The Book Designer
Irene Vandervoort, Dutton/Penguin
Posted: 12/20/06

Did you know that book designers are the unsung heroes of publishing or does this come as a surprise to you?


It’s not a surprise. Sadly, there are no songs for book designers. We do get credit on copyright pages, and possibly in a colophon (now that is a $10 design term for you!), but no songs. Maybe one day Burt Bacharach will write a song for us.



Well, he did write No One Remembers My Name. Maybe that could be yours.


I’ll put it to the group.



Weren't books designed once and for all when someone slapped a front and back cover on them? No offense, but what's left for a book designer to do?


Oh, if only it were that easy! Everyone everywhere would be reading Xeroxed galleys of text in Times Roman, or Arial, if that were the case. Book design is a lot like baking. There is a sort of recipe to it. First, you figure out who your audience is. From there you decide whether the book will be illustrated, or have chapter opening spots, or (gasp!) straight text. The book is then tailored to the age group. We keep the page count down for the younger set, and use smaller, more adult-style type treatments for young adult books.



So what kinds of things do you take into consideration when deciding on a book's typeface, for example? It seems so subjective. Feel free to use MARY MARGARET as an example! ;-)


I make it a point to read all of the books I work on. I like to portray the main character in the typeface I've chosen. For example, if a novel's main character is a precocious heroine (yes, like MARY MARGARET), I would choose a face that is strong, clear, with a bit of flair. (For her books, we use Dutch 823.) For more a serious novel with suspense, I may use an angular typeface that evokes tension.



 Are there any unforgivable sins in book design or just differences of opinion?


 I think setting novels solid (i.e., no space between lines in a paragraph) is an unforgivable as well as unreadable sin.



This is not exactly the kind of profession you decide on when you're eight, is it?


 I was a huge fan of Harry the Dirty Dog as a child. I may not have been able to articulate that book design was my profession of choice at that time, however, I have had a love affair with type and image for a very, very long time.



I think you can tell a lot about a profession by the kind of parties members throw. What are book designer parties like?


Very laid back affairs.



You seem like a conscientious gal. Do you overcompensate when working on a book that doesn't float your boat? Should I try to write a book you don't like?


I read all of the books whether I like them or not. And I have to design some of them whether I like them or not. I think you can always learn something. Book design is a journey that gets tweaked along the way.


I’ll take that as a tactful “no.” What's the worst day you ever had as a book designer?


When a book gets cancelled after working on it for quite some time.



I live in a town (Holland—slightly Dutch, wouldn’t you say?) where there are more entries in the phonebook under "Vander-whatevers" than Smith, but I imagine it's not quite so common in New York. Do people have trouble with it?


Yes, they do. And I am a New Yorker, born and raised. Normally, people give up past the "Vander" portion of my name and make up the rest. My brother has tried to solve the mispronunciation by dividing our name syllabically.



Or—here’s a thought! You could move to Holland.


Thanks, but I think I’ll just live with the mispronunciations.

Christine Kole MacLean ( writes picture books, chapter books, and novels for young adults. Her most recent release is a young
adult novel, How It’s Done.