The Holy Grail of Book Design

by | Feb 4, 2011

by Susan Daffron

I’m really pleased to have a guest post for you today from Susan Daffron, the self-publisher of 10 books at last count. Susan is active in independent publishing and pet rescue organizations, and has extensive experience as a writer. She has a remarkably clear and effective writing style. Last year I reviewed her useful self-publishing book, Publishize. Here’s her post:

“Bring out yer dead, bring out yer dead”
“I’m not dead!”

~ Monty Python and the Holy Grail

In a recent post, Joel lamented the death of book design. I’m a book designer too and given the rise in ebook popularity, I understand the sentiment.

book design for self-publishersIn fact, I was a graphic designer, took a detour into Web design, but returned to my roots in dead-tree print layout. Over the years, I’ve used almost every graphic software program ever made (Ventura Publisher anyone?) and I love the creative flexibility today’s print design tools give us.

So like anyone else with any design sensibilities, I find the state of ebook design depressing. Watching the rise of ebook popularity is bittersweet for those of us who have spent years agonizing over the nuances of typography, balance, and readability.

Today, most ebooks are difficult to create and even with a lot of tweaking, the results are almost invariably plain at best, and downright ugly and unreadable at worst.

However, I’m optimistic that beautiful, readable book design isn’t dead and gone forever. Over the years, I’ve witnessed these types of aesthetic lamentations before. Here are a few examples that come to mind.

  • After PageMaker appeared on the scene, “true” designers lamented the loss of quality typography. I took a graphic design course at UC San Diego in 1989 where the beret-clad instructor proclaimed that beautiful layouts were only possible if you purchased galleys of type from a Compugraphic system.
  • In 1997 or so, I coded my first Web site by hand. (Yes really!) At the time, the few WSIWYG tools that did exist created sites that were so strange or hideous, browsers couldn’t render them. Again, everyone lamented the death of design, since it was virtually impossible to create attractive, readable sites like The Book Designer that didn’t take a half an hour to download on a 9600 baud modem.
  • When digital photos started to become accessible to everyone, people cried about the death of “true photography.” Cameras were terrible and took worse pictures than 20-year old Instamatics. Pundits wondered how we could pass down treasured family photos if we couldn’t stuff them in a box somewhere. What if you don’t have a device that can read your photos? Will all that visual history just disappear in a sea of ones and zeros, never to be seen again?
  • When digital music became popular, audiophiles couldn’t believe people were willing to listen to such low quality tunes. The loss of fidelity was decried and many worried about the loss of music as an art form.
    In every case, purists lamented the loss of quality in the switch to digital. But the masses spoke with their wallets. In each case, convenience trumped quality and technology marched on.

Quite Indefatigable

To meet demand, people have found solutions or workarounds for quality issues. What came before also tends to continue as a specialized niche that collectors, purists, and specialists sometimes actually cherish more than they did when it was mainstream.

For example, printing companies exist that will still set lead type. Printing done on a letterpress machine looks different than standard commercial printing. Now it is used for specialized jobs such as invitations. Film photography is evolving into its own art form that continues to have enthusiasts. Audiophiles collect albums to experience the particular musical nuances of vinyl. And minimalist Web design that really doesn’t look terribly different from the stuff I coded in 1997 has its own set of adherents too.

For those of us who work to create beautiful book layouts, it’s tough to wait until beautifully designed print books become some kind of unique collector’s item. The experience of designing ebooks right now is dreadful.
But we can take comfort in the fact that what we’re seeing now in ebook design isn’t the same as it will be five or ten years from now. Ebook technology is in its infancy and right now the tools to create ebooks are evolving.

The Quest Continues

I’m hopeful that the current decrease in reading quality will reverse as technology and standards improve. Maybe readers won’t enjoy the same reading experience they do now with print books, but ebook design won’t impair the reading experience like it does now.

It’s like the Web design software we had to use way back when. In much the same way we struggled to create ugly Web pages, now we struggle to create ugly ebooks. We’re also dealing with conflicting, rapidly-changing standards and minimal information on best practices.

It’s all distressingly familiar to Web designers. But the good news is that it’s not forever.

Even now, you see glimmers of hope. Today, to improve the likelihood an ebook will sell, you need to create an eye-catching cover. Ebooks need good covers just as much, if not more than print books, to stand out from the ocean of e-drek online.

Now your book isn’t competing with the ten books on the bookshelf next to it. Instead your ebook is competing with the 10,000 other ebooks that come up in a search. So your cover design had better stand out.

It’s like blogs. Remember when everyone was worried about how a bunch of crappy writers were starting to blog? No one read them, and those amateurish blog owners drifted on to other things. Meanwhile, quality blogs rose to prominence and gained huge readership.

Yes, anyone can publish an ebook, but it takes work to create a good ebook. Quality content is quality content, no matter what form it takes.

In the end, I believe as ebooks develop, text will be readable again and design will remain important. We’ll be able to use more than one font and include formatting that goes beyond tedious heading tags. (And there was much rejoicing!)

It’s probably going to be unpleasant for a while, but book design isn’t dead yet. As designers, it’s our responsibility to avoid whacking it over the head and killing it.

Susan Daffron owns a book publishing and consulting company called Logical Expressions, Inc. ( and spends most of her time writing, laying out books in InDesign, or taking her five dogs out for romps in the forest. She also teaches people how to write and publish profitable client-attracting books at SelfPubU ( and puts on the Self-Publishers Online conference every May.

Photo by Kurt Thomas Hunt

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Stephen Tiano

    I’m again reminded what a very thoughtful piece this was, Susan, and how pleased I was that Joel ran it. Unfortunately, it was a piece of spam that brought it to my attention again. However, it got me to reviewing the sentiments and thinking on how things have progressed since the conversation here two years ago. Funny timing, too, because I’m beginning to write a piece for Liz Broomfield’s LibroEditing blog discussing this. So I guess it is time to see where print book design has gone.

  2. Stephen Tiano

    Timely piece, Susan, with good, thoughtful points all. I guess I’m part of that old guard–as much of a tech junkie as I am, I still love the low-tech feeling of cracking open a printed book. That said, I welcome eBooks as another book design opportunity, tho’ slowly, because I still think the tools need to mature a bit yet for top-notch typography to be the common reality.

    I see where website typography has improved. There’ a lot less of the wordspacing that you can drive a truck thru. Perhaps that’s because web typography uses an awful lot of ragged right settings. I’m convinced that, at this point, ragged right is the best way to go with eBooks.

    I’m looking forward to two eBook projects from two print books. The first is an 1,100-page novel recently completed and the second of a kind of spiritual growth memoir about half the size of the novel. I’m still working on the layout of the print version of the latter book. While I don’t exactly plan to redesign either of these books for their e-versions, I also don’t plan to simply repurpose the files I created for print. Again, because of the tools currently available, I don’t think we can simply convert print versions to eBook formats. Not if we want to maintain the sense that eBooks still maintain some of the “artiness” of dead tree books.

    • Susan Daffron

      Hi Stephen…it’s great to find you here. Thanks for commenting. Your phrase, “wordspacing you can drive a truck through” cracked me up. So true!

      I agree that to create good ebooks, we have to be creative. It’s just we have to be creative in somewhat different ways.

      Moving from print to Web forced me to reevaluate how content was presented. Ebooks will force us to reexamine our content yet again.

      Interestingly, at the most basic level, some things are similar. CSS is conceptually the same as a document style sheet, for example. And HTML is conceptually similar to old markup languages. I’ve found that understanding some of the underlying concepts makes the new stuff easier to learn. It’s not like we have to chuck everything we ever knew ;-)

  3. Susan Daffron

    @martha – Me too! I love taking it from idea all the way through to completion. Control freak? Me? Okay, maybe a little ;-)

    • martha hart

      @Susan… we’re “detail oriented” …. oh yes we are!

  4. martha hart

    Thanks for this post… there’s always an adjustment period, then some obscurity, then everything old is new again, as you point out. Marshall McLuhan took it further, saying that *every* technology shift causes displacement, from the phonetic alphabet to printing press to computers. His book, The Medium is the Massage, was a huge influence when I was laying out my book about artists and the internet…. and that’s why I self-publish, to have that control!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Martha, your book is an outstanding example of design and art merging into one amazing experience. It would have been difficult or impossible to do this through conventional publishing. In other words, without the control of self-publishing, it probably wouldn’t look the way it does. Good luck with it.

      • martha hart

        Joel, many thanks for taking the time to look… For me, the process of what’s being written and how it looks are symbiotic, and evolve together. I love the control I get this way, and accept the trade-off of not as much control in how the photography looks (there are trade-offs with offset printing, too)… a tough call, since I’m a photographer as well as a writer, but this works.
        Thank you for the kind words.

  5. Susan Daffron

    @James – You know how I feel about the common advice to just put out any old book “fast and easy.” Dong something right takes more time, but quality shows. Not saying we have to turn into scribes, but doing the best you can with the resources you have available is important I think.
    @Sue – I feel the same way about Funds to the Rescue! I spent a lot of time on the design to make it easy to read. I set up the spreads a particular way, so it’s easy to flip through. We also put it into Kindle format and James slaved over getting it to look decent. It looked right on our Kindle PC viewer, but when I looked at it on a real Kindle, there’s one graphic that’s slightly out of whack. Arrrgh!

  6. Sue Ingebretson

    Thanks Susan! I can relate to your words as I’m always disappointed when I hear people are reading a digital format of my book, FibroWHYalgia. I worked SO hard on every page of the print version to make it as pleasing to the eye as possible. I slaved over font choices, drop cap issues, pull quote layout options, etc. Knowing that readers are viewing a “visually-stripped” version of my book makes me somehow feel they’re not reading the same one that I wrote. It’s my hope that ebooks and digital versions of print books will soon catch up to the beauty and appeal of how books were intended to look! (I know this is supposed to be the case already for the iPad versions, but it’s complicated!)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Sue, that’s so interesting. I’ve had authors who pulled their ebook version from sale once they saw how much it varied from the print version. Sometimes using a better conversion service can do wonders, but there are going to be trade-offs for sure. Yesterday I recorded an interview with Joshua Tallent of Ebook Architects, and one thing he said was that sometimes people will buy the print version of an ebook they particularly like. I’ll be posting the full interview next week and in it I ask Joshua to address exactly these questions. Hope you get a chance to see it.

      • Chris O'Byrne

        I’m looking forward to hearing this interview. I bought Joshua’s book about formatting for the Kindle and it’s been very useful.

      • James Byrd

        Joel: Joshua really gets around! His interviews and presentations are full of amazingly great info. So much so that we’ve invited him to speak at the Self Publishers Online Conference this May. We’re thrilled that he agreed, so we’ll have better e-book coverage this year. It looks like we will be getting Mark Coker of Smashwords as well. I tried for Joe Konrath, but he is backing off from all public speaking engagements. Too bad, as I really love his message and the fact that he is an inspiration for self publishing fiction authors.

        • Joel Friedlander

          Your event sounds like it’s shaping up well, I’ll look forward to hearing more about it.

  7. Susan Daffron

    Hi Chris…I’m sure people did bemoan the death of beautiful hand-crafted books! Every time there’s a change, there’s whining. Good for you for trying to raise the bar in ebook design! That’s exactly the message I was trying to impart with this article. We can still strive for greatness, even with our substandard tools. It’s not impossible; it’s just hard ;-)

  8. James Byrd

    Excellent observation, Chris. I’m sure you’re right about Gutenberg’s contemporaries. Can you imagine the reaction of the scribes and illuminators when “mass produced” books with unadorned pages and simple, unimaginative type came out of the first presses? They must have been horrified by the lack of aesthetics.

    We’ve come a long way since then. Not only have we made books available to the masses, but we’ve made *publishing* available to the masses.

    Good design is more important than ever as a discriminating factor when a reader searches for quality content. Not that there’s a one-to-one relationship there, but attention to the design indicates attention to quality. Why bother putting lipstick on a pig?

    • Joel Friedlander

      James, good point. It’s been my experience over the years that self-publishers who see the value of a good book design and are willing to hire a professional to get it show the same concern for quality throughout the publishing process and consequently they consistently produce high-quality books of significant value to their readers.

  9. Chris O'Byrne

    Thank you, Susan, for expressing many of my own thoughts about this topic. I do feel that e-book design will someday (soon) rival that of print book design. E-book readers are rapidly evolving and will soon be able to display quality design. Who knows, perhaps they’ll evolve into book-shaped devices that feel very similar to our beloved print books. I wonder, did Gutenberg’s contemporaries bemoan the demise of hand-printed books?

    For now, I do my best to design e-books that are as beautiful as possible within the limitations that currently exist. Even now at this early stage it’s possible to create e-books of beauty.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Chris, I’ve recently seen some truly remarkable ePub books that I’m looking forward to write about, and I would have to say that if you have someone who is both careful and knowledgeable about the conversion process, good design can indeed be integrated into an ebook, although from 99% of the ebooks I’ve seen, you would never know that.

      You have a lovely website, I wonder if you’ve put a listing into our new Ebook Conversion Services Directory? It’s new, free, and has listings from over 40 companies offering this service. Here’s a link if you want to get in: Ebook Conversion Service Directory



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