On the buying of books: the role of production values

By Anthony Haynes

February 16, 2012


Category: Design, Reading


Recently my reading on the business of sales has led me to consider the flip side – the business of buying. In general I’m finding the literature on ‘buyology’ – the study of how and why we buy – more enlightening than the literature on selling, which so far I’ve found drearily procedural. The buyology stuff seems altogether more powerful: understand buying processes and the design of the sales process falls into place (surely?).

We all buy stuff, so I find it impossible to read up on buying without reflecting on my own behaviour as a client or customer. In my own case, this has served to confirm the importance of production and design.

I find this features most often as a negative. Poor production values put me off buying. Frequently I’ve found myself picking up a book with interest, only to put it down again when I’ve seen how it’s designed. Usually the problem is poor text design – specifically, too small a font. If I open a text and see tiny characters crawling across the page I just think, “Forget it! I just don’t want to bother with this”.

Such experiences have directly influenced the design of our own publications. For example, the designer – Benn Linfield –  of books in our Creative Writing Studies list has provided a spacious design, not only for the body text but also for the parts that almost invariably attract the use of uncomfortably small font, namely the index and imprint page.

Similarly David Williams of The Running Head Ltd has enhanced the accessibility of the titles in our Professional and Higher Education series by providing an admirably accessible design.

As a buyer, I tolerate ‘neutral’ design – that is, undistinguished-but-adequate design. Most of the books I possess fall into this category. Occasionally, however, I find that production values make a positive contribution to the buying decision, even leading me to buy books that I would not otherwise have purchased. Here are four examples:

1. A Thrill of Pleasure (Celtic Cross Press, 2003). Production values will account for most purchases of this book. The main text consists of a selection of verse by William Wordsworth, which is readily and cheaply available in other editions and formats.

What does this edition add to account for its price tag (£50)? The answer is (a) an introduction by Derek Hyatt; (b) a woodcuts by Rosemary Roberts; (c) letterpress printing on Zerkall paper; and (d) a cloth binding.

I bought this book for the craftsmanship it embodies and for its sensual qualities. To my surprise, I find it makes me read the poetry more carefully than I have done with any other edition: the definition of the print, the light cream background, and the spacious margins all contribute.

2. Andrew Allott, The Marches (Collins, 2011). This book exhibits two features that I generally dislike – gloss paper and small font. Yet I find myself forgiving this – in part because there are obvious reasons for these choices (the paper is chosen to display the numerous figures in the form of maps and photographs; the size of font keeps the book to a size that feels comfortable in the hand) and in part for a more interesting reason, namely that the holistic effect of the design (by D & N Publishing) transcends the particular components.

A note in the prelims explains that the aim of the series – the New Naturalist Library – in which this volume appears

is to interest the general reader in the wildlife of Britain by recapturing the enquiring spirit of the old naturalists. The editors believe that the natural pride of the British public in the native flora and fauna, to which must be added concern for their conservation, is best fostered by maintaining a high standard of accuracy combined with clarity of expression in presenting the results of modern scientific research.

“Pride…concern…accuracy…clarity”: somehow all this is brought out in the design, though it would require a more learned critic of design than I to explain precisely how. 

One could imagine the content of this book in alternative form as a website. Such a form would have some obvious advantages – not least, hyperlinks for cross-references and notes. Yet useful though such a site would be, it wouldn’t have the same appeal. The value added to this book serves to remind one that content isn’t always king.

So far as the book itself is concerned, I wouldn’t have bought it had it not been for the captivating design: I’m not a naturalist and, much though I enjoy visiting the Marches, I don’t go there often – yet when I happened across this book in Heffers, I wanted a copy.

3. Sukhdev Sandhu, London calling: How black and Asian writers imagined a city (HarperCollins, 2003). This strikes me as a curious piece of publishing. Though it is written in an accessible, rather than academic, style, the book is essentially that rare phenomenon, a monograph published in trade format.

When I came across the hardback in Waterstones, Cambridge, I wasn’t looking for a book on this subject. Indeed, I wasn’t looking to buy a book at all: I had gone into the shop to do some commercial research. Though I’m interested in black and Asian writing, it was primarily the production values that attracted me to this book.

The squat format felt easy in the hand. The generous text design and font size (set in PostScript Linotype Janson by Rowland Phototypesetting Ltd) was easy on the eye, making one want to read. That I took the book off the shelf in the first place was down to the – praise be! – uncluttered design of the spine. 

Though the production values are less integral to the product than is the case with either A thrill of pleasure or The Marches, I wouldn’t have bought this book if it had not been so well produced.

4. David Owen, Green metropolis: Why living smaller, closer, and driving less are the keys to sustainability (Riverhead Books, 2009). While nobody who knows A thrill of pleasure or The Marches will be surprised that I found their production values contributed strongly to their appeal, the inclusion in this list of this mass-market paperback will occasion some surprise.

The paper is greyish and cheap. The text design is undistinguished (it can be seen, via Amazon’s ‘search inside’ function, here) – though it is generous. And I really don’t like the cover, though the main title on the spine is clear. 

All of which goes to show that the appeal of production values is not simply an absolute phenomenon: the appeal can in fact be relative – to context and to purpose. This book isn’t central to my reading concerns. I didn’t want to take long over reading it. And I probably won’t keep my copy very long – I’ll end up giving it away. So production values that emphasised transience and disposability, whilst enabling easy reading, seemed just right. 

Paradoxical though it might sound, if the production values had been higher (in some absolute sense), I’m not sure I would have bought the book – even at the same price.


2 Responses to “On the buying of books: the role of production values”

  1. […] a previous post (‘On the buying of books: the role of production values‘, 16 Feb 2012) I wrote: ‘Poor production values put me off buying. Frequently I’ve […]

  2. […] a previous post (‘On the buying of books: the role of production values‘, 16 Feb 2012), I discussed books where the aesthetics values had prompted me into a making […]

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