Book Design Demystified

I Need a Book Designer?

Seven years ago, when self-publishing was just beginning to take off, I talked with author Jane Kimball, who had recently learned from a book printer that the services of a book designer were required before her book could be printed.

Thus began our nearly year-long association to design her masterwork, Trench Art: An Illustrated History, a 400+ page, full-color book featuring more than 1,000 items from her personal collection of war souvenirs. These artifacts, collectively known as trench art, were meticulously crafted by soldiers from spent shell casings and other materials beginning in World War I.

“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a book designer!” she quipped.

“That’s alright,” I replied. “I didn’t know there was such a thing as trench art!”

I relate this story because at the time I was taken aback by Jane’s comment. Until then, every customer who came to us already understood what we did. It wasn’t necessary to explain our services. The landscape, I realized, had changed, and it remains so to this day.

In subsequent conversations, Jane taught me that book design and production is a very scary subject to many first-time authors, who worry that hiring experts will cause them to lose control of their “baby.”

What follows is a brief description of a typical book design project that will hopefully put your mind at ease. Far from losing control of your book, you’ll actually collaborate closely with experts every step of the way to make your book the very best it can be.

6 Steps to a Quality Book

Step 1: Cover Design

The first task in preparing a book for publication is Book Cover Design. The designer will ask for a synopsis of your book and ask about your goals and your intended audience. He/she will then find appropriate images and fonts, and create a design that is in line with similar bestselling books on the market. This ensures that your cover will look as good as, or better than, the competitive titles that will displayed alongside it online. A good cover is absolutely essential to the success of your book. Cover design is not the place to save money. Most designers will adjust their services to your budget, if you ask.

Step 2: Manuscript Editing

The benefits of Professional Editing, offered by an experienced book editor, cannot be overstated. When we read our own writing, we know what we mean to say, so our brain fills in the gaps. The fresh eyes of an outside editor will find and correct these gaps for a smoother reading experience, without changing your style or your voice. Authors can always decline the editor’s suggestions, but most are pleasantly surprised at the skills an editor brings to the table.

Step 3: Interior Layout (aka Typesetting)

When editing is complete, the next step in book production is Book Interior Layout, also known as Typesetting. Designers usually show one or more sample interior designs to give the author an opportunity to compare different type fonts, type sizes, chapter openers, sidebars, and other decorative elements that may be employed to enhance the appearance of the text. Once a sample chapter has been approved, the rest of the book is typeset to match. You’ll be amazed at how much better  your text looks, compared to the original Word document, when it is designed by a pro.

Step 4: Proofreading

After Interior Layout, the next step in the book production process is Proofreading. Proofreading should always be done after the book is typeset (as well as before). Those pesky typos, extra word spaces, and unnecessary tabs that escaped detection in Word stand out like a sore thumb in typeset text. Many self-publishers unfortunately decline this service, thinking it’s not needed, to the detriment of their book. I can attest that we have never once proofed a book without finding errors, sometimes hundreds of errors, even when the manuscript was previously edited.

Step 5: Corrections and Final Review

Once Proofreading is complete, and the errors identified by the proofreader are fixed, it’s time to read the book from start to finish one final time. Yes, I know, you just can’t stand to read it one more time . . . but you must. There’s an old saying in publishing, “You don’t complete a book; you declare an ending.” The proofreading and correction process never really ends, but at some point you just have to go to press.

Step 6: Digital File Prep

The final step in the production process is to prepare the digital files for printing. You can relax at this stage, because this behind-the-scenes geeky stuff is entirely the responsibility of your designer. This final step ensures that your book will print successfully.

So, How Long Does All This Take?

It’s always good to schedule far more time than you think you’ll need for book production. I recommend at least 2 weeks each for steps 1-5 above, though some services, such as cover design and editing, can be worked on concurrently. If you must have books in hand by a specific date, be sure to tell your designer, so the two of you, along with the eventual printer, can create a schedule with milestones to make it happen.

How Much of My Time is Required?

That depends on your experience, your personality, and your available time. Many authors relish the “hands-on” approach and enjoy the prospect of talking with multiple providers. Others prefer to hand the project over to a company that will manage the entire project for them. Fortunately, providers are available to suit every preference.

Experts = An Enjoyable Process and a Better Book

The fear of losing control prompts many first-time authors to adopt the “do-it-yourself” approach, or to sign up with huge “self-publishing factories” who produce terrible work for very low fees, but both of these approaches are usually a mistake. Experts abound in every area of life, from medicine to pest control. Their knowledge and experience, even in areas that may seem low skilled or mundane, enhance our lives and give us far better products and services than we can ever hope to produce on our own. Book design is no exception.

If you’re about to enter one of the most brutally competitive industries on the planet, I hope this post has helped to clarify the process so that the book design process is an enjoyable one and the book you eventually offer to the public will be the very best it can be, and one that you will be proud to market.

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