When Is a Book Review Not a Book Review?

by | Jul 30, 2010

“De gustibus non est disputandum,” the Romans decreed. There’s no disputing taste. I’ve decided to agree with them.

Why? Because I enjoy reviewing books that are helpful to writers, self-publishers and people interested in typography and design.

At one time I built (for an organization) a large library of “books about books.” Works on typography, the history of printing, the book arts revival of the late nineteenth century, about bookbinding, paper, and so on.

Acquiring and reading these books deepened my appreciation of the “black arts,” as my father used to call all the ink-stained occupations around printing.

And one thing that these books tend to have in common is a serious respect for the history of book design and typography, and an attempt to create typographic beauty on the page. It’s only natural, considering these are books about the making of books.

Now, Not So Much

Of course, books about publishing aren’t nearly so well-mannered. Publishing is a business and business books range from the prosaic to the workmanlike, and occasionally they are beautiful.

But I have to admit that when I started to buy books—just last year—about the new self-publishing, about the world of print on demand, about selling on Amazon and all the new ways to get into print, I was astonished.

Right away I saw what reviewers had complained about:

  • incompetent layouts
  • unreadable typography
  • mis-paginated books
  • books whose arrangement was illogical or inconsistent
  • book covers that were completely artless, or worse
  • books that looked like reports, like journals, like blog posts, like anything but a book

And these were the books about self-publishing. Some contained excellent content, worthwhile resources, amusing stories, outstanding tutorials, really valuable stuff.

Like the most beautiful ahi tuna wrapped in an old piece of newspaper.

So What About Those Reviews?

This put me in a bit of a fix. Here I was, a new blogger writing about book design and self-publishing, anxious to review the books that are current in the field.

But on the other hand, how could I review the books without mentioning the design?

And to make it worse, I was becoming friends with many of the authors of these books.

After a couple of early fits and starts I decided to write completely schizophrenic book reviews. Unless something in the design actually made the book unreadable, I would simply be a book reviewer, not a design reviewer, and ignore the book design—or lack—completely.

This solution pleased me, and I’ve enjoyed reviewing books regularly, from Christy Pinheiro’s Step by Step Guide to Self-Publishing for Profit to Tuesday’s review of Sue Collier and Marilyn Ross’ The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing.

It was actually a comment on the latter review that made me realize I wanted to address this on my blog. I try not to write about the blog itself, because that’s not why people come here. But hey, you can break the rules once in a while.

I had some serious issues with the design produced by Writers Digest for The Complete Guide, but I ignored them, treating it instead like a standard book review. That doesn’t mean I didn’t notice.

I also have a standing offer for anyone who would like a design review of their self-published book to submit it to the Book Design for Self-Publishers Group on Self-Publishing Review, and I’ll be happy to review it as time allows. In those reviews, I ignore the content.

So between ignoring the design on my reviews here, and ignoring the content on my design reviews over there, I’ve struck just the right balance for me.

Does that work for you?

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by Alex Normand, https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexnormand/

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Kathy Carter

    Thanks for letting us weigh in. If you were reviewing a book about building birdhouses, not mentioning a less-than-stellar design might be understandable. But when you’re reviewing a self-published book that give advice about how to self-publish books, poor quality design is highly relevant, in my opinion. If the book suffers from poor design, editing, layout, or printing, I want to know.

    I don’t mean you should critique fine points, as if you were on a panel of judges handing out design awards. But incompetent, unreadable, illogical, inconsistent, artless? Definitely tell me. (At the very least, you might say that this is a “do as I say, not as I do” book.)

    If your review states that the book offers good advice in spite of its appearance, I can make up my own mind about whether I’m willing to overlook the production problems. But as long as poor design goes unmentioned in reviews, self-publishers will continue to create poorly designed books. That would be a shame.

    I think you hit on the real dilemma when you said, “I was becoming friends with many of the authors of these books.” If you’re reluctant to mention a book’s poor design because you don’t want to hurt the author’s feelings, perhaps you shouldn’t be reviewing that book.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Kathy, thanks for your thoughtful comment. There is a problem with books that unreadable, and I agree that would be a red flag. But I really admire the terrific enthusiasm and energy of the DIY self-publishers, although they often produce bad-looking books.

      Here’s the dilemma: I want to bring as much information and as many resources as I can to people who read the blog looking for answers to questions about self-publishing.

      So it’s really a tension between the needs of readers—and the purpose of the blog—and not wanting to criticize a self-publisher who’s put out a book that may contain great content, something I think people would gain from, but which looks like “amateur hour.” That’s the problem, as far as I can see.

      That’s why I was relating to these as business books, where the design is less prominent than in design books, or books about typography.

      The only self-publishing book I’ve reviewed here in the last nine months that looks decent is The Complete Guide by Sue Collier and Marilyn Ross, reviewed here last week. But of course, that book was from a traditional publisher, Writers’ Digest!

      Despite that, the book had some serious design issues, which went unmentioned because I saw no reason to distract from the whole reason I was reviewing it—as an information source on self-publishing.

      I really appreciate all the input from commenters to this post, and I will continue to try to think through this and see if there isn’t a way to satisfy both needs. Thanks to everyone who commented.

  2. J. Tillman

    Mr. Friedlander, the name of your website says book designer. People are reading to learn about book design. When you recommend a book, if it has a not-so-good design, you need to say so. Posting a read-the-disclaimer I’m-not-responsible blog is not sufficient.

    It is to your credit that you discuss conflicting loyalties. None of the other bloggers come close to mentioning this, and most pretend it doesn’t even exist. Your integrity is admirable, although sometimes it may be difficult for your business.

    But still, I would prefer that you call it like you see it.

    • Joel Friedlander

      J. thanks for your thoughts. I’m not concerned about the effect on my business, but your comment, along with others, might convince me to change my approach to these reviews. Still thinking . . .

  3. Christy Pinheiro

    Hey; thanks for the shout-out Joel!

    I agree with you about the design and covers– all of that. I think that Aaron Shepard does a great job of outlining how to “do it yourself” in Perfect Pages; without looking like a total noob. His basic advice?

    Don’t try to get too fancy.

    Perfect Pages is very easy to read and well-formatted, but it’s also bare-bones. The last thing you want to do when you are designing a book in Word is try to get artsy.

    I still think that non-fiction is the only place where you can be a “do it yourself-er.” A novel is a completely different animal. I’ve come around Joel, seriously, I have.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Happy to link, Christy. Glad to hear you’ve “converted” to the School of Good Book Design!

      I’m not so sure about Word. I’m thinking of featuring some amazing books that were done in Word (or equivalents) here, but doing a book in Word is not for the faint of heart. It’s actually more difficult, and with worse results, than doing it in InDesign. Strange but true.

      • Michael N. Marcus

        >>It’s actually more difficult, and with worse results, than doing it in InDesign.<<

        Hmmm. You may have convinced me. This week I'm finishing my tenth book composed with Word. I've been promising/threatening myself to try "adult" software for my next book, since around book #5.

        My main complaint about Word is that headers seem to live lives independent of me. They do what they want without regard for my intentions or feelings. There are about four lesser glitches that I've learned to live with without screaming at Bill Gates.

        Despite this, I know how to do what I need to do with Word, and I've been dreading the learning curve for InDesign.

        But if you say InDesign is easier than Word, I should be able to handle it.

        Another reason to make the change is the differences between Word 2007 and 2010. I have 07 at home and 10 at my office. 10 reflows text and increases the size of a book by about 20%, so I can't work on one book in both places. The obvious fix is to have both versions of Word on both machines, but the MS wizards warn against it.

        Adobe: here I come! I hope it's easy to "dump" a Word doc into InDesign.

  4. Jason

    Your post says a lot about the difficulties of formatting and typography for indie authors as well. It seems like we’re able to find our way through the writing, the marketing, and the branding, but getting the design right is almost impenetrable and people just limp through.

    I have to say if it weren’t for my friend and old college roommate who specializes in this, I doubt I’d have been able to make it through. If only everyone were so lucky! Thanks for the post, Joel!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey Jason, thanks for that. I’ve been working on ways that more people might be able to get better-looking books without taking on an expense that a lot of DIY people just can’t afford. Stay tuned.

  5. Michael N. Marcus

    >>So between ignoring the design on my reviews here, and ignoring the content on my design reviews over there, I’ve struck just the right balance for me. Does that work for you?<<

    Until now when you told us that you review book design elsewhere, I felt cheated, or at least deprived.

    I want to hear the opinions of a skilled and experienced designer.

    I had a completely wrong inference. I thought you wanted to imply impartiality.

    I had assumed that you did not want to critique design here because it would look like you were saying, "This book is ugly. If you don't want _your_ book to be ugly, hire me to design it."

    I'm in an awkward position writing book reviews. On my https://bookmakingblog.blogspot.com, I've frequently reviewed books about self-publishing. When I self-pubbed my first book about self-pubbing, I at first decided that I would no longer review other books in the field, because it might seem like I was knocking the competition.

    I've just finished my third book on self-pubbing (and two more are in the works), and I've changed my policy.

    I realize that no review can be impartial, and as long as my reactions are based on facts, I should not be reluctant to express my opinions. It's also wrong to not praise good books simply because I don't want to criticize bad books.

    I would be doing my readers a disservice if I did not make them aware of books that are dangerously inaccurate. One alleged publishing expert says a that typical website should cost between $2,000 and $6,000 to build and needs both a designer and a “coder” to put the website together. That misinformation could unnecessarily scare an author into not having a website.

    Another book about publishing says that Amazon owns Lightning Source. That's not dangerous, but shows that the author is not an authority in the field she chose to write about.

    OTOH, one well-written and useful book about self-pubbing has severe design issues that could have been easily corrected — including last pages of chapters with just two lines of text on them. I did not want to condemn the book because of that, so I did not mention it in my review, but I did notify the author privately.

    When a book is outrageously bad in form and content, I am not reluctant to say so publicly.

    I wrote that "Birth Control is Sinful in the Christian Marriages and also Robbing God of Priesthood Children!!" may be the worst book ever published. It has 648 8.5 x 11-inch pages of Bible-babble PRINTED ALL IN UPPERCASE, priced at $150, and with an Amazon sales rank below 9 million. https://bookmakingblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/this-could-be-worst-book-ever-published.html

    Before I found that book, I declared that "The worst-looking book I’ve ever seen also has the worst title: 'How to Get Published Free: Best in Publishing & Print on Demand: Plus Marketing Your Book on The Internet' by David Rising. It may also be the worst-written book I’ve ever read."

    I prefer to find and publicize good books (and movies, cameras, TV shows, restaurants, stores, cars, appliances, electronic gear, etc.), but the bad ones can be more fun to write about.

    • Joel Friedlander

      >>I had assumed that you did not want to critique design here because it would look like you were saying, “This book is ugly. If you don’t want _your_ book to be ugly, hire me to design it.”<< No, not really. I've tried to make the case for well-designed books repeatedly on the blog so I figure the people who get it, get it. From a long career selling design, it's quite obvious that there are people who just don't "get" why they should pay for design, it seems extraneous to them. The design reviews on Self-Publishing Review have one feature that sets them apart---they are voluntary, unlike the book reviews I do here. But thanks for your thoughts, Michael, they are, as usual, interesting.



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