Reading the market

Couture versus prêt a porter. High brow versus low brow. Craft versus mass production. Hardback versus paperback.

Couture versus prêt a porter. High brow versus low brow. Craft versus mass production. Hardback versus paperback.

Traditionally, an unbound book, protected only by its half-title page was presented to your bookbinder to bind in the style of your personal library Рthe couture approach. The look and feel of the book as a product was as important as the literary content. Some 50 years ago, the first pr̻t a porter paperback appeared in Germany, in the form of an albatross, metamorphosing in the UK in 1949 to a penguin. The first series of orange-covered Penguin paperbacks Рbooks for the masses Рwas here.

The role of the hardback changed to that of a marketing tool, a review copy used to gain attention, printed in limited quantity for six months or so, as a precursor to the higher volume, more cost effective and accessible paperback, with reviewers’ quotes adorning the back cover. The dust jacket, or flysheet, originally intended as throwaway protection from the bookshop to your library, became a sales device, with jacket design taking over from the fundamental craft of the book. The text, designed specifically for the hardback, was simply offset for the paperback. All expense focused on the cover – the selling point.

In the UK today, this still holds true for bestsellers. Hardback quantities are decreasing, as is the time period during which they are on store bookshelves. In general, text setting is produced by the printer who will conform to a general publishing house style defined by the editor. The design department concentrates on the cover. So important is the cover image that it is often agreed before the full manuscript for the book has been received. To the purist bibliophile, this emphasis simply serves to prejudice the reader’s imagination, but publishers and booksellers favour the seductive appeal of colour, graphics and illustration.

The differences in the UK and US approaches to hardback and paperback publishing directly reflect the differences in the two market sizes. Requirements for high volume sales, constrained by limited runs defined by a limited market size, have pushed UK publishers into a low production value approach to both book formats. Conversely, in the US, a much more sizeable market allows publishers such as Knopf to invest in hardback crafting. Typographers are used to set text and are duly credited; historical notes on typography are included in the book’s latter pages and title pages, cloths, end papers, blocking and paper stocks are carefully considered. Higher runs enable affordable unit costs, versus the UK’s tighter margins.

Interestingly, in the past seven to ten years, publishers of new or less established authors have chosen to forego the hardback and produce paperback originals. While this aids the demise of the hardback, it nevertheless has a positive aspect: this move directly into paperback has seen an increase in production values of the books’ first runs.

But where has the real craft gone? George Mackie wrote in 1991 that “there’s not much typographic well-being left. Few books are well designed. Title pages are particularly ill-used. To display a title and the names of the author and publisher in any semblance of companionship within the page’s rectangle seems beyond the competence, or more probably outside the interest, of the average printer or publisher.”

While I sympathise with the sentiment, I must stress that that there is a host of enlightened publishers among us. Scottish publisher Canongate Books was clear that in the design of Pocket Canons – a redesign of the Bible into digestible single volumes – equal emphasis was placed on the consideration to exteriors and interiors. Working with Paddy Cramsie, who designed the interior grid as I developed the covers, was a wonderful experience, where we sought to complement both the content of each book and the skills of each other.

Even greater degrees of real book tradition, in terms of both cover and text design, is increasingly evident in catalogue design. The National Galleries of Scotland 1996 Miniatures catalogue optimises a small budget with its diminutive, but eminently appropriate format, with text beautifully crafted specifically to achieve maximum legibility at minimum type size. Catalogues for UK arts-related organisations are, perhaps, one of the best sources of inspiration for designers trying to build on the type-sympathetic foundations of those such as Jan Tschichold and Hans Schmoller at Penguin in the Fifties.

Let me assuage the UK publishing community by saying that, all previous comment notwithstanding, I genuinely believe that the UK design community is unsurpassed in defining solutions with the highest direct sales return. A solid graphic design tradition in combination with sound marketing expertise makes British book covers the best in the world. They make us read far more than we did 50 years ago, and anyway, when was the last time you bought a house with a library?

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