Warning: Even “A-List” Bloggers Need Book Designers

by Joel Friedlander on January 4, 2010 · 4 comments

A new promotion for bloggers got a lot of traffic last month as the Beyond Blogging launch rolled out. This product, from bloggers Nathan Hagan and Mike Cliff Jones, assembles interviews and case studies of over a dozen “A-list” bloggers into a 204-page PDF ebook. Along with the book purchasers receive a full-scale blog consulting package.

And there are a lot of impressive names in this collection: Pete Cashmore, Steve Pavlina, Darren Rowse, Brain Clark, John Chow, Jonathan Fields, Chris Brogan and so on. So you know these people know what they are doing. At least in blogging and making money from their blogs.

But here we talk about books, and that’s the real reason Beyond Blogging is making an appearance in TheBookDesigner.com. The main product is the book itself. So how did they do in all the tasks we’ve identified as important to the design of books and their ultimate usability?

Uh, oh. Bad Grades for Bloggers Here

There are two ways to originate a book as a PDF document.

  1. You can take a book that’s already been designed for print and convert it to a PDF that’s pleasant to read on screen, or
  2. You can design a book specifically to be read on screen, and create it for PDF alone.

In either case, the responsibility of the book designer first and foremost is that somewhat undefined term, readability. Be kind to the reader, allow the author to speak without interference from design or its window dressing.

In Beyond Blogging, we have a pretty high-level example of what happens when you produce a book with no connection to the traditions or conventions of book design. In fact, this PDF ebook is a very well executed example of how, even with the best intentions and a good concept, you can go really wrong and end up hindering your own program.

Page Flipping or Reading?

Beyond Blogging

Click to enlarge

Here’s what the interior of Beyond Blogging looks like. You can click the graphic to enlarge it if you want to get a better look.

As you can see, this book is presented in a landscape format, although it’s difficult to see any compelling reason for doing so. The type font appears to be Helvetica light or Helvetica thin or some variation.

The combination of long lines, very light type, the san serif typeface, and a huge amount of white space on the page combine to make this a rather unpleasant reading experience.

But that’s not all. Because the PDF doesn’t scale on mobile devices too well, it’s almost impossible to read this document on an iPhone or other mobile handset. I tried printing out a few pages, but the type was so light against the background it was no easier to read that way.

The very design of this product has locked the user into one way of reading it, and one way only—on your computer screen. Considering this is a 204-page ebook, it would have been nice to be able to read it in some other way, in some other location (no, I don’t have a laptop).

Where’s Your DNA From?

I’m sure many people can tell from looking at this page, and the textured background running down the left side and the format of the panels holding the titles what gave rise to this design, but if you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ll tell you in a moment.

You see, people come from different directions, different mindsets when they sit down to create a long text like this one. And part of the frustration I have with this project is that it seems to have a lot of really useful information in it. I’m sure the authors put in a lot of hard work to pull this off.

But it’s obvious that they lacked a book designer. A book designer knows the history of books, at least a bit, knows how text displays best for the sake of the reader. A book designer knows:

  • people are accustomed from long habit to read tall columns of type, not long ones (portrait, not landscape)
  • type faces with serifs (like Bembo, Garamond, even Times Roman) help letters stick together as words, making it easier to read
  • very light type on a white background hurts legibility and therefore, readability
  • lines that are too long can cause confusion when traveling so far from margin to margin to continue reading

So you can see that whoever “designed” Beyond Blogging, it wasn’t a book designer. No, this template came from someone whose frame of reference for presenting information is PowerPoint, Microsoft’s ubiquitous slide-show software. PowerPoint is terrific for sales presentations, but provides a poor model for the delivery of hundreds of pages of text.

Don’t let this happen to you!

Takeaway: Being good at one thing doesn’t automatically make you good at other things. There’s no replacement for the skills of the book designer when presenting large amounts of text. Being unconventional is fine as long as it doesn’t make it harder to communicate your message.

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    { 4 comments… read them below or add one }

    Mike CJ January 4, 2010 at 10:17 am

    Not at all! Constructive criticism is good – we’re learning all the time. And the Beyond Blogging project has a lot more to give, so we can make it better and better over time.

    Reply

    admin January 4, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Hey Nathan and Mike, thanks for stopping by! I’m enjoying the content of the book quite a bit, hope you won’t take my criticism too hard. Your book is actually one of the better-looking of its type.

    Reply

    Mike CJ January 4, 2010 at 8:26 am

    You were spot on Joel – we didn’t use book desgner, we used a web designer, and I think your points are correct. Honestly? We never thought about it – wish we’d seen your site first! :)

    The Kindle version is about to launch, so that should take care of the mobile aspect, and there will be a print version soon.

    I’m looking forward to consulting with you for the next Beyond Blogging book!

    Reply

    Nathan Hangen January 4, 2010 at 8:22 am

    Thanks for the feedback. We did hire a designer, but we’ll make sure to take this into consideration for future drafts.

    Reply

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