The Secrets of Book Design from Couper Street Type Co.

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Dan Prescott of Couper Street Type Co. shares his thoughts on typesetting and book design, including how to get the most out of working with a professional book designer and typesetter.                    <<CLICK TO TWEET>>

Hi Dan, thanks for taking part in this blog series. Let's begin with what drew you to becoming a book designer... 

In the sense that we work in a visual medium, be that typography, page layout or illustration, but also with ‘content’ and information, book design is both artistic and functional. This combination fascinates me.

I also like the fact that it has this fairly unique mixture of requirements in that you can be quite expressive and artistic – but there is also a long tradition of book production and typesetting that has established certain rules, formulas and structures to work within.

I studied English Literature and after graduating trained as a typesetter in Scotland, then moved on to produce publications for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Moving south, I began to work in trade publishing on the production side of things, first at Scholastic, Ladybird, then Penguin. 

After college, some friends and I set up an independent publishing house called Lazy Gramophone Press. We produced a lot of tiny-run books that we letterpressed and bound ourselves. Through this, I was also illustrating written pieces and exhibiting artwork and illustrations around London.

So, there were these two strands of literature and art that converged in book design. I love working with books, so I went on to set up Couper Street Type Co., offering a really broad range of skills, services and expertise under one banner – printing and binding, typesetting, design software, illustration, distribution, ebooks etc.

Especially when working with independent authors, I often work in quite an advisory capacity, and it’s great to be able to offer lots of different advice in different areas.

Any projects you are particularly proud of? 

Each project is quite immersive, as there is always an ongoing dialogue, coming up with visual ideas, discussing designs, experimenting, tweaking, until you hopefully arrive at a pleasing and robust solution. There is always the added dimension as well that you are working with someone else’s creation in their writing. 

I think that is one of the joys of designing books, of working with books and surrounding yourself with books – they are somehow elevated beyond a simple product.

There are some interesting differences between different types of clients in this context. If I’m working with an author who is self-publishing, then I am bringing that book that the author has been working on for years into the world. Making it a reality. In that, I must honour their vision.

If I’m working with a publishing house on a book cover, considerations can be quite different. Perhaps there is more thought about marketing, sales, positioning with booksellers, competition etc.

If I’m typesetting a technical text, again the considerations are different. Aesthetics become less important, and navigation or presentation of data moves to the forefront.

These are, of course, generalisations, but they give some idea of the spectrum of involvement.

Seeing my work in bookshops is, of course, always a thrill.

How can an author get the most out of working with a professional typesetter and cover designer? 

One thing is to make sure that they make use of the professional’s expertise. There may well be things we can advise on that aren’t immediately obvious: printing options, cover finishes etc, so it makes sense to throw everything out there.

Also, it is always handy is for the author to have some kind of starting point or frame of reference to begin with. Knowing, to some degree, what you are looking for, even if it is just a ‘look and feel’, means that we get straight down to business. This is always something we can work out as we go, so it isn’t essential, but it helps a lot!

Any common mistakes you have seen authors make?

Perhaps it is obvious for me to say this, but the biggest mistake is not employing a professional to help produce and design your book. 

A natural extension to this is thinking that design isn’t important. I hate to think how many books are let down by bad design! 

I have seen a lot of places that churn out really poor quality book covers. So it is important to look around, see what kind of services are available, and make sure your artwork is up to scratch. Have an idea of what you want and don’t be afraid to push until you get that. There are more and more websites popping up that offer cheap design and, although tempting, this isn’t always the best option. 

Page layout is a slightly more sticky subject because of the inherent limitations to e-reader page design. If we are talking about print though, I think this is also of utmost importance. Again, you need to do justice to your content, and settling for a poorly designed text doesn’t.

What does good book design mean to you? Any examples? 

The hit of joy you get when looking at a beautiful image, plus some subtle sense or information about what’s inside. Even if in an abstract sense too – just hinting at the essence or mood of the content – we must remember that, again, the book is a means to convey information (in whatever form that takes), so it must communicate this in some way. But that’s why it is so interesting – it can and should be both artistic and informative. 

McSweeney’s, as an imprint, has always done some amazing things with book production and design. They really push the boundaries of book production as a source for interesting design, and use different facets of the book as an object to bring it to life. They play with bindings, materials, dustjackets from folded posters, combinations of printing techniques, unusual typography, illustrations, which all really opens up the possibilities of a book as an object and how to incorporate interesting new elements into that.

What is typesetting and why is it important? 

Typesetting is traditionally the hand-assembling of metal type into a page makeup for use in printing. As we now more often than not work in the digital, there is less of the assembly, but interestingly the principles have changed little, if at all. The idea is still to seamlessly lay out text to present the information in its most appropriate and sympathetic light, and make it as easy as possible for the reader to read and to navigate and interpret.


So, in either scenario, typesetting is about page layout. Taking a given piece of text and moulding it into the structure of a book: pagination, chapters, part titles, paragraphs, breaks, extent, margins, running heads, folios, titles, imprint pages, half titles, indexes, end matter, front matter, rectos, versos, etc. All these lovely terms!

Within traditional novel typesetting, for example, you are actually playing around within quite strict boundaries because type is, after all, functional. The importance of all those rules etc is that we are supposed to make the reading experience invisible, unnoticed. Type is purely there to serve the content.

A working scenario, to take an example, is, if the publisher has a summer airport bestseller on their hands, traditionally they want the book to be as fat as possible. A typesetter can work within certain boundaries to bulk up the book.

These are the nuts and bolts, then you have the more expressive side, which is typography. Here the use of type affects the decisions you make and the message you are trying to portray. Tweaks in text design, shifting of margins, addition of ornaments, slight typeface changes can all completely alter the atmosphere of a text. Is it meant to feel vintage or contemporary; authoritative/academic or playful?

Do you think readers appreciate this aspect of book production enough? 

This is an interesting question because the aim of good typesetting is for the reader not to notice it.<<CLICK TO TWEET>>

In much the same way as editing, it should only become apparent when it is done badly.

So, we can’t blame readers for not appreciating something we are trying all day to make invisible!

The ereader debate is interesting in this context. The software/hardware removes a lot of the decisions that a text designer would previously have made. And with all the platforms now available for self-publishing, the traditional stages of design and production provided by the publisher are no longer absolutely necessary. It therefore becomes even more important to employ the skills of a professional to try to put these elements back in. To bring some industrial quality to the product. 

How has the quick delivery of ebooks changed book design / typesetting?

I don’t think the quick delivery of ebooks per se has changed design much other than perhaps changing people’s expectations for turnaround times. But I think that has happened in all areas of production. It’s more the platforms and methods of delivery that have had such a massive impact on these areas. 

This is one thing that you really brought to my attention a couple of years ago, Claire, and which has become more and more important as the eplatform grows. That is the idea of the cover as a thumbnail. For a lot of authors and publishers, there is no longer the necessary need for an intricate, decorative, visceral design that asks you to reach out and grab the book. In many cases now, the most important thing is that your book cover is striking, attractive and highly clickable at the size of a thumbnail… For better or for worse, this definitely establishes a whole different set of considerations when designing covers.

From a typesetting perspective, in many ways ebooks have made the concept of typesetting obsolete. Or at least, it becomes a stage that can be relinquished. An author can now take text straight from Word into an epub. The trouble with this though is that there is no quality control and the user experience on most of these devices leaves a lot to be desired.

Print-on-Demand technology is a really interesting aspect in this because it is a meeting point between print and ebooks. It provides the benefits of print, but with the super-quick delivery the ebook has accustomed readers to. I think it is a really important development in publishing and gives me a lot of hope for the future of print and book design. The ability to revise titles on the hoof, so to speak, and to amend, update, and republish with no delay to the market has some real advantages, particularly for authors. So we can have the benefits of a super-speedy digital distribution model, but with the controls over design and layout that we get in print. 

In many ways this is really a debate about digital vs physical. Whether it’s ebooks vs print, or online booksellers vs physical bookshops. And this actually represents quite well the cavern that is growing between two types of book design in the industry.

What will the future of book design look like?

Things seem to be going in two different directions at the moment, so I think this whole area of design will continue to split down the middle and to diverge more and more: at one end of the spectrum ebooks and digital platforms, and the other high-end printed books and publications.

Perhaps in reaction to the limitations of ebooks, design for print and book production in general is tending towards the finer aspects of the book: special finishes, extras and inserts, embellishments, luxury bindings and papers etc. There are smaller presses opening up and also more and more interest in letterpress and traditional techniques. In many ways this mirrors what is happening in other sectors with the arrival of digital technology. In music you have driving down of sound quality with mp3s and ubiquitous streaming services, but at the same time this has led to a resurgence in vinyl, cassette and luxury sleeve printing etc.

Then at the digital end of the spectrum you have the tendency towards condensing, simplifying and generalising. Covers need to be designed to make an impact when viewed as a thumbnail. Internally, typesetting and typography are restricted by the limits of the software and eplatforms that dominate the market. 

A large part of the problem is the way that these devices function at the back end. They are temperamental and inconsistent; every device behaves differently. Preview functions don’t correspond to actual views on devices. Then you move the focus out onto the industry as a whole and it gets worse. There is no consistent standard between devices or across platforms. What works well on one device doesn’t work on another. 

My hope is that ebook technology will open up and allow for more creative development by the public. <<CLICK TO TWEET>> 

Ebooks are currently stifled, and will never be able to develop while formats remain proprietary. Type and design on the web has exploded in the last few years but ebooks are far behind.

If things change in this regard, and devices or ebook software is given some space to develop, it could open up a whole new revolution in electronic books and allow them to live up to the printed equivalent.

Thanks so much, Dan! 

Dan and I have collaborated on a special Promotional Graphics Package for Authors and you can see the full range of Couper Street's typesetting and book design services here. You can also keep up with Couper Street's beautiful book designs on Instagram and Facebook.