How Much Attention Should You Pay to Book Design?

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Last spring I had the good fortune to be interviewed by Jane Friedman for her wonderful and very helpful blog for writers. (If you’re unfamiliar with Jane’s blog, I highly recommend it.)
Jane, who is “a firm believer in the power of design,” wanted to talk about the challenges facing indie authors who may come to publishing with little or no expertise in this area.

  • Should authors hire designers?
  • What kinds of mistakes do do-it-yourself authors make with their books?
  • Should print and eBooks have the same covers?

These are the kinds of questions Jane had, and I was happy to oblige. Here’s the complete interview, with Jane’s questions in bold.


I’m a firm believer in the power of design. I think it affects purchasing not just in obvious ways, but also on a subconscious level. So it often frustrates me when independent authors do their own design work to keep costs low. But I also understand the need to limit financial risk. Let’s say we have to make a compromise. What do you think an author might be able to accomplish reasonably well on her own (that has least potential to adversely affect sales), and what’s the No. 1 thing an author should hire a designer for (because of its potential to increase sales)?

Great question, Jane. Lots of authors want to “own” the process of creating their books, want to have a say in the overall look and feel of the book. After all, what good is having these great bookmaking tools if we don’t use them?

For people who write fiction, memoir, or narrative nonfiction, this question is easier to answer. Creating book interiors for these books is not as demanding, and the result won’t rely quite as much on the typographic sophistication of the designer.

Outside the typographic part of the design, it’s critically important for authors to construct their books properly. There are conventions that are hundreds of years old in book design, and expectations readers bring to books that must be recognized and respected.

So outside what font she uses for the text of her novel, your author will want to make sure all the other details of bookmaking, like the treatment of other page elements like running heads, page numbers, display pages like chapter openings, and so on, are treated properly.

Clearly, the one area where your author should look for professional help is in cover design. This is a specialized type of graphic design that demands good type treatment, the proper font usage, and an understanding of how browsers interact with the words and pictorial content on most book covers.

Because your cover is so important in positioning your book and attracting interest, it really pays to hire a pro.

What are the most common mistakes you see authors make when they design their own book interiors?


Here are some of the mistakes I see most often in self-published books:

  • Not using full justification for their text, so that both the right and left margin square up and create a rectangle on the page
  • Not hyphenating the text, resulting in gaps and spaces on the page
  • Putting the odd-numbered pages on the left, when they should always be on the right
  • Leaving running heads on display pages like part or chapter openers
  • Margins that are either too small to allow the reader to easily hold the book, or that don’t take the printing and binding of the book into account
  • Publishing a book with no copyright page

How can an author find a good interior designer who’s right for their book? How do you properly evaluate one?

Oddly enough, it can be a lot easier to find cover designers than it is to find interior designers. Part of the reason is that the cover designer only has to know how to create an effective cover. The interior designer needs to know all the rules of bookmaking, including how to present all the different kinds of information found within a book.

This is even more true for heavily formatted nonfiction books, because of the typographic and design skills needed to properly organize the hierarchy of information.

One of the best ways to find designers is by referrals from other authors. If you know someone who has published a book like yours, ask them who designed it. Local publishing groups can also be a great place to find designers and talk to authors who have worked with them.

Trade publications like the IBPA Independent are also good sources since it’s one of the few places book designers advertise their services.

We’re also seeing a growing category of websites that are sprouting up to help authors put together a “publishing team” by pairing them with service providers like book designers, but I think it’s a little too early to tell how these services are going to pan out.

And if you’re the author of one of those heavily formatted books we were talking about a minute ago, make sure the designers you’re querying have produced books like yours before. Ask to see samples or a portfolio of similar books.

When hiring a designer, how much should an author expect to spend for a typical trade print paperback novel (cover and interior)?

For novels and other lightly formatted books, you can expect to pay between $200 and $1,500 for interior design. At the low end you’re likely to get a very simplified type of design. At the higher end, expect to receive several custom designs prepared expressly for your book. You’ll also want the designer to take responsibility for producing the reproduction files for your printer, and make sure there’s an allowance for “author’s alterations,” because I’ve never seen a book yet that went all the way from manuscript to press without at least some changes being made.

Make sure you have a signed agreement with the designer, and that your agreement states explicitly that you will own the copyright to all the work they produce, and that you’ll be able to get the original application files the designer created when the project is complete.

For cover designs, expect to pay between $200 and $3,500. This is a very large range, but it’s real. For many authors, just getting a pro to do their cover will help their book stand out. But there are also self-publishers with bigger ambitions, who want to mount a national campaign, attract real media attention, and perhaps establish a franchise. For these authors, investing in a top-quality cover designer can yield real benefits, but this has to be approached as a business decision, and demands that you go into publishing with a realistic marketing plan.

Should an author ever use design contest sites (e.g., 99designs.com)?

As you know, I run an e-book cover design competition on my blog every month, and I’ve been getting submissions from authors who have gone that route. Some of these covers are quite good, others not so much.

I don’t see a reason not to use these sites, but make sure you understand exactly what you’re getting before you sign up. And keep in mind that you should demand the same contract and materials requirements we talked about just above, because they still apply.

Do you think there should be a different cover design for print vs. electronic editions? What special considerations come into play for e-book covers?

Aha, one of my favorite topics! I started the ebook cover design competition to see what designers were doing with this new form, and to try to encourage them to look at the ebook cover as a separate opportunity to use it to their advantage.

From what I’ve seen, designers haven’t done much with this challenge. The requirements for ebooks are similar—but not the same—as the requirements for print books. All too often, what we see, particularly from larger publishers, is the print book cover reduced in size and used for the ebook.

This makes no sense. Print book covers use texture, finish, testimonials, subtle color palettes and other devices that simply don’t translate to the tiny graphic images you see on e-retailers’ sites.

And why should an ebook cover look like a print book cover anyway? The print book cover actually covers a book. An ebook cover could be more like digital music album covers, blog sidebar ads, or any other type of online product “packaging” or advertising.

What I’m really hoping to see is more designers exploring different ways to represent ebooks, and not slavishly follow the print book model. As long as the branding is recognizably the same—assuming you are producing both versions—then why not?

If an author wanted to educate themselves on what constitutes good book design, aside from reading your blog, what resources would you recommend?

Two other bloggers who write about interior design are Dave Bricker and David Bergsland at The Skilled Workman.

There are classic books on book design for people who really want to dive into this subject. Probably the most appropriate one for self-publishers is Pete Masterson’s Book Design & Production.
Also, pay attention to the books you read. Book design is design with type, so the more you know about typography the better your designs are likely to be.

There are lots of authors who are creating books in Microsoft Word. Although I tried for a long time to convince authors that Word was not intended for books and wouldn’t produce a truly “professional-looking” book, I’ve recently changed course.

To help writers who want to do their own book interiors, I’m now offering templates that authors can buy that will solve a lot of the problems we’ve been talking about in this article. The template is a pre-formatted container. You pour your text into the file, apply the styles that come with the template, and you’re done.

What this means is that you can be sure you avoid a lot of the mistakes that new self-publishers make. Your book will be sized properly, have the right fonts, correct page numbers and section breaks, and will be industry standard.

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