12 Steps to Book Design Mastery: A Curriculum

by Joel Friedlander on October 7, 2013 · 40 comments

Post image for 12 Steps to Book Design Mastery: A Curriculum

It’s astonishing how many of today’s authors have tackled their own book design.

As a professional book designer, I can assure you that until just a few years ago, there was very little interest in the design of books among authors in general.

And let’s face it, book design is a narrow specialty in graphic arts, and one without a lot of opportunity for fame and fortune. Book designers have mostly been quiet people who work in the background, practicing a craft that seems to work best when it’s noticed by the fewest readers.

Everybody’s Got the Tools, Right?

By the time “desktop publishing” became a reality, many people found themselves with all the tools you might need to create a book, or at least the semblance of one.

Word processors, lists of fonts that came with your PC, printers who accept reproduction-quality PDF files, and print on demand technology that eliminated most of the financial risk of publishing, all played a role in the democratization of publishing.

Now, anyone can do it.

When I give talks about book design or cover design, I always start off telling people that I’m not going to be able to teach them book design in 45 minutes.

But then I got to thinking: How would I teach book design, if I really had all the time it takes?

Books look deceptively simple. Behind the rows of plain text lie lots of conventions, expectations, legal notices, and the realities of physical book production to consider.

So I sat down to see if I could put together the outline of a curriculum on book design. Here’s what I came up with, and I’d love to hear what you think. Have I left something out? Let me know in the comments.

12 Steps to Book Design Mastery

    Part I

  1. What is Book Design?—There are good reasons to know something about the evolution of the book, the history of typography, and the deep roots that printed books have our cultures.
  2. Book Production and Book Design—Books can be printed and bound in many ways, and understanding practical book production is essential to good book design.
  3. Book construction—Each part of the book has its role to play and its assigned place in the whole. This is a blueprint to book construction.
  4. Part II

  5. Fonts for text—There’s no bigger decision a designer makes than selecting the fonts that will be used for the book’s text.
  6. Fonts for display—Most books use a combination of two typefaces to create a dynamic and readable interior. Knowing how to choose and combine typefaces is critical for the designer.
  7. Architecture of the book page—When a manuscript is turned into a book, there are many elements that have to come into balance on the page. Building pages and spreads is at the heart of book design.
  8. Non-text book elements—Every book incorporates elements that are outside the text itself, like notes, bibliographies, part- and chapter-opening pages, captions, sidebars, pull-quotes, and others. Each has to blend well with the rest of the book, and stand out when necessary.


  9. Part III

  10. Designing simple books—Putting it all into practice, starting with the simplest books; novels, memoirs, essays, and narrative nonfiction.
  11. Designing nonfiction—Adding structure and hierarchy makes the designer’s job more challenging, as does adding more book elements and complexity to your projects.
  12. Designing illustrated books—Book design emerges from the background to play a more visible role in the design of art, photography, and other heavily illustrated books.
  13. Part IV

  14. Cover design basics—It’s hard to overestimate the importance of an effective book cover in today’s crowded market. Your cover has a lot of work to do, and needs to be put together properly.
  15. Cover design for success—Cover design doesn’t stop with the basics, that’s where it starts. When you introduce marketing intelligence to your design, you have a winning combination.

So that’s my outline. It’s a first pass, but an attempt to be comprehensive, too. I know that each of these 12 steps are critical to really mastering book design.

“Book design–a craft that works best when it’s noticed the least”—Click to tweet

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Book Design Templates

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

Be Sociable, Share!

    { 38 comments… read them below or add one }

    betty ming liu October 7, 2013 at 3:53 am

    Joel, you’re brave…Choosing and pairing fonts is an art unto itself. Speaking of art, how do we figure out what images to use and how to use them? I guess it’s all about trial and error — and practice. I’ve been able to encourage my writing students to do this with their words. Now it’s time to take my own advice, on unfamiliar turf. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 7, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Hi Betty,

    That’s a good point, and a discussion of choosing, preparing, and licensing images might be a worthwhile addition to my “curriculum” so thanks for that.

    Reply

    Tricia Ballad October 7, 2013 at 4:20 am

    I’d love to see a chapter on eBooks as well. I don’t know a single Indie author who publishes strictly in print. Most of us do both, and many publish only in digital formats. For my own work, I’m really looking for ways to keep the formatting consistent across digital and print formats, so the work is familiar to readers regardless of how they read it. I expect this will become more important in the future with the Kindle Matchbook program.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 7, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Tricia, you’ve put your finger on a problem that confronts book designers these days. To be honest, I’m not sure that ebook design fits well into this curriculum, but trying to ensure consistency across all formats should definitely be addressed. Thanks.

    Reply

    Tricia Ballad October 7, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Just my $0.02 as an author, but I don’t tend to think of my eBooks as separate from my print books. They’re (in my mind) the same book, just with different formatting needs. I want my readers to have a similar experience whether they pick up my book as a paperback or on their eReader, or switch between the two.

    If you completely ignore eBooks, you’re unnecessarily closing yourself into a rather small box labeled “old-school publishing.” Print is important, but it’s important in symbiosis with digital formats, not as a completely separate thing.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 7, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Well said, and thanks for the valuable input, Tricia.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson October 9, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    One thing I see happening a lot is people designing covers for paperbacks, then using them for ebooks. Bad move.

    It would make more sense to design for thumbnail sized view to start with, I’d say.
    The percentage of books being seen in bookstores is tiny compared to what’s seen on amazon and sales sites/emails.

    Quite agree about type being very important to covers. I think a lot of writers doze off when faced by long rapturous raps on typography, though. What they need to know is some fairly basic criteria, I think. Like BOLD and hefty, not spidery and cute. I saw some fonts you recommended for covers once, Joel, and grabbed them up immediately. This probably is one of the most major screw-ups in writer-designed covers.

    Bill Peschel October 7, 2013 at 4:22 am

    “What is Book Design?—There are good reasons to know something about the evolution of the book, the history of typography, and the deep roots that printed books have our cultures.”

    If I want to cook a chicken, do I need to know the history of the chicken?

    I admit it: When I’m reading a how-to book, I skip over chapters like this. I don’t have time to sit in thoughtful contemplation and awe of the writer’s knowledge of history. I want to dig in and get stuff done.

    Reply

    Tina Back October 7, 2013 at 8:05 am

    Bill, you’re not cooking a chicken. You are building a complicated structure. Skipping basics is like not bothering about the pipes when building a house.
    Trust Joel on this one. Print books are doable, but to get a professional result you need to know what you are doing.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 7, 2013 at 11:54 am

    If you could do a better job cooking the chicken if you knew its history, would that help?

    No problem skipping that chapter, though, just dive right into the “how-to” stuff.

    Reply

    Michael W. Perry October 7, 2013 at 7:06 am

    It’s a good list, but today’s designer needs a design that adapts to an ebook format without a lot of hassle and without leaving either those who got the print or the digital version feeling slighted because something was left out.

    The apps you work in also matter and deserve mention since they create legacy issues. I began with FrameMaker because at the time InDesign wasn’t good with long texts. Over a decade later, the print versions are and will always be available. But FM doesn’t run on Macs now and those files (now just exported text) need to be completely reformatted for digital versions. I didn’t have a choice. But today’s designers can choose what app they use for book interiors.

    For now I can stall off the project. Most of those books have footnotes and until ID can turn footnotes into ePUb pop-up notes, those projects make no sense. There’s almost nothing uglier than following body paragraph with the clutter of an inline note and I suspect most readers hate jump-there, jump back endnoting as much as I do.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 7, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Ebook capabilities are in almost constant flux, with new standards, new reader capabilities, and new software to create them happening almost all the time.

    I agree that once you move to software to create book files, you are subject to the vagaries of the software developers. I started creating books with Ventura Publisher, ever heard of that one?

    Obsolescence will continue to be a problem, but my strategy has been to stick with Adobe software, since I think it has the best chance of still working, or producing files that can be imported into whatever comes along next.

    And yes, I wouldn’t want to tackle that book with all the footnotes with today’s ebook software either.

    Reply

    Colin Dunbar October 8, 2013 at 1:45 am

    Ventura Publisher

    Wow, that brings back memories. LOL

    Reply

    Belinda Pollard October 8, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    I started on Aldus Pagemaker.

    And I didn’t have a mouse! Try that sometime. *eek*

    Reply

    Colin Dunbar October 8, 2013 at 10:44 pm

    Sheesh, PageMaker… this is like going down memory lane :o)

    Linton Robinson October 7, 2013 at 9:36 am

    Thing is, you start off talking about all thse new indie writers doing covers, then show a syllabus that’s almost entirely devoted to paper books. How books are made, fonts, yada yada.
    This have nothing to do with ebook design. And ebooks are the mode by which the vast majority of of sales are made by indie authors.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    The syllabus is entirely devoted to print books at this point, and it’s good to keep in mind that over 75% (as I recall) of all books sold in the U.S. are print books and, in my experience, many indie authors I talk to are planning on producing print books alone, or as part of a print+ebook strategy.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson October 7, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Yes, but I’m sure you realize how meaningless that 75% figure is. How many of those have author/publishers who might design covers? Most are from companies with designers. And millions of them are textbooks, legal books, etc.
    Anybody interested in this, the chances are extremely great that their main interest is eBooks. And yest, indie author put out paperbacks–as I tell them, “It really doesn’t make any sense NOT to have a paperback with your eBook–but that doesn’t mean they sell any. Any indie author going straight paperbacks without ebooks is out of their mind.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 7, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    “Anybody interested in this, the chances are extremely great that their main interest is eBooks”

    In my talks with authors, I don’t find this to be the case. The vast majority of authors I speak to want print books, whether they intend to produce both print and ebooks or not.

    “Any indie author going straight paperbacks without ebooks is out of their mind.”

    Although you don’t say so, I expect you are referring to fiction authors. Nonfiction authors would likely have the opposite opinion, and with good reason.

    Reply

    Diane October 7, 2013 at 9:58 am

    Guilty as charged! A Book cover do-it-yourselfer is exactly what I am. I have to admit that I probably have the wrong mindset when it comes to covers because I have never seen one that made me buy a book. Its more what is inside that counts but I am sure covers play a part in attracting people… although again I have never had a cover attract me to a book. Bottomline – if I want to look like a professional I will use a designer next time because they will probably do a more eye pleasing job of it than I can.

    What do you think of plain covers? Originally I thought of having all my book covers without an image and each one a different colour so that on a bookshelf they become a multi-coloured rainbow of books. When I saw a plain cover I wondered if it was a little too plain and choose an old photo that relates to one of the stories I have written.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 7, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    Hi Diane, thanks for your comment. One of the most challenging tasks for an author who wants to become a publisher is remembering that you are not your market. It’s far more important to you as a publisher to know what attracts your readers, not what attracts you. Basic marketing.

    Typographic covers can be some of the most sophisticated, but you need a real understanding of typography to do it well. Some of my favorites have no images at all. For instance, see the cover for Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise for an excellent example.

    Reply

    Diane October 8, 2013 at 12:00 am

    Thanks for your response Joel. I will check out the book

    Diane

    Reply

    Sylvia Liu October 7, 2013 at 10:48 am

    Joel, Are you considering giving such a course? I bet you would get a lot of takers. Especially if it was along the lines of your Roadmap course. Or are you just warning would-be self-publishers that there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye and that it’s better to hire a professional to get professional results?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 7, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Hi Sylvia. Well, I guess you caught me, LOL. Yes, I’m planning to make this available to authors in a different format from the Roadmap. Stay tuned, more info to follow.

    Reply

    Liana Mir October 7, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    I’d buy this book. If it included at least a bit about how to maintain/repurpose/transfer the template.

    Right now, I design in Microsoft Word 97, open it in OpenOffice latest version, print to PDF with fonts embedded to upload to Createspace. I use the original Word .doc (before prep for print) to upload as an ebook. Then I drop my background book cover into Scribus and add text boxes for the applicable text zones.

    If I could do this better and/or easier, I want to know.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 7, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Liana, I can see why you’re using that workflow, although our templates export directly from Word to font-embedded PDF without the intermediate step of going through OpenOffice.

    You might want to take a look at the Word templates we have for authors like you. They eliminate a lot of the fussing with Word and are a very reasonably-priced alternative. You can check them out here: book design templates for Microsoft Word.

    Reply

    Liana Mir October 7, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    You misunderstand me. It’s the fussing I LOVE. I’m a graphic designer and have always done my own formatting of EVERYTHING. It’s the technical stuff I dislike. And the intermediate step is only because I’m on ancient ’97. I’m interested more in the book with the above table of contents, provided it gives the nod to ebooks. Book design is something I’ve always positively adored.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 7, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    Aha, a graphic designer, that explains it. Designers are definitely detail freaks and inveterate “tweakers.” One of these days you may need to consider an upgrade. And I can see very clearly that this curriculum will be more valuable to more authors if it includes information on maintaining your design across formats.

    Reply

    Dauda March 27, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    Feb28 PattyJust found you and your website, etc. after sneeig this posting on Design Sponge. What a find! I live in Portland, too; and love to support local artists whenever possible. Wish you and your ideas had been around when I was raising my kids (in their 20s now) love the simple approach to games made with items around the house. Will definitely be checking in regularly Reply

    Reply

    michael Cairns October 7, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Hi Joel
    Thanks for the post.
    It does help to illuminate the work and depth of knowledge that goes into creating a print book. The challenge myself, and I’m sure other self-pubbed author face, is one of money. In weighing up the different factors of book design, do we jump straight to part four in terms of outlay, or can we afford to really put the money in to the more detailed areas you speak about in parts 1 – 3? It’s a tough call.
    Seeing your response to Liana makes me inclined to go in that direction, rather than paying out for the full design, just based on my budget, but it’s always a compromise!
    thanks again
    Mike

    Reply

    Belinda Pollard October 8, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    I’d say one of the things holding back intelligent indies from print is that they lack confidence in how to do it well. And non-fiction really does need print as well as ebook, if at all possible.

    I’d be especially interested in the typography section. I’ve been in publishing for ages, but I still find typography a bugbear.

    I’d be interested in this course, but please don’t limit it to Word. InDesigners will be interested too. And I’d recommend making Part I an appendix or value-add, as most of us will skip to Part II. ;-)

    Reply

    Lin Robinson October 8, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Interesting. I have a hard time thinking there’s much of a technique barrier to paperbacks–most people I know consider CreateSpace easier to format to than SmashWords Premium, and Lulu is even easier.

    I’m curious why you think paper editions would be more needed with nonfiction than fiction. I’ve found it more the other way. Most of the NF titles I do are manuals on how to do stuff, and the only format that makes sense is a pdf with live links that can be toggled back and forth to and from while working on other programs on a computer. Paper would be pointless.
    The exception would be my “Mexican SLang 101″, a very cheap pocket-sized book.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 9, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    Linton, have you found any retail channels through which to sell your PDF ebooks, not including from your own site? I’d be curious.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson October 9, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    I like using my own site because I get their emails that way. And my general theory is that it doesn’t matter all that much where you sell from if you have to drag the eyeballs there in the fist place.
    But it’s nice to have downloads automated. I’ve had mixed luck with two sites–one issue being–do they send you any money?–Payloadz and TradeBit
    If I were going to start doing a lot more of this, I think I’d set up a free “Cart” program on my site, like CubeCart, OS Commerce, or Zen Cart

    Reply

    Liana Mir October 9, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    My guess then is that they don’t know how MANY more little details are required for print or don’t know how EASY and FEW are the requirements for Smashwords.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson October 9, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    I keep getting confused here, between content and cover design. It’s WAY easier to do interior for CS than for SmashWords Premium (and SW without Premium is kind of useless).
    Cover wise? About the same, I think. Just working at different scale.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 9, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Hi Belinda,

    The course is designed to be independent of specific tools like Word. The principals of book design don’t change much regardless of the method you’re using to create the books. And typography would be one of the main elements here, because that’s precisely where so many “amateur” book and cover designs come up short. Stay tuned, details to follow.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson October 9, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    One thing I see happening a lot is people designing covers for paperbacks, then using them for ebooks. Bad move.

    It would make more sense to design for thumbnail sized view to start with, I’d say.
    The percentage of books being seen in bookstores is tiny compared to what’s seen on amazon and sales sites/emails.

    Quite agree about type being very important to covers. I think a lot of writers doze off when faced by long rapturous raps on typography, though. What they need to know is some fairly basic criteria, I think. Like BOLD and hefty, not spidery and cute. I saw some fonts you recommended for covers once, Joel, and grabbed them up immediately. This probably is one of the most major screw-ups in writer-designed covers.

    Reply

    Leave a Comment

    { 2 trackbacks }