Should You Design Your Own Book? Pro and Con

by Joel Friedlander on June 1, 2011 · 20 comments

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Digital printing and print on demand have allowed authors to take control of the production of their own books. Thousands of self-publishers have flourished as a result, ushering in a new era of self-publishing, and many of them want to design their own book.

When authors decide to publish their own books they are thrown into a world that was always hidden behind the doors of large book publishing firms. They’re responsible for editing, proofreading, fact checking, indexing, marketing, public relations and more.

Not only that, but the conventions, vendors, and other standard ways book publishing works are new and foreign to most authors. The learning curve can be steep. Some authors throw up their hands and abandon their projects before they’re finished. That’s a shame.

It’s Always Been This Way for Self-Publishers

Of course, savvy self-publishers have been confronting this situation for many years, well before print on demand. And in this era of downsizing and outsourcing, there’s a lot of freelance publishing talent available. Self-publishers who aim to create a commercial product usually hire the help they need rather than trying to learn every job in the publishing process. This makes good business sense.

But one area in which authors vary quite a bit is in how they deal with the design of their books.

Some want to hire the best designers they can afford and leave it to a professional to take care of all the details that go into creating a professional-looking book. They want a book that will gain the respect of book industry buyers, distributors, and which will be able to sell head-to-head against books from major publishers.

Others decide that if you’re a self-publisher, you can design your own book. They either use the tools they have—usually a word processor—or buy complex layout software that comes with its own learning curve.

Before you decide whether or not to design your own book, you might want to consider the pros and cons of each approach.

5 Reasons to Design Your Own Book

  1. You want to keep complete control of the project—You’ve dreamed of holding your book in your hand and you’re excited about the opportunity to decide on margins, typefaces, widows and orphans and all the other decisions that go into a book design.
  2. You have a clear idea of how you want your book to look—Perhaps you’ve been admiring the books of a certain writer, or from a particular publisher. You know exactly how you want your book to look and see no need to pay someone to do it for you.
  3. Your budget just doesn’t include anything for book design—Book designers, like other professionals, cost money, and books with complex formatting, lots of extra-text elements, anchored graphics, charts, graphs, tables and so on take quite a bit of time to assemble.
  4. You don’t think anyone else will get it—You feel your book is so unique that only you can correctly interpret it for the rest of the world, and you are dedicated to seeing it through, no matter how long it takes.
  5. You need to experiment—Your creativity requires lots of experimentation, trying different things and pulling them apart, then doing completely different designs. For a professional designer, this could end up costing you quite a bit of money. It may be better to do this experimentation on your own.

5 Reasons NOT to Design Your Own Book

  1. You simply don’t want to learn every aspect of publishing—Unless you have a passion for typefaces, running heads, chapter openings and the other minutia of book design, you might find it unproductive to study the entire field just to create one book.
  2. Your time is very limited—Most self-publishers have a “day job” and publish in their spare time. In addition to everything else they take on, becoming their own book designer may demand just too much time, slowing the production of their book.
  3. You want a book that looks just like one from a big publishing company—Let’s face it, the books we buy from traditional publishers usually look pretty good because they are the product of professionals at every step of the process. Unless you want to devote the time to acquire their expertise, the way to get a professional-looking book is to hire professionals.
  4. Your book is very complex—In the case of heavily-illustrated, extensively annotated or graphically complex books, the difficulty involved in creating these books yourself may be overwhelming, creating frustration where you should have enjoyment in the process.
  5. You’re publishing an art or photography book—Unless you have experience dealing with color correction, offset printing, RGB-to-CMYK color conversion and the advantages and disadvantages of various paper stocks, the production demands of these kinds of books pretty much require that you have a professional book designer involved somewhere along the line.

Whichever way you decide to produce your book, the best advice I can offer you is to spend a lot of time looking at books to see what the conventions are and how the books are put together. You’ll also get ideas that you can use in your own book.

The design of books hasn’t changed much in 500 years. Because of that, readers have clear (even if unconscious) expectations of what a book should look like. Follow these conventions and use good models for your own design, or hire a pro.

Either way, you’ll be doing what a lot of writers have only dreamed of: You’ll be a published author.

Photo by VFS Digital Design

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    { 16 comments… read them below or add one }

    martha hart October 5, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Nicely balanced post – the information, pros and cons, are especially useful for those who aren’t sure.

    I did all the parts for my first book, a text + 350 tritone photos project. I taught myself Quark for layout (Quark 3! this was before InDesign) and figured it all out. Book 2, I hired a designer for the cover, only because I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in; Book 3, I was very sure, so went back to it myself.

    Like Andrew, I’m trained in design as well as having a day job as a writer and editor. I think it would be tough to come up with a first-class product if you’re not, but that’s my point of view.

    Thanks for this post – I enjoy your blog; always something to glean from it. Cheers,

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Hi martha,

    Thanks. My last Quark was 3.3r1, funny how we remember stuff like that. InDesign is really nice, but I still miss the xcodes or whatever they were called because it was brilliant to be able to pre-code book files and then just dump them into Quark.

    Your photos are terrific, and the Blurb book looks excellent, nice job.

    If you’d like to write about your self-publishing experience, I’d love to run it here.

    Reply

    martha hart October 5, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Thank you kindly, Joel – self-pub is a journey. I learn something each time. Love the control with Blurb, but am looking at a Kickstarter campaign on the next one, to fund a litho print run.
    Would love to get something you next week, see how it fits.
    Cheers,

    Reply

    Andrew Butterworth November 28, 2011 at 11:58 am

    I do my own cover art as it gives me more control. However, I did study Graphic Design at university and worked as a designer for many years which helps. Most of the effects I use can be found on simple Photoshop tutorials though. If you have a good idea for a cover you can always give it a go and then pass your design on to a designer to refine and tweak or use as a starting point if need be. For some good links see http://bit.ly/ph7N5Z

    Reply

    Pavarti June 4, 2011 at 8:53 am

    What I usually do is probably more time consuming than most want to do but it’s the control freak in me :) I do it all myself, the cover and then layout for maybe the first few chapters. Then I contact consultants and get samples of their work. If theirs is better than mine and I can afford it I hire it out, if it’s no better than what I can do in GIMP and word then I don’t bother spending the money. Double work, maybe, but I’m confident that I’ve spent my money on a valuable resource instead of wasting it on something I can do myself.

    Reply

    paula hendricks June 1, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    another good one joel. one area that should be seriously considered is the facility one has with software — using it and learning it. if an author has a software phobia or no patience then doing the design themselves would not be a good use of time.

    and even then i’d use someone as my “consultant” to check at least the first book to make sure things are where they should be.

    ph

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 1, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Good point, Paula. I’ve consulted with authors that way to help them out when they are doing their own books. Whether it’s a cover critique or looking through their InDesign files, it can save a lot of headaches down the road. Thanks!

    Reply

    Sharon Lippincott June 1, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Thank you for this excellent post. I fully appreciate the points in this post covering both the pros and the cons. I’m so glad someone recognizes there are some pros.

    I’m one of the fortunate ducks who finally found her pond when word processing came along with all the formatting control one could possibly dream of. I am painfully aware of the increasingly great challenges in working with Word, but it can be done. Format and layout have always been part of my core message and the way I think. I began formatting as I went back in 1982 when I first loaded AppleWriter. That required entering printer codes by hand in the text, much like HTML. I killed a whole forest of trees getting it right.

    Layout and formatting is learnable. I offer a free ebook with pointers on the topic on my website. Unfortunately, as Joel points out, not just everyone “gets” it. Some people are blind to the fine points of design. Others lack the patience. It’s a blessing that professionals are available.

    However, not all professionals are equally reliable. I’m increasingly appalled at the proliferation of small indie presses who claim to feature “professional layout and design” and use standard Word templates with extra spacing between paragraphs, etc. I own a copy of one such book that features Microsoft Clipart on the commercially designed cover. They didn’t even flip it or change the colors! And the spine lacks a title. Sloppy. Tacky. Yuck! Professional? I think not. Commercial? Yes.

    I worked with a newly launched publisher to do all the layout for the first edition of my first published book in 1993. When they rolled out the second edition five years later, they invested in “professional” layout. I’ve done blind tests with strangers who don’t know the back story. They’ve all preferred the look of the first edition. So much for the professional.

    Be careful who you hire, and get some knowledgeable people to eyeball sample pages before you commit to a design no matter who does your design — if you have anything to say about it.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Sharon, thanks for the valuable advice. It’s certainly possible to learn layout, and today’s word processors are far more advanced than what we were working with in the 1980s. I’ve seen some incredible books done in Word, although they are outliers. Each writer’s decision is unique and has to be based on their own goals for publication. Great to have you reading here.

    Reply

    Gary June 1, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Halfway through my first design project I discovered a few unexpected benefits from laying out my own book. The book (a history) has a fairly complex layout with numerous graphics and photos, captions, bulleted lists, text boxes, etc. I am using a previous edition of the book printed 15 years ago as a guide, but have revised the text substantially and am making major changes to the organization and illustrations. Doing the layout myself was a great help in organizing a lot of disparate information, something I had struggled with in the manuscript phase. Laying out the basic elements of each chapter gave me a framework that made it much easier to decide where other information should be placed, and how it should be organized. I found myself revising the manuscript as a direct result of doing the layout myself, and am confident that it will be a better book as a result.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 1, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Gary, I know authors who actually compose their books right inside their layout program, although this has never appealed to me as a workflow. Your comment gives readers another view on how to organize a mass of information that may be daunting in one environment, but starts to make sense in another context, so thanks for that.

    Reply

    Stephen Tiano June 1, 2011 at 7:22 am

    It is, of course, possible, for one person to have the skills and design sense to do it all. But short of that, just looking to save money–as important as that is to anyone–is usually not a good reason to take such work on. At least not without some skills and design smarts.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 1, 2011 at 11:52 am

    Well said, Stephen, thanks for your input.

    Reply

    Sylvia June 1, 2011 at 4:56 am

    I’ve always stressed authors shouldn’t format their own books especially if they can barely type in Word. Thanks for this article! Enjoyed myself as usual

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 1, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Thanks Sylvia, and now you can show this article to your clients!

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus June 1, 2011 at 3:14 am

    I have a hybrid approach.

    (1) Because I don’t want to give up control of my pages, I format my book interiors.

    (2) Because I recognize my artistic limitations, I hire a professional artist to do most of my covers.

    (3) For less-important books, particularly with tight budgets, I design my own covers.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    http://www.Self-Pub.info
    http://www.GoodBadAndUglyBooks.com (reviews of books for writers)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

    Reply

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