Is Interior Book Design a Commodity?

POSTED ON Jun 3, 2013

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Book Design, Self-Publishing > Is Interior Book Design a Commodity?

The realization came to me a few years ago, in a flash: maybe they just don’t care.

You see, for years as a working book designer, I’d been used to diving into an extensive design process for each new book project.

Using variations in fonts, layouts, chapter openings, running heads, page numbers and the other ingredients of book design, I would eventually present the client with 3 separate and distinct approaches to the interior book design.

Of course, each of these designs would have to fulfill the basic functions of a book design. It would have to be:

  • readable and inviting
  • appropriate to the content and the intended audience
  • attractive to the reader without calling attention to itself
  • organized so the hierarchy of the content is obvious to the reader

Creating these variations could take days, and that time was a significant part of the cost of the project. We would then continue to refine one of the designs until we had a final, often going back and forth numerous times as we worked out details.

A Fateful Insight Into Indie Authors

Somewhere along the line I started to have the thought in the back of my mind that the clients were just going through this whole process for one reason:

I told them it was necessary, that they needed to do it.

After all, most authors who decide to publish their own books come into the process without knowing much about it. When they hire professionals like designers to work on their books, they rely on those pros to guide them through the process.

Makes sense, right?

But the realization I had was that maybe they didn’t really care all that much about these design variations.

Maybe they didn’t care whether their chapter heads were typeset in Americana or American Typewriter. Whether their text font was Georgia or Garamond. Or whether their pages were symmetric or asymmetric.

I decided to conduct an experiment in real time, to find the answer. After all, maybe they did care and I was just having a bad day.

The Interior Book Design Experiment

Because I had been doing all these book design variations for years, I had a lot of prototypes that had never been used for publication. These were the designs that clients had not chosen, the castoffs and orphans of old book design projects.

So here’s what I did. For several months, every time I got a new book interior design client, when it came time to talk about prices and process, I said something like this: (Prices are for illustration only and don’t represent the actual cost of any project.)

“I’m really looking forward to helping you get this book to market. Because I know most indie authors are on a budget, I have a proposal for you.

“I can go through the usual design process and create 3 separate and distinct designs for your book, and we can work together to find the one you like best and refine it until we get to a “final” design, at which point we’ll be able to lay out the book. For your book, this will cost $1,000 and I’ll need about 3 weeks.

“On the other hand, if what you want is a professional book interior, but you don’t feel like you need to be that involved in the process, here’s a different way we can get your book done.

“I’ve got all these unused designs from past projects. Let me pick one that’s suited to your book. Of course, when you see the design if there’s anything you want to change we’ll gladly do so.

“But here’s the thing. If you do it this way, instead of $1,000 and 3 weeks, the price will drop to $600, and we’ll only need 10 days. You decide which one suits you the best.”

I made this offer to almost 20 clients whose books would work with this approach. Want to guess how many took me up on my cost-saving offer?

All of them.

Yep, 100% of the people I made this offer to took the faster, cheaper process.

The Problem with Commodity Selling of Book Interiors

That’s when I started to think that maybe book interiors have gotten to the point that they are a commodity. A commodity is something that can be had from various sources but usually is pretty much the same, like a pound of sugar.

You can buy your pound of sugar at different markets in different wrappers with different brand names, but inside basically you’ve just got a pound of suger.

The thing with commodities is that eventually the competition between different brands becomes a matter of price. If the sugar is cheaper at Market A, why buy it at Market B?

Likewise, if all you’re doing is buying 200 pages of typesetting so your book looks professional, does it really make sense to pay a premium price and take the time to go through an extensive design process?

Keep in mind I’m talking about books that are relatively simple, like novels, memoirs, narrative nonfiction, that sort of thing. If you have a complex nonfiction book, an art book, or some other specialized project you’ll need a pro.

Okay, now it’s your turn: Imagine yourself getting this offer from your book designer. Would you take the deal? Or would you insist on—and pay for—a full-scale design treatment?

Let me know in the comments.

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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