Tuesday 20 March 2018

Bringing beautiful design back to books

The printed book is looking more gorgeous than ever

John and Fatti Burke's Irelandopedia is stunning in content and design. Photo: Damien Eagers.
John and Fatti Burke's Irelandopedia is stunning in content and design. Photo: Damien Eagers.

Alison Walsh

Two years ago, the future was all about e-books. Available at knock-down prices, downloadable at the press of a button, their popularity was soaring. In an age of 'content', the humble printed book was deemed unwieldy and far too expensive, soon to go the way of the dodo.

However, browse any bookshop today and it seems that the 'p-book' is back. Lovely books abound, with thick creamy paper, hand-stitched spines, jackets that have embossing, de-bossing (that's a recessed look to the type on a book cover, for those who don't know the lingo) metallic inks, velvet finishes... Never have books looked so gorgeous.

Is this 'loveliness', for want of a better word, the dying gasp of the printed book or the rightful reassertion of the old-fashioned pleasures of reading?

For Nicki Howard, director at Gill Books, the rise of the e-book certainly prompted a re-think. 'With the advent of e-books, it wasn't purely the content that a publisher was giving the reader, because the content could be cheaper, could be free, or all of that online. So, if you weren't buying the book just for the recipes or for the ideas, then you were buying something else as well. You were buying the container - you were buying the object. So, deliberately, we put effort into that object.'

For Hannah Griffiths, publishing director at Faber, it was about survival. As e-books were ideal for 'category' fiction, such as crime or romance, "We were training readers to pay 50p for a book. How on earth were we going to convince readers that paying more was worth their while? One, we had to make sure that the content was sensationally good... and the second idea was that if you give something irresistible and different to the digital file and much more like an experience, then they might just pay the money for that experience."

She cites as an example, Max Porter's bestselling Grief is the Thing with Feathers, a meditation on grief and death, which defied category and which needed a fresh approach, with the use of heavier paper, and a smaller format, as well as a standout design.

For Gill, their recent bestseller Irelandopedia was a case in point, as Howard explains. "The content was incredibly creative and quirky and funny and illuminating and child-friendly and all of those things, but the actual package itself [a large-format hardback] - you couldn't get something that celebrates the quality of a book more than that. It's so booky."

In fact, according to Howard, many customers commented on the smell of the book: "It's the smell of paper - we deliberately went for a textured, non-glossy paper, so that it feels good; all the senses come into play, really." And, she adds, "You can't smell your Kindle."

Indeed, but these books don't come cheap. Griffiths compares the growth of these gorgeous items to that of the organic food market, with the same notions of exclusivity and 'niche'. But isn't that just the tiniest bit elitist?

Antony Farrell of Lilliput, producer of many a lovely book, is matter of fact. "Elitism is not a bad word - publishing is elitist, for God's sake. We are taking one out of a hundred writers, one out of a thousand, to publish. If that's not elitist, I don't know what is.

"Anyone can self-publish or put out on a website, but publishers actually discriminate and their taste is seen to be important, or should be, if they are to be successful."

A fair point, even if the "lovely book" market seems a long way from Allen Lane's Penguin paperbacks, with their uniform orange covers, priced the same as a packet of cigarettes. But the post-War democratisation of books has been replaced by a fragmented, diffuse market, in which it's harder to make an impact.

Hannah Griffiths explains: "We can't control whether a book gets reviewed well or badly, but we can control what it looks like. It's become such a lottery, literary fiction. This increases its chances in the lottery."

In an industry in which margins are very tight, how do publishers make the sums work?

For Antony Farrell, it was about using craft and heritage to produce exclusive limited editions. 'We did that with JP Donleavy's The Ginger Man. We did 200 copies, signed by the author, bound by Duffy's binders - they're the last craft binder left in Dublin. But you need the quality, the subject and the distinguished author".

For other publishers, it's been about a more direct engagement with the customer to get that product right. According to Griffiths: "Our conversation with booksellers is becoming more engaged. We're working with booksellers much earlier, saying, 'if we do this, will you buy it?'

"When people buy a hardback online they don't have a wow moment. We want to give indies a chance to make themselves feel very special to readers and to sell special products.'"

So, in the face of increasingly tough conditions, publishers have rallied, ensuring that the book is still holding its own and offering readers something new - or old, if you like. For Nicki Howard, "It's nostalgic, to sit in our armchair and enjoy a lovely book. I don't know if it's the future, but it's our reaction to what's happening now."

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