Designing “Mystery and Mortality” (A Book Is Born #3)

by | Jan 31, 2017 | A Book Is Born, Behind the Scenes

Welcome back to “A Book Is Born,” Publishing Genius’s series on the process of putting out our next book—a collection of essays by Paula Bomer called Mystery and Mortality: Essays on the Sad, Short Gift of Life.

On January 17, I introduced Paula and talked about the editing process (and confessed to a goof). You can read previous installments here. Today it’s all about designing the book.

Designing the book

This is one of my favorite stages in the process, because it’s here that it starts to finally look like a book. Paula and I talked a bit about the cover, but she said she’s always been hands off with this step so I set off on my own, like Diogenes looking for a book jacket.


Aside from the manuscript, the first thing I always look at when designing a book is … other books. I pull titles from my shelf that are similar in length, genre, tone. For this book, which is short, Paula and I had already been talking about Ongoingness, by Sarah Manguso, and Little Labors by Rivka Galchen, both of which are short and of a piece with Mystery and Mortality. My wife owns the Manguso book, so I thumbed through it and found the design (from Graywolf Press) agreeable.

Decided: the book will be kinda small. 5″ wide by 7.5″ tall.

The next thing I look at is Cover, by Peter Mendelsund, which is a breathtaking, big book of his work as art director at Knopf.


It reminds me to work hard. I also like Logo Design Love by David Airey, because it shows all the ways a design problem can be solved.


After I make myself feel deeply insufficient, I just start making mockups, putting images and text into Photoshop in a “first thought, best thought” kinda way. Everything looks good at first, but after I sleep on it I usually can’t figure out what in the world I was thinking. Most of the mockups I’m too embarrassed to show, but here’s one I nixed:


Finally, I got a little conviction about an idea and shared it on Facebook.


I love how small the text is, but how it’s still prevalent. I think the desolation in the photo fits the impact of the essays.

You can see there was some feedback. It was a good workshopping. Most people liked it. Someone said it looks like an REI catalog. Someone said it was too obvious, but others said it was contradictory. Tony Mancus used powerpoint and sent me a good alternative version that I like a lot:


Page Design

I’m still obsessing about the cover as I move now to the page layout part of the process. If you are interested in seeing that take shape, and you happen to be online with nothing to do starting at 2pm (eastern time, since I’m in Atlanta), I’m going to try to use Facebook Live to broadcast the page design step. Befriend me and you should be able to tune in!

And that’s all there is to it. Next time I’ll be talking about, uhhhhh, marketing and actually selling the book. Stay tuned!