Judging a Book

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HHhH by Laurent Binet

I want to talk about a recent trend in book design. Not the cover, not some chichi French flaps, but the design of the page edge, and I’m not talking decaling. It seems that in the ongoing battle between p-books and e-books, the parts that give you a paper cut are the latest light infantry recruits.

In the age of Kindle and Kobo, book design has extra work to do. When Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending, he reserved a special thank you for his book’s cover designer, Suzanne Dean. “Those of you who’ve seen my book — whatever you may think of its contents — probably agree that it’s a beautiful object,” he said. “And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.” Quite so.

Barnes’s book, first published in July 2011, was without doubt a thing of beauty (I keep mine face-out on the shelf). But in addition to a stunning cover design printed on rough-to-the-touch matte paper stock, the UK edition had an extra something-something our Canadian one didn’t: dipped-black edges.

A few months later, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 both hit the UK high street sporting sexy black skirts. My favourite and most recent example is the just-published HHhH by Laurent Binet. “HHhH” is printed vertically down the length of the pages in the same burnt orange as on the cover. It’s gorgeous. Too gorgeous to park next to the wall, in fact, so never mind face-out, this one’s living page-edge-out at my house.

Often these extra design features (dipped edges, but also designed endpapers or added cover details) may be limited to the initial print run, thus creating instant collector’s items. A limited run of Murakami’s 1Q84 sold exclusively through “legendary” London indie Foyle’s sported red- instead of the black-dipped edges of its cousins. Not only was this edition a hot item, it was an example of a big publisher (and it’s worth noting that all the examples I’m using here came from Random House UK, most of them from the desk of a book production hero named Simon Rhodes) partnering with an indie bookseller to create a promotional campaign around a book’s design. Houses now have to go the extra mile to present their original product as something visual, as something more than a vehicle for holding a text, as something an electronic book can never be.

Finding ways to keep p-books (must we call them that now…?) in people’s hands supports more than just the sale of one book. E-books don’t (yet) display cover art, so if I’m reading HHhH on a Kindle, what the stranger next to me at the bar/on the subway sees is an advert for Amazon. If I’m reading the physical book (and HHhH and I have been on numerous dates together, so I know this to be true) someone will ask me about it, without fail, because how could you not? It just looks like something worth asking about. When we can no longer see what everybody around us is reading, with what will we replace that missing link in the advertising chain?

In May, the UK’s largest national bookseller, Waterstones, announced it was getting into bed with arch-enemy Amazon and would be exclusively selling Amazon e-readers and e-books in its bricks-and-mortar stores. The implications of this are huge, not least because it provides Amazon with something e-books don’t currently have: physical merchandizing space. With this partnership, Waterstones has sanctioned its use as a showroom for Amazon’s products, it’s becoming its Apple store. Booksellers might not all be very tech savvy, but by god they know their merchandize as intimately as that dude in a blue t-shirt knows his Macs. Waterstones manager James Daunt (whose eponymous indie stores in London are beloved for their “proper” bookstore-ish-ness) has been vilified for his decision, but maybe he’s just keeping his enemies close where he can see them, in exchange for a slice of the e-book pie. He’s also opening up possibilities for the retailer to experiment with bundling: a discount applied to customers buying two editions of a book at once — a hardcover to keep at home and an e-book to keep in the handbag. Indie publishers such as Coach House Books are already experimenting with this model through their direct-to-consumer marketing (though Coach House is giving away e-books with print purchase). Expecting consumers to buy multiple versions of the same product isn’t particularly radical; we are easily persuaded to re-buy our movie or music collection every time the old hardware becomes obsolete.

As new business models and buying habits take shape there’s concern among some about where all this leaves the paperback, and indeed where we in the marketing and publicity departments will be left without it. Mr. Penguin’s 1935 game changer (OK it was actually Allen Lane) has been usurped by the e-book when it comes to portability, affordability and disposability, and it has never had the hardcover’s durability. But when people start bundling, the beautiful, heavy hardcovers will stay at home while the all-look-the-same e-versions will be toted around in public. Poof! I-want-to-read-what-she’s-reading advertisement gone.

Aspiration is everything when it comes to convincing people to buy our products. “Can I interest you like one of these plastic-encased bits of hardware, My Dear…?” “Probably not, no.” HHhH and I have a few more dates to go on before I finish reading. I hope its flash of dipped edge catches a new reader or two.


Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, a freelance publicist for many of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s literary award and fundraising programs, and a member of PEN Canada’s Board of Directors, where she serves as Events Chair. One or two days a week Becky works as a bookseller at Toronto indie Type. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs


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