5 Questions with Book Designer Ashley Holstrom

We talk page counts, fonts and more

Ashley Holstrom, a book production designer at Sourcebooks, aims to be invisible. She selects the fonts for books and ensures the blocks of text are in alignment — all the things we readers don’t notice unless they’re off. The work she and her colleagues do makes our reading experience seamless.

In addition to her day job, Ashley writes one of my favorite book newsletters, Crooked Reads, where she offers mini-reviews of books and other excellent recommendations.

Ashley was kind enough to chat with me about both her job and her newsletter. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

As a production designer, you’re given a chunk of text and asked to make it readable. How do you do that?

Our editorial and production editors go through a manuscript and style it. They’ll highlight passages and indicate that they need to be bold, or that something is a text message, or that a passage is a handwritten letter. I develop a document template with all those styles set.

I also do a lot of math to figure out a book’s page count. Each genre has a certain page count range that audiences expect. If a book is way over or way under on page count, that’s when we space things out or shrink things to fit in the standard page count because it’s also more expensive when you have to print on more paper. So, I figure out how many lines per page and the right type size to get to the right page count.

Do you get to choose the font for books, or is that predetermined? 

It depends. For some genres, like romance, all the books have the same font that my coworkers and I agreed to use. For many books, especially in YA, we create a brand new template because we want it to be fun and engaging. And we want it to match the covers, which are really lovely. 

In those cases, I look at the cover and try to find something that matches it. My coworker worked on Ryan La Sala’s book, Be DazzledThe cover has sequins on it and the text is hand-stiched. She spent days looking for a font that would match it well. 

What are some of the books you’ve worked on?

One upcoming release I’m excited about is Sunny Song Will Never Be FamousIt’s about a teenage girl shipped off to a digital detox camp. The cover is cute and illustrated, and I loved the chicken on it.

I took the head of the chicken illustration from the cover and put it in an oval frame to look like those framed pictures you see in sorority houses. I really wanted to highlight that silly chicken, so that’s the chapter opener image. 

I also worked on The Tourist Attraction by Sarah Morgenthaler. [Editor’s Note: I love this book and its sequel Mistletoe and Mr. Rightand The Kidnap Years by David Stout. 

Tell us a little about Crooked Reads.

I wanted to write something where I could share a couple of books that I liked and anything else that I feel like sharing.

I’ve always really loved Laura Olin and Austin Kleon. Both have weekly newsletters where they share ten things that are interesting for the week. Sometimes it’s stuff that they’ve worked on, or an obituary for someone big in the art scene, or just an interesting, thoughtful think piece. And I like that.

I wanted to do something where I’m chronicling my own life, so I try to write a little personal intro. I don’t know if people even care about the personal part or if they’re just there for the books, but I like it for me. That’s part of what keeps me doing it — is that I do it for myself, and also to recommend books to people. 

Well, do you have any books you want to recommend now?

What Doesn’t Kill You by Tessa Miller is a memoir about her experiences with Crohn’s disease and about being a woman going to the doctor, and doctors not necessarily believing that your pain is real. But, her body was eating itself. She gets really in-depth about a lot of medical stuff that I didn’t know about. 

I also just read The Way She Feels by Courtney Cook. It’s a graphic memoir with essays; it’s like comics interspersed with essays about borderline personality disorder. It’s coming out this summer and is beautiful and moving. It felt like reading a journal of my friend.

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Thanks so much to Ashley for speaking with me! You can follow her on Twitter and subscribe to Crooked Reads. 

This week is National Library Week. Thanks to all of you who are librarians for all you do!


What to Read If is a free weekly book recommendation newsletter. Need a rec? Want to gush about a book? Reply to this email, leave a comment or find me on Twitter @elizabethheld.

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