Book design. It is so fucking important. Massively important. I cannot highlight enough how important book design is. It is part of book magic: the cover, the font, the spacing, the spell the back-cover description is meant to put on you to lure you between the pages. Because no matter how good (or bad) the text that follows these things is, they set the tone. And the tone you want to set at the very least is professional, polished, finished, and worth-your-time.
If the cover is fucking awesome, the design tight, then before I’ve begun reading I’m unconsciously thinking hey, this is going to be an awesome, tight book. Then it is going to take a minute to notice if it isn’t actually an awesome, tight book. I might give it more of a chance than it deserves because of residual cover and design magic.
But if the cover sucks (the book in question didn’t) or the design or layout or formatting is bad (uuuuuugh) then before I’ve given the text a chance I’m thinking horrible, negative thoughts. Bad book design throws you out of the story. Bad book design screams AMATEUR! MANUSCRIPT! RUN FOR YOUR LIFE BOOK SNOB! after every single paragraph. I might give a book less of a chance than it deserves because of a residual book-design CURSE.
Bad book design* really upsets me.
The fact that it upsets me makes me feel like an asshole. Shallow. Superficial. Etc. But books aren’t people. The saying goes “Never judge a book by its cover,” but the wisdom behind it is “Never judge a person by their cover.” Correct. But a book? Yeah, sorry, I judge books by their covers. We’re talking about a commercial product here. We’re talking about a massively over-saturated market here. We’re talking about very limited reading hours per day, and we are talking about a visual language that is as much a part of the book as the text itself.
No design element in a book should detract from the story. Never ever ever. Whatever else they might occasionally do, this is something the big publishers know, and this is something that self-publishers and small indie publishers often fuck up. Ignore it at your peril.
Book design and layout are part of my reading filtering system. I don’t want to give every book a chance. I will never, do not want to, read all the books. So you learn the language, learn that things that look a certain way tend to work out for you and that things that look another way tend not to.
Of course I do want to give every book I review a chance…and then you get sent a book with a big, gaping blank space behind every paragraph and swollen font. I try to remain calm, but the same questions roll through my brain after every paragraph. What is this a DRAFT? What is this the INTERNET? What was the text NOT LONG ENOUGH FOR YOU? Get rid of the fucking spaces. This is standard shit. This book layout does not look like the book layout of any other book on my shelf, and it does not look better. There are random illustrations that do not add to the story, and one of them is repeated twice. If you are going to differ from the standard, do it better or not at all. GAAAAAAH.
This is the moment I have been dreading, the moment when I have to tell you the name of the book that stoked my rage. Alas, it was Awesome Jones: A Superhero Fairy Tale by AshleyRose Sullivan (Seventh Star Press, 2014). Because AshleyRose is incredibly nice, I finished the book. Because I promised to review it, I finished the book. Because AshleyRose went out of her way to send me a paper copy, I finished the book. But it took me longer to get into the story than it should have because I was sigh-rage-snorting at the formatting on every page.
Awesome Jones has a fun premise, and the energy of it, the twists and turns of it, paid off. When it ended I could honestly say I was happy I’d stuck around. While I think that another rigorous editing round could have helped the book level up, it was a debut with promise. Yeah, it could have used a stronger opener to suck the reader into the world full-tilt, yeah Awesome Jones never felt truly three-dimensional, yeah who the fuck knows why everyone loved his parents so much for being superheroes in an age of superheroes, but his girlfriend Lona is awesome, and once the story got rolling I was game. Awesome Jones is an ok book that falls short of greatness, but with a debut author, that is usually a sign to stick around and see what comes next.
Still, I can’t help but wonder how much the design influenced my opinions. Would the flaws have been less obvious if the book’s appearance had been standard? Would I have skipped them more willingly and focused on the good bits if I wasn’t constantly irritated by all those useless spaces and the unfinished feeling it gave the text? Maybe. Maybe not. Who can say?
Reviewers like to think they can be “unbiased,” but I’ve never believed that “unbiased” is possible or desirable when it comes to sharing our reading experiences. What do you think?
*For the better part of this article, I have used the term “book design” as an umbrella term for a number of visual elements (layout, formatting, design, etc). This is probably an inaccurate use of that term. Sorry about that. When it comes to paragraph spacing and font size—as I was in the specific case of Awesome Jones—we’re talking about formatting. But my general thoughts apply to all of a book’s visual elements, as every one is equally capable of fucking up a reading experience.