Hofstra Professor Joe Gannon on Bookmaking

By Lindsay Demarco

Joe Gannon is an Adjunct Associate Professor teaching in the Publishing Studies program of the English Department. He received his BS with a concentration in Technical Communications from New Jersey Institute of Technology, studied book publishing at NYU-SCPS, and management in the Adelphi University School of Business MBA program. He has previously taught Book Production at CUNY’s Midtown Center and began teaching at Hofstra in 2001. His company, Mulberry Tree Press, Inc., provides a variety of services to book publishers. He has worked in the publishing industry since 1975 holding a number of senior management positions with responsibility for editorial, design, production, manufacturing, and distribution. As technical consultant in the revision of Marshall Lee’s Bookmaking, 3rd Ed., he helped bring this industry-standard reference up to date as the personal computer revolution forever changed the face of publishing. He is also the author of a number of books published by Mud Puddle, Inc. with total sales in excess of 630,000 copies.

What is your mental process when making the design decisions for a book? What are the first things you think about?

Joe Gannon: There are several major design decisions that are often already made before a book is handed over to a designer; such as trim size, expected page count, and number and type of illustrations. But, the first step should always be to assess the validity of those choices. Then, style issues need to be resolved, like margins, alignments, typeface selection, etc. Designing a book is  a communications problem: How to make the ideas more accessible.

In your opinion, what are the most important aspects in book design?

JG: First comes the ability of the design to enhance the communication between author and reader. Design should be dictated by the needs of the book and its reader, not by the needs of the designer. Read the book if there’s time, skim it if there isn’t. Talk to the editor, and if possible the author. Try to get a handle on what the book wants to look like.

What are some of the biggest challenges you come across when working on a book, and how do you overcome them?

JG: The biggest problems are in situations in which the publisher, editor, or even the author insist on a design choice that I believe is not suitable, or not the best solution for the book. The challenge is to get a consensus that serves the book well.

What’s the hardest part about designing a book?

JG: Achieving that consensus in the face of various pressures. The challenge is political, as is its solution. It requires a gentle persuasion to overcome the imposition of bad ideas.

What is your favorite book designing story (either because of the people you worked with or the project you worked on)?

JG: I worked with Jackie Onassis on a facsimile reproduction of a classic illustrated Russian folktale, The Golden Cockerel. She was a top-notch professional when it came to the art and business of publishing. And she believed in the value of what she was publishing. Another project of note would be the signed & numbered limited edition of Stephen King’s The Stand. That one posed significant challenges in sorting out the top-flight specification and special manufacturing for very high-end (read expensive) luxury edition.

How much do you think the design of the book affects its success?

JG: I categorize books two different ways from a design standpoint. In the case of heavily-designed books—generally illustrated, like kids books, or art books, or books with complex typography—there is an overt contribution to the success of the book. But even in simpler designs—like the text of a novel—there is a profound subliminal contribution. In those books it is easier to see the ones where the design does not work. Good design in those books is largely invisible.

Why do you love designing books? What made you want to teach it?

JG: I have loved everything about books since I was a small child. Design is just one of the ways I get to contribute to an art form that, properly executed, lends a good deal of permanence to ideas, hopes, dreams, and values. The books I helped create will long outlive me.

And, I teach to pay it forward, and to stay on my game.

As a professor teaching these book design skills, how do you prioritize what the students learn and how much time you spend on the lessons?

JG: I try to make sure I am teaching useful stuff, and explaining the roots and foundations on which that body of knowledge is built.

At Hofstra you teach Book Design and Production, the Theory and Practice of Publishing, and Digital Publishing. Which of these is your favorite to teach? Why?

JG: I suppose Book Design & Production is more “in my wheelhouse,” but the other two are also fun to teach, especially when I get a group of students who are truly interested in the subject.

Do you have any advice for students who want to go into the publishing industry?

JG: Don’t expect any instant success, although it does happen occasionally. But if you love books, and work at it, there’s a rewarding career in it.


Interview by Lindsay Demarco.

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