Review: The Design of Books

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The Design of BooksLike with so many other technologies in our lives — computers, cars, bread machines, flushing toilets, DVD players, convection ovens — most consumers don’t know or appreciate how books are made, or why they are made in such familiar shapes and structure. In more than four millennia since humans invented writing, the way that writing has been recorded and shared has evolved from clay tablets to the modern paperback and hardcover. Because we are so used to seeing and reading books, few of us stop to consider how that evolution happened and why. Debbie Berne’s The Design of Books (University of Chicago Press, 2024) will help explain it. But not, as I’ll comment on, entirely.

The subtitle of her book is An Explainer for Authors, Editors, Agents, and Other Curious Readers. Having been three of those four, and always an avid consumer of books on related topics — grammar, typography, graphic design, alphabets, style, usage, writing, the science of reading, and etymology — plus having worked in the book trade, I believed I fit snugly in her target audiences. And on top of that, I am currently tinkering with a book design myself, using Affinity Publisher software (Berne only mentions Adobe’s InDesign but Affinity Publisher is an excellent and much-less-expensive alternative), with the eventual goal of having it self-published. Any advice I can get on doing so in the most aesthetically pleasing manner is welcome.

Berne writes for the intellectually curious reader who likely has little-to-no background in her craft, but I suspect that authors (would-be and actual) — particularly those considering self-publishing — will benefit most from her book. The information Berne provides could help the new author when dealing with the multitude of choices offered by book publishers. It’s chock full of general information about book structure, layout, formatting, type, and construction without being overly detailled or prescriptive about anything.

But that’s where I find she lets me down. Perhaps I am too focused on the practical aspects to benefit fully from the high-level overview approach, but I wanted more detail. Berne’s presents a general book about many more aspects of book design than, say Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, Mark Argetsinger’s A Grammar of Typography, or Sophie Beier’s Reading Letters — all of which are in my library, along with books on style and usage. However, while Berne covers a lot of areas all three leave out, particularly in the business of printing and ebooks, I kept wanting more about the intimate stuff.

For example, margins. Berne says margins are “buffers, separating the text, visually, from the world. Bigger margins offer more protection. Practically, the size of the margins is a negotiation between beauty and efficiency.” Yes, but how should a designer calculate the best margin size? Is there a formula? Or is it done by sight with every book different? She adds the gutter “keeps words from sliding into the crease of the binding. But if the gutter is too wide, the text block starts to feel disconnected.” Why is that a bad thing? Is there an optimal gutter width? Does it depend on the number of pages? Do font size or line width affect margins and gutters? Is there a preferred ratio of text block to margin width for different types of books or book sizes? Can the Golden Ratio be used anywhere at all? How do margins differ with genres or publication format?

Okay, what about paragraph indentation? Berne writes that indentation is a better choice for making text feel connected, and more economical than using a line space in terms of space used. True, but what is an ideal indent? What’s too little and too much? She says it’s a “judgment call” and “the longer the line, the more indent is needed to make an impression.” That’s rather too vague for me, and I’d like to see some examples of what she thinks are good and bad indentations.*

And then typefaces/fonts. Berne gives us many excellent pages explaining the basics of typography, but when she gets to discussing font size and readability, she equivocates and doesn’t get into detail about how or why font decisions matter in those areas.

She also says, “Point size is useful notation, but not all that meaningful… Designers use their eyes, not the drop-down menu, to make judgements around size and all other questions of style.” That’s a bit like saying brakes are meaningless, car drivers use their clutch and shift to slow down. Design software requires a full understanding and appreciation of the point system. Text is set in styles that affect the entire body, and most software can make very subtle adjustments. Yes, the designer’s eye is the final judge, but tweaking those numbers is a crucial part of the process.**

Designers use different typefaces, different font styles, sizes, and weights to set parts of a book apart. Chapter titles, running heads, body text, foot- or endnotes for example, are often set in different fonts or colours. Berne herself uses three typefaces, as well as colour, to identify such components. I would also have liked to see some graphic examples of good and bad pairings, as well as examples of body text set in some common serif and sans-serif faces. Yes, these are readily available in other books and online, but I felt they should be included, at least briefly, here, too.

Paper is a big issue in publishing: what type, size, texture, weight, colour, and coating is appropriate? Admittedly, that’s a choice that editors and authors seldom get to make if a publishing house is doing it. But for self-publishing, it can be daunting to decide what is best. Berne gives the reader some things to consider about the choices, but leaves us with a comment on paper shortages and a challenge to “reimagine lower-grade or brown papers for use in certain kinds of books…” What kinds? What does this paper look like or feel? Even a photo showing the difference in contrast on such paper would have helped.

In my limited experience buying perhaps a dozen such books, the print-on-demand (POD) and self-published books on services like Amazon and Abebooks, seem to use standard 80-lb, white printer paper (and are too often atrociously formatted, so could benefit from Berne’s advice). Are there better, more economical choices? Is there a reason to choose letter-sized or 6″x 9″ or 8.5″ x 5.5″ size for self-publishing? I’ve seen them all in use. Berne doesn’t get into it.

When designing a cover, how does the artist or creator determine how thick a spine should be? That matters when designing a spine. Some book covers are one-piece graphics, incorporating front, flaps, spine, and back, sometimes with wrap-around graphics. Others have three or more separate elements. The front, back, and flap cover sizes are easy to determine, but the spine width depends on the number of pages, type of cover, and paper weight (thickness). She doesn’t give us any suggestions (there are formulae you can download and adapt for your own use but they are not always exact).

Berne has a good chapter on ebooks, with considerable practical advice, but does not say what software is required to create such titles. Popular software like Microsoft Word or Apple Pages won’t do it, and not all DTP software exports to ebook format. Users need to purchase or download a program that turns those files into ebook formats (and there are two distinct formats), then test the resulting files for consistency and errors (either in an app or device). Berne points out several basic formatting errors, but in this chapter doesn’t reiterate her comments about screen fonts vs print fonts (p53-54) or comment on whether serif or sans-serif are best for ebooks (there are arguments for sans-serif as body text in small screens, using serif for headlines; the opposite of what is commonly used in print).

Overall, Berne’s book is a good, albeit basic introduction to book design, aimed I suggest, at those who are not already involved in printing or typography. She writes well and clearly. But it lacks some of the detail I had hoped to find, as well as needing some practical advice as noted above. I’d give it 3.5 out of 5 stars (perhaps 4 out of 5 if you have no experience in publishing), but suggest would-be publishers and authors also add the books mentioned above to their reading list.***

Notes:

I’d also like to point out a small mistake in the book. On page 180, she shows an example of tagged XML text, However, while she prints the opening tags, she does not include closing tags. XML and CSS are similar in their usage. According to the W3schools, “All elements must have a closing tag.” So her example:

<h1>Summer Pies

should really be:

<h1>Summer Pies</h1>

Otherwise the entire block will be treated as a headline. Ditto with the rest of her example: closing tags (case sensitive, unlike CSS) are required after each opening tag.

(I did not see any reference to having to embed fonts when creating PDFs which can also be read on ebook platforms… some of the PDF creators, including some non-Adobe printer drivers do not embed fonts in the subsequent files, which can create a poorly-formatted PDF.)

* Both Bringhurst and Argetsinger recommend a one-em indentation, which can be rather tight (this dash is one em wide: —). They point out that the first paragraph in a chapter or under a section head is never indented (Berne does not mention this, although she uses the convention). Bringhurst also suggests the indentation could be the leading size, so if the type is 11pts on 13pt leading, the indentation would be 13pt. Depending on the font, this could be wider than an em, but also narrower. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th edn.; CMOS is another recommended title) suggests a tab space (0.5 in) can be used (this seems to be Berne’s choice), but while acceptable in office documents or manuscripts, may be too wide for published books, although it again depends on the typeface, line spacing, and contrast.

** Good desktop publishing software can adjust font sizes, leading (line spacing), indentation, and other features in fractional increments, not simple whole points: 13.5pt, or 12.1pt. Depending on the typefaces used, adjusting such small increments can change the look and feel of the text, but you need to properly appreciate points as a unit of measurement.

*** I also recommend, among others, that you read or consult Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton (2nd or 3rd edition); Why Fonts Matter by Sarah Hyndman; Letter Fountain by Joep Pohlen; Type Tricks: Layout Design, by Sophie Beier; Layout Essentials: 100- Design Principles for Using Grids, by Beth Tondreau; The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams; Typography Essentials: 100 Design Principles for Working With Type, by Ina Saltz; Designing With Type: The Essential Guide to Typography, by James Craig; Making and Breaking the Grid, by Timothy Samara;  and Getting It Right With Type: The Dos and Don’ts of Typography, by Victoria Squire. Of course, writers will need usage, style, and grammar guides as well.

Words: 1,848

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