Basics of book design

The design of your book's cover and text is critical to its perception by readers as a quality book. Such design, if done correctly, will require a significant investment, but it is a one-time cost that will pay off handsomely in terms of sales and your reputation as an author/publisher.

First of all, if you are really serious about self-publishing a quality commercial book do not try to do the design yourself, especially not with MS Word or another word-processing program. Veteran book designer Michele DeFilippo explains why in the article "There's More to Book Layout Than Meets the Untrained Eye". This article by designer Dave Brickeralso illustrates the complexities of book design.

You can find good basic discussions of the design process in Pete Masterson's book Book Design and Production: A Guide for Authors and Publishers and Dan Poynter's Self-Publishing Manual. Also see the articles Choosing a book designer and Working with your designer by DeFilippo, as well as Get the Best from Your Graphic Designer by Keren Taylor.

Some basic guidelines for hiring a designer:

  • Use an experienced professional book designer; not a friend or relative who say they're artists and can design books. Few designers have specific experience in the complex process of book design.
  • Ask people whose books you like for the name of their designer and whether they would recommend the designer. Remember, as a self-publisher you have access to the same designers as do commercial publishers.
  • Search bookstores for cover and interior designs that you like. Buy the book and copy the covers and interior pages to show your prospective designer.
  • In particular, check out other books on your topic. There is usually a "family" look to such books. Consider whether you want your book to go along with that look or distinguish itself in terms of design.
  • Explore prospective designers' Web sites for examples of covers and interiors. See whether designs they have done resonate with what you want your book to look like.
  • Ask prospective designers what software they use. The answer should be Adobe InDesign or Quark Xpress. For more detailed information on design software, see Why use a page layout program by Pete Masterson.
  • Make sure the designer is comfortable working with your word-processing file format.
  • Ask how many sets of proofs you will get. You should get two full proof sets.
  • Finally, for those designers whom you like, request a proposal. Tell the designer the size of your book, what it's about, who will read it, why they will read it and how you plan to market it. Provide a manuscript, even a draft, if possible.
  • Expect the cost of a quality cover to be up to $2,000, depending on how elaborate it needs to be. And the cost of interior design and layout should be a couple of hundred dollars for the basic design, plus $4.00 to $6.00 per page for a simple layout up to $20 per page for book with many illustrations and complex formatting. Make sure proofreading is included with the cost.

Once you have hired a designer, here are some tips for working effectively with him/her:

  • For the cover, show the designer samples of the covers you like and describe what you hope to accomplish with the cover. You need not commission special artwork. A designer can do an excellent job by adapting clip art or stock images. You can go with an all-text cover if your book is a handbook and/or if it will only be sold online.
  • Give your cover designer creative leeway. He/she may come up with a surprise that you like better than your ideas. Also, good cover designers know about trends in cover design, and can give you a cover that does not look outdated.
  • Help your cover sell the book by making the title short and descriptive and the subtitle promise benefits from the book.
  • For cover design, less is more. A good cover designer will give you a simple cover that offers readers instant recognition of the book.
  • The cover design also must be readable as a thumbnail on Amazon and in black and white.
  • For interior design, give your designer the most perfect manuscript possible. Proofread the manuscript both on-screen and in print. Enlist spouses and anybody else who is willing to proofread it. Changes and corrections cost money, time and frustration. For steps to clean up your manuscript, see Pete Masterson's book and his article Common typographical errors.
  • Use minimal formatting, with no forced page breaks, section breaks or extra returns. Single space between sentences. Go ahead and use bold, italics and different type size for headings and chapter titles.
  • Specify standard 5.5" x 8.5" format unless your book is large. Then you might want to go to 6" x 9".
  • Once your designer develops a design, he/she will give you a sample chapter. Take your time in considering this design, so you can make it exactly what you want before proceeding. Compare it with the other designs you like, and determine whether there are shortcomings you want to correct. Try it out on people who have read many books in the field. Finalizing the design is critical, because it is very difficult to go back and change a design once layout has begun.
  • Proofread assiduously every step of the way. Make all changes in the layout in one pass, rather than in multiple, nitpicking sessions. Allow several extra weeks in your production schedule for such edits.
  • Expect the full design process to take two to three months, depending on the complexity of the project.

Here are lists of designers and design consultants from the leading experts: