I talk a lot about cover designs and what works and doesn’t work for me, but lately, I’ve been thinking a lot more about all of the other elements that can give a book a real visual impact. There are so many little things (and big things) that can go into the design of a book and some work really well for me while others distract me from the reading experience. I’d love to hear any of your thoughts on favorite and not-so-favorite uses of these features in recent (and even not-so-recent) books.
Jackets and Covers
I talk about covers all the time, but one thing I love about hardcover books is when the book designer chooses to make use of both the boards and the jacket to give the book more visual punch. I don’t buy a whole lot of hardcover books, and when I do, I tend to take the jacket off because, for me, it’s tough to hold on to while reading. So when there are little surprises underneath the jacket, I get really excited.
The Age of Miracles is one of my favorite recent examples:
It’s a fairly unassuming cover, but all of those little circles on the title are actually perforations. So what you’re seeing is the board underneath. It looks really neat because you can see the very bright orange and yellow peaking out, and there’s a texture to the jacket with the perforations.
But the real fun part is the board itself:
I love the silhouette of the girl. It’s a complete surprise, especially after seeing the jacket itself. This is one of those books where not having the jacket on the outside maybe even enhances the visual impact.
Another one of my favorite covers — and this is a hard cover without a jacket — is Katie Williams’s The Space Between Trees.
Sure it doesn’t look all that special. It’s a bunch of dark trees and a girl running in the background. But the trees are actually cut out of the board. It’s not an image but really a piece of art you can poke your fingers through:
I grabbed this image from a reader on Goodreads. The intricacy and the fine detailing of the cut out trees are unexpected and worth spending time studying. It’s not fragile either — the cutouts are pretty sturdy so you don’t have to worry too much about breaking any of the branches as you obsessively run your fingers over them (that can’t just be me). Again, it adds an element to the design that makes it stand out just a little bit more.
I feel like this category might make me sound old, but I really dislike colored font in books. I find it challenging to read and distracting unless it’s used carefully and purposefully. One that stands out in my mind as a particularly challenging reading experience was Anna Dressed in Blood. The font inside is a rusty red and the pages themselves are not bright white, but a little more cream colored. Although it looked neat and certainly fit with the book itself, I couldn’t read straight. I kept finding myself unable to focus because it was hard to read the red-on-cream font. As I look through a lot of other reviews, though, I’ve noticed others have loved this effect because it’s different and adds to the atmospheric element of the story.
I haven’t read the Shiver series by Maggie Stiefvater in a finished format, but in the galley for the final entry in the series, Forever, there’s another instance of red font (though the paper is whiter than it is for the Blake title):
I’m sure there are other examples in other colored fonts, but I’ll be okay in being old and saying I prefer black font because it is the easiest and least distracting to read.
Continuing the theme of font selection, I put my foot down very solidly on the fact I prefer my books to have a serif font. I’m not particularly choosey on which serif font is used, but I have a hard time reading sans serif on a print format. I blogged about this way back when STACKED was a baby, but I’ve noticed it’s still popping up once in a while. The most recent example I can think of is SD Crockett’s After the Snow and for me, the font detracted entirely from the reading. The book required me to pay attention to a dialect, which is in and of itself challenging, but adding the sans serif font in the mix made it even harder.
It’s challenging to read because there’s not a visual line connecting the letters to one another as there is in a serif font. I find there’s too much space between the letters and in this particular case, the letters themselves are so thin, they’re difficult to focus on.
I love the little touches that go into the pages themselves, and this usually happens on chapter openings. Which, of course, makes sense since that’s where there tends to be more space for designing elements.
Here are two of my recent favorites. The first one is from a galley of Hemlock by Kathleen Peacock. I haven’t had the chance to see the finished version of it, but knowing that images are always enhanced when they make it to the final stage, I bet the design looks even better than it does here:
The design is so simple and yet adds a lot to the visual aspect of the book. It brings the entire page together. Bonus points for fitting with the elements present on the cover.
A few of the chapters inside Courtney Summers’s This is Not a Test offer us a nice double-page blood splatter. It’s minimal enough not to impact the already-strong and stark visual impact of having the chapters start so low on the page (rather than mid-page) and the fact it falls in the gutter of the pages makes it stand out even more. There’s another great visual element in this book, but because it’s a spoiler, I won’t post an image of it.
My least favorite of all the design choices in book production: the deckle edge. If you’re unfamiliar with what the deckle edge is, think about older books, where the pages are all unevenly cut. It’s meant to look fancier, I think, but the uneven cut on the pages makes flipping through them challenging (and let’s not even talk about how it’s impossible to hold the book open fully because the shorter cuts won’t stay open).
I think I might fall into a minority on this opinion, though. If you head over to Asheley’s blog, you can see she loves the French flap look (and has some good examples of recent books getting that treatment). Spend a little time looking at some of the other design elements she hits on, too, because they’re different than the things I look at — since I’m a huge contemporary reader, for example, maps never cross my mind as an interesting aspect of a book’s design. But I could see how they’re crucial for fantasy readers to grasp a sense of place in the new worlds they enter.
I think part of what interests me so much in book design is that with ebooks, you can often see the same elements (like the chapter designs) but some elements are simply not going to be a part of the digital reading experience (like the jacket and cover pieces). I’ve read a lot about how designers are thinking about this much more now and working to make ebooks as much an art form as they do physical books. But for me, there’s somewhat of a disconnect, as the ereading experience feels more like a passive studying of elements, whereas holding the physical book and admiring the artistry in the design is much more active.
What are some of your favorite book design elements? What aren’t you a fan of? I’d love to hear more examples of good looking design elements, too, that fit in any of these categories.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).