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

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