17 Things Self-Publishers Need to Know about Book Design

POSTED ON Nov 5, 2012

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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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

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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