Book Design Case Study: Two Contemporary Novels

by Joel Friedlander on March 9, 2012 · 36 comments

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Sometimes things happen in waves, or some people say they happen in threes. But people also have the uncanny ability to see patterns—even where they don’t exist.

Whatever the case, recently I ended up designing two contemporary novels by women novelists, both from the San Francisco bay area, at exactly the same time.

Helen of Troy by Tess Collins

Collins is the author of four previous books. Helen of Troy (Bear Cat Press) is a “quirky and lively retelling of the classic Greek legend set in small-town America,” in this case Troy, Tennessee.

The covers of novels are influenced more than anything else by the overall tone of the book. After looking at a lot of cover ideas, we hit on this one, inspired by a line in the book in which an “ice palace” plays a part. Here’s the cover:

Helen of Troy by Tess Collins cover

Helen of Troy by Tess Collins. Click to enlarge.

On the interior, the text typeface is Goudy Old Style, a font I haven’t used in some time. The chapter numbers and drop caps are Modern No. 20, a display face with a pronounced contrast in stroke weight. Here’s the chapter opener:

Helen of Troy by Tess Collins

Helen of Troy by Tess Collins. Click to enlarge

This is how the spreads look:

Helen of Troy by Tess Collins - spread

Helen of Troy by Tess Collins. Click to enlarge.

In the end Tess decided to also produce a hardcover version in addition to this 5.25″ x 8″ trade paperback, and having the hardcover review copies available was part of her launch strategy.

Tess Collins’ author website
Helen of Troy on Amazon

The Edge of Maybe by Ericka Lutz

Lutz, the author of eight previous books, all nonfiction, also teaches writing at the University of California. The Edge of Maybe (Last Light Studios), also a 5.25″ x 8″ trade paperback, is set in Berkeley. It puts us in the midst of crisis with a couple “entering middle age with politically correct values, an obsession with gourmet organic food, and no idea what has happened to their punk rock, adventurous youth.”

Although there are many amusing passages in the book, it deals with some pretty dark themes, and required quite a different approach.

The finished cover reflects some of these themes and introduces the eye of horus as a subtle symbol that plays a part in the book. I’ve written about the problem of including symbolism on book covers, but I think this one is subtle enough to work really well.

The Edge of Maybe by Ericka Lutz

The Edge of Maybe by Ericka Lutz. Click to enlarge

The story is told in the alternating voices of the three main characters, so the typography was required to create these “character tags” so the reader would know exactly which perspective was which.

The solution uses the same Fontin Sans font for the tags and the chapter titles, with the addition of a small ornamental leaf. The alternating viewpoints in this book are an integral part of the way the story is told, and the typography creates a break large enough to signal the change without overpowering the story itself.

Here’s a chapter opening:

The Edge of Maybe by Ericka Lutz

The Edge of Maybe by Ericka Lutz. Click to enlarge.

The text is set in one of the most useful book typefaces of modern types, Adobe Garamond Pro. Here’s a spread:

The Edge of Maybe by Ericka Lutz

The Edge of Maybe by Ericka Lutz. Click to enlarge.

Ericka Lutz’s author website
Website for The Edge of Maybe and the book trailer
The Edge of Maybe on Amazon

Design Note

Designing novels is both fun and challenging. Because the interiors of most novels are unadorned continuous typography I think you have to take a lot of care to balance the elements of the page to get the best effect.

Margins, line leading, choice of fonts get more critical since the aim of the designer is to enable the reader to be carried along by the author’s story.

In these books, the solutions for both the cover designs and the interiors emerged from the books themselves, and that’s a very satisfying conclusion.

Ed: There’s a typographic anomaly involving the interior design of one of these books. A free copy of A Self-Publisher’s Companion to the first person to identify it. Are you game?

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    { 34 comments… read them below or add one }

    Okamis March 10, 2012 at 1:31 am

    Is the typographic anomaly the “Yes-” in “Helen of Troy”?

    PS: Because this is my first comment here, I take this opportunity to congratulate you, mr. Friedlander. Your blog is simply one of the best I ever found.


    Joel Friedlander March 10, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks, Okamis. It’s not the “Yes” but see my comment where it is revealed.


    J. Tillman March 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    Anomaly guess: the first paragraphs of each viewpoint section are not indented. They’re treated like little chapter beginnings.


    Joel Friedlander March 10, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    Good catch, J. but not what I was looking for. Rather than an anomaly, that’s a design choice since the indentation isn’t needed.


    Laura March 9, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    Always fun to see layouts! At the risk of sounding pedantic, I noticed most pages had widows — I’d love to know your approach to/theory on those?


    Karl March 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    Re. the “typographic anomaly”: This is a stretch, but there’s something odd about the italicized author name and book title in the top margins of the interior of The Edge of Maybe: The slant to the capital letters is less than the slant of the lower case letters. And this isn’t the case with the italicized sentence in the body text of the page.

    –And I’m spending altogether too much time on this page today.


    Joel Friedlander March 10, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Bingo, Karl is the winner, and will be receiving a free copy of A Self-Publisher’s Companion: Expert Advice for Authors Who Want to Publish.

    The running heads in this book are set in a completely different book typeface called Electra. It’s an anomaly because it’s very odd to use two similar roman typefaces, and these running heads would ordinarily either be set in the typeface used for the text or the display face used for headings.

    Good eyes, Karl, so at least some of that time paid off.


    London Crockett March 12, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Joel, would you elaborate on the decision to use Electra in the headings? That is an unusual choice: I don’t recall ever seeing it before. (Caveat: I don’t pay that much attention to typography once I’m caught up in a novel.) Since you’ve used the sans face only in all caps for chapter and character sections, I’d think it would be the obvious choice in the title-capped headers.


    Joel Friedlander March 13, 2012 at 9:51 am

    True, London, I can’t remember doing this before myself. During the development of the interior design I created several layouts using different fonts for the author to consider. One of these was in Electra, a longtime favorite of mine.

    (For readers unfamiliar with Electra, it was designed in the 1930s by W.A. Dwiggins, one of the most prolific type designers of the early twentieth century.

    Electra looks to me like an attempt to blend some of the modernistic architectural design of that era with classic, faintly oldstyle letterforms. It has been used widely and I first came in countact with it in novels and essays.

    Northpoint Press used it quite a bit in their terrific trade paperback originals of writers like John McPhee and Edward Hoagland, for example.)

    In the end the author chose the Adobe Garamond layout, but for some reason the Electra ital headers had so much more style than the Adobe Garamond Pro headers. The AGP ital is much softer than Electra’s and I wasn’t willing to give that up in the final layout, so I decided to leave it is since, as you point out, the typography of running heads is something that a very very small percentage of readers will ever notice or remark on.


    Adelaide Cooper March 9, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    Dammit Joel, you just HAD to dare us to find stuff… Now I’m going cross-eyes squinting at the screen!!

    One thing I found weird was the double-f “ff” in The Edge of Maybe… the second f is “taller” than the first. Not sure if it’s the default feature of the font? I look at the f’s because in some cases with “fi” the dot of the i gets fused with the f… but the taller f is just weird!


    Joel Friedlander March 9, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    LOL sorry Adelaide, didn’t mean to cause you eyestrain. The double ff is a ligature, a feature of some fonts. The single “ff” character replaces two “f”s and the difference in the height is intentional. These are also commonly used for “fi” (as you’ve observed, the dot on the “i” can run into the top of the “f”) and “fl” which has similar problems. Thanks for playing. If no one guesses, I’ll leave a comment here tomorrow with the answer.


    SL Clark March 9, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Hi Joel, I find the “non-centered” title & author name “interesting” to some degree. Having not seen many fiction titles with the page number at the top, I’m curious why you moved these towards the numbering. Was it simply to make more “white space”, breathe better? -Steve


    Joel Friedlander March 9, 2012 at 11:36 am

    SL, I had to laugh when you called this design feature “interesting.” Non-centered running heads are very common, and the space was, as you suspect, added between the heads and the folios to allow each element its own space while holding together as a unit. Thanks for your comment.


    Joel Friedlander March 9, 2012 at 10:42 am


    Not sure who told you there can’t be a page number on chapter opening pages, because they are common. As far as chapter openings, many novels have no internal blanks, starting each chapter on the next page. The chapter-opening-only-on-right-hand pages is much more common in nonfiction books.

    You might be interested in this article: Self-Publishing Basics: Pagination for Fun and Profit


    Katherine Owen March 9, 2012 at 9:44 am

    I think the anomaly is that there is a page number on the page of Chapter Three for the Edge of Maybe. Chapter pages should NOT have a page number and should be on the right.


    Linda Cassidy Lewis March 9, 2012 at 9:29 am

    Is the anomaly that the page number on the first page of Chapter Three of the Edge of Maybe is at the bottom while it’s at the top of the other pages?


    Joel Friedlander March 9, 2012 at 10:35 am


    No, that’s intentional, since the page numbers are in the running heads on the rest of the pages. Thanks for playing!


    PD Singer March 9, 2012 at 8:05 am

    Did anyone look at the covers at thumbnail size? That’s the only view most potential buyers will ever have. The Edge of Maybe’s title is legible at that size, but the author’s name is barely visible, and the imagery is indecipherable. Even enlarged, the unmade bed needs to be decoded to identify, and once I do, the overall connotation isn’t a good one. Only the title on this one is enough to make me stop long enough to read the blurb.


    Joel Friedlander March 9, 2012 at 10:46 am

    PD, these books were both designed as print originals. I’ve written often and extensively about the difference between print book cover design and ebook cover design, where the thunbnail rules. I don’t think that’s as true for print books.

    Thanks for your comment.


    Karl March 9, 2012 at 11:02 am

    But given the huge percentage of print books that are sold online, isn’t how a cover looks in thumbnail nearly as important for paper books as it is for eBooks?

    And on the reverse side of the coin, since Barns & Noble uses 300 x 445 images on its book pages, and similarly-sized images are only a click away on an Amazon page, is the “thumbnail” view so much more important for eBooks?


    Joel Friedlander March 9, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Most print books are still sold offline, and are actual physical objects that people interact with in the real world.

    eBooks are truly “virtual” products with no existence outside their files and can only be bought and sold online.

    I think that’s a pretty big difference, and I don’t think the time has come yet where every book cover design has to be be measured by its thumbnail. We can dictate all we want but in the end it’s the authors’ goals that determine how the books are produced.


    Karl March 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    “Most print books are still sold offline”
    Do you have any actual figures on this? I haven’t been able to find any myself.

    I agree that book cover design shouldn’t stand or fall based solely on its thumbnail image. I’m just not sure that there’s such a big divide between eBooks and paper books on that point. The cover of an eBook is arguably no more (and no less) “tied” to a small thumbnail than the cover of a paper book is.

    Adelaide Cooper March 9, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    I have to agree with you there, and unlike Karl, I think there is a very big difference when you look at a digital cover vs a print cover, even with the same image.

    I was at an interview/signing for Anne Rice’s new book The Wolf Gift recently. I had looked at the book online ahead of time, and the cover was… a bit bleh. And then I saw the print edition of the cover. With the texture and reflective ink it looked so much better.

    If it wasn’t Anne Rice’s book, that digital cover would’ve had me shrug and move on, but the print book… I would’ve given it a second look. You cannot measure the impact of a print cover by looking at a digital thumbnail.

    PD Singer March 9, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Who said anything about ebooks? Amazon’s covers are 112 x 160, and Barnes and Noble uses 92 x 148 on a lot of pages with multiple covers per page; there’s no guarantee it will be seen at 300 x 425. Goodreads uses even smaller images, and that is a very busy forum of people talking books. No matter where this book will actually be sold, it will have a web presence.


    Karl March 9, 2012 at 7:27 am

    Some comments:

    I just can’t make out what the background image in Helen of Troy is. I can’t even come up with any guesses that seem reasonable. Is that the effect you were looking for? If so, why? Did you test this illustration by showing it to a few people who had no prior knowledge of what they were looking at?

    And similarly, the cover to The Edge of Maybe has something or other that’s dark and fairly prominent leaning diagonally across the lower left. I get the feeling that it might be something important to the image, but I can’t make out what it is. Beyond that, it’s a picture of an unmade bed. Is there anything in the world more mundane, boring, even evocative of tedium, than an unmade bed? I don’t think that’s a desirable reaction to a book cover. The gloomy, almost sinister wallpaper makes up for it a little, but still.

    I like the typography on The Edge of Maybe cover, but overall, for these two covers at least, failing grades from me I’m afraid.


    Joel Friedlander March 9, 2012 at 10:32 am


    The background image on Helen of Troy was taken inside an actual ice castle. The shapes on the cover of The Edge of Maybe are all pillows and bedclothes. And yes, the mundane side of this was part of the image’s appeal. A lot of this book revolves around sex and its aftermath in ordinary people’s lives.

    I don’t “test” book covers, but I think most of my clients get reactions and feedback from their own friends and readers. I don’t like literalism in the covers of novels, but thanks for your input.


    Karl March 9, 2012 at 10:53 am

    I think non-literalism is great for book cover designs. But an image that’s simply indecipherable isn’t the same thing as one that avoids literalism.

    And I really don’t think “I have no idea what the heck I’m looking at” is a desirable effect for a book cover to elicit. It’s likely to produce an off-putting feeling of frustration, even if only subliminally.


    London Crockett March 12, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    I don’t like broad literalism—at least for the most part—but I love it when a designer finds some small detail in a key scene and uses that. Other than the perfect cover for McEwan’s “Atonement”—which captures the feel of the first part so perfectly—my favorite cover is the original trade paperback cover for Scott Heim’s “Mysterious Skin” ( It references the pivotal moment without directly hinting at what happens. At the same time, the combination of the spilled cereal represents the lost childhood and the spoon has a hint of drug paraphernalia, rendering a mostly abstract image as creepy as it is colorful. The more you look at the cover, the more you realize the designer had a deep understanding of the book.


    Joel Friedlander March 12, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    That is, indeed, a beautiful cover, thanks for the link London.


    monica devine March 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    The Edge of Maybe cover…my eye went immediately to the lower left diagonal image; I thought it was an arm and had to look at it many times to figure it out. At first I thought a person was lying on the bed. Is it a pillow?


    Turndog Millionaire March 9, 2012 at 1:58 am

    Really like the Edge Of Maybe cover. Really cool design

    With regards to the type, i too will need to do something similar as Edge Of Maybe

    My story is a parallel tale, so i want to differentiate between the two of them. Not decided how to differentiate it yet, but i feel it’s a very important aspect of my book

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)


    Joel Friedlander March 9, 2012 at 10:26 am

    What’s important here, Matt is to not resort to using a different font, which is what most do-it-yourself designers do. As you can see from this book, theres’ no real need for another font since all the differentiation is in the writing itself.


    Russell Phillips March 9, 2012 at 1:08 am

    I think I found the typographic anomaly:
    Page 42 of The Edge of Maybe: “Because his eyes can’t blink. They get dried out, then they could get infected. He got microphthalmia.” – has an opening quote mark at the end, instead of a closing quote mark.

    Is that it?


    Joel Friedlander March 9, 2012 at 10:25 am


    Good catch, but that’s not it. You’ve found a typo caused by an extra space at the end of the line before the quote mark. I’ll pass that along to the publisher.


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