17 Things Self-Publishers Need to Know about Book Design

by Joel Friedlander on November 5, 2012 · 22 comments

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Most self-publishers are concerned with book design for a few months during the production of their book. Book design is a specialty within the field of graphic design, in the same way that packaging design, or the design of signs are specialties.

What this means is that there are a lot of conventions, a vocabulary and a set of practices and assumptions that underlie most professional book design.

Since self-publishers only need to navigate this territory once in a while, I’ve frequently maintained that it’s better to learn how to hire a book designer than it is to learn book design yourself.

But since design is important to the eventual success of your book whether you attempt to do it yourself or hire it out, it pays to know something about those conventions and assumptions.

After all, we don’t want anything getting in the way of your communication with your readers. You’ve got a message for them, a story to tell, or ideas to spread. That’s what’s important.

So here, for all kinds of authors making the leap into publishing, are things you should know about book design.

  1. Book design is usually typographic design, since most books consist almost completely of type. Learning typography takes time, practice and familiarity with the tools of design.
  2. The conventions of book publishing and design have been established over hundreds of years, often in response to new technologies used for the production of books, and are the single biggest influence on book design.
  3. People have expectations about what books should look like, and going against those expectations can cost you in legibility, readability and, eventually, in readership.
  4. Readability itself is the biggest concern of book designers, and if you get this right the rest of your design is likely to fall into place.
  5. Using high quality fonts by itself will solve a number of the problems that occur in book design.
  6. You can design your own book, but if you do you can’t expect expert results.
  7. When approaching the design of your book, think first about the readers who you wrote it for, then think about your goals in publishing it.
  8. Private, non-commercial self-publishers can save money and have fun with the design. Use books you love as models
  9. Do-it-yourselfers can use tools ranging from Word, to Open Office, teX, Adobe InDesign, or others.
  10. Competitive, sales-oriented self-publishers typically hire professionals and collaborate with them to get a book that will compare favorably with books from traditional publishers.
  11. Book design includes two quite different disciplines that are in some ways complete opposites. Cover design wants to attract attention, shock, surprise, act as a poster or advertisement. Interior design wants to be invisible, allowing the author to communicate with the reader without interruption.
  12. The elements of book design are almost entirely typographic. Body type, display type, page layout, chapter openings, 2-page spreads. Even illustrations, charts, graphs, photos, icons, sidebars, and tabular material are usually composed of, or joined to, typographic elements.
  13. When turning a manuscript into a book, design is distinct from layout, which is the page by page execution of the design. A design is created that accounts for all the formatting used in the manuscript, sometimes simplifying it or making it consistent.
  14. Formatting deals with how parts, chapters, heads, subheads, lists, pull quotes and all the other elements of the book are organized to serve the reader as they navigate the text. The formats the author has used in the book help to define the book’s infrastructure. Nonfiction books particularly are concerned with format questions, and the most important thing for authors to remember is that the hierarchy of information needs to be clear to the reader, and the book needs to be consistent from beginning to end.
  15. The aim throughout the design process is ease of comprehension—using the tools of typography to present the author’s work with clarity at every level.
  16. In practical terms, the end product of book design for print books is 2 PDF files; one for the interior book block, the other for the cover. In hardcovers, you may have three or four; one file for the interior, one for the dust jacket, a separate file for the stamping to be done on the cases, and another file if you are printing custom endleaves. For ebooks, we’ll end up with one graphic file for the cover and one text file for the interior.
  17. Amateur books don’t have to look like everyone else’s books in their genre. Commercial books do need to look like other books within their genre, within reason, principally so that browsers and potential buyers recognize them as something they are likely to be interested in.

We could also talk about pagination and foliation, but that’s clearly insider stuff. If your book requires a sophisticated or complex layout, you’ll be communicating quite a bit with a book designer. Understanding the aims and methods of book design can help you get the book that really speaks to your readers.

Photo credit: ninastoessinger via photopin cc

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    { 14 comments… read them below or add one }

    Michael N. Marcus November 5, 2012 at 3:07 am

    Excellent advice, as usual, Joel.

    Here are two good tips I found, published more than a century apart:

    “Books are not made for show. Books are written to be read, and read easily, without discomfort or annoyance. The conditions of printing that favor easy reading are plain types, clear print, and freedom from surprises. Any peculiarity in the letters or in their arrangement that turns aside the reader from following the written thought is a surprise and an annoyance.”
    (from Types of the De Vinne Press, 1907)

    “The typographic classics are the equivalent of a basic black dress or navy blue blazer. While no one will admire you for being cutting edge, neither will your designs look out of place because of the typography you use.”
    (from Typography, Referenced, 2012)

    Michael N. Marcus

    NEW: self-publishing company parody, http://www.99BuckBooks.com
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.com
    http://www.SilverSandsBooks.com
    http://www.BookFur.com
    http://www.Facebook.com/SilverSandsBooks

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 5, 2012 at 9:38 am

    Couldn’t agree more, Michael, thanks for the great quotes.

    Reply

    Phil Steer November 5, 2012 at 6:13 am

    Excellent advice, Joel, as always. I very much appreciated all the design advice that I gleaned from your website whilst putting together my book. It may clearly be an amateur effort (especially, as you know, the cover – although I hope to make improvements to that), but it’s certainly much better than it would otherwise have been.

    Anyway, the reason for this comment is simply to say that, whilst amateur efforts (such as mine) may be clearly that, many so-called professional efforts are even worse! Honestly, I have a number of books where the typography and layout is shockingly bad – certainly, if I were to present them to you as my efforts, I’m quite sure you’d find much to criticise (constructively, of course!)

    This is in no way meant to excuse poor design on the part of us ‘indies’ – just to provide a little balance when it comes to assessing the quality (or otherwise) of our efforts.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 5, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Phil,

    Thanks for your comment. Traditional publishers have produced the vast majority of books currently in circulation, and, as you say, many of them are undistinguised at best. And in a way, that’s good news for indies, because you don’t have to jump quite as high to get over the bar of respectability. The chief problem I find with books produced by authors is unfamiliarity with the conventions of book construction, and those mistakes do tend to stand out.

    Reply

    Tracy R. Atkins November 5, 2012 at 6:55 am

    6×9 Seems to be the most common POD format going for fiction. It’s a shame there isn’t a simple template that has the entire typography processes formatted and ready to use. Something of a universal template for word, with front-matter that is “fill in the blank”, pagination that can be replicated from chapter to chapter and so on. Even have the correct fonts set for the styles.

    It took me a blue-month to get mine to look half-way decent, but it is still not perfect.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 5, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Hi Tracy,

    I believe lots of people pick the 6″ x 9″ format because it seems like a “standard” and it surely is. In my own practice, I prefer slightly smaller trim sizes for novels unless they are very long. The most recent novels I’ve done were 5.25″ x 8″ and the 5.5″ x 8.5″ size is also very popular.

    Reply

    Jo Michaels November 5, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    I wish they’d launch a way for indies to do hardcover books with pretty endpapers. This is a great post. Typography is the most amazing field of study I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking. WRITE ON!

    Reply

    Richard Sutton November 15, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Joel;
    Thanks again for another great article. I have just released my fourth book, and I’ve used many of the principles you discuss. There is one “convention” in publishing that I really have an issue with, though. That is the continuing use of justified text. I find nothing more jarring or annoying whether reading an eBook on my Nook, or a paper novel, than the gutters and irregular word spacing/letter-spacing that justified margins throws at a reader. I’ve read it here, too, that rag-right text pages are a sign of an unprofessional design, yet rag-right text, when the point size and line spacing is chosen properly, is so much more readable, with none of the white rivers. gutters or gaps that you see in justified text. Besides the historic metal type-galley frame technology that first produced this format, why does it persist today, when it is so unnecessary?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 15, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for your comment. “Rivers” and unsightly spacing gaps are purely the result of bad typesetting, they are not necessary to all justified copy. But to answer your question more thoroughly, I’m going to write an article on this subject and will post it shortly.

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus November 15, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Justified text often looks terrible in e-books where readers can “reflow” the text and destroy the work of the page designer. However, there is no excuse for rivers and other typographic aberrations in print books. If a formatter is willing to work at it, a justified page can look beautiful.

    Sadly, there are are many books with ugly justified text, and — strangely — several books I’ve read recently about graphic design are flush-left.

    I found a good comment about justification by Shannon Yarbrough in 10 Things You Should Know About Self-Publishing published on The LL Book Review: “I have never, never, NEVER seen a traditionally published book that lacked right margin justification and I’m tired of self-published authors telling me that they did it that way because it’s easier to read. No, you didn’t follow the rules because you didn’t do your homework, or you don’t know how. I know that’s harsh, but it’s the truth and it’s one reason I will turn down a book for review right away.”

    Here’s something I wrote about justification: http://www.bookmakingblog.com/2011/10/justification-for-justification.html

    Michael N. Marcus

    NEW: self-publishing company parody, http://www.99BuckBooks.com
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.com
    http://www.SilverSandsBooks.com
    http://www.BookFur.com
    http://www.Facebook.com/SilverSandsBooks

    Reply

    Richard Sutton November 15, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    Michael, I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, and you certainly have a strong POV on this subject, but so do I, having come from a design background myself. I have spec’ed type since the early 1970s when hot metal headlines were all we could get, and despite your contention that the only reason to set a ragged right margin is “because you don’t know better”, I disagree. I know you won’t read my books, but I set them all for the easiest reading, not to satisfy any test of knowledge or industry standards. Even the best paper printed books by top houses often carry rivers of white running through their text pages. Nowadays, even high-paid “page designers” often cut costs when it comes to typesetting. I figure I owe my readers an easier time with it. If I could set my eBooks RR, I would do it. If the “industry standards” could give me a legitimate reason why justified text, set properly, reads easier than flush left/rr, I would consider changing my books, but I’ve been waiting for some time, in a variety of forums, and the only thing I’ve heard is “because it’s always done that way.” That doesn’t constitute an answer.

    Reply

    Gun March 28, 2014 at 5:11 am

    The newspapers or maybe the wrmaers themselves often describe the ocean uptake of sunshine in thermonuclear equivalents. So we are supposed to believe the sun that pounds our planet with X gigatons of solar energy every minute is supposed to notice Kim Jong Ill’s atom bomb? Switch to spf 120 you should be fine.

    Reply

    Daniel Holman April 17, 2013 at 6:38 am

    Joel: I commented months ago about favorite font designs and regularly refer to your topics. My top font styles were very similar to yours. Since then, I have designed a few fonts for my own personal use. I did a mix with Centaur and Garamond. It is for a Bible devotional and I wanted to capture that antiquated Bible look. You are a professional and it shows!

    If anyone desires to self-publish books I strongly recommend becoming familiar with desktop publishing! I just finished editing a “Mastering New Testament Greek” book (originally published by Baker Books) for a Greek Seminary professor and ended up having to use Microsoft Word. It was painful. I had to edit many reference tables, include two indexes, illustrations, etc.

    Use Microsoft Word for word processing. When it comes to designing your book, I prefer Adobe InDesign. In my opinion is one of the best tools a self-publisher can use for book design! For the self-publisher, Microsoft Word and Adobe InDesign is like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. A mix of chocolate and peanut butter for an irresistible taste!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 17, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    Daniel, sounds interesting. Do you make your fonts available? I’d love to see your Centaur/Garamond hybrid.

    Reply

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