When Self-Published Book Design Goes Bad

by | Mar 24, 2011

This is a story of failure. My failure, and the failure of my whole book design process. It’s about books that go bad, and the tragedy of a book design spiraling into the void.

How could things have gone so wrong? It all started out well enough. An optimistic author, ready to dive into self-publishing. An experienced book designer, ready to help clear the path to publication. Good intentions all around.

It starts out innocently enough, designs are produced as usual, we talk, the author ponders the decisions to be made.

Soon, however, troubling signs start to emerge. I get an email, asking for more variations, more typefaces, more combinations of elements to look at “just to be sure.”

Of course, I oblige. My aim is to help move the manuscript into a book. Establishing the typefaces and the general design will, I hope, start to solidify the way the book will look. As it becomes more settled, I’ll be able to move forward with the formatting and a complete page proof.

Storm Clouds on the Horizon

Trouble arrives when the requests start to become disturbingly specific. Look, typography isn’t brain surgery, but it also isn’t something you can learn in two weeks.

Where did the author get the idea that the Myriad sans serif type used in sample “A” for the headings would make a good choice to replace the body typeface in sample “B”? Not from me, that’s for sure.

Or that the way to add a “wow” factor to the chapter openers is with the clipart the author has thoughtfully sent me attached to an email? Did I advertise “wow” book design? I don’t think so.

Or that to change the whole book so that the chapters are opening left-right spreads, it’s fine to just leave half the preceding right-hand pages blank? Or to print “Notes” at the top? No, no, no.

But here’s the real problem for the book designer: when do you say “Enough!”?

Whose Book Is It, Exactly?

I’ve been hired to design the book, but by this time I feel like I’m the assistant designer for the author, who is now ordering samples of various treatments one after the other, always claiming he “just wants to have a look” at what it will look like.

No longer a designer, I’ve been reduced to carrying out the designs of someone who began their design career 10 days ago. This is bad and headed for worse. There is no designer now running the design process.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the author is entitled to have a book that looks any way she wants it to look. After all, she is paying for it, she will pay to publish it, and the book will have her name on it.

All true, but what about the book designer? At this point I start to feel like I’ve been backed into a corner, with few choices:

  • I can just keep saying “Sure, whatever you want” and hope the project is over really, really soon.
  • Or I could start to object to each variation, explaining what seems wrong to me, and hope I don’t use up too much time going back and forth over endless variations.
  • On the other hand, I could just say “No” and see what happens next. In this option I’d have to be ready to turn the project back over to the client, perhaps referring her to another designer. But wouldn’t that be a failure?

I really don’t have an answer to this situation, even though I’ve been doing books for self-publishers for decades. When I’m in one of these situations, my options often look like this:

  • At first, go along and hope the “experimenting” virus doesn’t spread and the book can be kept intact and finished quickly.
  • As it goes on, I start to think about whether I will remove the credit I usually put on the copyright page, so it no longer says “Design by Joel Friedlander” since it’s both untrue and not really something I want floating around. I mean, suppose someone thought that clip art was my idea?
  • Maybe I need to have clients sign a “Design Waiver” at the beginning of the project, yielding all final control of the design to me. But that would kill the collaborative part of the process, and that’s where some of the best designs come from.

What would you do?

(Clients referred to in this article are fictional composites drawn from the experience of 25 years designing books, and do not bear any relation to current or recent clients of my design practice.)

Photo by dreamglowpumpkincat21

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Anon

    This reminded me of my project management days – shudder. This is a fixed price/unlimited scope project which, as you mentioned, gives you all of the risk. You also don’t have an objective measure of when you have completed the project i.e. “when the client is happy”. And I gather you’re not having an opening conversation to manage client expectations as in: “clients generally make their choice after viewing 3 options.” Ouch! Generally, you want to have both the conversation and the contract. This kind of risky project, entirely dependent on client reasonableness, is what happened when we let sales people run amok – they never wanted to lost a sale. It’s hard to drive the bulldozer behind those expectations, and deliver. Sooner or later, you’ll get a nightmarish, cheap chiseller client. Off to eat Cheetos to cope with flashback. BTW, your templates are fabulous.

  2. carol hedges

    Yikes! Speaking from the writer side: You may need to inform your clients that Big Publishers don’t even CONSULT! unless you are JK Rowling. The first you know is when the cover proofs with the blurb arrive in your inbox. You MAY input…but chances are, you will be ignored. For my Victorian detective series, I worked with the cover artist (he’s a mate) and we came up with the fonts together, then the colours via Victorian paint charts. It was made quite clear (but nicely) that I wrote the words and HE did the cover…that being our areas of expertise. I’d have walked, if I were you…. I walked from a publisher who changed my covers without asking me.

  3. Catherine Bradish

    I have been in the same position at times with authors. I was taught to show them the design as they want it and come up with a design keeping in mind what they think they want. In most cases the author/publisher will run with my design.

  4. Roger C. Parker

    Dear Joel:
    Wow! What a sad state of affairs. Thank you for sharing with us, though, reminding all of us that we’re not alone in dealing with clients.

    Regarding your 3 options:
    Option 1, i.e., go along and hope the “experimenting” virus doesn’t spread: that’s too much like buying lottery tickets and hoping to win, or getting on a rural Interstate at midnight with the gas gauge on empty.

    Option 2, (remove the credit I usually put on the copyright page, so it no longer says “Design by Joel Friedlander”) is equally unsatisfying, although it might be the lesser of 3 evils. Unfortunately, it leaves a problem unsolved, opening the door to an unpleasant surprise in the future, when the client gets on Oprah! and discusses your clip-art obsession. Life’s too short.

    Option 3, “Maybe have clients sign a “Design Waiver,” is a bit disturbing because of it’s “totalitarian” feel and message of presumed holier-than-thou condescending view of client opinions.

    When “first signs of trouble” show up, I like to share a few stories about patients who tell their dentists what size needles and drills to use, or the fate of defendants who are their own lawyers.

    I guess all that any of us can do when situations like yours come along is that PITA clients–thank you, Susan, for a great term–are usually the exception to years of watching grins of satisfaction on our client’s faces when we hit a “design home run” or unplug a blocked writer and watch the words flow.

    When faced with similar situations, BTW, my solution is to visit a friend in a corporate office cubicle; five minutes in a modular cubicle with a florescent light overhead makes even the worst clients seem bearable.

    Thanks for sharing both the good and the bad of your design experiences.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Roger, your advice as usual is right on the money. I remember my cubicle days well, and have no desire to return there any time soon. Thanks.

    • Sue Collier

      Haha! I love this, Roger!! I will keep it in mind when I come across my next PITA client. =)

      • Susan Daffron

        HA, you’re exactly right, Roger!

        I never ever want to go back to a cubicle. I remember the giddy feeling I had when I started my biz and realized that for the first time I had an office with a DOOR and a WINDOW. Plus, I didn’t have to try to explain to a cheapskate boss why spending more for a larger monitor makes a huge difference in design productivity.

  5. Susan Daffron

    Wow Joel, I feel for you. Like James said, over the years, we’ve been through this in both print design and Web design.

    As an aside, I must ask, you have seen the Oatmeal cartoon “How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell” I hope? If not, here ya go: https://theoatmeal.com/comics/design_hell
    You are SO not alone ;-)

    (@Sue C: look it even has Comic Sans!)

    The good news is that because of the way I structure my contracts, I almost never have this problem anymore. If a client is going to become such a gigantic PITA that I can’t work with the person, it almost inevitably happens reasonably early in the working relationship (people tend to show their true colors during the initial phases).

    In the event of a PITA client, I can refund the Phase I payment, cut my losses and suggest the person find someone else to work with. I haven’t had to do it in a long time, but I have done it.

    I’ll spare you the story about the client I had who was obsessed with using a clip art canoe that looked like a creepy deformed football. But when Mr. PITA turns up like that, I thank my lucky stars that he signed the contract and I can request that he find someone else.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Susan, thanks for the Oatmeal link, that about says it all.

      • Susan Daffron

        Yeah, I thought you’d appreciate that. The first time I saw it I literally had a LOL (laugh out loud) moment ;-)

    • Sue Collier

      That’s awesome, Susan! I hadn’t seen it before.

    • Leslie Tall Manning

      Susan: I liked that Oatmeal comic so much I just shared it on facebook. ; )

  6. Emily Hill

    Oh, Yes! The concept of encouraging professional cover design is one I can certainly get behind. You know you can, and you know you do…judge a book by its cover. If an author has the Indie-bug but won’t go Pro on the editing and cover design – they are destined to learn the hard way.

    But, where does that leave success stories like Amanda Hocking, and Dean Wesley Smith who both do their own covers? And, Zoe Winters who did her first cover and then had enough coffer to cough up the bucks for some pretty sexy designs later in her career?

    I think there is an element of genre-tolerance for certain authors, and that should be weighed into the equation. Historical fiction [my mainstream] needs a professional designer, and I choose Kat Marriner for myself and the clients I coach. If I’m ePubbing smut using my pseudonym I do my own comic book noir and see if the market snaps.

  7. Julia Chitwood

    In addition to the bad design, I noticed immediately the apostrophe in the word “Theatres.” It shouts amateur. You weren’t able to get the client to even fix this? I see more and more the incorrect use of an apostrophe to indicate plurals, and it drives me up the wall. Kudos to you for admitting that you got into this situation, which is apparently fairly common.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Julia, the artwork at the top of the blog post is an image from Flickr.com, where I frequently get images licensed under Creative Commons. It has nothing to do with the books I was doing for clients. It is funny, though.

  8. Bob Mayer

    Walk away and give them their money back. If they don’t recognize they hired you for your expertise, then they can do their own cover. They can’t have it both ways.
    Covers are very emotional subjects. I’ve had ones I thought sucked and turned out great and ones I loved that sucked. I’ve had ones from traditional publishers that had nothing to do with the content of the book. I’ve got a flying saucer on each of my Area 51 books that is never in the book, but it’s sold over a million copies.
    Who the hell knows?

    • Joel Friedlander

      I wonder if I can work a flying saucer into the cover of my book?

      You hit it, Bob, it’s the emotional connection that causes the problems. Particularly with first-time authors, the thought that you are projecting yourself into the public marketplace is hard to struggle against.

  9. Sue Collier

    Hoo boy, Joel. I could have written this one, word for word. It is incredibly frustrating and disappointing when a seemingly good project goes bad. In my experience, it happens with projects that seem so promising at the start…the authors are savvy businesspeople…they seem as though they will be fun to work with…but then the inexperienced and invalid design change requests start. It usually snowballs–and it’s a tough call. Do you simply “fire” them? Or delete your company name from the copyright page (and sometimes the acknowledgments)?

    In the past, we’ve tried to accommodate authors–to the tune of some 40 different cover comps for one author (who ultimately designed the cover himself [yup, Michael, it was a man] and wound up with a lackluster cover featuring the Comic Sans font that screams “self-published”). Now, if I see things heading in that direction, I will have a heart-to-heart with the author. And if that doesn’t rein them in, I will walk away.

    It boggles my mind that people will hire us for our expertise–and then ignore every bit of advice we offer.

    • Joel Friedlander

      40 comps? You beat my record, which is 29. Why do we do it, Sue? We know it’s wrong, that it won’t work, but somehow I think “Now I know what they want!” and off I go.

      • Sue Collier

        I know, right? Some deep-seeded need to please? An innate desire to see the project through to the end? I hate to be a “quitter,” but it really is in everyone’s best interest sometimes. When I don’t quit, the project never turns out well anyway.

  10. Michele DeFilippo

    Sorry you had this experience, Joel. Fortunately, for us as well, it’s a rare occurrence, but extremely frustrating.

    I think every designer has to find his or her own point at which to declare “enough.” On one occasion, we worked with a client who really wanted to design his own cover, but only after he saw our ideas, so there’s always the possibility that the “impossible to please” client has entered the relationship in bad faith. This is where a clear contract become invaluable.

    I always sleep on the decision, just to make sure my brain is doing the talking, instead of my emotions, and have never regretted ending a relationship that threatens my sanity. I usually use the sentence, “I think we would both be happier if you found someone else to finish this job,” which is generally true. :-)

  11. Roemer McPhee

    Joel, I think you’re gonna like this relevant incident:

    The great Martin Scorsese was under huge time pressure, in 1980, to release “Raging Bull,” his landmark film. He couldn’t hear the two words “Cutty Sark” (whiskey) at one moment in the final film cut, and he mentioned it to his producers. They looked at him like he was crazy. Scorsese said, “Fine, go ahead and release the film. But it won’t have my name on it.”


  12. Caethes Faron

    I would remind your clients that part of what they’re paying for is your expertise. I’d let them know that they are wasting their money if they’re not going to take advantage of your knowledge. Establish yourself as the expert and stay firm. If they won’t listen, fire them.

    I’m assuming you base your fees on the amount of time you know it takes you and the value you feel should be placed on your expertise. So aren’t you ripping yourself off if you’re spending 3x the amount of time with a crazy client? Is that fair?

    If you keep clients that are difficult and causing you headaches, you should be charging them more. I would tell them that you bill an hourly rate for all time spent on activities that you advise against :).

    Also consider that all the extra time you spend with these “bad” clients is time away from other money making activities such as getting new “good” clients or working on your own writing. Would you rather spend time tearing your hair out with a “bad” client, or getting a “good” client who trusts you and is going to come back to your with all their future work?

  13. Nina Hamberg

    Joel, what a good article (as always). You’re fortunate that this problem has come up so rarely.

    When I ran a marketing/pr agency in SF we did a lot of brochure and corporate identity work for lawyers. Attorneys are notoriously a difficult group to please and I quickly learned about being on the design end of endless modifications. After my first experience (where I found myself hating my client), I wrote up the terms of the engagement, including how many design options we’d provide (usually 3). If the client wanted changes after we’d decided on a direction, fine. We’d do as many as they wanted, but they were charged every time.

    It worked out well. Since the client knew what they were getting at the outset, I wasn’t in the position of saving, “but wait …” I could give them my best professional advice on why a design did or didn’t work, but the final call (and the bill) was theirs.

    A one-page engagement letter, detailing the deliverables and time line, including a per/hour cost if additional modification is desired beyond the scope of the agreement, does wonders. It sets boundaries and puts everyone at ease. In fact, clients liked it as much as we did.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Running an agency with lawyers for clients? I think they give out medals for that, Nina.

      I’ve used a formal Agreement for many years, and everything is spelled out, including corrections charges. I don’t usually have a problem with that. The problem is clients with control issues. They want to give the design over to me. The want to get a professional looking book. They’ve been told they will get a good job, but when it comes right down to it, they can’t let go.

      Even if you’re being paid, that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with, especially since we’re talking about design.

      I had a client recently who went to the bookstore to look at covers and came back to tell me that one of the things he liked the best, that really grabbed his eye, was fluorescent colors on the cover. He wanted to know if I could do that. Sorry, you can’t pay me enough to sit there and do that cover.

  14. Jacqueline Simonds

    Thanks for bringing this up, Joel. And I have greatly enjoyed the comments from other book designers.

    I have this happen at least once a year. I always try to turn this into a teaching moment (since I assume my clients all want to look as professional as possible). I won’t be bullied into producing an unprofressional book, even for money. This lead one customer to write me one of the most scathing letters I have ever received in 12 years of working with clients. Rather than respond to it, we simply continued with the project. When we handed him the final files, he said: “Oh! That’s beautiful!” He’s since told me that he gets customers telling him how wonderful and terrifically designed the book is. He’s never apologized, though, and I would not accept another commission from him.

    I guess it’s just the way things are when you deal with “creatives” as customers!

  15. James Byrd

    Unfortunately, recognizing clients you should walk away from does require experience. Maybe a lot of experience. You learn to watch for the warning signs:

    * Poor communication: They don’t respond to email or send two-word replies. You’ll never get the job done, and every delay will be perceived as all your fault.
    * Complete ignorance regarding your field of expertise: This sounds counter-intuitive, I know. If they already knew about book design, why would the need you? No, what I’m talking about here is people who are capable of appreciating what you can do for them. They may not be able to design a book themselves, but they understand the value of what you deliver, and they feel your pricing is fair.
    * Bad attitude: If they instantly reject everything you show them and are rude about it, you need to suggest that they move on and find someone more to their tastes immediately. Run away!!!

    Ultimately, the money back guarantee makes a great escape hatch. If all else fails, you can just refund their money and be done with it. It sounds like all of us have used that tactic a time or two.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Here’s one of my criteria, and one I put into use a few months ago: If every time I start to explain something the client interrupts and talks over me no matter what I say, decline the job at the first opportunity.

  16. Jamie D.

    My day job is web design/development. Unfortunately, I’m not a freelancer, so whatever the boss says, goes, even if I heartily disagree (which I do a lot). It’s very frustrating knowing your name is on a design you don’t really think works…so I sympathize with you there.

    Personally, If I were freelancing, I’d explain my objections to the client and if we couldn’t come to some compromise, I’d end the contract. Better than having my name associated with a project that really wasn’t my design.

    My cover artist says I’m her favorite client, because I understand all this all too well. While I may ask for a minor tweak at the end if I feel strongly about something, I pretty much let her do her thing, because she’s the pro. ;-)

  17. Joel Friedlander

    Well, there’s a tremendous amount of experience represented in the comments here, and it looks to me like everyone has the same take on this type of situation.

    Of course, you have to realize that this is what’s happening at the time.

    One of the conflicts that’s caused some of these problems is a practice I took up some years ago when I was re-building my business after a long layoff. I decided to employ risk reversal as a means to reassure hesitant prospects.

    In other words, I take on all the risk for the project, the client has no financial risk whatsoever. In this model, I will produce a design that they will like no matter what it takes, with a money-back guarantee at the end in case it’s impossible. While this has ocassionaly created some more work for me, on balance it’s responsible for a huge amount of work coming my way that might not have if I hadn’t adopted this stance toward my clients.

    It comes from my idea of what my business really is about. The main product of my work isn’t books so much as it is wildly happy clients. I’m more committed to putting a book into a client’s hands that they are crazy happy with, than I am in any of the specific details of the design.

    Ridiculous? Maybe, but it’s worked well for me.

    What I appreciate about the responses is the unanimity of opinion, and that in itself makes it easier when I do have to walk away, if it should happen again. Like Walt, I’ve gotten better at sniffing out the people who will never be satisfied and sending them elsewhere before making a commitment.

    You guys rock!

  18. Victoria Mixon

    Wow, Joel, did you hit a hot button with this one!

    I run into this occasionally as an independent editor. I had to come up with a solution some time ago based on the fact that, like you, being an indie-for-hire means I don’t get the final say in what the writer chooses.

    I tell the writer they are, of course, free to do whatever they like with their book, as it belongs to them and not me, but I am here to teach them what will get the best reaction from industry professionals and readers. In my work that often means the highest chance of acceptance by agents and publishers, but it goes for readers as well.

    They are certainly within their rights to assume I’m telling them to pervert their artistic vision for the crass commercialism of today’s industry. I got that response once. But only once, and I’ve worked with scores of writers. All they have to do is read my blog to learn whether or not that’s what I’m about.

    And, yeah, like the other folks, I’d walk if it was a question of my name on something I couldn’t respect. I’ve refunded client fees before. You’ve got to be able to live with yourself.

  19. Kate @ Kallitechnes

    I would either walk away or remove my name from the colophon. Probably walk away. It is not worth my time and effort to deal with an incredibly nit-picky client, and they’re probably never going to be happy. And in an example like the one you gave, I’m certainly not going to want to attach my name to that “design.”

    That said, I typically walk clients – for both interior and cover design – through what the process is like, and offer to make several samples and revisions, but I put a limit on that. You get six sample covers, for example, and we’ll fine-tune the two you like best, then you get to pick one. You don’t get to ask for endless revisions and new samples unless I’ve really misread your situation and don’t come up with ANYTHING you like, or unless you’re willing to pay me a whole lot more for becoming your “design assistant.”

    You hired me to design. Let me do it.

  20. Christy Pinheiro

    I would walk away. I’ve done it many times with a tax client who was being unreasonable, or wanted me to be more aggressive than I was comfortable with. They are just never going to be happy. I just hand them back their stuff– I don’t charge them. I tell them that I just don’t think it’s a good fit.

    Then, when they come back, (as they usually do), I just tell them that they really just need to find someone else. Once I fire someone, that’s it. It’s not worth my tummy aches.

  21. Walt Shiel


    This brought back memories (and not pleasant ones). We once had to tell a long-term client (who had always been somewhat difficult) that we simply could not work with him anymore. I tried to keep it very professional, but he decided to make a stink and filed a complaint with the BBB. I responded, he responded, I responded, he responded…and I had to tell BBB I could not waste any more time on it. It is over. Period.

    I have turned down several potential clients because I sensed problems in the offing. I always try to ask questions up front that will help highlight potential problems. Then I spell out carefully in our contract what we will do, what we won’t do, and how much extra work will cost (billed at our option). I usually try to dissuade a client from what I would consider design errors, and always end with something like: “I think this is a bad idea, but it’s your book so, ultimately, its success is up to you.” In most cases, that seems make the point better than more explanations.

    Thanks for bring to light a problem all service providers have to deal with sooner or later. Unfortunately, the client is not always right.

  22. James Byrd

    Both Susie and I have had this experience, Joel. We’ve learned that it’s okay to fire customers. It’s better for your mental health not to become aggravated, and it’s better for your customer to not have to deal with an aggravated designer.

    As is often the case, it comes down to managing expectations. Your contract should set some ground rules up front. First of all you are the designer. The purpose of the business relationship is for the author to hire your expertise with design. The customer should give you conceptual guidelines and point out examples that they like, but leave the rest to you.

    If you and your customer can’t agree upon a design within three rounds of proposal/feedback, it will probably never happen, and if it does, there will always be *something* with which she is unhappy. You will both walk away from the deal feeling unsatisfied. She won’t feel she got what she paid for, and you won’t feel like you were sufficiently compensated for the work you did.

    On the other hand, it’s hard to be too rigid about contract issues because some customers are only a little over the line. The answer to situations like that is the “aggravation surcharge.” After three rounds, any additional work is charged by the hour or some other rule.

    The main thing is to manage expectations and remain in control of the business relationship.

    Yeah, I know, easier said than done.

  23. Tony Eldridge

    Wow, what a professional dilemma. I guess from an author’s standpoint, it would make me think twice about my designs if the person I hired told me that:

    1. My design is not their recommendation, but since I was paying for it, I could have it however I wanted.

    2. They are considering removing all credits from the copyright page.

    It’s a hard balance because ideally, creative creations should be a collaboration that takes the best ideas from a client and makes them better.

    As a client, I think I’d be agreeable to signing a waiver that said something to the effect that you reserve the right not to take credit for work where your designs are not implemented.

    This is a tough one, Joel! If you find the perfect answer, let us know. The principle can be applied to just about any consultative relationship.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for all the great feedback. I should emphasize that these experiences are a small fraction of the usual interactions I have with clients. My typical advice to anxious and stressed-out self-publishers is to relax and enjoy the process because once their book comes out the real work starts.

      By and large the projects I work on are a pleasure, and I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had many great clients who are a pleasure to work with. What I’ve written about here is very much the exception, maybe 2 or 3 people over the last few years.

      Since I’m usually responsible for creating the PDF that will be used for the interior, I can take my name off any book without a problem, and I’ve done it a couple of times.

      The few times I’ve gone “down the rabbit hole” into a useless design spiral are really my fault, not the client’s. After all, I’m the design professional.

      I do use a contract on all jobs that allows me—or the client—to bail out if it’s a bad fit, although this is very rare.

      I had one client who was so afraid of actually committing to press that he ran through 12 complete book proofs making infinitesimal changes that were barely noticeable. It was pretty obvious what was going on, and the book ended up costing double what it should have.

      What stuck with me most from the comments was Derek’s: Clients should treat you like a doctor, not a short order cook. That about says it all. Thanks!

  24. Derek Oscarson

    Some clients just waste your time. I agree, fire the client. It has to be done on occasion. Clients should treat you like a doctor, not a short order cook.

  25. Mary Tod

    From my time in the consulting business, I can identify with your dilemma and it makes me squirm with recollected anxieties. As Scott Marlowe says above, the relationship isn’t working. You have someone who is either “the client from hell” or “the client who will cost you money rather than make you money” and you should fire the client. I am actually assuming you’ve probably done so otherwise you wouldn’t be writing this post!

  26. Scott Marlowe

    I think I’d cut my loses and walk away. Sometimes the relationship isn’t working and isn’t going to work.

  27. Ross Slater

    Oh Joel, so sorry to hear that we have this horror story in common. We helped a group of clients (10 authors total) to complete a book last year. The cover design ended up being horrible (feel bad for our designer who had to execute) and the text that went along with it was terrible too (our writers gave up in disgust).

    Originally we started to explain to the clients why the decisions they were making and the “tweaks” they wanted (because they “knew” what would be best in their market) weren’t the best choices. The title creation process was painful with all our great ideas dropped because they weren’t “creative” enough. Then, at a certain point, we just gave up and numbly made the changes they requested.

    And like you, we have not mentioned to anyone that we ever worked on the book. Oddly, it has been picked up by Wiley and they are changing the title and cover…

    Basically we had to finish the project because we were so deep. But on another similar project we “fired” the client after the ghostwriting was done. We just couldn’t stomach doing the rest of the book. Of course we’ll never work with either of these clients again. Although I’m sure that someone else will.

    In the end, it is being professional that will make the best impact on a reputation in the marketplace. If we worry about “firing” a client, we only have to remember that we can tell a PITA* when we see one and so can other people!

    *PITA = Pain In The A**.

    • Michael N. Marcus

      Even worse than the PITA is the ISPITA (Industrial Strength PITA).

  28. Roemer McPhee

    I’m reminded of another line: “Where there’s people there’s trouble.”

  29. Roemer McPhee

    One of the great lines from the 1980s was, “Let Reagan be Reagan.”

    The pro is hired to do his or her thing, and should do it without interference, because he or she is BETTER. The author writes the book, yes, but she has to know her limitations.

  30. Allan Douglas

    I am not a book designer, but I have done similarly creative work in another field; working with clients who have ideas about the project that my own expertise tells me are not really suitable. They came to me for my expertise. I find that if I explain why I don’t think their idea is feasible they most often come around. Sometimes they are disappointed at not getting their frilly-bits, but if it means driving the cost of the project through the roof or making it an unsound design, they can and do accept that.

    I too get the occasional client who wants to explore multiple design options. That’s the fun part (for them). But they have to see that investing three or four times the labor you planned to was not part of the deal. Depending on how your contract is structured, you need to limit the number of versions they may have for the agreed upon price.

  31. Michael N. Marcus

    ]]What would you do?[[

    Walk away. Save yourself. The client — not the designer — has failed.

    Remember Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”:

    “You Just slip out the back, Jack
    Make a new plan, Stan
    You don’t need to be coy, Roy
    Just get yourself free
    Hop on the bus, Gus
    You don’t need to discuss much
    Just drop off the key, Lee
    And get yourself free”

    Some business deals are losers. Some are suicide misisons. You can’t win. You can’t convince a stupid customer. The job will never end. It takes time from more pleasant projects. It makes you miserable. You stop accepting calls from the customer. You hate the work you’re doing. You will be embarrassed by being associated with it.

    I once wrote a book which was later so badly butchered by the publisher that I refused to be named as the author. This is one of the reasons I self-publish.

    My grandfather was an optometrist. If he had a patient who was unhappy with every lens and frame, he’d tell her (always a her) to find a new doctor.

    I can usually tell that a movie is a stinker within the first few minutes and will want to leave. My optimistic wife will say, “Maybe it will get better.” My response is, “I already wasted my money. I won’t waste any more time.”

    Hit the road, Jack — or Joel.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: https://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” https://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

  32. Christopher Wills

    In my case I would remember that although the ultimate choices are down to the customer, my name would be attached to it as the designer so I wouldn’t let anything go that I wasn’t happy with. It’s my livelihood; I get assessed by my work; I’m not going to put my name to something that others in the industry will recognise as poor quality. I would simply tell the author something along the lines of ‘clearly this is not working, I think you should go elsewhere.’ but in a nice way.

    If your experience tells you the design is pants then the author is probably going to find out one day because a reviewer will tell him. And who is he or she going to blame for the design of the cover? The designer. So I would put my foot down. I don’t think you can go wrong in life if you always strive for a reasonable quality in your work.



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