Stepping Up, Standing Out

Your book matters. Present it like it matters.

Look again at the non-fiction books that have made an impact on you. The books that leapt of the shelf (real or virtual) at you, kept you turning the pages, the ones you keep dipping back in to, that you recommend to others.

As a reader you focus on the content, or at least you think that’s what you’re focusing on. And of course the content is the key thing. But it’s far from being the only thing.

Imagine you’re interviewing two men for an important job. Both of them look great on paper, and you can’t wait to meet them. The first candidate turns up in a hastily pressed shirt, trousers that seem a little too short, a slightly frayed tie and no jacket. He seems nice enough, he answers the questions well and could probably do the job but… you don’t know.

The second candidate arrives looking smart and professional in a suit. You’re not a tailor, you don’t really notice the quality of the fit, the double stitching or the distinctive sleeve crown, all you know is that you have an overall impression of credibility and quality. If his performance in the interview delivers on the promise that his suit is making, he will likely get the job. (This is important: if the stuff on the inside doesn’t deliver, it doesn’t matter how nicely turned out the packaging is.)

As any publisher will tell you, a good book is good content wrapped up in a complex tailored package of editorial, design and production decisions. (Marketing is a critical part of the mix too, but let’s stick with these for now.) And if you want your book to make a good impression, you need to start borrowing those ways of looking.

The Editorial Eye

Editing non-fiction books is about so much more than simply ensuring the spelling and grammar are correct. An editor is responsible for commissioning the right book in the first place: the right author on the right topic pitched at the right level for its readership, one that fits with the direction of the list and the company’s strategy. That’s why when I’m working with my clients I always start with WHY they’re writing a book, WHO(m) they’re writing it for, and HOW it fits with their business activities and goals, and with their wider content marketing strategy.

At a more detailed level, an editor ensures that the book has a consistent, coherent structure: what are the parts, and how do they fit together? What’s the organizing principle? What prelims and endmatter can be included to make the book as useful as possible?

The Design Eye

EVERYBODY judges a book by its cover, no matter what their granny told them. And so they should: the cover is designed to appeal to its intended readers, to give clues about what the book is about, its style and level, and whether it’s your cup of tea or not, basically. People wear clothes that express their personality and social identification: books wear covers.

Here are a few ideas to get you thinking: What’s the core concept or guiding metaphor for your book, usually expressed in your title, and how can you reflect that visually without being too obvious? Should your book have a typographic, illustrative or photographic focus? How do the different elements work together? What fonts are appropriate? Do you want a busy or clean feel? What colour combinations? What one word would you like your potential reader to use to describe their impression of your book from looking at the cover? What can you learn from studying the covers of the books you want your own book to be considered alongside?

(This is not intended to help you design your own cover, by the way. It’s intended to get you thinking about how you can brief a designer to achieve the effect you want. Please don’t design your own cover, no matter how good you were at art at school.)

The Production Eye

The book production role is one of the most underrated in the profession. It’s only when it’s missing that you really appreciate its importance: if you’ve ever seen a book where the margins are too tight, the spacing is wrong, the style of the text on the page doesn’t fit with the level or topic, the image resolution is poor or the paper shows through text from the other side, you’ve seen a book that lacked a good production eye.

What works on a Word document doesn’t work in a book. Typesetting is not expensive these days, but it makes a world of difference to your finished book.

How do you develop your publisher’s eye? Just start to use it. Look at those books that you admire as packages. Work out exactly what editorial, design and production decisions have gone into their making, and learn the lessons for your own book. They say ‘Copy from one, it’s plagiarism; copy from many it’s research’, and they’re not wrong here either. Don’t slavishly copy the look and feel of your favourite book, start to get a sense for the principles that underpin the books that appeal to you and consider how they can apply to your unique work.

Your book matters. Present it like it matters.