Rant: Book Design
Caveat: I know next to nothing about the book publishing industry, especially from the inside.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that some publishers pay very little attention to the readability and design of their books and make enjoying them quite difficult on the reader. Gaudy and attention-less cover art, problem-creating page margins, mind-numbing fully justified paragraphs, font and leading choices that make the text dizzyingly dense, and on and on. I tend to think of these books in two classes: new books on one hand, reprints/2nd editions on the other.
The editorial process on new volumes understandably forces some hard choices on the part of both author and designer: a limit on page count, budgeted price, target audience, etc., all factor into the final physical object with which I sit in my chair and read. I’m not excusing stunningly bad design of new books, but simply granting these more grace than the second class.
It is in the realm of new editions of older works that such bad design is nearly inexcusable. First, if the work is valuable enough to re-edit and re-issue, then it is valuable enough to pay close attention to the details of readability. Second, the author is most likely long dead, so any editorial choices about excising portions of the text are moot; the word count is fixed.
The entailments of these two premises should make a huge difference in the finished product. Let’s use the new, expensive, 31 volume study edition of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics published by T&T Clark as an example. This project was a monumental effort of T&T Clark and scholars at Princeton Theological Seminary, the selling points of which were “a new layout and a bigger format … translations of all Latin and Greek texts.” It is “reader friendly.” These tried to address the biggest complaints with the old paperback set, namely its ridiculously dense text blocks and the untranslated quotes Barth used.
The old set weighed in at 8,936 pages and 24.2 lbs. If the text is fixed in length, but nearly unreadable, we would expect the new edition to be much longer: use more paper to display the same amount of text by increasing point size and leading, right? Well, wrong you are. The new is 8,676 pages as a set but weighs 7 lbs more (31.3 lbs from having a bit more page real estate to work with). Despite the slightly larger text area, fewer pages means more characters per page. This shows up in point size and line length: the old capitals were approx. 3mm tall, but the new just over 2mm, and the old line averaged about 57 characters wide, but the new averages 85 (!).
These data, combined with the new crisply-printed digital Baskerville and its fully justified paragraphs, make the new “reader friendly” edition far worse to read than the old facsimile paperbacks. It seems John Baskerville’s critics in the 1760s were simply anticipating the digital printing of his type when they said it damaged the eyes. So while the page is less “black,” it is less readable.
The obvious solution to this is to choose a less-contrastive typeface, say Fournier, Minion, or Dante, and/or to slightly increase the point size and leading. A ragged-right justification would do nobody any harm, either. If these changes were made, the question then becomes: how many more pages would this monstrous set have? 300? If so, then the new would equal the old set’s heft and I doubt anyone would care. Priced at $1,095, I also doubt that an extra 300 pages would need to increase the cost or market price.
In new editions of old works, these design decisions seem very difficult to justify. The end product should be at least a marginal improvement on the old, with its design taking account of the latest technology as well as tested and true principles of page design. The authors and readers of great books like the Church Dogmatics deserve at least that.