Sunday, July 15, 2007

Book designs along gender lines

Interior book design is one of those things meant to be unobtrusive - if you notice it, there's something wrong. Yesterday evening I read with curiosity the latest post from Booklist Online's blog, Likely Stories, about the mismatched, over-the-top book design for Andrea Barrett's upcoming historical novel The Air We Breathe, out in October. The post is very funny ("taken together, it’s like trying to read a novel through a doily") and, of course, it compelled me to find the ARC of Barrett's novel I'd grabbed at BEA.

Perhaps what's most interesting that if this post hadn't pointed out the issues with the design, I doubt I'd have noticed anything. To me, The Air We Breathe is designed to look like an authentic 19th-century novel, with chapter numbers superimposed against a woodcut print of a leafy tree, and dropped caps beginning the text of each chapter. I'll admit that the font used for the author's name in the headers on the left-hand pages, with its old-fashioned script flourishes, doesn't go well with the all-cap outline font the title uses on the right. But it wouldn't be so noticeable as to distract me from the text.

On the assumption this difference in opinion was gender-dependent, I asked Mark to take a look at the galley. Apart from commenting on the mismatched fonts on the headers, he didn't notice anything majorly wrong. So I don't know.

Do you like it when interior book designers subtly (or maybe not-so-subtly) try to evoke a past era through their choice of fonts, graphics, etc., or do you find it distracting? Put another way, is this a girly thing? I'm trying to think of other examples where this is done, and failing, but maybe someone else can come up with one.


  1. Anonymous12:44 PM

    I like interior book designs that evoke a period feeling (as long as they're not completely overdone and get in the way, and it sounds as though this one doesn't). Before I was published, I didn't pay much conscious attention the the interior look of a book. Now it is something I pay attention to. I just got the advanced copies of my book "Secrets of a Lady" , which has a nice sort of period looking design framing the chatper (sort of like a fleur-de-lys, but not). It's nicely evocative, im, without being overdone. I'm also finishing up a non-fiction book on the first 50 years of the Merola Opera Program (an opera training program I'm on the Board of), and I've been involved with a lot of production and design decisions, which gives me a whole new appreciation of how much work goes in to the production of a book and how many design decisions are involved :-).

  2. One of the books I reviewed for the Historical Novels Review's forthcoming issue has, for reasons best known to the designer, a ragged right edge. I found this irritating, though I liked the book well enough.

    Otherwise, all I really ask is that the designer make the typeface big enough for my poor old eyes.

  3. Susan - I suspect the text of the novel you reviewed wasn't typeset. Happens sometimes with smaller presses, because it's cheaper not to do so, but it's usually pretty apparent (did it look more like an MS Word printout than a real book?). Some ARCs I get are like this, too.

    Tracy - it sounds like they did a good job with your upcoming novel. I never used to pay much attention to this either, but I have a couple friends who used book designers in publishing their own books. It is more complex than it seems!

  4. I do think it's a girl thing to pay attention to (and appreciate) stuff like that.

    Although not totally analogous, my husband couldn't understand the extent to which my 15 year old daughter went to pick out "cute" school supplies (folders, notebooks etc)that matched. Anymore than he understands me picking out just the right calendar to hang on my wall each year or my insistence on writing with purple, pink and teal pens. I told him it's a girl thing. He just rolled his eyes!

  5. It used to take me a while to pick out the most attractive Trapper Keeper back when I was in school. (Do they even exist anymore?)

  6. I've never noticed it, so I suppose either it doesn't bother me or I've never read a book with that kind of design. Or I'm not a girl.