The Holy Grail of Book Design

POSTED ON Feb 4, 2011

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Book Design, E-Books & Readers, Self-Publishing > The Holy Grail of Book Design

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

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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