Friday, June 6, 2014

Designing a book

Last month, I started posting about "After after The End": what happens after you've written "The End", and after the subsequent work giving you a manuscript ready to publish. I talked about all the other bits of text that wrap around the actual story, and today I'm touching on the design considerations that turn this raw material into a presentable book.

Just looking at the body text itself, there's a stack of questions to consider beyond the simple choice of font: how to style your chapter headings; use of drop caps or other style for the leading word of a new chapter; whether to start chapters on a new page or simply run on; where to place page numbers and whether you want title and author to show in the page heading; how to show scene breaks - leave a gap, or show asterisks or some graphic.

When it comes to the cover, there's the obvious choice of artwork, and the style and placement of title and author. Without any embellishments, the front cover is deceptively simple (art, title, author) but so much to get wrong! There are whole articles just on the science of mixing font families. For a print book, your cover PDF needs to extend across the spine and to the back.

The back cover needs just as much careful layout as the front. Do you have a plain back, some sort of artwork, author photo, frames or dividers to set off the back cover elements? And of course you need the right software to produce the ISBN barcode. You need to calculate the spine width according to the number of pages and weight of paper, and throughout you need to pay attention to margins to avoid any important elements getting chopped.

All this adds up to a lot of expertise and professional software to get right. This is one area where I decided it was vital to bring in a professional.

When I researched and interviewed local designers, I was looking for someone who I was comfortable would provide artistic input to the process and be ready to talk through ideas and options. I took along the artwork drafts I'd prepared last year and asked for opinions about which would work best as a cover, and why, and what changes would improve the composition.

Throughout the design process, my designer always presented several options as we narrowed down the details. I usually responded with a blend from several options to take us to the next stage. He also had the tools to manipulate the raw artwork in ways I couldn't have begun to do.

Quick aside: A lot of these considerations are less important for e-books than print. The front cover is just as important - and you have to remember that it must be readable when shrunk to a thumbnail - but for the interior layout simpler is generally better. E-readers give the user control over a lot of presentation aspects, so you should concentrate on ensuring consistency. I found the Smashwords style guide invaluable. It is lengthy, but walks through the process very clearly and none of it is really rocket science if you are reasonably familiar with MS Word.

Things I learned

Given that it's technically possible to publish a book with absolutely zero outlay on your part, it's tempting to do everything yourself. Unless you are a professional designer yourself, getting help at this stage is worth it, even more so than editing IMHO.

Hiring a designer could well be the biggest single expense you'll incur - so far that has been true for me - so take time to find someone you feel comfortable working with. Think about what you want from your designer and be ready to ask questions before committing yourself.

Listen to their advice (after all, that's what you're paying them for) but also listen to yourself. If something doesn't feel right, speak up and ask questions. Talk about what is and isn't working for you and ask for ideas, and be sure you're satisfied with the answers.

My designer made some great suggestions which I'd never have thought of, but also offered some versions that I looked at and said "Blegh!" It was important to be honest and also discuss why, so that we could home in on an answer.

At the end of the day, you have to realize your vision for your book.


  1. I admire those of you who tackle this on your own.
    The cover art is really important to get right. I'm one of those who does judge a book by its cover, and if the artwork doesn't stun me, I'll never even read the synopsis.

    1. Alex, I am drawn in by covers too. I hardly ever read the synopsis though, I mostly go by the feel of the first page or two and ask myself if I want to spend time in the company of this voice.

  2. I think we are all drawn in by covers even if we think we are not. It's the same with wine bottle labels. I don't know why but I can't buy a bottle if the label isn't right! It's probably the same with a book but I often read/buy a book based on reviews.
    CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

    1. I don't think I've ever been put off by a wine label, but I know at times I've been drawn to unusual names. Many years ago, when snooty French labels were all you normally saw, it felt quite daring to order a Jacob's Creek :)

  3. This is some great advice and helps me know where to start as I launch into this process.

  4. I am, admittedly, drawn in by covers. I know it should be the blurb, but the majority of the time, it's the artwork. The back cover blurb is my second stop and then the first page.

    Reading your posts is starting to sway me toward possibly going this route with one of my projects. Keep them coming. :)

  5. Shell, remember, this is my personal experience not advice. If something here rings true and is useful to you - use as you wish, but at the end of the day I'm no more an expert than you are :)

    Jean, I have a few more posts in the pipeline as time permits.


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