Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Getting Back Into Book Design

I'm thinking about getting back into book design work, to offer my services to those authors who have decided to self-publish and self-promote. I think I can provide a useful service that many authors would find supportive, and I am someone who understands their needs because I too am a writer. It is sometimes easier to deal with someone who already shares your interests and concerns. I would be a niche designer offering services to a niche writers' market.

Pleasures of Books

Writers Beware has written about questionable submission guidelines to watch out for. That article prompted me to think that, while it is necessary to be cautious when submitting to journals and publishers you know nothing about, it's perhaps overly easy to become paranoid about such things. It can make one cynical and reclusive, if burned one too many times. While hurt feelings are understandable, they don't really serve you if they linger on too long.

Certainly as a graphic designer I've been screwed by clients. Who hasn't? It happens to even the most highly-regarded and famous. Everyone occasionally encounters a client from hell. There is always a client who decides they won't pay: not because they can't, but for mostly selfish and illogical reasons. Architects run into this as well, as do interior decorators. I've had one or two clients over the years who seemed honest, yet who turned out to be trolls when it came to billing. They count on the fact that they will get away with it because they can afford better litigation than you.

And what artist and designer hasn't had requests from potential clients to use their work, the fruit of their labors, for free? Some requests are phrased as though the asker were doing me a huge favor by asking to use my work for free. The usual argument is that it's more public exposure for one's work, but that's specious: I don't need more "exposure" for my work, I need clients who want to pay me for my creativity. I may not be the best in the business at self-marketing, but neither is this my first rodeo. Most offers of "exposure" assume that one is a rank beginner, just setting out on a career, and that the offered "exposure" will benefit one's career. In fact, most moments of artistic "exposure" will never be seen by anyone who cares to follow through and hire me. The reason they're asking me to use my art for free is that they themselves have no budget. Therefore they are not likely to have a budget for marketing and promotion, either.

I very occasionally say "yes" to requests to use my art for free, for my own reasons—mostly because I take a liking to the person who is asking—but never when the request is expressed in a tone of superiority, as though I should be honored merely to be asked. I am not masochistic in any way, and even the most politely-phrased demands to abuse my good nature and my creative work will be ignored. In fact, my self-esteem as an artist and designer is just fine, thank you. I have no need to have my vanity flattered, nor do I crave attention to the extent that I need grovel for it.

At this time, I don't take projects on for free, on speculation; I require the client to put some earnest money down in order to engage my services. Not much. It's merely a token of honest intent. The amount, usually a percentage of a bid, is flexible and negotiable; but experience has taught that the act of exchanging money makes clients take you and your work more seriously. If they balk at providing earnest token, well, there are plenty of other designers out there they can turn to. You can consider it an initial sorting process. Serious clients only need apply. Dealing with deadbeat clients is not worth my time, so not even starting with them is usually better for me. If you're really serious about wanting my particular work, style, talents, and view, then you'll agree that you won't find that anywhere else. Therefore, the amount of earnest token is negotiable, but the fact of it is not.

Keep in mind: deadbeat and problem clients are a small minority; don't get paranoid, and don't fall into the trap of thinking like a victim all the time. Most clients are honest people who want to be reasonable and fair. You learn to spot the potential problem clients by their behavior and questions early in the process. After that, it's your choice if you want the project is interesting enough to you that you might decide to go ahead anyway. Or not.

These kinds of difficulties happen partly because non-creatives frequently don't understand or value the work that creatives do, out of ignorance as much as malice. How many times have I heard in an art gallery some person remark when looking at a piece of Modern art, "Heck, my child could have done that!" Well, the fact of the matter is, sir, your child didn't. And no, they probably couldn't. Whether or not they could is in fact irrelevant. But this example exemplifies how poorly non-creatives understand the work that goes into making art. At its best this is merely ignorance. At its worst it is willful ignorance, dismissive of the time and effort required.

(A couple of coffee-table special-interest books I designed.)

But partly my desire to get back into book design is rooted in aesthetic self-preservation: there is just so much bad design out there, and so many writers who are taken advantage of, that it seems reasonable to want to do something the situation. Bad designs always outnumber good designs, so whatever trickle of good and effective design I can contribute back into the world of publishing during these turbulent, difficult times seems worthwhile.

I am still recovering from major surgery, but my mind is clear enough today to start thinking about how I would need to set up another website for this, and market it to authors, starting perhaps with the POD people. I'm not capable of taking on a lot of design work at the moment, not till I heal some more, and regain more of my strength. Still it's worth cogitating upon.

Book of Leaves

Books remain for me tangible objects that I enjoy with more than just the sense of sight. There is the texture of the paper and printing, the smell of ink and binding and other materials. The weight and heft of the physical object is part of the pleasure of reading it. A substantial literary effort that feels substantial as an object can enhance the overall reading experience.

What is missing from e-readers such as the Kindle is everything except the raw words, the pure text. Everything else about reading a book is gone. That's not to say that e-readers have no merits. Portability and ease of transport are two such advantages.

Nor do I ignore the truth that many writers have absolutely no care for (or sense of) anything but the raw words, the pure text. Such writers have no visual sense, in my experience, and are "all about the words" to such extent that seems bizarre, so little do they care about anything else. Such writers will find good homes in text-only media such as e-readers. They don't really care. But not all writers are so blind to other aspects of publishing.

Several great poets come to mind as writers who did in fact care about presentation, about the experience of the book as an object, about the multi-sensory act of reading. Federico Garcia Lorca made numerous drawings and illustrations. Walt Whitman was trained as a printer, and for his first edition of Leaves of Grass he chose the paper and set all the type himself. I've done that myself, following in Walt's footsteps, by organizing every aspect of three or four of my published chapbooks, from paper choice to typography to illustrations and logos. I also think of poets such as William Everson, another printer and designer whose small press editions of contemporary poetry are exquisite art-objects beyond being just books. So there is a tradition of writers who care about the book beyond the words.

The craft of the hand-made art book is experience a contemporary renaissance, as is the small handset press and lithograph. Limited editions printed and published by small presses are becoming popular again. Poems published as hand-set broadsheets are far more common now than fifty years ago. There is no need to elegize the death of the published book, despite the turbulence occurring in the publishing world on the national level. New media as well as old are taking up the slack. Each time the death of the book is announced, more books are published art objects than ever before.

So I am thinking about getting back into book design. Perhaps it's folly, and no one will know or care. But it could be fun, and have the side benefit of keeping me connected with poets, writers, and other such creatives who might want to add a bit of visual flair, of typographic elegance, to their best, most publishable work. Consider my doors open at this time.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

No, I’m with you. As much as I understand the sense in moving towards e-books I have never been able to shake my love of a real book. The irony is that, as a writer, all my novels began life as nothing but words with no concept of cover art and yet now that I can hold them in my hand as a book I can’t imagine them any other way. I think this would be a good service to offer but just that service. There are plenty of sites out there offering the whole kit and caboodle but if there is one area where books stand apart it’s covers; even many traditionally published books have crappy covers. It’s like the UK cover to Bed - so simple and yet so effective with a brilliant understated use of embossing, just the collar and the buttons. If I were you I’d create a bank of covers to classic novels, books that people are familiar with and have a relationship with. Put it this way if you could outdo David Pelham’s iconic cover to A Clockwork Orange I’d be sold.

4:12 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Good suggestions. I'll do some classic covers when I get a chance.

The thing is, covers are necessary to e-books, too. It's not an either/or thing about what books need covers; all off them do.

Don't know that I can outdo Pelham, or Jan Tschischold's classic Penguins, for that matter. One can hope to be AS good, and I'd be satisfied with that.

9:38 AM  

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