When I started out as a book designer, I had one kind of client: book publishers. Whether they were trade publishers, academic presses, private presses, religious presses, nonprofits, or small independent presses, every client was a publisher of some kind. No one else knew or had any reason to care about the arcane details of book construction. Books are prosaic. We are so familiar with them from childhood on that we just take them for granted.
Now digital printing and print-on-demand distribution have exploded the client base. Teachers, consultants, plumbers, taxi drivers, stay-at-home moms, bloggers—there are clients everywhere. Thousands of people have, in effect, become their own publishers. These are my clients now.
Without years of experience in book publishing and some idea of how books are put together, it can be a challenge both for designers and their clients to establish a good relationship, one that will ensure a book that satisfies both publishers and readers. Toward that end, here are some tips on hiring and working with a book designer, whether that designer is doing the cover, the interior of your book, or both.
10 Tips for Working with a Book Designer
1. Your Responsibility
As the self-publisher, it’s your responsibility to make sure that you’re absolutely clear about what the design work will cost. Ask what’s included in the design. For instance, many clients want to convert their book cover into a cover for Advance Review Copies. You will want JPG files for use in your promotion and marketing.
Many book designers use contracts, and a contract ought to protect both parties by making your agreement concrete. Make sure the details of the contract are crystal clear. There’s no point in negotiating your project only to find a deal-killer in the contract that the designer won’t budge on.
At this stage, you’ll also need to think about your schedule. Since designers are often solo entrepreneurs, what will happen if the work is delayed? If you have a specific date that you are working toward in your publication plan, make sure you communicate this clearly to the designer. And if you have a “drop dead” date that absolutely can’t be missed, put it in the contract.
From the contract, you will be able to answer the question of who owns the design. Are you buying it outright, or are you actually buying a license? Particularly with book cover designs, some book designers retain the ownership of the design and are only selling you a license to use it for some number of editions. If your book is successful you may find that you need to pay additional licensing fees to go back to press. As the publisher, you need to decide whether this arrangement suits you. These licensing arrangements are typically less expensive than if the same designer created a design and sold it to you outright. The point here is to be certain about what you’re paying for. If it’s important for you that you own the artwork and design completely, be specific about how you will acquire the rights.
What happens if you decide to cancel the project? Is there an “escape” clause or a “kill” fee if you want to get out? If there is no mechanism for early termination of the contract, negotiate this directly. It’s often simplest to have a flat fee if the cancellation is near the beginning of the project. Otherwise, the contract may call for payment of work done-to-date on an hourly basis.
What kind of credit is the book designer asking for? Traditionally, giving credit to the designer has been the publisher’s option, and the most typical type of credit is a line on the copyright page. Find out if the designer has any other requirements about crediting them. (And you should, of course, always credit your designers. They make you look good!)
6. Creative Input
How much input will you have into the project? Is the designer soliciting your thoughts on the cover or interior? How much consultation will the designer have with you before starting work? Especially during the preliminary stages of design, you may want to set a general tone or direction or suggest artwork that appeals to you.
7. Designer Process
Find out before you sign your contract about the designer’s process. How many designs will be created? Will you have a choice? After the initial round of designs will you have to pay for changes you want to make? Each book designer works differently, which is why it’s important to understand their process upfront. And if it isn’t comfortable for you, keep looking.
8. Designer Experience
Ask about the designer’s past experience. Has she worked with your book printer? Does she have designs to show you for books in your genre? It helps to have a designer who is familiar with your market and who knows what kinds of books appeal to your readers.
9. Additional Services
Will you need e-book conversion services from your book designer? If publication on Kindle or iPad is important to your marketing plan, make sure your designer knows this upfront. Anticipating these electronic formats may influence how the rest of the book is designed.
Know when to let your designer do their job. Once you’ve established the parameters of the design, established a tone, or even provided examples of other books that appeal to you, step back and let your designer do what they do best. Selecting a designer is a small leap of faith. Let them satisfy the faith you’ve invested in them.
Establish communication early in your relationship with your book designer. Look at the book designer’s samples. Would you be happy with your book if it looks like the designer’s sample books? What’s important is that you can have an open dialogue with your book designer about any issues so you make sure you’re both on the same page.
Be frank and upfront. This is your book (and your money) and if you aren’t clear on what’s being provided, what rights you will have to re-use it, or how long it will take, you haven’t done your homework.
When you’ve signed the contract and made the first payment, let your designer go to work. Relax. Breathe. You’ve done everything you can to make sure your book will be everything you want it to be.
Use your book designer, your editors, and your marketing people. Pick their brains. One of the great things about hiring professionals is that they can lend their years of experience to your project.
Doing a little research and a bit of homework will make it much more likely you’ll have a good experience with a book designer, and your book will have the best chance for success in the marketplace. You want all the hard work you’ve put into your book to be taken seriously. Make sure it looks its best when you send it into the world.
Editor’s note: This article on working with a book designer was originally written for the Write Nonfiction in November blog run by Nina Amir and published on this blog on January 24, 2011, and updated on December 14, 2023.)