In most areas of social and cultural development, the advent of the modern world and the modern state means that things which used to look and feel differently in different parts of a country or across Europe slowly began to resemble each other. Weights and measures, regulation, law, even language, as national, official languages conquered regional idioms and dialects. Our expectation to find the same Starbucks from one end of Europe to another, and the same coin, metric unit and trouser size scale, has a long history behind it.
But this didn’t seem to have happened to book design. Despite uniformisation and standardisation operating at all levels, books look very different whether you buy them in the UK, in France, in Italy or in, say, Romania.
Take the book designs in the UK and France. You’ll rarely find a paperback or a hardback published in the UK in the last twenty years, whatever the publisher might be, that doesn’t feature a photographic cover design. By contrast, in France, the most prestigious publishers like Gallimard, Seuil or Flammarion, to name a few, won’t give up on a geometric, almost minimalist cover design: author and title framed within a layout that hasn’t changed, for Gallimard for instance, in nearly 100 years.
The size will also be different. And French books, for instance, will rarely be sold in hardcover unless they’re part of a collector’s edition, like the Pléiades. While the Livre de Poche, with its regonisable in-16 size which can supposedly fit in a pocket (a mystery to me), has never been attempted in the islands across the Channel – despite the features the Poche shares with the Penguins, for instance.
My personal taste is for variety in book designs, and I rejoice that countries print differently from each other. Especially when PDFs, mobi, epubs and other ebook editions flatten the playing field without enriching it at all.