Judging A Book By Its Cover (And Interior!)

Form fixed, or flowing? That’s the question I think about a lot in terms of new book forms. Is a particular text flowing, like water, able to shape itself without losing anything to many different containers (page sizes, margins, font faces, leading, etc.) depending on the preference of the reader. Or is a text, like many poems, fixed. The line has to end where it ends or the meaning and artistry of the text are compromised. There’s clearly room in the digital book world for both, though other than PDFs there isn’t a great solution for form-fixed texts on digital platforms like ebooks yet.

But it’s a question that only sometimes comes up when thinking about print design. That is, anymore. Today, it’s not only easy but surprisingly affordable to have a text printed in whatever size book you want (within a range). You want a small square book, 4″ x 4″? Why not! You want a “standard” book size, like 5.5″ x 8″? Easy. You want something really long, say, 10″ x 6″? Absolutely. This is thanks to the dramatic changes brought to printing by the increased quality and easy of digital printing. Digital printing is so flexible, and precise, you don’t even have to work with whole numbers or standard fractions. A book that is say 3.1415926″ x 5.1415926″ might be a bit absurd, but it’s more or less possible.

Oh but it was not always this way. Not even recently. When I started in book design, size was still ruled by standard trims, and lengths based on divisions of a parent sheet into 4s or 8s. So when you started out to make a book, you determined size and page length first, based on what you could afford and what options the printer had available (which were usually limited based on their particular equipment and paper suppliers). Then the margins, and then the text went into it. If some lines were too long, they got edited, or indented to mark that they intended to continue but ran out of room on the page. And authors knew those were the options, and were willing to edit or compromise visually as the case may require.

This was also the reasoning essentially behind presses choosing a book size for their titles, and then never changing it. It made the budgeting easier, the file prep (especially in the days before InDesign saved books), and essentially everything else that goes into the production of a book, easier.

But as I said the advent and improved quality of digital printing in the past ten years or so has changed everything. So much so that when I started my own little publishing venture, Anomalous Press, we designed six radically different books for our first season, each based on the particular demands, tone, and feel of the text. We did a lovely little book of fiction called Ghost by Sarah Tourjee that is 4″ x 6″ in a slim, classic, pocket-sized design. We did a crazy poetry/translation hybrid text called An Introduction to Venantius Fortunatus for Schoolchildren or Understanding the Medieval Concept World through Metonymy by Mike Schorsch that has the trappings of a textbook, complete with assignments like “1. Anologia entis is the idea that any likeness between God and the creature discloses a still greater unlikeness. Compare and contrast. It demanded a bigger presentation, and so it is 6.5″ x 8″. The phenomenal English translation of a French image-to-word translation of a Tintin comic Mystérieuse by Éric Suchere, translated by Sandra Doller, needed a graphic treatment that was still evocative of a comic, and so it became a 7″ square book.

I had the flexibility to design from the text into the book, rather than fitting the text into a pre-determined book size that may or may not have worked, but almost certainly wouldn’t have highlighted what was compelling and surprising about the text, because of that digital revolution. And I’m so glad. Because the visual component of literature is important to the way it’s read. Most obviously with poetry, where the line is the measure of its sound, but even with prose. We read something set in, say, Comic Sans very differently than we do something set in Times New Roman. When a page has dense text blocks and narrow margins, it’s more demanding to read, requires more focus and more attention from the reader. But when a prose text block is too light, the margins too wide, the type too big, with too big leading, it feels insubstantial, like a cheap drugstore romance.

It was important to me as a designer, and as a writer, editor, and publisher, to treat each text on its own terms, and I’m very glad I’ve had the chance to do that with my own press. But I do freelance design work for a number of other presses, including several that have a standard set size and form. Within the constraint there are still a lot of ways ways to make each text its own piece. And there is something really lovely about seeing them all lined up on a bookshelf together, a little family of texts. One editor of the series has a rule: no overset lines. She argues that it destroys the music of the line, and I suspect she’s right. Instead, once a book is laid out, she and the author or translator or all three will go over the text and rewrite it to the margins of the book. One author I did a book with did the same for her page breaks, taking them as deeper pauses in the flow of the poem, and knowing that those had to come at just the right moments.

My own first book of poetry Featherbone is coming out this year with Ricochet Editions, and they have a standard size for their books. And so I’m coming up against these issues all over again, from an author’s perspective. I’m struggling to find a way to let the long lines breathe (landscape format?) while still preserving the integrity of the poems on the page and not breaking them mid-poem (which only really works in portrait).

Thoughts? Experiences? Do you judge a book by its visuals?


  1. Owen Rowe

    A page dimension of π isn’t absurd, it’s irrational. (Now I want to design a page with dimensions based on e—for a lipogram, of course!)

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