For most of my life, the public was willing to trust experts—in whatever field—to render judgment on what was better or worse (an argument, a product quality, an artistic work). The zeitgeist has shifted, and now the cultural norm is to distrust experts and reject expertise as a basis for judgment. This applies to book production as much as to anything else.
So if you have never taken the time to notice or have never been exposed to high-quality books in the past and all you have is the book in hand, with no formal education or training in print production, you might pick up a book in isolation and pronounce it well made. Okay, fine. If a hundred people pick up a book in isolation and pronounce it well made, then well made it is, according to public opinion.
But now let me approach the question from an expert's perspective.
Over the last fifty years, give or take, older, more expensive production technologies have given way to newer, cheaper technologies. At the same time, automation has raised the bottom (made it easier for unskilled workers to turn out acceptable work). The average quality has gone up, but the level of quality that top publishers used to fund has largely disappeared in the interests of lowered costs and higher profits.
The rationalization of publishing by the kids who came home in the 1980s with their freshly minted MBAs and said "Dad, let's take the company public; we'll make a killing" has resulted in a world in which the only books publishing executives look at are their accounting books. No one is competing on the basis of the look and feel of the finished product anymore.
Judging the physical object
A given title might be printed in any of several different ways.
- It might be a print-on-demand (POD) book. This is a book printed one at a time in response to an online order. It is different from the book it follows down the production line and from the book that follows it. The publisher was offered very little choice in terms of paper quality. The machine operator is not a printing professional and, even if they are, does not have the opportunity to calibrate the color printing for the cover. The printer makes money while the machine is running, so there is little opportunity to calibrate even the black printing.
- It might be digitally printed by a book manufacturer. This process uses basically the same equipment as the POD process. But as several copies are going to be printed at the same time, the operator has the opportunity to make needed adjustments to ensure quality, and the publisher is given a much wider range of paper choices.
- It might be printed on an offset press. This is a method used for higher production volumes. Some offset presses are sheet fed, meaning the paper comes to the printer as large sheets on a pallet, and the press lifts one sheet at a time off the stack. Some offset presses are web presses, meaning the paper comes on a continuous roll and is cut into sheets at the delivery end of the press, after it is printed. Web presses run at higher speeds than sheet-fed presses. They are often (not always) less precise.
- And there are a variety of other technologies, including high-speed inkjet web presses on one end of the spectrum and slower-than-molasses Espresso Book Machines on the other end (the kind you can see in a large bookstore where you bring in your own book on a thumb drive and they print it for you).
In addition, there are several ways a book might be bound.
- Softcover (available in several configurations)
- Cloth (hardcover with cloth-covered boards, available in several configurations), with or without a dust jacket
- Image-wrap (hardcover with an image printed on it)
With that preamble, and with a stack of books of varying ages and categories in front of you, here are the factors you should practice observing:
- Pick up the closed book and look at all three cut edges. Are the pages flat or are they wavy? Is the book rectangular (check with a square)?
- Lay the book on a table. If it's a softcover, does it stay closed, or does the cover curl up? If it's a hardcover, is the cover flat against the book or arched? How does the thickness and stiffness of the cover compare with other books of the same general type?
- Is the design of the cover appropriate for the book's genre?
- Is the cover attractive? Is it executed well? Does it look professional? Does it include all the text and graphic components expected for the type of book it is (shelving category on the back cover, bar code, publisher name)? Is the author's name spelled correctly? Does the title on the cover match the title on the title page?
- Open the book to the middle. If it's a softcover, is it a perfectbound book (pages glued to the spine) or does it open flat (cover separated from the back of the pages). If it's a hardcover, does it lie flat or snap closed?
- Is the paper a pleasing color, texture, and weight, or does it seem a bit off, a bit too cheap?
- Grasp a single leaf in the middle of the book and hold it up to a light. Is the type on the back of the page perfectly aligned with the type on the front of the page? That is, are the margins identical at the top and outside, or is one page just a smidge above or to the outside of the other? This is called backup; and if they're not the same, the flaw is called a backup error.
- Now riffle through the whole book, keeping an eye on the running head (top line of text). If it moves up and down as you flip the pages, this is called head bounce. Riffle again, watching the outside margin for edge bounce.
- Do the lines of type within the page exactly back up? This is only checkable if the two pages are just straight paragraphs of text. A lazy designer may feather the lines apart on one page to make the bottom margins align, but this is a serious design no-no.
- Now look at a page overall. Do the margins seem well proportioned and ample, or is there too much type crammed on the page for comfortable reading?
- Half-close your eyes so you're looking through your lashes at a blurred page. Is the rectangle of type a uniform gray, or is it spotty, with light areas and dark areas?
- Do facing pages balance (come to the same depth, so the bottom margins are the same across the spread)?
- Are there widows (last line of a paragraph at the top of a page) and orphans (first line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page). Orphans are generally permissible in fiction, so you wouldn't deduct points there.
- Looking at the type a bit more closely, are there ladders (three or more lines in a row that end with a hyphen), stacks (two or three lines that begin or end with the same word), rivers (noticeable streaks of white where the word spaces on several successive lines happen to line up), pigeonholes (huge word spaces), runts (very short lines at the end of a paragraph), bad breaks (hyphenated compounds where one of the components is also hyphenated at the end of a line; words misdivided at the end of a line; awkwardly broken names, and so forth)?
- Was care taken with the copyediting and typesetting in general, so that punctuation is consistent and helpful to the reader, proper typographer's quotation marks, dashes, and ellipses are used, and so forth? Or did the designer just dump a half-edited Word file into the pages without giving it a second thought?
- Is the typography and overall design of the pages consistent with the content of the book? Is it overdesigned to the point that the design elements distract from the content? Or is it underdesigned to the point that reading is annoying and uncomfortable? Is the design, in other words, interfering in the conversation between author and reader?
- Flip through the book. Is foreword spelled correctly? Is acknowledgments (US) or acknowledgements (elsewhere) spelled correctly? Are the preliminary pages (prelims) numbered with lowercase roman numerals so that the book proper can begin on page 1 with arabic numerals? Does the copyright page contain all of the expected information? Does the book have an index (not all genres have indexes) that seems proportional to the text and well thought out?
Those are some of the factors a contest judge takes into account. Spend a few minutes examining some books yourself, and see what you can observe.