“I Hate That!” Book Design Pet Peeves

by | Aug 13, 2018

This is a story about bad book design decisions, and how to avoid them.

Jill and I visited Copperfield’s Books in Sebastapol this afternoon.

Copperfield’s is a small chain of independent bookstores here in California, and a favorite place to browse their curated selection.

As an aside, when you consider all the books that are published each year, every independent bookstore is essentially an exercise in commercial curation. If customers buy the books the bookstore buyers have curated, the store will succeed, so effective curation is an existential necessity for any indie bookstore.

In any event, Jill found a book she had been curious about and brought it over to show me.

“I would never buy this book,” she said. “It’s a mess!”

The book, as it turned out, was Princesses Behaving Badly from Quirk Books.

The book had many design elements you don’t ordinarily see in commercial books, including 2-color printing. But what bothered Jill was the many graphics used in the book. Here’s a typical page, with ornaments running up and down both sides of the page:

book design

She simply felt the patterns, ornaments, and colors would interrupt her reading, and said she would look for a Kindle version when we got home.

Clearly, although the publisher put a lot of effort into the design of the book, that’s something of a loss. After all, was all this something readers wanted? In this case, no, and a sale was lost for the bookstore, the publisher, and the author.

More Book Design Problems

You can see another example of design overtaking the main purpose of the book—communicating the author’s words to the reader’s brain—in one of Haruki Murakami’s sensational novels, Sputnik Sweetheart, originally published by Knopf:

book design

This book contains two examples of what not to do: The running heads are large and distracting, and when repeated on every single page, soon become overbearing. Running heads are there as a courtesy to the reader and could be considered optional in novels anyway.

Even worse is the use of gigantic initial capitals every time there’s a text break. Talk about distracting! And what purpose could they possibly serve? This is a fairly short book with many text breaks, so this assault on the reader’s attention happens over and over again.

Bad pagination

Another example of a book design “fail” is getting your page numbers in the wrong place.

In this lovely book of advice for photographers (Cafe Margo, publisher), the designer failed to look at any other books and put all the odd-numbered pages on the left side, and the even-numbered pages on the right.

You might not notice this right away, but for anyone who does (me) it is extremely disconcerting and of course, a true “mistake” from the point of view of any publishing professional. Mistakes like this brand your book as an amateur production.

Is that the look you’re going for? No, I didn’t think so.

book design

Printing in Odd Colors

Book design, like other forms of design, can be subject to fashions. At one time a lot of books started to show up printed in odd colors like sepia (dark brown), dark green (I have a vegetarian cookbook like this, and never look at it) or even dark blue.

Some authors have told me they wanted to print in sepia to make their book look “antique” but they don’t realize you put an extra burden on the reader when you do this. If 99.999% of the books you’ve read are printed in black ink, why make reading your book more difficult?

Here’s a page from a cookbook printed in sepia, and it’s very tiring to read (Kathy Cooks Vegetarian, Low Cholesterol from Fireside Books):

book design

Narrow Margins

Since the advent of print on demand (PoD), some authors have become very conscious of how many words they get on each book page.

The reason is simple, since all PoD vendors charge by the page.

Therefore, you can make more money by fitting more words on a page. Genius!

The problem is when the author really doesn’t know how to do this effectively (book designers do know how to do this, by the way) and create books that can be very uncomfortable to read. I mean, really, where are you supposed to put your fingers?

book design

Bad Paper

As it happened, Jill bought another book while we were at Copperfield’s, Jack Kornfield’s newest, No Time Like the Present from Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster.

No bad margins, intrusive design, odd pagination, or any of the other failings we’ve looked at:

book design

Although you can’t tell from the illustration, this book, which retails for $16.00, is printed on one of the cheapest kinds of paper you can find. Really, it’s one step above newsprint, or the groundwood papers used in mass market paperbacks.

Now, that might be fine for a thriller or vampire romance the reader is likely to read once and then recycle, but Kornfield’s book is more likely to gain a treasured spot on the reader’s shelf, and be referred to often.

I can tell you that it would have cost the publisher a few pennies per copy to step up to a better grade of paper, but in conglomerate publishers many decisions like this are made by financial staff, not production editors. And that’s a shame.

Over to You

So now you’ve seen some of my book design pet peeves, the things that put me off a book I might otherwise have really enjoyed.

What about you, do you run across books with defects that have nothing to do with the content, and everything to do with making bad design choices?

I’d love to hear, so let me know in the comments, and if you have a screenshot or photo of the offender, I’ll post that too with credit to you.

Let’s make better books!

journal
marketing

42 Comments

  1. Kathy Carter

    At a local book fair, one of the authors showed me his book with great pride, commenting on how “professional” it looked thanks to the wonderful design service that did the layout. I opened it at random and saw a chapter title with a hyphenated line break. Doh!

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Ouch! It’s a surprise to many new authors how much of book publishing is “in the details” and I’ve had exactly the same experience at trade shows, Kathy. Another reason author education is so important.

      Reply
  2. Suzanne Olsson

    wow- so much to learn from these articles! Thank You…And now on to my issues, many of which have already been addressed here. I first published when Create Space was Booksurge. Both were very helpful and even corrected small cover issues for me. The book did fine for many years,…but every few years I had to update and revise…then amazon/kdp took over and has resulted in numerous issues. They recommended a company called ‘Word-2-Kindle’. I paid for the editing and formatting- but they returned a book far worse than even I could have done! I also wanted to switch from 6×9 to 7×10….but switching the formatting has been very difficult for me. I cannot figure out the gutter size for 370 pages…nor the best looking margin sizes….and cannot find any help online. Meanwhile the print edition has not been available for about 4 months now, while I struggle with formatting. This is an excellent and helpful site! Kudos for an excellent job well done. Suzanne Olsson

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Suzanne, I’m sorry you’re running into so many problems with your book. I don’t know if this will help, but you might take a look at our interior templates, which are available in both 6 x 9 and 7 x 10 trims, it might make your formatting job quite a bit easier. Here’s a link: Book Design Templates

      Reply
  3. Cherime MacFarlane

    Guess I’m odd person out. I don’t like justified type in a book. I find a little more white space makes it easier to see where I need to return to after turning away from a book. Not justified type helps with the same thing. Twelve point Times New Roman is good as far as I’m concerned.

    Reply
  4. Carole Conlon

    Perhaps I am a snob, but I bought a Balboa Press book called Empathipedia and was dismayed that the text was not justified, and the line spacing was very generous. The book looks and feels like a term paper (except for the left alignment).

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      That’s interesting, Carole. Perhaps the author insisted on it. The books I’ve seen from Balboa, although generally overpriced (there’s a reason for that) looked professionally produced. However, since the subsidy industry has fallen on hard times, perhaps their standards have lapsed as well.

      Reply
  5. Janet O’Kane

    I’m currently reading a paperback where the inner margin of the lefthand pages isn’t big enough, making it really hard to read the complete text without seriously bending the spine. This is annoying and distracting and I’m sure the entire thing is going to fall apart before I reach the end. Not self-published, I’ll add.

    Reply
  6. R Coots

    I picked up a copy of of Octavia Butler book at my local bookshop, thrilled to actually find her on a shelf (and i hadn’t had lunch at the to getting a kindle edition). I really should have checked inside. They used a font i dont recognize (serif, but oddly rounded and squashed) and the size was TINY.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Kevin, I’ll correct it.

      Reply
  7. Elen Ghulam

    My favorite book I read in 2017 is “I, Who Did Not Die” by Zahed Haftlang,‎ Najah Aboud and Meredith May. Two soldiers: One Iraqi, the other Iranian meet during the Iraq/Iran war. My one complaint with the book cover design: The map of Iraq and Iran is flipped, making it look as if Iraq is east of Iran. I guess the book cover designer wasn’t able to check google earth. Bothers me to no end.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Design malpractice.

      Reply
  8. Vivienne Sang

    I agree. I actually have an eye problem, am over ’40’ by quite a lot, and have always had short sight.
    Please remember us when you design your interiors.

    Reply
  9. Amber Polo

    If you haven’t seen “How to Format your Book in Word” by Colin Dunbar, check it out. Perhaps the ebook is OK, but one look at the print version turned me off trusting any advice on how to format.
    Pagination began on the verso as i, however the verso wasn’t on the back of the title page. Headers and page numbers appeared on blank pages. Disappointing.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Amber, I think I’ll skip looking that one up, unfortunately I get to see all too many of these mistakes. But it’s particularly troubling when the book in question is purporting to teach formatting…

      Reply
  10. Michael W. Perry

    I’ll add to Ian’s complaint. That’s a book done in tiny type whose publisher thought that failing could be corrected by widely spacing the lines. Sorry, but that added white space doesn’t do my old and tired eyes any good. Tiny is tiny.

    And yes, I mean you, 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. The grammar section made matters still worse by making text inside {} braces a light gray. Shame on you!

    Reply
    • Jan McClintock

      Michael, one of my biggest pet peeves is small type, in books AND on web sites. I would rather err on the side of caution (go a little too large) than the opposite. And yes, that justification can make or break a reading experience, too. Your brain isn’t programmed to read or skip those blank spaces!

      Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Light gray type, ouch! That’s almost as bad as all those super-thin fonts people have been using online.

      Reply
  11. Amber Polo

    I hate glossy (usually printed outside the US) clay coated paper. Fine for books of photos but not for a book to read. Too often paired with a heavy sans-serif font to make reading doubly difficult. And text boxes with tinted backgrounds. Plus a high price.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Amber, good point. I also dislike that clay-y paper, and it makes the books very heavy, too. What’s good about that?

      Reply
      • Mike MacDonald

        The pubisher was going for an inexpensive glossy-photo look. When I published my literary coffee-table book that contained over 43,000 words, I used a heavy matte paper for easy reading. Then I hit the photos with a spot varnish to make them pop and to give the page some depth. It looks great, but it added about 5 percent to the cost.

        Reply
  12. Patricia

    I’m always amazed and irritated when I come across mispellings and poor gammar in a book. I usually stare at the page, dumbfounded. I do the same thing when I come across errors in news websites and print magazines.

    Reply
    • Mark Maguire

      I find misspellings and poor gammar (sic) disrupts the flow of a book. It’s a little like stumbling. You have to pause and regather.
      I’ve even been so irritated that I have offered to proofread their next novel – for free. Never had any takers…

      Reply
  13. Manny Ortiz

    There was a book I wanted to read. It was Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. But when I opened it, the font was an antique brown color. I couldn’t read it without straining my eyes. So I didn’t buy it.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Manny,

      Exactly. I think it’s a case of an idea the author has stuck in their head, but which readers generally dislike. I also probably would not read a book printed in sepia.

      Reply
  14. Jana

    More than design problems, typos make me nuts. The very worst is the use of the word “forward” when “foreword” is meant. (You might want to correct your misspelling of “courtesy” in the text of this post – sorry to be such a Typo-Psycho!)

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Jana,

      Oh, that’s a bad one, I agree, and not entirely divorced from book design. And thanks for the proofread, we really appreciate it!

      Reply
  15. Brad

    Deckled edges.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Brad, you know you have to pay quite a bit more for those “deckled” edges, and publishers use them to give what they believe is a “premium” look to the book, but I wonder how many readers feel the same way? They do make the pages harder to turn.

      Reply
    • Widdershins

      Deckled edges always feel like someone couldn’t be bothered to print the book properly, and they make the pages harder to turn!

      Reply
  16. Dennis Winkleblack

    The use of type that is very light. I’m sure it’s a financial decision to save on ink, but I can’t imagine anyone preferring it. It’s a serious distraction; an annoyance at best.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Dennis, the older I get the more I appreciate clear type. On the other hand, I would credit the trend to very light type to fashions in fonts more than to publishers trying to save ink, which would be negligible in any event.

      Reply
  17. Ernie Zelinski

    Ha! I invite you to order this book from Amazon.com (done through Create Space) if you want to see some truly bad interior layout, not to mention at least three grammatical errors on the back cover.

    “101+ Things You Must Do In Retirement”

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/1539462110/

    Note that the title and subtitle are awkward. What’s more, the title and subtitle (“Awesome Things You Must Do in Retirement: Ultimate Guide to an Awesome Life After Work”) listed on Amazon and the title page of the book don’t match the title and subtitle on the cover.

    Back to the interior design. On the last page, Page 97, you will find one word by itself. On Page 36, too. There is a lot more. You have to see it to believe it.

    The author seems to have in part copied the concept of his book from this book”

    “101 Fun Things to do in Retirement: An Irreverent, Outrageous & Funny Guide to Life After Work”

    https://www.amazon.com/101-Fun-Things-Retirement-Irreverent/dp/1514117495/

    Here is the weird part: This book “101+ Things You Must Do In Retirement” has already sold between 1,000 and 1,500 copies, which is a lot more than a lot of well-designed books will ever sell.

    Reply
  18. Ian Anderson

    Minuscule text is my pet peeve. And yes, I know that people under 30 do read books (allegedly!) and can see a tick on a dog a hundred yards off, but still. Many of us, (once they head North of 40), discover that all those nights reading books with a torch under the bed covers as a teen has taken its toll.

    I’m not saying the text needs to be in the special section of the library, just reasonable.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Ian, maybe that’s another strategy for cramming more words on each page? I know I wouldn’t buy a book with tiny type, it’s just not worth the eyestrain.

      Reply
      • Gabriel N.

        This is why diversity in every industry is important: many young designers don’t realize how difficult it can be to read small or very light type even if printed properly (which in many occasions it is not, compounding the problem).

        This problem happen on every media: TV, movies, digital media and print. Keeping people of different ages, genders and even nationalities around a project helps a lot to curve this issue.

        Reply
        • Ian Anderson

          It happens in the ‘physical’ world too Gabriel. Young urban designers who either live in the city and don’t drive, or drive a tiny city runabout; and they produce road layouts which make life hell for bus and truck drivers!

          Here in Norway I see buses negotiating stupidly tight bends at walking pace, missing posts or bollards by inches… I think anyone responsible for road design should spend a day on a bus as part of their training…

          Reply
      • Jeremy

        I specifically chose an above-normal font size and spacing for my book, knowing that it was going to add pages. It may have plenty of other flaws, but doggone it, it’s approachable for old eyes and (my real intent) younger ones who might be intimidated by a huge wall of text in front of them.

        Reply
        • Jan McClintock

          Couldn’t agree more, Jeremy. I go a little larger than necessary in most layouts.

          Reply
    • Anma Natsu

      Agreed! I see smaller fonts advocated (wrongly) in some indie author circles to lower page count and thus price, but it’s a poor decision to me. It’s usually combined with minuscule margins and other poor design choices that just show the author didn’t really care all that much about their print editions.

      The worse designed book I’ve ever seen though was one done by a vanity publisher that I ran into at my local Half Price. OMG I wish I had pics. Times New Roman font, double spaced paragraphs WITH indention, poor margins, cheap paper, the running heads barely separated from the main text, just all around ugly. I pitied the author who’d been suckered by them.

      Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 5 Links, Books, and Things I Love - September 2018 - […] 1. “I Hate That!” Book Design Pet Peeves by Joel Friedlander […]
  2. Die Woche im Rückblick 10.08. bis 16.08.2018 - Wieken-Verlag Autorenservice - […] Joel Friedlander: “I Hate That!” Book Design Pet Peeves […]
  3. Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 08-16-2018 | The Author Chronicles - […] Self-publishers have many decisions to make and may need help. Esther Park takes a look at where to go…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.