Here is my take on what works and what doesn't, my likes and dislikes about sketchbooks - Honestly... it's that most of the cheap one's suck. Some of the expensive ones suck too. I personally need one that can take some abuse. A lot of the sketchbooks that I have used that don't work for me are the perfect bound stitched books. They look really nice at the store but usually fall apart in very little time and if you add to the pages pages, glue in photocopies or work in any type of multi-media art they don't expand well which is why they tend to break apart. The spine of this sketchbook to the right completely split apart and pages are falling out so I had to stop using it.
Moleskin brand sketchbooks are saddle stitched and are conveniently sized which is great if you need to travel or if you tend to work small. I have tried them and haven't really had much success with them. But they hold up well and they even have sort of a cult following. For those who haven't heard of it, the sketchbook project is a project where you pay for a book, work it under a set theme and send it back to the project and then it gets national display in a traveling exhibit as well as becomes part of a permanent collection. Pretty cool deal if you are a super sketcher/journal type person. I tried it but couldn't finish in time so I never sent it in. Working on 2 books at once was hard so the project book got left out a lot.
For me, my favorite type of sketchbook is a spiral bound book. I have had several that I loved (I can't find them any more actually) they had a hard plastic type cover and thick plastic spirals. Very hardy and well designed. The sketchbooks I use currently are pretty sturdy and last several years with some heavy abuse (these are wire bound spirals, shown below). What makes them great is that the spirals allow them to be expandable which helps them to not fall apart over time as it fills up. Paper is decent quality, can handle most mediums and once the page dries it stays flat. Covers are rugged and some even have a hard cardboard backing behind the paper just before the back cover that strengthens them even more. I even go so far as to customize my books and I make DIY pockets for the inside covers to hold loose cut-outs, and articles I find that I want to collage in when ever I find the right page for them.
Another part to consider is the paper inside. Obviously you can't try it before you buy it in a store so you have to rely on touch. Sketchbook paper comes in a wide variety of surfaces (tooth) and weights (relating to thickness of the paper) each suited to a different range of media. The cheap sketchbooks tend to have the worst paper and are only good for pencil or pastel work. The tooth of the paper is non-existent and feels very thin with some sort of coating on it and not very opaque. Remember that if you use markers, sharpies etc. it will bleed trough and you wont be able to use the other side. Hold it up to the light and if you can see your hand through it even a little bit stay away from it. Pricer sketchbooks will have better paper, that feels softer, thicker and have a nice tooth to it. I will do another post on papers that talks about weights, tooth, and gives examples on usability. In the mean time...
Several Brands I Recommend: