How Much Attention Should You Pay to Book Design?

by Joel Friedlander on June 23, 2014 · 16 comments

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Last spring I had the good fortune to be interviewed by Jane Friedman for her wonderful and very helpful blog for writers. (If you’re unfamiliar with Jane’s blog, I highly recommend it.)

Jane, who is “a firm believer in the power of design,” wanted to talk about the challenges facing indie authors who may come to publishing with little or no expertise in this area.

  • Should authors hire designers?

  • What kinds of mistakes do do-it-yourself authors make with their books?

  • Should print and ebooks have the same covers?

These are the kinds of questions Jane had, and I was happy to oblige. Here’s the complete interview, with Jane’s questions in bold.


I’m a firm believer in the power of design. I think it affects purchasing not just in obvious ways, but also on a subconscious level. So it often frustrates me when independent authors do their own design work to keep costs low. But I also understand the need to limit financial risk. Let’s say we have to make a compromise. What do you think an author might be able to accomplish reasonably well on her own (that has least potential to adversely affect sales), and what’s the No. 1 thing an author should hire a designer for (because of its potential to increase sales)?

Great question, Jane. Lots of authors want to “own” the process of creating their books, want to have a say in the overall look and feel of the book. After all, what good is having these great bookmaking tools if we don’t use them?

For people who write fiction, memoir, or narrative nonfiction, this question is easier to answer. Creating book interiors for these books is not as demanding, and the result won’t rely quite as much on the typographic sophistication of the designer.

Outside the typographic part of the design, it’s critically important for authors to construct their books properly. There are conventions that are hundreds of years old in book design, and expectations readers bring to books that must be recognized and respected.

So outside what font she uses for the text of her novel, your author will want to make sure all the other details of bookmaking, like the treatment of other page elements like running heads, page numbers, display pages like chapter openings, and so on, are treated properly.

Clearly, the one area where your author should look for professional help is in cover design. This is a specialized type of graphic design that demands good type treatment, the proper font usage, and an understanding of how browsers interact with the words and pictorial content on most book covers.

Because your cover is so important in positioning your book and attracting interest, it really pays to hire a pro.

What are the most common mistakes you see authors make when they design their own book interiors?

Here are some of the mistakes I see most often in self-published books:

  • Not using full justification for their text, so that both the right and left margin square up and create a rectangle on the page
  • Not hyphenating the text, resulting in gaps and spaces on the page
  • Putting the odd-numbered pages on the left, when they should always be on the right
  • Leaving running heads on display pages like part or chapter openers
  • Margins that are either too small to allow the reader to easily hold the book, or that don’t take the printing and binding of the book into account
  • Publishing a book with no copyright page

How can an author find a good interior designer who’s right for their book? How do you properly evaluate one?

Oddly enough, it can be a lot easier to find cover designers than it is to find interior designers. Part of the reason is that the cover designer only has to know how to create an effective cover. The interior designer needs to know all the rules of bookmaking, including how to present all the different kinds of information found within a book.

This is even more true for heavily formatted nonfiction books, because of the typographic and design skills needed to properly organize the hierarchy of information.

One of the best ways to find designers is by referrals from other authors. If you know someone who has published a book like yours, ask them who designed it. Local publishing groups can also be a great place to find designers and talk to authors who have worked with them.

Trade publications like the IBPA Independent are also good sources since it’s one of the few places book designers advertise their services.

We’re also seeing a growing category of websites that are sprouting up to help authors put together a “publishing team” by pairing them with service providers like book designers, but I think it’s a little too early to tell how these services are going to pan out.

And if you’re the author of one of those heavily formatted books we were talking about a minute ago, make sure the designers you’re querying have produced books like yours before. Ask to see samples or a portfolio of similar books.

When hiring a designer, how much should an author expect to spend for a typical trade print paperback novel (cover and interior)?

For novels and other lightly formatted books, you can expect to pay between $200 and $1,500 for interior design. At the low end you’re likely to get a very simplified type of design. At the higher end, expect to receive several custom designs prepared expressly for your book. You’ll also want the designer to take responsibility for producing the reproduction files for your printer, and make sure there’s an allowance for “author’s alterations,” because I’ve never seen a book yet that went all the way from manuscript to press without at least some changes being made.

Make sure you have a signed agreement with the designer, and that your agreement states explicitly that you will own the copyright to all the work they produce, and that you’ll be able to get the original application files the designer created when the project is complete.

For cover designs, expect to pay between $200 and $3,500. This is a very large range, but it’s real. For many authors, just getting a pro to do their cover will help their book stand out. But there are also self-publishers with bigger ambitions, who want to mount a national campaign, attract real media attention, and perhaps establish a franchise. For these authors, investing in a top-quality cover designer can yield real benefits, but this has to be approached as a business decision, and demands that you go into publishing with a realistic marketing plan.

Should an author ever use design contest sites (e.g., 99designs.com)?

As you know, I run an e-book cover design competition on my blog every month, and I’ve been getting submissions from authors who have gone that route. Some of these covers are quite good, others not so much.

I don’t see a reason not to use these sites, but make sure you understand exactly what you’re getting before you sign up. And keep in mind that you should demand the same contract and materials requirements we talked about just above, because they still apply.

Do you think there should be a different cover design for print vs. electronic editions? What special considerations come into play for e-book covers?

Aha, one of my favorite topics! I started the ebook cover design competition to see what designers were doing with this new form, and to try to encourage them to look at the ebook cover as a separate opportunity to use it to their advantage.

From what I’ve seen, designers haven’t done much with this challenge. The requirements for ebooks are similar—but not the same—as the requirements for print books. All too often, what we see, particularly from larger publishers, is the print book cover reduced in size and used for the ebook.

This makes no sense. Print book covers use texture, finish, testimonials, subtle color palettes and other devices that simply don’t translate to the tiny graphic images you see on e-retailers’ sites.

And why should an ebook cover look like a print book cover anyway? The print book cover actually covers a book. An ebook cover could be more like digital music album covers, blog sidebar ads, or any other type of online product “packaging” or advertising.

What I’m really hoping to see is more designers exploring different ways to represent ebooks, and not slavishly follow the print book model. As long as the branding is recognizably the same—assuming you are producing both versions—then why not?

If an author wanted to educate themselves on what constitutes good book design, aside from reading your blog, what resources would you recommend?

Two other bloggers who write about interior design are Dave Bricker and David Bergsland at The Skilled Workman.

There are classic books on book design for people who really want to dive into this subject. Probably the most appropriate one for self-publishers is Pete Masterson’s Book Design & Production.

Also, pay attention to the books you read. Book design is design with type, so the more you know about typography the better your designs are likely to be.

There are lots of authors who are creating books in Microsoft Word. Although I tried for a long time to convince authors that Word was not intended for books and wouldn’t produce a truly “professional-looking” book, I’ve recently changed course.

To help writers who want to do their own book interiors, I’m now offering templates that authors can buy that will solve a lot of the problems we’ve been talking about in this article. The template is a pre-formatted container. You pour your text into the file, apply the styles that come with the template, and you’re done.

What this means is that you can be sure you avoid a lot of the mistakes that new self-publishers make. Your book will be sized properly, have the right fonts, correct page numbers and section breaks, and will be industry standard.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

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    { 12 comments… read them below or add one }

    Stephen Tiano July 18, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Well, it sounds like you’ve recovered from the coming-in-backwards, learned on a need-to-know basis (not the worst way to learn, by any means) and gotten a plan together. And you’re applying it, plus enjoying it in the process. That’s almost as good as it can possibly get. Congrats on that. And good luck going forward.

    Steve

    Reply

    Stephen Tiano July 18, 2014 at 2:10 am

    Jenny, this is why one hires a book designer. You and your friend have chosen to go into business as publishers. There are proper expenses for such a thing.

    That said, there are as many possibilities for what you want to achieve as there are stars in the sky. For one thing, you really haven’t given enough info to us so we can–essentially what you’re asking–tell you how to design the interior of your book.

    I mean … So, it’s a book of photographs, it sounds like. Does that mea you have in mind a “coffee table book,” oversized to make the most of the photos? You sound like you think “clean, neat, and simple” is a recipe? I guess in a really broad way it is, but then all you’d have to do is go to a bookstore and find your idea of clean, yadda yadda.

    You could read some books about book design and learn the process. Keeps mind that for displaying art, which photos are, however, simple may not always be the best way to get readers to plunk down their hard-earned cash. But I’m guessing spending on a designer’d not in the cards, right? (It sounds like this has already eaten up it’s resources.)

    There’s deciding on that basic page size, it’s orientation, and–to the extent there’s any more text than simply captions, the proportion of the text area. For starters. Then there’s the matter of appropriate typeface choices, type size, and white space. The latter’s more important for picture-heavy books than one might think.

    I’d be willing to off my services, but, of course, I charge. The next best thing might be to look at the available templates Joel has available. If you’re willing to go such a one-size-fits-all route, that might be your answer, tho’ a book of art might very well deserve it’s very own effort. I hope this works out for you. Good luck, Jenny!

    Reply

    Jenny July 18, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    Stephen, I was making a comment on just how much work is involved in the interior design process – and why I agree it is something that should be left to people with the know-how, when possible.

    Unfortunately, we came into this backwards without thinking about the whole process. As I’ve indicated, this book targets a niche market and main-stream publishers are highly unlikely to be interested so we’ve not attempted to go that route.

    That said, considering the steep learning-curve we’ve been on, the whole process has been in many ways quite enjoyable.

    And for what it’s worth, the book is 50-50 photographs and text. Not a coffee-table edition, more a reference work.

    Reply

    Jenny July 18, 2014 at 12:51 am

    Having only written for my own amusement for several years, I (foolishly) accepted a request to write the copy for a photographer who wanted to self-publish a book targeting a very niche market.

    He had the photos, I had the background information – too easy! Yeah, right. Cover design was a snap – interior design is a whole other ball game.

    We were so green we thought we could pull this off in the blink of an eye. Two years later we are still attempting to interior design it ourselves, simply because we didn’t even consider things like ‘budget’ for proof-reading or interior design; let alone thinking about the 101 other elements which go into producing a book.

    Personally I’ve been fortunate to be able to consult an editor who gave me solid advice on what to look for in the editing process (and it helps that I’m not precious about my writing), but trawling through all the book stores in Christendom for ideas on layout leaves me with nothing more than a headache! There is nothing (repeat, NOTHING!!) that comes close to what we are attempting to achieve.

    And what we want is something clean, neat, and simple. Can someone please tell me why the trend appears to be for complicated interior designs with no breathing space? Or worse, a book where you need a map and a compass to navigate each page so you can make sense of it?

    The way we’re going, our printer will be dead and buried before we get the manuscript to them….

    Reply

    Aidana WillowRaven July 5, 2014 at 6:55 am

    For branding and marketing reasons, I believe the ebook cover SHOULD be the same design as the print cover.

    Reply

    Stephen Tiano June 24, 2014 at 7:30 am

    “Sounds like a ripoff”. I suspect that, for you and a growing number of self-publishers it may be. Part of that has to do with the likelihood that–arithmetically, now, I’m not speaking of your writing or anyone else’s in particular–your book prob’ly doesn’t have a chance of selling more than 100 or so copies. Statistically, it’s likely that you can’t write a damn and haven’t the imagination or intellect to come up with something anyone beyond family members and a few friends and acquaintances will actually pay to read.

    That’s the bad news. That’s how it is now that the gatekeepers, the traditional publishers, have pretty much abandoned the playing field. At least insofar as discovering and publishing new writers are concerned.

    On the other hand, someone who’s bothered to learn to write well, and then learned again a command of the written word; someone who’s taken some time to find and research a topic that people have a hankering to learn more about or who’s developed a whole story from beginning to end that’s dynamic and entertaining, have a shot at reaching their natural audience and establishing one way beyond that natural audience.

    But that kind of writer needs to understand that publishing a saleable book, in most cases, is not a DIY, amateur-hour kind of project. If you want to sell more than those 100 or so copies I mentioned, you need to realize that you want to produce a book that compares favorably to what traditional publishing companies put out with established authors names on them.

    So investing in professional editing is generally a must. Reading groups are nice and mean well, but there is no substitute for a trained, experienced editorial eye that will help you produce a book with no unnecessary words. Likewise, if you want readers to part with their hard-earned cash for your book, you need to give them something that looks like a book that’s been made up to professional standards.

    Now, as a freelance book designer, I have an ax to grind, obviously. But I became a freelance book designer because I love books. I appreciate how the whole ebook revolution has opened the way for many writers who might never have had the opportunity to find an audience. By the same token, I’m mindful that lowering the barriers has let a lot of tripe become books, simply because the authors could see them through to some kind of publication.

    But as much as I love tech and know that, certainly as a college student years ago, I’d very nearly have chewed off my right arm–I’m a lefty in oh so many ways–for an e-reader for all my textbooks, a printed book is still more prestigious and can rise to the level of an art object indecent of what’s inside the book.

    And people earn a living helping to turn your manuscripts into that much. So you’re really talking out of your hat when you make a blanket statement that such design and production work is “a ripoff”. With all due respect. Though I will admit that in many, many cases the books many of you will right cannot justify the expense to go this route.

    It’s a dilemma. I would never say anyone doesn’t have the right to try and publish their own, or anyone else’s writing. But I’ve also been at this enough years–23 years as a book designer/layout artist, and about 15 years before that as a proofreader and copy editor–to see and differentiate the stages publishing has gone thru to get where it is today.

    I would encourage anyone writing to keep writing the best they possibly can about things people want to read about or that they can become enticed into being interested in. And then give some thought to making books that reflect the effort and love they put into the writing.

    Reply

    Greg Strandberg June 24, 2014 at 7:46 am

    You pretty much hit it on the head. Why don’t we see a show of hands. How many have spent $1,000 on book production and made that money back.

    Alright, now how many of you have spent $1,000 on book production and not made that money back? How many of you have made 10% back?

    This is how I look at it. I don’t ask people to agree with me. I try to convince them not to. After all, I do everything wrong.

    Reply

    Rich Harvey August 17, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Spend less on book production.

    Reply

    Rik June 24, 2014 at 5:16 am

    Great article. Personally, I think “For novels and other lightly formatted books, you can expect to pay between $200 and $1,500 for interior design.” is really on the high side. I’ve been formatting eBooks for more than three years (more than 500 books formatted) and have never charged the lower figure for three eBook file types as well as the interior deign for Print on Demand (POD).

    Still – very good advice here.

    Reply

    Greg Strandberg June 23, 2014 at 7:37 am

    $200 to $1,500 for interior eBook design? Sounds like a rip-off to me. Of course many will justify that expense with how well their darling will do. After all, who’s going to buy a poorly formatted book?

    Well, lots of people. Many books on the Top 100 charts are just that. I know it’s hard to believe for some, but readers are actually going for the story, not the look.

    Amazing concept, I know!

    Reply

    Iola June 23, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    “I know it’s hard to believe for some, but readers are actually going for the story, not the look.”

    Not always. It’s possible for bad design to affect the reading experience, to the point where people don’t read the book. Here are two examples:

    The interior text for one of my university textbooks for marketing was all blue, not black (no doubt some marketing guru thought that would attract people’s attention). None of us read the book, because it was simply too difficult to concentrate on blue text. The publisher probably thought the book was doing well, because it made sales … but only because it was a textbook, and we had to buy it.

    I’m currently reading a novel from a small press which doesn’t indent the first line of each paragraph. Instead, it leaves a gap between paragraphs. In fiction, those gaps usually indicate a change of scene, so as I read I’m consciously having to remind myself this isn’t the case. If I’m thinking about the paragraphing while I read, it’s preventing me getting the most out of the story.

    Reply

    Nancy B June 23, 2014 at 7:30 am

    I’ve got 2 of your interior templates, Joel, and since I’ve been using Word for quite some time, they have helped a lot. (It also takes the guesswork out of what fonts to use that look good. :-))

    But I wasn’t sure about whether I should use the same cover image for both ebook and print, and I’m now leaning toward using something different for print. Now I just have to find the time to do the print versions!

    Thanks for a great post!

    Reply

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