The Potency of a Beautiful Book

IMG_20150214_163404~2

I can’t read a book on an eReader. I hate doing it. Whenever I have, I’ve felt like this little device has chipped away little bits of my soul, and line by line I would feel more and more disconnected from the text. I once bought a copy of The Blind Assassin in a charity shop, and one morning while I was reading it on the tube a man two seats away from me threw a scrappy little note that landed in my lap, and all it said was, “The Assassin’s great, but you must read The Handmaid’s Tale – it’s much better!” No words passed between us, and I hurriedly tried to concoct a great response before my stop. Sadly all I could come up with was, “I know, I’ve already read it”, which sounded a lot more glib than I intended. Regardless, I treasured this little five minute episode, and when I discovered that half of my copy of the book had been misprinted I was heartbroken. I finished it on my boyfriend’s Kindle, and it was nothing like the same experience.

I realised how much I enjoyed the weight of the book and the sensation of turning a page, as well as the interactions that reading a book in public can bring, and that as long as I was reading a book on this thing no one would be able to talk to me about it, and they would probably all assume I was reading Fifty Shades of Grey like every other woman in the carriage. I enjoy reading a book in the same way that I enjoy going to the theatre. For me, how much I enjoy the play is as much about the mood of the audience, the hubbub, the plush fold-down seats, the architecture, the price of the ticket and the crowded pub you go to beforehand as the play itself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to admit in a weird, coercive way that I’m an undercover philistine and that I actually don’t care that much for the script and performance, but I want it all. I feel that something which maximises your sensory experience, explores avenues of vision and touch as well as your intellectual reflexes, is surely going to be much more fun, and memorable, and engaging. This is how I feel when I pick up a book.

Never underestimate the value of a beautiful book jacket. Humans are sensual creatures, as well as vicious critics, and as a book buyer I come up against this constantly. The value of the content is naturally my number one priority, but there is a market I am trying to serve – my job is to find titles that draw people in, to make them pick something up that they won’t want to put down again for fear of losing it, for fear of what the world will look like once they let go of it. It sounds like the ugly side of the book trade, like indulging unabashed capitalist tendencies and accepting the grim admission that a lot of us just like owning stuff. That’s true of course, this attitude does indulge our more superficial inclinations, but I think it’s more important now for the industry than it ever has been to make a book that appeals on a multidimensional level.

With people departing from physical book purchases day by day, jacket design is imperative to the survival of the physical book, and publishers over the past few years have certainly responded to the flux in physical vs. digital book sales. Suzanne Dean, Creative Director at Random House, is one of the most successful book designers in the UK, and earned a much-deserved nod from Julian Barnes in 2011 for the design of Booker prize-winning Sense of an Ending and the role she played in the success of the book, and Chip Kidd in the US has become notorious as a champion for the value of engaging book design. Recent publications such as S., conceived by JJ Abrams and executed by Doug Dorst is a perfect example of a rising anti-eBook movement, in which writers and publishers want to deliver us artefacts and tangible mysteries wrapped in explosive and multi-dimensional storytelling. Likewise, an upcoming non-fiction title, Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind by David J Linden, is also humorously highlighting the significance of the sensual experience of reading by giving the book a heat-sensitive jacket.

I’m only really writing this because of a recent swathe of authors sending me samples of self-published titles or (very) small publishers sending me samples of poorly produced books, and subsequently either giving me big watery puppy-dog eyes or repeatedly harassing me on the phone for not stocking them. It’s important for an author to know exactly what will make a book buyer want to stock their book, especially a title that they may have spent a great deal of their very precious time writing. David Faulds at Dulwich Books put it perfectly in his recent guide for independent authors – I really couldn’t fault this. The key points for me (aside from content) are of course the discount and, as I have been ranting about, the production quality.

Many independently published titles arrive on my desk which look like design and production were the last things on the author’s mind, and they often don’t agree that the profits made by independent bookshops are as important as the profits made by the author, when they are indisputably entwined. As a buyer I am also much more likely to accept a lower discount for a title that is well-finished and attractive, as I would be more likely to give it a prominent position in the shop and it is naturally more likely to sell. An unattractive, poorly produced book by an unknown author will rarely be picked up by customers passing through, no matter how exquisite the text is – they need to want to touch it first. That is the independent author’s first commercial move, and without that they’ve already lost the game.

The release of special hardback editions of classics and success stories, found embossed, cloth-bound, and in slipcases, from fiction to non-fiction, from adult to young adult to children’s, shows the special attention now being paid to the reader and a new culture in the book trade. The tactile and aesthetic experience of reading is being given its due rank, and readers are being treated to a more complex literary journey in order to preserve traditional reading habits, which in turn preserves bookshops, booksellers, and book designers. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.