I have quite often stated on this blog my firm belief that a reader's appreciation of a book is heavily influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the overall shape and design of it.
I have also said that, by and large, American book design is superior to British. However, just to be contrary, let me give you a couple of examples of good and bad book design which contradict what I have just said.
When reviewing the UK edition of Terry Pratchett's Thud, I pointed out that it was not only a pleasure to read in terms of content, but also very easy on the eye. It was printed in 11.75 point on 15.5 point Minion, with 33 lines to the page in Royal Octavo size. 'If that isn't more or less ideal,' I said, 'I don't know what is.'
For an example of poor design, see the Pocket Books edition of Ian R. McLeod's The Light Ages. This is a small, mass-market paperback, whose sole virtue is that it will actually slip into a pocket. Other than that, useless. Narrow margins, tiny, tiny print, lots of lines to the page.
Such poor design reveals an attitude, or a form of thinking, on the part of those who commissioned it. The thinking goes something like this. 'This book is just science-fiction crap. It's only going to be read by nerds who've worn the same t-shirt for the last three weeks, and who wouldn't appreciate good design if you gave them a course of instruction. Furthermore, if we print the book really cheaply, then with a bit of luck it will fall to pieces after they've read it, so all their friends will have to go out and buy another copy.'
Which, according to your temperament, and whether or not you are a shareholder in the company, may or may not not give you a warm-hearted feeling towards the publishers of the book.
Today, however, as we all know, many writers are resorting to self-publication. For many this will be a reluctant choice -- it will be seen as third-best. But I would like to suggest to you that it would be wiser to view this move as a blessing and an opportunity. For it will, you see, give you complete control over the design of your own book.
Well, I say complete control -- that may be an exaggeration, because your printers may have a limited range of options. But you will at least have far more control than is available even to well known writers. Jeanette Winterson, for example, once reported that some of her friends had chided her for putting a female nude on the cover of one of her novels. But Jeanette had to tell them that Random House had given her no choice in the matter.
It so happens that I have been involved in designing books, in a fairly amateurish way, for over twenty years. And when you do that, even at the modest rate of a couple of books a year, you do learn a few things. Some of these things I shall now attempt to pass on to you.
The first decision you need to make relates to the size of the book.
Currently, through the arrangement that I have for printing and distributing books through my small press, Kingsfield Publications, I have two choices for size: either what is known in the UK as Royal, or Demy.
Royal is the metric equivalent, roughly, of the American 9" x 6", and it has the advantage of being in the ratio of 3:2. This is the size that I consider ideal for hardbacks, and it isn't at all bad for trade paperbacks of a substantial length, say 100,000 words or so.
Demy is smaller, about 8.5" x 5.5", and I have used it happily for a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction.
Having chosen the size of your book, you then need to consider the size of the block of text which will be printed on to the white space.
Many publishers, as mentioned above, will cram as many words as possible on to a page, in order to reduce the number of pages and so reduce costs. If the book is very short, however, they may want to pad it out and make it look more substantial. For an example of the latter, see the 'novel' that Britney Spears wrote with her Mom. Oh yes she did. You can buy one on Amazon for a penny.
Wise designers, however, especially if they are self-publishers, will value aesthetics over profit. If you're a self-publisher, there probably isn't going to be any profit anyway, so you might as well accept that from the start.
When it comes to the size of the text block, there are many and various theories, some of which may contradict each other. Here are a few:
The length of the line should be two thirds the width of the paper.
The text should occupy half the area of the page.
When it comes to positioning the text block on the page, few authorities would recommend placing it exactly in the middle.
One simple way to proceed is to subtract the height of the text from the height of the paper, divide the figure by five, and put 3/5 at the bottom and 2/5 at the top.
Do the same calculation for the width of the book and have a gutter (inner) margin of 2/5 and an outer margin of 3/5.
There are many other theories. Such as that the mathematical relationship between inside, top, outside, and bottom margins should be 2:3:4:5, or 2:3:4:6. (These are generous, by the way; many publishers cram far more on a page than that.)
Or -- 1:1.33:2:2.5. Or, again -- 1.5:2:3:4.
Within the text block, there are a thousand and one factors to take into account, but the chief ones are these:
The line should not be too long in terms of the number of characters it contains (a character being a letter, space, or punctuation mark). The optimum figure is often thought to be 60-70 characters per line. A figure of 100 would be too many, but anywhere between 52 and 78 (two to three alphabets) is acceptable. Short lines lead to more hyphenation, which is not desirable.
Then there's the choice of font (or fount, as the older Brits, such as the Times, have it; it means the same, and is pronounced the same, too). And on this, my dears, whole books have been written and whole lives have been spent.
You can, if you wish, buy books which give examples of famous fonts. One such is James Sutton's and Alan Bartram's Typefaces for Books (British Library, 1990). It's still in print. I have a copy, and find it passing useful. But you can do the same for yourself by printing out a paragraph in however many choices you wish, in Word.
Then, of course, there is what used to be called the leading, when type was set in lead. Leading, or just plain lead, is the space between the baseline of one line and the baseline of the next. This is normally expressed in terms of the size of the font, which is measured in points.
So, in the example of the Pratchett book quoted above, 11.75 point on 15.5 point means that the font used is 11.75 points high, and it is printed with the space that would be normal for 15.5 point type. In other words, there is a bigger gap between the lines, which gives the type a little more 'air', or white space, and makes it far easier to read.
And then, of course, there are all sorts of other refinements, such as whether a right-hand page should be allowed to end with a hyphen. Old printers say no, but the saintly and learned Mr Bringhurst says it's not important; at which the GOB gives a sharp intake of breath, but never mind. One thing's for sure: modern publishers don't give a damn about such refinements; it's all set by computer, and nobody proofreads it, and only boring old farts like me ever think about such minor points.
But that's enough for today. More later.
Robert Bringhurst: The Elements of Typographic Style, (reviewed here on 22 June 2006).
Hugh Williamson: The Design of Books (1983). Once, I believe, the standard authority, but it is not well designed itself, in my opinion, and is deadly, deadly dull. Available secondhand, and I'm not surprised.