Book Designer, Book Shepherd, Book Doctor or Book Producer: Which One Do You Need?

by | Dec 8, 2010

Someone asked me recently why I call myself a book designer.

“What do you mean,” I said. “I design books, don’t I? What else should I call myself?”

“But you don’t just design books, Joel,” was the reply. “Look at all the other things you do for people who want to publish a book.”

And you know, it was true.

The World of Publishing Consultants

It also got me thinking about the consultants who are hired by authors to aid them in their publishing journey. Each of these occupations is a bit different, and each has a slightly different slant on the service they provide.

Because their titles aren’t fixed by any licensing body, the roles each plays are loosely defined, with lots of overlap. In the interest of consumer education, I thought it would be a service to give you my own take on these roles and how they differ.

  • Book Designer—As the name implies, a designer is a skilled graphic artist who specializes in book design. Because design is linked to the way the book will be printed, book designers can also deal with book production, the physical manufacture of the finished volumes. Designers also deal with marketing issues, since book covers are crucial parts of the positioning and marketing of books. Designers may be hired just to perform the cover design, or the interior design, or they may be given an entire project to coordinate.
  • Book Shepherd—An experienced guide who will help authors through publication. Shepherds may do some of the work on the book themselves, or may hire out parts of the project. They will help directly or indirectly with the author’s needs for design, editing, marketing, forms filing, print brokering, distribution and publicity.
  • Book Doctor—This is actually a completely separate role, since a book doctor is an editor, usually called in by a publisher or other party to help “rescue” a manuscript that is otherwise publishable.
  • Book Producer—This is the term I used for many years, although I finally abandoned it. It seemed that my actual role in getting a book to press was something like a producer, or perhaps a general contractor. Hiring illustrators, indexers, editors, proofreaders and layout artists is common for the books I produce. Why did I give up on it? No one else was using it, and I constantly had to explain what I meant.
  • Book Packager—This is the bonus round. A packager is, like the book doctor, not a consultant to authors at all, but someone who acts as a liaison between a publisher and all the writers, editors and printers needed to produce a book. They act as agents, editors and publishers, and often are responsible for developing illustrated books that are complex and expensive to produce.

Which One Do You Need?

You’ll notice that there’s a lot of overlap among the designers, shepherds and producers. This is understandable, since authors need to go through the same types of processes to publish.

But they all have the same rationale: to help authors who don’t know the publishing business and its idiosyncracies navigate the sometimes rocky journey getting into print.

As Judith Briles, an author and long-time publishing guide, puts it on her and Katherine Carol’s website, The Book Shepherd:

You need experienced shepherds and guides to partner with you as you create, strategize, develop, publish and achieve your publishing goals. You can’t do it alone without paying the price . . . you can spend your money creating a book that turns out to be so-so; or you can create a book that looks and feels classy, builds your brand and is a financial success.

And that’s what savvy authors are looking for: the expert guidance necessary to make the most of their publishing opportunity; the experience to know when an author is planning a book that simply won’t work; and the insight to help clarify the author’s plans and make her dreams a practical reality.

Whatever you want to call us.

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by phing,

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Lisa M.

    Hi Joel,

    Wow! Thank you for the quick response. My thoughts and hopes are to own the illustrations outright, as that would make the most sense. Now to find the sample agreements.

    Kind regards,

  2. Lisa M.

    Hi Joel,

    I looked through your archives hoping to find an answer to a question(s) I have – maybe I was looking in the wrong place or perhaps it’s never been posed before. I am planning on self-publishing my first book, a series, for reluctant readers, age range 7-12 and I would like illustrations throughout. I will be meeting shortly with a couple illustrators (this has been no easy feat finding one, let me tell you). My questions – What is the best approach when dealing with illustrators? Meaning, what would you recommend I do? Should there be a contract? Should there be royalties? Who usually owns the rights to the illustrations? How do I commission this person so that they are my illustrator for the series? I am completely green in this area and could really use some advice.
    Kind regards,

    • Joel Friedlander


      You are planning on embarking on a partnership of sorts with an illustrator, and my advice would be to negotiate everything up front once you’ve determined you have the right person. Make rights, payments, ownership etc. all very clear, then write up your agreement. I would not enter an arrangement like this without a contract.

      The specifics are all negotiable, and since these types of arrangements are made privately by self-publishers, it’s hard to gauge what’s “normal.” I would want to own the artwork outright and would prefer to pay the artist for her work. Getting full ownership would cost more but it would give you stability in the future. There are some good sample agreements for working with illustrators, you might want to hunt around to see how they are worded. Hope that helps.



  3. Kay

    Hi, Joel,

    Okay, thanks.


  4. Kay

    Hi, Joel,

    I don’t know if this is the place to post this question, but I’ve been wondering. If I approach a publishing company to offer my editing services or graphic design services, would they sign my contract, or do I sign theirs? Does it depend on who approaches whom?


    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Kay.

      It depends on policies more than anything else. When I’ve worked for publishers I’ll present my contract, since I don’t work without one. If you’re going to have a longer-term relationship where you’ll be working on multiple projects, you might have a blanket agreement so you don’t have to draw a contract each time, and some larger companies have policies that require freelancers to sign corporate contracts and non-disclosure agreements. I don’t think you can generalize too easily since there are so many ways to arrange business between companies. And as a freelancer you are, in effect, your own company. This is not legal advice, of course, since I’m not a lawyer, but I hope it helps.

  5. Rik Roots

    I hope you don’t mind, Joel, but I have a tangential question.

    My skill-set is:
    – line editing experience (UK spellings) for government publications;
    – some broader editing (and simpler layout) skills – again, for govt. pubs.;
    – good web coding skills – frontend, backend and writing copy for different audiences;
    – I’ve taken my own books through the self-pub route (lulu for hardcopy, Smashwords for eBook);
    – my design skills are negligible.

    I’m looking at options for becoming self-employed (I’m currently unemployed), but I have no network of contacts and possible commissions at this point. Are there any particular websites or online community groups you could recommend that discuss and/or offer these services?

    (ps: my budget for this is negligible – unless I can come up with a robust business plan to take to the bank for a startup loan)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey Rik, that’s an interesting set of skills. Editing, coding and self-publishing experience, and no startup capital. If we were having coffee together and talking about this, I would probably encourage you to pick one thing and specialize, then get very active in social media. This combination is working for many people.

      There are lots of “gathering points” for people interested in each of your specialties, and I’m sure it wouldn’t be that hard to find them. But until you hone in on what it is you are going to be an “expert” in, it’s hard to recommend anything specific.

      Good luck!



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