Top One Hundred writers are surely in a position to argue. Perhaps they just don’t see it as their business: you sit at home, email the completed Word your agent, let your agent find the publisher and negotiate the terms, reckon that it is the publisher’s business to deal with paper, font, binding, endpapers, jacket or cover design.

This would perhaps be in OK in a world where publishers had some sensitivity and taste. But look at a Waterstones table and all the evidence is that they don’t. As examples of bookmaking craft and graphic art, the books are dire - a word which means really, really bad.  I do judge a book by its cover and some of the covers do seem to be informing me that the contents are not worth bothering with.

I enjoy the design work involved beyond the stage of writing a text. Paper, typeface, font size, line spacing, headers and footers. Then endpapers and cover boards where it is a remarkable truth that a very wide range of colours and textures are available in the standard Wibalin ranges and all at pretty much the same cost. Despite that, most published books huddle in a safety zone, using a small range of the available options. How often do you see end papers in bright yellow or lilac or apple green?

As for jacket design, software which comes as standard with any PC already enables anyone to mock-up a jacket and even though I entrust to a graphic designer the final preparations, which involve adjustments down to half a milimeter in placing text and images, I am involved in all stages. The covers aren't elaborate confections, but they have been worked on.

The result, hopefully, is a book which has been thought through as a physical object as well as a literary or scholarly text. You won’t see many  in your local bookshop. The one big exception in the recent past was the special edition of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent.

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