Should Authors Design Their Own Books?

POSTED ON Mar 7, 2012

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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Sooner or later, as an author who wants to self-publish a book, you’ll come to the question we all face: should you also design your own book?

But what’s really behind this question is another question that might help answer the first one: When exactly is it okay for an author to design her own book, and when would it be better to hire a book designer? How do you decide on the strategy you’re going to use to design your book?

Some authors want to hire the best designer they can afford, happy to leave all the details that go into creating a professional-looking book to someone else. They want a book that will gain the respect of book industry buyers and distributors and sell head-to-head against books from major publishers.

Others decide that, since they are independent publishers doing marketing, distribution, and file conversions, they might as well design their own books. They use commonplace tools—usually a word processor—or buy complex layout software that comes with its own learning curve.

It’s exciting that so many people are able to publish their own books now. When you get to the big question of “Should I design my books myself?” you might find yourself deciding based on one of these four motivations.

Four Reasons for Authors to Design Their Own Books

  1. Budget—Many authors’ just don’t have the money for professional design. And if you’re stretched, getting your book professionally edited is the most important priority. If you have no money for a designer, you can try to do a barter for part or all of the cost, but many authors end up doing it themselves to save money. Look for book templates that can help you get started, and which are available from some print on demand vendors.
  2. Control—Some authors are very concerned with how their book looks. They spend a lot of time experimenting with fonts, layout, book sizes and other details of the book creation process. It can be uncomfortable for these authors to give up control of how their book will look, and so they hold onto the production process trying to get exactly the effect they want.
  3. Expertise—There are authors who have a background in graphic design, or who have someone with the required expertise available. For instance, a business owner might have a graphic artist on their payroll to help out with layout and formatting. And if you have a background in graphic design and some familiarity with the tools of typography, you could probably learn basic book design.
  4. DIY gene—Let’s face it, there are authors who would never consider letting someone else work on their book. Some people just have “do-it-yourself” genetics. These may be the same people who fix their own roof, know how to repair the plumbing, and change their own spark plugs. They see the design of their book as a challenge to look forward to, and enjoy learning all the new things they need to know to do it right.

Factors to Consider When Deciding Whether to Design Your Own Books

Whichever one of these four groups you find yourself in, there are some books that lend themselves to amateur design more than others. Thinking about the kind of book you want to publish will help you come to a design strategy.

To make this more clear, here are some examples of strategies for book design that apply to specific kinds of books. In some cases it’s perfectly reasonable for authors to design their own books, at other times you might want to find a pro to help out.

  • Books with complex layouts—In the case of heavily-illustrated, extensively annotated or graphically complex books, the difficulty involved in creating these books yourself may be overwhelming, and you’ll get frustrated instead of enjoying the process. If your book has lots of figures, charts, diagrams, sidebars, lots of typographic elements, think twice about doing it yourself if the only tool you have available is a word processor.
  • You write novels—This is the easiest type of book to design if you want to do it yourself. Novels usually have chapter breaks and text breaks and not much else when it comes to formatting. If you get a good quality typeface and lay out your basic pages correctly, you should be well on your way to doing your own book.
  • No time to learn new things—Most self-publishers have a “day job” and publish in their spare time. In addition to everything else they take on, becoming their own book designer may demand just too much time, slowing down the whole process.
  • You need your book to look totally “pro”—The books we buy from traditional publishers usually look good because they’re the product of professionals. Unless you want to devote the time to acquire their expertise, the way to get a professional-looking book is to hire professionals.
  • Personal memoirs or private publications—Memoirs are most like novels in that they usually require very little formatting. That makes them good candidates for authors to design. This is especially true if the memoir or other historical book is intended for a small audience.
  • Art or photography books—Unless you have experience dealing with color correction and printing, you’ll be better off involving a professional book designer somewhere along the line.
  • Any offset book—When you use offset printing you’re likely going to print 1,000 or more books. You’ll be paying the printer thousands of dollars, and hiring a designer who knows how to produce books will be a good investment.

Whichever way you decide to produce your book, it’s a good idea to spend time looking at books, particularly the other books in your genre or category. Can you find some that are easier to read than others? Books that show the hierarchy of information effectively? Books that are fun to hold and feel good in your hand?

This kind of research is fun and rewarding. It’s a great way to learn how to look at books differently. Not as a reader focused on the content, but as a publisher knows their readers and what they’re looking for.

This post originally appeared on on July 28, 2011 in a different form under the title Should Authors Design Their Own Books? Photo by Simon Zirkunow

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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