Books: Bests and Worsts of Publishing

Just for fun, I thought I’d give my quite subjective opinion of the bests and worsts of book publishing that I’ve come across.  For reasons other than the content/subject, sometimes a book itself either annoys me like crazy or is a pleasure to read.  In other words, the following list doesn’t really have to do with the content of the book, but the quality of the publishing or writing.  By the way, it might be fun if you’re a blogger to take the list below and do your own thing with it – we’ll link it if you let us know.

Best overall layout: this goes to Luther’s Small Catechism With Explanation published by Concordia Publishing House (CPH; I generally like most CPH stuff).  The bold, color-coded font as well as the indentation and clear section divisions make this book a joy to read and easy to use. (A close second goes to the JPS OT commentaries.)

Worst overall layout:Here we have those old photo-lithiographed books that modern publishers simply “re-photo-lithiographed” – these are  immensely annoying to read, especially the smaller fonts.  A close second goes to Beale’s Erosion of Inerrancy book, which seemed like a bunch of articles cut and pasted into a haphazard book form making it very difficult to read/follow.  I might also mention that Wipf and Stock’s layouts, fonts, and odd book sizes never impress me – they seem a tad outdated or something, I can’t quite explain it.

Best Binding: I usually like WJK’s binding, along with Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft (LXX, BHS, GNT).  My Hebrew Bible has been through the ringer and is still going strong.  In fact, I think a friend of mine in seminary once left his Hebrew Bible on the roof of his car, only to have it crash to the ground as he sped away.  When he found it back, it was still good as new.  I might also mention IVPBanner of Truth, and Reformation Heritage Books in this category, I usually don’t have problems with these bindings.  One more: my copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Doubleday) has solid binding.

Worst Binding: here we have a tie between Eerdman’s printing of Berkhof’s Systematic Theology and Baker’s volumes of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. The former is bound by Elmers glue, it seems.   The later – despite being quite recently published – might just be bound with the with the same cardboard your Cheerios box utilizes.   Second, the Zondervan Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Hardcover) on the NT.  I freak out every time I touch these things, because they give me a sharp “CRACK!” when I open them.

Most Typographical Errors: this one is easy.  Hands down it goes to A Faith That is Not Alone (Kerygma). I have never in my life read anything published with so many editing errors as this book.  One guy who wrote for this book, who claims to be Reformed, said he signs on to the “Three Standards of Unity.”  What are those?   Sometimes in this book, half of a word is italicized, the other half is not.   I can’t even think of a close second in this category.  Had I turned in sloppy work like this in seminary… well, its the stuff nightmares are made of.

Worst citations: V. Whaley in Called to Worship. In this book, he cited and used Wikipedia for some backup of his biblical/theological statements.  I could barely finish reading it after I saw that!  Yikes!  Thomas Nelson might want to write a policy or something.  A close second goes to all books that have endnotes instead of footnotes.  Third place here goes to books without a Scripture index.  Perhaps these last two examples have to do with the publishers trying to save money – no excuse, though, in my book (no pun intended).  We need to lobby publishers to include footnotes and Scripture indices (I’m primarily thinking of Baker,  WJK, and Banner of Truth).

Most Handsome Book Overall (including ease of reading/use): I’d say Waltke and O’Conner’s Introduction To Biblical Hebrew Syntax gets an award here.  The indices, footnotes, outlines, and organization are all pretty solid – bravo Eisenbrauns!.  Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics also is right up there, as is BDAG (Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament).   For some reason, I am aesthetically pleased every time I grab and read Duke University Press’ Hauerwas Reader.  It is like a solid gold brick in my hands!

Least Handsome Book Overall (including difficulty of reading/use): Calvin’s Commentaries by Baker.  Ugly brown and gold, ugly font, and near-impossible indices make these books laborious to look at and read.  Further, I’m not a fan of the looks and layout of the Anchor Bible commentaries, nor do I think the NICOT/NICNT are that nice to use (though I realize these are older).  And what’s up with WJK’s deer-hunter orange Drama of Doctrine (by K. Vanhoozer), or [W]JK’s oddly colored Interpretation commentaries?  Is someone over there color blind?

Too Trendy: I think some of the Emergent/Missional sort of publishing is cheesy.  Green Press by Baker, Zondervan’s oddly sized trendy books – these things are annoying.  New publishing styles/fonts are sometimes fun, but they can be overdone.  Books that smell like soy are impossible to read!  Also, every Christian fiction book belongs here.  I’ll boycott the publisher who does a book series that is the Christian equivalent of Grey’s Anatomy.

Not Trendy Enough: P&R publishing can be mentioned here (apart from their “too trendy” foray into Christian fiction).  They’re not bad, but just so plain!  Same goes for Crossway and a number of others that I won’t list.

I’m sure you can add to these – feel free!  Again, it is just for fun, something different; I don’t mean to be too hard on the publishers!  I’m glad they publish and will keep purchasing their books (with the above Grey’s Anatomy exception).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

14 thoughts on “Books: Bests and Worsts of Publishing”

  1. One of the most handsome books of the past year (that I’ve come across anyway) is Dennison’s Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries. RHB did an excellent job on that one.

    Worst edited volume: Van Genderen and Velema’s Concise Reformed Dogmatics. P & R should be ashamed.


  2. Very nice. Creative post, Lems. When I have the chance, I’ll make sure to click on every single one of the links – from every single computer in the NELC department!!!


  3. Wes – thanks for the RHB note, and sorry to hear about VG and V’s Dogmatics! I don’t have it, so I can’t comment. Ouch!

    Andrew – Ha! Click til you’re blue in the … umm… wrist?



  4. Let me show some love to P&R — their Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes is the handsomest book I bought in 2009. Substantively and aesthetically first rate.

    Agree with you on Eerdman’s Berkhof. I’m almost afraid to crack it open. Not to mention the microscopic font and the odd variations in the ink.


  5. I think that Dr. Clark’s books on Olevianus and Reformed Scholastics are probably the absolute worst aesthetic-looking volumes I have ever witnessed in print.

    The content is entirely fantastic… but the publishers sure do know how to turn people away with book cover art.


    Dr. Clark, if you read this… no offense!


  6. The Word Biblical Commentary series are bound so poorly you have to treat them like the the Dead Sea scrolls or they fall apart simply by turning the page! Of course you do know that authors rarely have any in put into such things-at least that has been my experience-the only exception was with P&R and the book I recenly edited on Warfield- the picture on the cover was suggested to me by one of the contributors, Brad Gundlach and P&R accepted it( however I had no say in the fonts they used)


  7. As I study this morning, the one factor I would consider in developing a best/worst list would be indexes. I like a theology book with lots of indexes- scriptural, names, works cited, subject, specific words… the more indexes the better. After all, even the best theology isn’t going to do any good if you can’t find it again later!

    One tool I use quite often to help out here is google books. I use it even with the books that I have hard copies of- especially Berkhof. If I can remember just a few words of a phrase I read I can type that into the search bar and find not only the exact page it’s on, but the placement of the phrase on the page!

    One tool I’d like to have, but haven’t found yet is a scripture/confession index. If I’m reading a specific passage of scripture, I’d like to know all of the sections of various confessions that are based on that text. If anyone could point something like that out, I’d appreciate it!


  8. BTW, I hate it when I buy a book that is ugly and then when the next version comes out it looks good. I am always tempted to sell and re-buy the prettier version. For example the newest version of Calvin’s Commentaries is a step in the right direction, but I am stuck with the ugly brown and gold set.


  9. Some of the most out-of-proportion-cost-to-quality books have been Horton’s 4 volumes on systematics from WJK. The footnotes are confusing (the use of “Ibid.” is not accurate) and contain quite a few errors, the margins are tiny, the leading is far too small for the density of those big rectangular blocks of type, etc. While their use of Garamond is crisp and the subtitles are helpful, the card stock of the cover is slightly thicker than 80lb copy paper: they have all been curled since after 2 weeks of reading. Oh, and the covers are Microsoft Word-quality design and printed on an inkjet. All of this for almost $40. WJK needs to take a page from Cambridge UP’s products. Sorry for the rant; thanks for the great post.


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