Book Design: Behind the Scenes

John KennertyBook Design2 Comments

Book design is one of our many loves here at ExoCreative. We should love it—we’ve been doing it professionally for 16 years. When people see our rows of shelves lining nearly every wall, it’s embarrassingly satisfying to be able to blithely wave at the cases and say, “Yeah, we did that…” We can’t help it. We love books, and we especially love designing them.

Book design is a labor of love, and it’s not for everybody. You’ve got to have a bit of a screw loose to actually enjoy the process. A propensity to recall fraction-to-decimal conversions down to the 32nd of an inch also helps (how’s that for a parlor trick, eh? We can also name the 50 states in alphabetical order, set to song). Book designers are those kids who really got off on English and art classes, and can add lots of weird fractions in their heads, but that’s about it.

We design both the interiors and jackets of all kinds of books. The typical book takes between 5 to 7 months from the first Word doc landing in the inbox to the final proofs going FedEx to China (or Mexico or Virginia) for printing. This is not a profession for people into instant gratification. If you’re ADD, go into digital photography.

Instead of outlining the lengthy (read: boring) process of how your book goes from a haphazard Word doc to a lovely 7 x 9 casebound book with a burst binding and a gorgeous matte jacket with spot lam, let’s just talk about the fun stuff: the evolution of your book’s design.

Here’s how the basic book design process begins:

  • Your Art Director calls (and this will likely be the only time you ever actually talk during the entire process), and you get so little information about the project that your notes fit on a single post it.
  • Later, an uncopyedited Word doc is emailed over for reading and to use to design sample pages. This means you design the front matter (half title, title spread, copyright pg, dedication pg, table of contents, acknowledgements or notes to the reader), a part opener, a chapter opener plus a spread or two. You usually get a week.
  • You read, research and comparison shop, brainstorm, concept and then finally complete tight, amazing, creative and perfectly targeted samples that will be shown to approximately 158 people, most of whom will really have nothing to do with the book, but somehow still count.
  • Your samples will be emailed to the author, but most importantly they will go in front of the Marketing Department Firing Squad, and Marketing can CRUSH you without remorse in the name of all things Barnes and Noble.

Your skill, the future success of this book, and whether or not you will ever be called by this publisher for another job is entirely judged by this handful of paper. No pressure.

Revisions will inevitably come back. Sometimes you begin again from scratch. Make it older, make it younger, make it more feminine. I can’t read that typeface. Marketing didn’t like it. I want it…just more…I dunno…something. Yes, the feedback is usually that helpful.

The art of handling this process of coming to an agreement gracefully without committing seppuku requires that you not take any of these ‘suggestions’ personally. Use your gut feelings and your knowledge and them give options (but not ones you don’t like, because those will be the ones they pick). Designers worth their salt have the ability to stomach criticism and creatively produce alternatives even when they don’t agree with the changes. In other words, get over your ego and get designing.

And sometimes…usually, actually…living with the project longer, playing with it day after day, making changes you were initially sure the book didn’t need…the design morphs into something far more exceptional than that crackpot concept you originally came up with. It’s an amazing thing to watch happen.

Here’s a good example. Below is a title spread of one of our upcoming books. This was presented with the Sample Pages. It’s clean, graphically striking and slightly uncomfortable. We thought it was pretty spot on.

Then a post-it from the editor came back stuck to the first pass page. Scrawled on it was, “When am I going to see the real title spread? At least send me a jpeg or something”. What…? So obviously we’d missed the mark and no one appreciated our, ahem, stark graphic abilities. Here’s the FINAL approved layout prior to press:

Here’s another Sample Page spread from a different book’s interior, a chapter opener. The spec marks for production are still on it, which is kinda fun because it gives you an idea of how a designer spells out every detail to the compositor to ensure accurate setting:

FINAL approved layout, after many changes (for the better):

Here’s another fun project we’ve been working on this week. The above book is heavily illustrated, and includes maps created by the author’s daughter. While an incredible gesture, the publisher did not feel these maps had quite the look of the rest of the book. They needed a little help. More to the point, they needed to be ‘prettified’, to quote the post-it I received. (If you’re getting the picture that most NYC bigtime Art Directors communicate solely through archaic notes on post-its, you’d be correct.) Here’s the original map:

And here’s where we took it:

Everyone was pretty happy with the results. Actually, we received four separate glowing emails regarding the map changes. We almost popped champagne.

Another original map:

And here’s where we took it. This map happens to be a spread in the front matter, so it’s incredibly important that it’s killer.

Despite it’s crazy-making, book design is one of the facets of our profession we love most. We truly feel as if we’re making something that matters, and will hopefully have a long shelf life. Plus, it always means we’re never out of post-its around the office.

2 Comments on “Book Design: Behind the Scenes”

  1. Thanks Paul – I think that’s part of the learning curve of working with clients, old and new. The challenge is trying to understand their needs as fully as possible. In the end, good design is a solution to a problem. And that’s what you’re trying to do – solve a problem through the use of creative design and good marketing. Experience helps. Asking questions helps. Getting the client to share and talk helps. Exo

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