On the Importance of Typesetting

by Kevin Barrett Kane

I was recently asked to respond to some questions about the value of book design. Specifically, the prompt was to address whether or not authors underestimated the process of professional typesetting. This is what I had to say:


Do you think independent authors underestimate the importance of professional typesetting?

The short answer to this question is: yes, sometimes. I have had the pleasure of working with many authors who are aware of the importance of skillful book design, but all too often I find myself justifying the time, effort, and fees associated with the task. For those who need justification, we do our best to educate on the importance of good design. 

Authors who underestimate the importance of interior book design are not alone. Designing the interior of a book is a skill that takes years of training and application, even though the end result is often purposefully invisible to the untrained eye. Many typographers strive for what Beatrice Warde called “The Crystal Goblet,” a term based on her essay of the same name comparing typography to a crystal wine glass. As with the crystal, which functions to reveal the beauty of the wine itself, type is not meant to be noticed—it exists solely in the service of the author’s words. (There are exceptions to this method of typography, of course, but for the interior design of long-form content, Warde’s method is standard.) For this reason, typesetting is often overlooked by readers, authors, and even publishers. Today especially, with the proliferation of electronic books and digital content, typesetting has been further marginalized, since many of these platforms do not respect the design decisions made by the typographer. Still, the importance of professional typesetting cannot be emphasized enough. When the interior of a book is assembled by an inexperienced designer, there is a good chance that type will become noticeable, and not for good reason. Typographers can go on and on about legibility and readability, often to an obsessive degree, but despite its seemingly pedantic nature, the details that typographers obsess over profoundly affect the experience of a text. Although the pursuit of beautifully-set type may not interest the marketing and sales department, authors and publishers do a great disservice to centuries of specialization and study when they choose to ignore the importance of book design from cover to cover. 

Would you have any tips for authors who are looking to hire a professional layout designer?

If you truly care about the final product of your book project, care more effectively in two ways.

1. Do hire a professional designer. This will likely not be as cost-effective as you anticipated, but it will assuredly yield fantastic results. A book is not like other designs for websites, brands, or even other products. If crafted intelligently, a book can survive for centuries as a physical art object. Investing in the purposeful, careful, and practiced skills of a book designer is probably the safest investment you will ever make, and you can take the utmost pride in knowing that your name is affixed to something so permanent in a world of ever increasing ephemerality. 

2. Educate yourself and ask questions. Designers, and especially book designers, are some of the nerdiest people I’ve ever met. Having an interest in their trade can make a huge difference in the author-designer relationship. Ask questions about the designer’s process, and about the decisions they make while designing a book. If you find a designer who doesn’t have thorough answers to your questions about book design, you’ve probably hired the wrong designer.


This morning, after sending my responses off, I had a phone call with one of our authors for whom we are designing a second edition book. I have always enjoyed working with this specific author, and was excited when he decided to work with us again. I realized while speaking with him that I had somewhat misrepresented our clients and our work in the above answers. The truth is, I have some very traditional values when it comes to design. When prompted, I can get pretty preachy, as any of my friends can attest to. At the end of the day, however, the best part of my job is working with authors. I can happily say that we have never had a client who did not appreciate our work. Those who might not have were weeded out by our onboarding process, and for that I am thankful.

For designers in general, client-management is often the source of many difficulties. When it comes down to it, designers are providing a service, and when the deliverables of that service are somewhat subjective in nature, personal opinions start to fly. Luckily, with interior book design, explanations for my design decisions are readily available. There are "rules," you see, and guidelines that can be referenced when necessary.

Handling authors can look a bit different. For the most part, authors are the most intimately aware of their own work, and should be seen by the designer as a resource for inspiration. At the same time, it is necessary that authors understand that books designers are skilled professionals who've spent years educating and training for the purpose of designing books. Finding a balance between authorship from either side can be difficult, but collaborating on the design of a book can be highly satisfying if done right.

And the right thing is this: no matter how many individuals are involved in the production of the book, there is really only one real client: The Words. Everyone—the author, the editors, the designer, the publisher—works in the service of words, and this fact can be the most effective tool in communicating design decisions to authors.