Should Authors Design Their Own Books?

by Joel Friedlander on March 7, 2012 · 30 comments

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Sooner or later, as an author who wants to self-publish a book, you’ll come to the question we all face: should you also design your own book?

But what’s really behind this question is another question that might help answer the first one: When exactly is it okay for an author to design her own book, and when would it be better to hire a book designer? How do you decide on the strategy you’re going to use to design your book?

Some authors want to hire the best designer they can afford, happy to leave all the details that go into creating a professional-looking book to someone else. They want a book that will gain the respect of book industry buyers and distributors and sell head-to-head against books from major publishers.

Others decide that, since they are independent publishers doing marketing, distribution, and file conversions, they might as well design their own books. They use commonplace tools—usually a word processor—or buy complex layout software that comes with its own learning curve.

It’s exciting that so many people are able to publish their own books now. When you get to the big question of “Should I design my books myself?” you might find yourself deciding based on one of these four motivations.

Four Reasons for Authors to Design Their Own Books


  1. Budget—Many authors’ just don’t have the money for professional design. And if you’re stretched, getting your book professionally edited is the most important priority. If you have no money for a designer, you can try to do a barter for part or all of the cost, but many authors end up doing it themselves to save money. Look for book templates that can help you get started, and which are available from some print on demand vendors.

  2. Control—Some authors are very concerned with how their book looks. They spend a lot of time experimenting with fonts, layout, book sizes and other details of the book creation process. It can be uncomfortable for these authors to give up control of how their book will look, and so they hold onto the production process trying to get exactly the effect they want.

  3. Expertise—There are authors who have a background in graphic design, or who have someone with the required expertise available. For instance, a business owner might have a graphic artist on their payroll to help out with layout and formatting. And if you have a background in graphic design and some familiarity with the tools of typography, you could probably learn basic book design.

  4. DIY gene—Let’s face it, there are authors who would never consider letting someone else work on their book. Some people just have “do-it-yourself” genetics. These may be the same people who fix their own roof, know how to repair the plumbing, and change their own spark plugs. They see the design of their book as a challenge to look forward to, and enjoy learning all the new things they need to know to do it right.

Factors to Consider When Deciding Whether to Design Your Own Books

Whichever one of these four groups you find yourself in, there are some books that lend themselves to amateur design more than others. Thinking about the kind of book you want to publish will help you come to a design strategy.

To make this more clear, here are some examples of strategies for book design that apply to specific kinds of books. In some cases it’s perfectly reasonable for authors to design their own books, at other times you might want to find a pro to help out.

  • Books with complex layouts—In the case of heavily-illustrated, extensively annotated or graphically complex books, the difficulty involved in creating these books yourself may be overwhelming, and you’ll get frustrated instead of enjoying the process. If your book has lots of figures, charts, diagrams, sidebars, lots of typographic elements, think twice about doing it yourself if the only tool you have available is a word processor.

  • You write novels—This is the easiest type of book to design if you want to do it yourself. Novels usually have chapter breaks and text breaks and not much else when it comes to formatting. If you get a good quality typeface and lay out your basic pages correctly, you should be well on your way to doing your own book.

  • No time to learn new things—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 down the whole process.

  • You need your book to look totally “pro”—The books we buy from traditional publishers usually look good because they’re the product of professionals. Unless you want to devote the time to acquire their expertise, the way to get a professional-looking book is to hire professionals.

  • Personal memoirs or private publications—Memoirs are most like novels in that they usually require very little formatting. That makes them good candidates for authors to design. This is especially true if the memoir or other historical book is intended for a small audience.

  • Art or photography books—Unless you have experience dealing with color correction and printing, you’ll be better off involving a professional book designer somewhere along the line.

  • Any offset book—When you use offset printing you’re likely going to print 1,000 or more books. You’ll be paying the printer thousands of dollars, and hiring a designer who knows how to produce books will be a good investment.

Whichever way you decide to produce your book, it’s a good idea to spend time looking at books, particularly the other books in your genre or category. Can you find some that are easier to read than others? Books that show the hierarchy of information effectively? Books that are fun to hold and feel good in your hand?

This kind of research is fun and rewarding. It’s a great way to learn how to look at books differently. Not as a reader focused on the content, but as a publisher knows their readers and what they’re looking for.

This post originally appeared on CreateSpace.com on July 28, 2011 in a different form under the title Should Authors Design Their Own Books? Photo by Simon Zirkunow

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    { 29 comments… read them below or add one }

    Otis G. Sanders March 7, 2012 at 12:21 am

    You covered some great points as it relates to designing book covers. Although I’m a professional photographer and have had design classes I know when I’m out of my league. I didn’t want to design my book cover because I wanted it to look as good or better than the well know authors’ cover, so I had my book cover designed by a professional. What a difference it makes!

    Reply

    Colin Dunbar March 7, 2012 at 1:26 am

    Hello Joel

    This is a neat article, and you’ve really covered the main points very well. I think something that’s forgotten (for non-fiction books) is that the only objective is to the reader: make it as easy & enjoyable for the reader to use/read the book. Also, with the tremendous growth of ebooks & ePubs, the independent author should realize that there can be a (frustrating) learning curve, and can take up valuable time to get it right.

    Thanks for the article, Joel.
    Colin

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus March 7, 2012 at 2:05 am

    There’s a compromise position between hiring a pro and pure D-I-Y.

    I’m not an artist, but I like control over the way my books look.

    For important books I hire a pro to design the cover (with my input) — but I format the interiors.

    I want to make the decisions about killing widows and orphans, condensing and expanding words and lines, moving, adjusting or eliminating photos, adding, eliminating or replacing words to change page length and chapter breaks, etc.

    I might change “macaroni” to the shorter “pasta” to save a line, or insert “Ernest” before “Hemingway” to expand the text, but I would not want a designer to be my editor.

    For me (and maybe for a few others), writing, editing and formatting go together. The medium and the message can’t be unlinked. When I write a book, I work with page spreads and chapters, not just thousands of lines of text.

    (For less important books or when my cover artist is very busy, I sometimes dabble in cover design. I’m getting better, and even you said you liked one of my recent covers.)

    Michael N. Marcus

    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    http://www.BookFur.com (information, help and book reviews for authors)
    – Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    – New: deluxe hardcover edition of “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0983057249

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 7, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Yes, you’re getting better. There are so many writers with so many different ways of working, it’s interesting to hear how other people do it. I find the “spread” or “page layout” distracting when I’m writing, so I’ve gradually gone to less and less distracting writing environment, and only use layout software for design and production layouts. Glad you found a way that’s working for you, Michael.

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus March 7, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    I was copyeditor on my college paper and often had to trim text to fit the page. After college I was ass’t ed of a trade mag in NYC, and had to do the same thing. Later I worked for ad agencies and had to write to fit the available space (or available time for commercials). I couldn’t tell an ad client to buy an additional page or 30 more seconds to contain my precious words.

    If my background was in writing fiction or web pages or reporting for NPR (with no limits of space or time) my book production style might have evolved differently.

    Reply

    David Bergsland March 9, 2012 at 8:30 am

    As the author of “Writing In InDesign” I can’t resist jumping in here. Marcus mentions one of the major benefits of doing it yourself.

    If I am writing it as I format it I can easily rewrite, add and subtract copy, to make it fit the page well. I can place illustrations into the copy where they make sense to the reader. I can see confusing portions of the layout and change it to make it better for the reader.

    I’ve just spent a very intensive few months working on the second edition of Writing In InDesign. It’s been great fun to put myself to the challenge. I have a friend who is regularly showing me where I forgot something. I’ve added 150 pages while trimming a lot of unnecessary stuff. I must say that the creative immersion is wonderfully joyful for me. But then that’s just me, isn’t it?

    It’s a wonderful learning tool for me.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 9, 2012 at 10:53 am

    David,

    I guess we’re all just wired differently. I enjoy the time I spend using InDesign quite a bit, but I’ve got the design and layout functions of my brain in a completely separate room from the writing function. There’s not even an intercom between those rooms. The payoff for me is that I don’t have to switch from one mindset to the other, since design/layout is more of a physical process for me, while writing seems to use more mental/emotional work. Thanks for diving in here, and looking forward to your new edition!

    LM Preston March 7, 2012 at 3:44 am

    Cover design is a big deal. It’s the first blush a reader has that represents your work. Sometimes I don’t think publishers or self-publishers get it right the first time. You see this in the many cover changes of widely distributed books – but sometimes they nail the covers. Truth is the author can’t always be the one that has the ‘sales’ eye for the right cover geared at a specific market. But time tells. When you make a mistake in a cover it’s not that difficult to change it.

    Reply

    carol brill March 7, 2012 at 3:57 am

    Hi Joel, I know services like Book Baby offer help with cover design but do they offer reliable services for internal book design too? Can you give us an idea of cost for book design for a typical, simple 300-350 page novel?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 7, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Since Bookbaby started offering print services, they probably are offering design and layout as well. All I can say is that there are many technical challenges with print books you don’t have to address with ebooks, which have their own technical challenges.

    Novels are the easiest books to design. I can’t say what the “low” figure might be because, hey, this is the internet and there’s always someone cheaper a click away. My estimate for a reasonable price on a 300 page novel would be somewhere between $600 and $1500. Hope that helps.

    Reply

    Otis G. March 7, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    Joel: With this, my first book I’ve found the print version to be the easier thus far. I’m having BookBaby convert my printed book to an ebook, but what I didn’t know was that I would have to redesign my book so it didn’t have colums and make it a vertical book as I designed it as a landscape book with columns on the pages. That was done for a better look as far as design was concerned. Since this is also a table-top book I have 50 large images in the book, and that cost more also. I also didn’t know it would take soooo long! It’s been almost three months and it’s not done yet. I think I will have to invest the time and learn to do the conversion myself for the next book. Yes, there are challenges with ebooks also!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 7, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Otis, thanks for the comment. I’m surprised it’s taking that long, most take days or weeks, but the changes being made to the book are extensive. And while print books are often more difficult than ebooks, in the case of heavily formatted and heavily illustrated books, the reverse could also be true, since they are not well-suited just yet to ebook conversion.

    Reply

    Turndog Millionaire March 7, 2012 at 4:07 am

    I feel fairly comfortable with designing my own book cover as i have a fairly decent, although trial and error, knowledge of photoshop. Being in marketing i always like to try some new creative licence so designing a cover is quite exciting (actually, i’ve already done a few drafts for my future book :)

    As for the layout, well i think i’m ok with an ebook as it’s a fairly simply structure and i have Scrivener. If i want to do a print version though i may need help. I feel it could become a rather long job

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

    Reply

    Matt March 7, 2012 at 6:28 am

    Good info here on DIY design vs hire out but it leaves out the middle alternative of going to a place like Fastpencil that can automatically format your manuscript via a variety of nicely designed/ print-ready templates.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 7, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Matt, good point. Those options were intentionally left out since they usually require that you purchase lots of other services from the companies involved. Here I’m specifically looking at giving indie authors who do their own publishing some guidelines they might find useful.

    Reply

    Jay Cookingham March 7, 2012 at 6:50 am

    Tremendous list and (although I design book covers for a living, so my opinion might be slanted) I think book design should be left to someone with the skill and knowledge to do so. However, you may be an individual that can design a rough idea and by showing that to a designer can save you some money. Thanks for the post!

    Reply

    Mark LaFlamme March 7, 2012 at 8:42 am

    Photoshop, to me, is like walking through a dark house with various dangerous instruments strewn about at random. A chainsaw here, some barbed wire there. By the time I navigate through all of that, I’m a mangled mess. Don’t get me wrong. I can put a friend’s oversized head on a super model’s body like nobody’s business. But for actual book design that will be used for more than to taunt and harass, fergetaboutit. I have no choice but to bow to the professionals.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 7, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Photoshop of horrors? LOL

    Reply

    Mark LaFlamme March 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Oooh, nicely done.

    Reply

    Jaye March 7, 2012 at 9:42 am

    DIY gene… I like that. I think I have that. I also hope I have sense enough to realize when my puny grasp of the basics collides with the necessity of experience and expertise.

    I’m of the mind that anyone who wants to self-publish should take the time to learn THE BASICS of being a publisher. That means learning how production works. Knowing what a pro does means making wise choices about hiring the best people to do the best job.

    Reply

    sheilaodomhollinghead March 8, 2012 at 9:26 am

    I’ve got the DIY gene. I designed my own book with the input of others who had the know-how. My son who is a drafter and has a good eye for design also helped me out on the cover. I’m very pleased with the result.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 8, 2012 at 10:25 am

    I used to have that DIY gene, but through advanced medical procedures I’ve managed to overcome it. Seriously, DIY can be super enjoyable but isn’t usually the most efficient way to produce a book and doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get a result you’re really happy with. But genetics are determinative, so carry on!

    Reply

    Cynthia Morris March 8, 2012 at 9:53 am

    My advice: Don’t do it! Don’t design your own book. Unless you have skills in design. Even then, you might not have the critical distance to design something wonderful.

    For me, hiring designers is essential, for both the cover and the interior. The cover is so important and it’s not worth risking bad design.

    Design is like writing – many people can put words or images on a page, but not everyone can do it at a professional level.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 8, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Nicely put, Cyinthia, thanks for that. Covers are particularly troublesome for amateurs, so making that a priority makes sense.

    Reply

    Matt March 8, 2012 at 10:24 am

    Great ideas and suggestions. I always thought DIY would be better as you have the perspective of having not only read but written the book. Similar to being able to select an appropriate title.

    Hiring outside would have the additional challenge of probably needing the designer to have read the book first, which I’m not sure they have the time to do. But, that said, I’m sure any designer with experience has done work for many more genres or themes, can help to tell you what generally works, what doesn’t, get you in the ballpark.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander March 8, 2012 at 10:31 am

    That’s interesting Matt, but I’m not sure it makes sense. The skill of designing a book is quite separate from the skills it takes to write one, and I’d wager you wouldn’t find many authors who possess both.

    Creating good-looking, industry-standard books takes many small and sometimes arcane decisions.

    As far as reading the books, I read through very few of the ones I design. But I read parts of all of them. This is particularly important with novels, where you need to capture something about the tone of the book and you can only get that from reading it.

    Reply

    Karen Williams March 8, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    If the designer is formatting a novel, then I would agree that a knowledge of the exact contents is likely unnecessary. However, in a situation like mine, with a craft book where each spread combines text, illustrations and color photographs, I would not have felt comfortable handing it off to a designer unfamiliar with the genre. Similar to Michael’s comment, there were any number of small editorial decisions to be made with every spread to present the information clearly in the space available. Handing that off to someone without knowledge of my craft medium would have been terrifying. And even if I’d found someone with the qualifications willing to take on the work, the costs would have been prohibitive, stifling the project.

    Reply

    Becky March 8, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    Hi Joel- Love the “do-it-yourself” genetics comment. That’s it isn’t it, the adventure at a granular level. But after I’ve had my play in the sandbox, I really do want a product that looks superb. The professionals I’ve enjoyed most have been ones that have allowed me to learn & play while keeping me reigned in from making mistakes. That way you get the best of both, upskilling and great product. I’ll bet that makes you sigh doesn’t it? It does take a patient person to work with me!

    Reply

    Marcia Degelman March 28, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    Hi Joel,
    I have that DIY genotype. I loved figuring out how to do my book, one spread at a time. Putting pictures and text together in a pleasing, restful way was so much fun, I didn’t want anyone else to do it for me. And I’m ok if my book isn’t perfect, I don’t have that perfectionism gene. Part of my message is the medium- relax!
    And I just found out that the SF Public Library has ordered my book,
    “Explaining Health: what you need to know to stay healthy.”

    Reply

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