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Showing posts with label sarah perry the essex serpent. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sarah perry the essex serpent. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Review: Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent

The Victorians have left us so many narratives of themselves that we are spoilt for choice if we want to re-invent them for ourselves and in our own image. Sarah Perry’s historical novel – set in 1893 -  is very well crafted and constructed, the scenes tight, the prose never slack, but her characters do tend to those which will be handled without too much difficulty in the polite Creative Writing class discussion or the Sunday School (or Guardian) book club. Oh, true, there is adultery but not too much and even-handed lesbianism and male homosexuality but of a delicate kind to which even a vicar would have to give his blessing. It’s one of the helpful things about the Victorians; they did generally keep their clothes on. There is a minor sexual assault (p 178), but even then everyone appears to remain fully clothed. It sits rather awkwardly but  I assume it is there to provide one more motive for Naomi Banks to run away from home, but those motives are so dispersed through the book that I suspect readers may have forgotten them by the time Naomi reappears two hundred pages later.

Projection of our own wishes into the past is one of the risks in writing – and reading - historical fictions. Another and simpler risk is that of anachronism, the kind which a friend or an editor will spot. Sarah Perry knows her material well and has been left to slip only occasionally: a first-class stamp ( p 415), unknown to the Victorians proud of their classless system - for most of the period, one penny for a letter and a half-penny for a postcard; an urban housing situation which is unsustainable (p 282), a term which belongs in the  literary gutter anyway; and poor William Ewart Gladstone gadding about with hookers (p 48) which sounds to me so wildly out of place that surely I am wrong and it is a Victorianism revived by Sarah Perry. For most of us, Gladstone walked the streets in search of fallen women or prostitutes.

I read the first hundred and fifty or so pages – probably more - with ease and pleasure, but then there is a hundred pages where the chapters become over-burdened with sub-plots, specifically those set in London. These sub-plots take us away from the powerful device of the Essex Serpent, which is one of Perry’s big creative devices. Then it picks up again when the serpent returns. Her other big creative devices are her child characters, who despite what I presume are nods in the directions of autism and gender fluidity, are all splendidly imagined and largely unthinkable as modern children. Her mad woman in the attic, the tubercular Stella, is also very interestingly imagined. 

There is a short scene which moved me at page 387, a scene beautifully concluded, at the bottom of the page, by one of Perry’s infrequent and restrained flashes of humour.

I bought this book partly because I’d read an interview with the author in which she discussed her writing habits and partly because Waterstones had a very attractively bound and jacketed version on sale. The design and presentation of so many books in the shops is dire; this one has been thought about.