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Monday musings on Australian literature: ABDA 2017 Shortlist

May 1, 2017

Five years ago, I wrote a Monday Musings on book design, in which I featured three book designers. I’ve mentioned book design occasionally since then but, having just seen the shortlist for this year’s ABDA (Australian Book Design Awards) which are sponsored by the ABDA (the Australian Book Designers Association), I’ve decided to write another post on this aspect of the thing we love – books!

ABDA describes the awards as celebrating “the bravest and brightest, the most original and beautiful books published in Australia each year”. This year’s awards are the 65th! 65 years of celebrating book design! That’s wonderful, really. They make awards in sixteen categories, including four awards in Children’s and YA categories, and awards for specialist areas like Cookbooks, Fully-illustrated books, and Educational books.

I couldn’t possibly list all these, but if you are interested you can find them at the link I gave in the first paragraph. I will just focus on two categories, Literary Fiction and Non-fiction:

Heather Rose, The museum of modern loveLiterary Fiction

  • George Orwell’s 1984 (Text): WH Chong
  • Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort food (University of Queensland Press): Josh Durham (Design by Committee)
  • Melissa Ashley’s The birdman’s wife (Affirm Press): Christa Moffit
  • Heather Rose’s The museum of modern love (Allen & Unwin): Sandy Cull (GoGo Gingko)

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The hate raceNon-fiction

  • Ashleigh Wilson’s Brett Whiteley: Art, life and the other thing (Text): WH Chong
  • Damon Young’s The art of reading (Melbourne University Press): Mary Callahan
  • Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race (Hachette Australia) (my review): Allison Colpoys
  • Andrew Hankinson’s You could do something amazing with your life (Scribe): Jenny Grigg

I’m impressed by the number of smaller publishers here. Seems they support good design too, and carefully “curate” the whole work. Certainly Melissa Ashley seems to think so …

Melissa Ashley,The birdman's lifeMelissa Ashley, author of the shortlisted The birdman’s wife, has posted on her blog about the shortlisting of her book’s cover. The novel, historical fiction, is about Elizabeth Gould the wife and accomplice of the famous ornithologist and artist, John Gould. Ashley writes:

It was my secret hope that Elizabeth Gould’s iconic, hand-coloured lithograph of the superb fairy wren featured in the cover design for The Birdman’s Wife. You can imagine how chuffed I felt when my editor, publisher, and book-designer felt the same way.

Authors don’t always have a say in their covers, but clearly Ashley did, and she was thrilled with the result. She praises “the visionary generosity of Affirm Press”. She loves not just the cover but the book’s whole design because, of course, book design is not just about the cover.

Back in 2012, I named three book designers – Dean Gorissen (who was one of the designers used by Affirm Press), WH Chong (who worked for Text Publishing – and still does, as their Design Director) and Sandy Cull (who has her own company, GoGoGingko). You’ve probably noticed in the lists above that Affirm Press is still employing great designers, and that Chong and Cull are still producing quality, award-attracting designs.

As well as sponsoring these design awards, ABDA also maintains a hall of fame, whose eight members include:

  • Alec Bolton (an independent publisher whom I’ve mentioned here before)
  • W.H. Chong (link above)
  • Patrick Coyle (the first nominee to the Hall of Fame, in 1994)
  • Sandy Cull (link above)
  • Arthur Stokes (a book designer and previous judge of the awards. A report on the 1978/9 awards, commented on the “lively” two days of judging, and that “Arthur Stokes kept remarkably calm but did complain that the other judges ‘kept sitting down and reading the books'”.)

Interestingly, while I was researching the hall-of-famers, I found a report on the 1972/73 design awards. Apparently the judges that year were disappointed in the quality, and they named some of the issues. For example, they said that “there was little awareness of contemporary design” and a lack of imagination. “Typography,” they said, “lacked detailed decisions” particularly regarding “sans serif and serif type faces – sans serif was often used inappropriately”. I was once told to use serif type for text, and sans serif for headings. I wonder if that’s what they were referring to, and whether this is still recommended practice?

They talked about the jackets, and the type used being either “out of character with the book” or comprising “a multitude of different faces”. Yes! I remember, years ago, reading an article titled “Font shock”. It was when word processing first became a tool used by all of us and the temptation was to throw every font available in the one document, but it reminded me once again that “less is more” or to “kiss“.

They also commented on poor cropping and sizing of photographs. Hmm, I hope they never look at my blog!

I found all this fascinating.

I briefly mentioned (or inferred) what I like in a book design in my 2012 Monday Musings post so won’t repeat it here. Instead, I’ll say what I don’t like! I don’t like:

  • small print (because my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be)
  • low contrast between paper and print so that the print is not easy to read
  • cheap paper that feels nasty
  • binding that stops the book falling open easily
  • tiny margins (which prevent easy marginalia writing)
  • no index (in non-fiction books)
  • covers that stereotype
  • covers that mislead regarding their content

I’d love to know what you like or don’t like in book design, and if you want to name a recent favourite or two, do go ahead and share it with us.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2017 12:04 am

    I like footnotes rather than endnotes (as we have discussed) but I think that battle is lost.
    I notice a lot of books with large print, widely spaced words, which seems to have the purpose of expanding the text to fill a certain number of pages. I’m used to those old, dense Penguins.
    And you’d think it would be hard to design a bad cover for a book on Whitely.

    • May 2, 2017 8:08 am

      Yes, footnotes too, Bill. Agree.

      I suppose the larger print could be for that reason too … wastes paper but with people not liking novellas so much I guess that disguises the shortness of the book. Suits me though. I like the larger print and I like spare stories and prose. Penguins were great in their time but … my time has changed!

      Haha re Whiteley!

  2. May 2, 2017 6:55 am

    The birdman’s wife cover is gorgeous! I hope that one wins 🙂 I don’t like covers with headless women or the backs of women.

    • May 2, 2017 8:18 am

      Thanks Stefanie. I was thinking about that whole backs issue just recently. I love taking photos from behind of Mr Gums walking in the bush. I love the sense it gives of someone out there, enjoying the space, unbothered by others, the sense of peace and time to think, but these photos tend to be longshots. Those images of women usually give a whole different sense don’t they.

      • May 2, 2017 9:36 am

        Oh yes, most definitely. Mr. Gums out walking has a whole other context and meaning than a faceless, identity-less woman on a book cover. I hope one of these days publishers will wise up to the message they are sending.

        • May 2, 2017 2:55 pm

          I sure do too … unfortunately they presumably sell. We need a ban on buying books with covers like this.

        • May 3, 2017 6:47 am

          I can support that ban!

        • May 3, 2017 8:04 am

          Yes, I saw another one yesterday when I was researching my next post for the Australian Women Writers challenge. Back, in long romantic dress. though head was turned in semi-profile. A fantasy book I think but still, so lacking in agency.

  3. May 2, 2017 7:59 am

    Im with you on the quality of the paper. I noticed on my last trip to the usa a number of editions that used thick, paper with uneven cuts on the edges – I think they were trying to give the idea the pages had been handcut. I didnt like the effect at all. My other pet hate is a layout where the text runs very close to the inner margin so to read the text clearly you have to bend the book at the spine too harshly, running the risk that the glue breaks.

    As for the question of serif type for text, and sans serif for headings, that was also what I was taught for newspaper and publication design but though it makes sense from a readability perspective, I see many examples where designers dont follow it

    • May 2, 2017 8:25 am

      Yes, Karen, I was thinking too of the tiny margins and tight bindings. Horrible. Clearly a paper saving device but awful to read.

      I have had a couple of those handcut-look books. With a sympathetic cover they’ve been ok, but the pages are not so easy to turn.

      Yes, I’ve noticed the same re sans serif being used more often for text. I guess it looks modern, but I tend to default my word processing software to a serif font. I do find it a bit more relaxing on the eyes when confronted with dense pages of text. Habit or a real effect? I guess I can’t tell.

      • May 3, 2017 2:14 am

        The ease of reading is real – the ‘tails’ you get on serif characters guide the eye to the next letter…..

        • May 3, 2017 7:56 am

          Yes that’s what I’d read many years ago and feel is right. Somehow the sans serif fonts do feel more in your face, don’t they?

        • May 3, 2017 7:58 am

          Oops, by “in your face” I mean they stand out rather than draw the eye in and guide it on. So, good for short headings.

  4. Meg permalink
    May 2, 2017 9:14 am

    I am in agreement with your ‘don’t likes”. I like to see the title and author clearly. I do like the design on Media & Society, but disappointed not to see “Barking Dogs” nominated. It yells at you like “The Hate Race”.

    • May 2, 2017 9:26 am

      Yes, good point Meg re author and title being clear. I haven’t looked closely at Barking dogs yet.

  5. carmelbird permalink
    May 2, 2017 9:36 am

    Book design and cover design are two of my favourite topics. I particularly lament the disappearance of indexes from non-fiction books. (I even make, for my personal use, indexes for my own novels.) Another thing I look for is the logical and elegant use of hyphenation at the ends of lines. As for margins – well, because the gutters in the middle are now so often too narrow, I routinely break the spines of lots of books anyway.

    • May 2, 2017 3:00 pm

      I love that, Carmel, that you make your own indexes. The ability to search text is about the only thing I really love about e-books.

      And yes, good point re hyphenation. It’s something I’ve noticed with old newspapers in Trove. Really terribly hyphenation. My sense is that word-processing these days is getting pretty good at spacing words without needing much hyphenation, but maybe I haven’t been attending as closely as I should.

      Gutters! Yes, that’s the word. You can see that you’re an author and I’m a reader – you know your terminology. I really hate breaking spines and will struggle to read rather than damage the book – and yet I’ll write in the book!

      BTW The covers of Family skeleton and Fair game are both appealing, in my view.

  6. May 2, 2017 10:21 am

    By coincidence, I’m reading The Birdman’s Wife. It is a lovely cover, but I hate the font. I couldn’t tell you what it is, but it’s small with wide spacing between lines. *grumpy frown* If designers had any sense they would road test their fonts on people with glasses.

    • May 2, 2017 3:06 pm

      Oh, now you make we want to look inside, Lisa, to see what I think, but I don’t have a copy of it. Sometimes they will name the font on the verso of the title page, or at the back, but not always. I just checked Black rock white city, and it doesn’t name the font – but its chapter headings are sans serif font, and the text serif, which is what I remember being told when I did a course on manual writing way back in the 1990s!

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