Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Laying Blame Where It Belongs

Just once, I would like to see a reviewer say, "This book was a worthy effort by the author and designer, but was ruined by the publisher's inept design and production decisions."
Is that distinction asking too much? Apparently so; I have never seen it, though it would be accurate in a number of cases.
I'm not certain to what degree reviewers are aware of design and production quality-- one imagines it's somewhere between the public's vast ignorance and the industry professional's close scrutiny. But what books would you posit as examples of such a charge?

30 comments:

urabutnd said...

This sounds like a writer who either A) disagrees with the changes their editor is suggesting and is desperately afraid that everything a reviewer points out as being bad will have been a direct result of those changes or B)is unpublished and refuses to let any editor touch their words, largely out of fear of point A, and is bitter that they can't get published unless they acquiesce (and risk point A).

Anonymous said...

I used to set type, so I've seen the ruination in progress. But I don't know how an ordinary reader would be able to tell such a thing, tbh. And only certain genres of book are that dependent on design decisions--in most situations, as long as the design/production decisions fade into the background, they won't ruin anything.

That said, I can think of one book in recent memory that had the most awful recto running heads ever. Every other page, I cringed. But as soon as I noticed it, I realized that almost no one else would even register it, let alone have it bother them the way it did me.

Kurtis said...

Besides that, reviewers are usually reviewing review copies, which are cheaply made and do not represent the final product.

Anonymous said...

I recently read Subterranean Press' release of Philip K. Dick's Nick and the Glimmung. I'd been looking forward to it because--hey! small press! PKD!

There were many, many, many typos. It was close to unreadable. And this wasn't an ARC or anything--it was a finished version that I got from my library.

I'm not sure if that's a design/production mistake, but the fault definitely didn't lie with Philip K. Dick, since he's dead and all.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a comment I once overheard at a used book sale:

"I like her books, but I wish she'd stop making the print in them so tiny!"

Josin L. McQuein said...

I'm confused. Does the person who wrote that mean something was wrong with the cover (because some books do end up with toxic cover art) or that the layout was wonky?

Anonymous said...

I once posted a review just like this, and the author contacted me to ask me to remove it. He was afraid the publisher would see it and blame him.

Claire Dawn said...

Interest concept.

I also wish people knew about (and differentiated) between waht the author does and back cover copy.

Anonymous said...

This isn't my question but I can think of quite a few books whose fonts are so contrary to the subject matter -- flowery for a depressed MC, hard edged and severe for a light-hearted book, or simply just too damn hard to read -- that it lessoned those books a lot in my eyes.

I've also bought original paperbacks where the spine was less sturdy than an ARC even, and the pages were falling out by the time I finished the book. I know I only paid ten bucks for it and it was part of a series, but it doesn't lend itself to a pleasant reading experience. All of this author's books were like that. It gives off the vibe that the publisher doesn't care about the author or books -- and if they don't why should I?

Covers, obviously, as witnessed on this blog and others, can suck hard, and alienate book buyers.

I don't want to name the books, though, because it's not fair to the authors. :)

Catherine said...

I'm an academic & actually did write a review like this when an interesting book on local pop and rock scenes came to me for review with such bad copy editing that "Eminem" had been spelled three different ways ....

rockinlibrarian said...

I'm pretty sure I've seen Betsy Bird say that before at Fuse #8, but I don't know if she's ever said it in a review in a professional publication if that's the difference. Also, I can't think what particular titles that would refer to, so can't help there, either.

Rob Crompton said...

How about D. J. Cole's
"A Writer's Guide to Police Organisation and Crime Investigation and Detection." http://www.amazon.co.uk/Writers-Police-Organization-Investigation-Detection/dp/0709059221
It's an excellent book and a must for all UK wannabe crime writers whether for kids or adults. But why did nobody suggest a better title? Or come up with a decent cover design?

jjdebenedictis said...

Lynn Flewelling's first Nightrunners book, Luck in the Shadows, was a pretty fun novel, but it had some jarring typos in it--absent closing quotes; that sort of thing.

In answer to the person's question: If a good book has a lousy cover, the chances of people having read the book are smaller. And that means reviews where the reader says, "Good book, lousy packaging" are going to be statistically rarer. That may be the only reason you never see them.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I have been put off buying certain novels because of their internal layout - the practice of having a dash in front of dialogue, instead of quotes, for example. Or printing on bright white papaer, which always make me thing the novel's been self-published, so it immediately goes back on the bookshelf.
Some front covers have been diabolically bad, and even titles can put me off - if they give me the wrong impression about the contents of the novel.
Sorry, can't name any, as it wouldn't be fair to the poor authors who are subject to the marketting whims of their publishers.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I've ever seen a book RUINED by design and production. Given less attention than it deserved, or having a mismatch between presentation and content that is a little disconcerting, maybe. But overall, the story is what makes me like or dislike the book.

Although I suppose the choice of illustrator for a picture book has a much greater effect--but I don't read many picture books.

Nicole MacDonald said...

Actually just did a post on my blog of a book that I felt was 'let down' by the editor. Nearly felt like it a rejected re-write (or rather what should have been rejected)

Ebony McKenna. said...

I had to read Pride and Prejudice in my final year of high school for English Lit. The font was so small - then when it came to the letters, they were in an even smaller font.

So I skipped the letters!

Ooops, kind of missed a whole heap of content there! LOL!

Sure, it would have been a fatter book if they'd upped the font, but it would have been a lot easier to read!!!

pulp said...

Currently reading a book by a best-selling author (I'll take the jacket copy-writer's word for it) published by Ballantine, with several out-and-out misspellings. Not typos. I assume the author spelled things wrong and nobody corrected them. (One of the misspellings is "miniscule.")

A big design flaw in the form of a horrendous mismatch of illustration to text: the brilliant Norton Juster's warm picture book of grandparental love, with nightmare-inducing pictures. I'm thinking the editor has grandparent issues.

Kaitlyne said...

I don't see how production decisions would influence the quality of the book itself. Am I missing something here? I could see them influencing *sales*, but if the book is badass, what sort of poor production decisions would influence that?

I've seen reviews before citing poor editing (and I've made the comment myself occasionally when I read), but for the most part if I'm reading a book and telling someone about it, I'm basing my decisions on the writing, characters, world-building, plot, etc. So do most of the reviews I've seen.

Am I just missing something here?

Bridget said...

"Covers, obviously, as witnessed on this blog and others, can suck hard, and alienate book buyers.
I don't want to name the books, though, because it's not fair to the authors. :)"

And sometimes it's not fair to the graphic designers. Sometimes we have a gun pointed at our temple by the powers that be. They want it to look a certain way, have a certain photo, display a certain type, etc. All of our expertise, training, and specialized BFAs be damned, they really just want a wrist to execute it. Why? Because they never went to art school.

illukar said...

The example which leaps to mind for me are blurbs. I had an Elizabeth Moon book ruined by its blurb, since the blurb based its description of the book on events which occur two thirds of the way through the book.

It completely changed the way I read the book, and I finished feeling primarily annoyed.

Anonymous said...

But Pulp there are those among us who think that Chris Rashka's genius was wasted on a sappy story about dumb "grandparental love".

And the Caldecott award, which that book won, is given for art, not text. So one man's "nightmare inducing"...

My Nasty Romance said...

Anything Oprah puts her stamp on I refuse to read on general principle. And there's really no downside to this practice as those who buy O-books will be pontificating on them over the following few weeks anyway making their plots and themes known to our collective consciousness.

Anonymous said...

Bridget said...
"And sometimes it's not fair to the graphic designers. Sometimes we have a gun pointed at our temple by the powers that be. They want it to look a certain way, have a certain photo, display a certain type, etc. All of our expertise, training, and specialized BFAs be damned, they really just want a wrist to execute it. Why? Because they never went to art school..."

Oh, I absolutely agree. I think if left alone to do their job, book designers will come up with something great. I think it's always a problem of having too many cooks in the kitchen or being trapped into a certain cover, layout, whatever, because of having to cut costs -- not because the designer doesn't care.

working illustrator said...

There seems to be some confusion here about what design and production are. Hint: you can't blame them for typos or dashes instead of quotation marks and usually you can't blame them for the choice of illustrator.

You certainly can't blame them for the contents of the blurbs.

Mainly, designers are responsible for choosing the fonts and other graphic elements and figuring out how best to deploy them to serve a particular text. Depending on the house and the designer's place in it, designers can get involved in conceptualizing covers and other art.

Production is about taking the vision of the designer and giving it physical form.

You could think of a designer as an architect, inventing a house for the text to live in. The production people are the carpenters, roofers, electricians, plumbers and the rest. There are obviously areas of shared responsibility, but the jobs are clearly different.

In some places, these people are full creative partners, in others, they're uninterested drudges (I should note that there's no correlation between 'getting it right' and the size of the house: Lots of lovely work is being done at small companies and lots of hacks have jobs in bigger places).

In some cases (covers and picture books), designers, especially, might play a pivotal role (the importance of Chad Beckerman's covers to the Wimpy Kid series would be hard to overestimate).

The Twilight books, for another example, would have been just another sexy vampire series without those gorgeous covers (and, more subtly, the spacious, elegant interiors... there's a lot of breathing room on those pages and lots of tactile goodness in that creamy paper).

The premium presentation gave 'serious' readers permission to pick up what was essentially genre fiction.

Both a perfect cases in point of designers and production people serving a book well.

On the other hand, I can remember a review of Audrey and Don Wood's Tickle Octopus (in Publishers Weekly, I think) in which the reviewer basically said: "Fun book, great idea, but the production work on it is so shoddy that it fell apart the first time I read it. Unsuitable for libraries, school and everyone else. Don't buy this book."

It sounds like the person who wrote in on this topic had some kind of experience like that.

A milder version of this - and one I've met into all the time - is inaccurate color reproduction. One amazing artist I know did a picture book that took her nearly a year to complete. She won awards for it - it's still in print a decade later - but she never did another one.
The experience of seeing her work that mangled was put her off children's books permanently.

Anita said...

I'm a reviewer and my reviews have never been influenced by a book's design.

Anonymous said...

The question was written by an illustrator and referred to children's picture books, which may suffer any number of unfortunate publishing decisions that destroy the visuals: wretched typography, alteration of images, poor cropping, poor color reproduction, etc.

Slush Puppy said...

I'm currently working in the book reviews department of a magazine, and no one says anything about design because we get mostly advance copies. This means that the copies we receive often don't have final cover art chosen yet and don't reflect how the book will actually look. Some of the books we get aren't even bound. Almost none of them have been proofread. Furthermore, even with the more finished books we have no way to distinguish what the publisher vs the designer is doing.

Jonathan Walker said...

The reviews of my novel all mentioned the design - but that was the idea. But this is a case where the design is an integral aspect of the book, and it's impossible to ignore (plus I worked with the designer throughout).

Diana Murray said...

I recently saw a review of a picture book on Amazon. The reviewer gave 4 stars instead of 5 because the type was dark blue on a blue background.