Monday, February 21, 2011

Changing times: Changing book design

I sent a book to print yesterday. I had to prepare six different files with three different sets of printers' specifications and three separate ISBNs and bar codes. Confusing? To say the least. Why?

Because the times, they are a-changing in the publishing world. Writers and publishers now have an array of options from which they can choose. The upside to this is that publishing a book is no longer dependent on having a book that can be expected to sell enough copies to justify several thousand dollars in printing and distribution fees. Print on demand services like Lulu and CreateSpace offer writers a cost-effective way of producing books for audiences right down to one person. Kindle, Nook, iPad, and similar technologies offer readers the option of downloading books at steeply discounted prices, and saving trees in the process.

If there's a downside to all this, it's that preparing books for print has become far more complex. The book I sent Friday is being produced as a Kindle book, a traditional paperback, and a print on demand paperback. The traditional book needed to be set up the way it's always been done--printers' marks, CMYK cover, spine measurement exact to four decimal places, bleeds on the cover, and page bleeds but NOT image bleeds inside. The print-on-demand book needed to be set up like the traditional print file, but without any printers' marks, and with enough dead area on all cover sections to allow for up to a 1/8" paper slippage. The Kindle book needed to be sent with the front cover only, no spine, no back, and the pdf set up to allow for text extraction and manipulation.

So what does this mean for self-publishers? If you don't plan carefully, it can mean substantial additional pre-press and design fees. It can also mean a great deal of stress if you choose a designer who isn't familiar with the production method you choose. Here's a quick little list that might help.

1. If you're planning on producing your book in multiple formats (and I really suggest you do) consider a press or print-on-demand service that can handle both your print on demand books and your Kindle book conversions. It'll save you in designer fees, it'll simplify your ISBN needs, and you'll end up with a more reliable Kindle book.

2. Unless you know what you're doing, don't try to do your Kindle conversions yourself. It looks simple. It's not. Believe me, I know. I did it, and I regret it so much, that I'm paying to get the book professionally converted. If you think it doesn't matter if it's not exactly right, check out what the most recent reviewer had to say about Good On Paper, my latest novel. She liked the story. She didn't like the facts that editing quality seemed to fall off on the last part of the book (and I paid for editing, too, darn it!) and that my Kindle conversion wasn't done right. So--two things to fix: the quality of my editing, and my Kindle conversions. And, since this is my business, you'd better believe I'm educating myself and exploring resources on both things.

3. Make your printing and marketing plan ahead of time. Then stick with it. Changes halfway through the process complicate things for everyone--and they can cost you big bucks. If, for instance, you start out planning to release your book as an audio book, and then halfway through decide you'd really like a "real" book, don't be surprised if your designer charges you more than double. She'll be starting over, purchasing more expensive artwork, and building new design and layout files. And then you'll need to proof everything again...

Plans are good. We like plans.

If you're not sure how you'd like to produce your book, tell your designer that you're planning for conventional print. The reason for this is simple: The image requirements for conventional print are the most stringent of any of the production methods. If you later decide that you're just going to go with a Kindle book, or an MP3 audio book, your designer can easily reduce the files. Remember: large to small, no trouble at all. Small to large, the bank's in charge.

4. Don't pay for what you don't need. Unless you're planning on selling "real" printed books, don't waste your money on book design. Kindle can't accept most of it, anyway. You're better off spending more money on editing, and producing a really clean text file. Likewise, if you're creating a workbook that requires users be able to write in it, don't pay for an e-book or Kindle conversion, because users won't be able to use your book to its maximum potential.

The key to all this is really just a renewed emphasis on good book production business: Make your plan before you start, choose the vendors who are best suited to handle your needs--and don't start switching things up halfway through the process.

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Sherry Wachter has been designing and illustrating all sorts of things--including books--for nearly fifteen years. She has written, designed, illustrated, and self-published two novels--one of which won the 2009 Best of the Best E-books Award--and several picture books. To learn more about book design or to see her work visit her online at Magic Dog Press.


  1. This was a very informational post for me. I really have been leaning toward epublishing but it's a little on the intimidating side. What should I look for in a design person?

  2. Great post! One thing that I did and worked very well was to publish on Smashwords. They have a step-by-step guide that's not only helpful but allows you to prepare your work for e-publishing yourself. Then they format it and distribute it to the other e-retailers for you if you choose to go that route. I did and it's been working out very well for me!

  3. Hmmm... I did all my Kindle uploads, as well as Smashwords (I started with that format because they have an excellent how-to) and found them very easy. I haven't heard anyone complain (but maybe they're just being nice.) Since my books all start out as electronic files, it's a matter of tweaking some basic formatting.

    Covers are another issue, and it's an entirely different game when you're trying to get something designed that looks good in a thumbnail (and beware: Kindle sticks in that Kindle icon in the lower right, so you have to plan around it.)

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. It's really a great post. For a wistful writer it comes up to be a pail filled with off-print ambrosia.

  5. Thanks for the great information. The more I read about all the different formats for e-books and the paperback options, the more I am convinced I will hire a professional to do that formatting for me. I about pulled my hair out just doing one book for Kindle. No more. I can't afford to lose any more hair.

  6. "Don't waste your money on book design"...really? How do you intend to market your book if you don't have an image to represent it? Please don't neglect the importance of catching the buyer's eye. Just because it's sitting on a web page somewhere, as opposed to a book shelf, doesn't mean image and branding aren't important. You don't need to sink a ton of money on the design, but at least be certain you look professional. Just sayin'!

  7. Sherry, I learned a lot reading this post! Book production is a world I've not yet explored. If I ever do I'll return to this primer!

  8. CGriffin and Mflick1, Sherry IS a book designer and knows the importance of that - her point, I think, is that there are logical steps and expenses in the process, and some things are more important than others, or at least should come first. Contact her about pricing if you are looking for someone to do this work. I will tell you this - there are people who think they can create a good book cover, or think their children can - most of the time, the result is pitiful.

  9. "Don't waste your money on book design" I think Sherry is talking about the interior design, a concept most authors don't even realize is part of publishing. I'll let Sherry clarify, but I don't think she's talking about cover art.

  10. Hi, Mflick1--Thanks for stopping by. What should you look for in a design person? I would say two things are key: Experience in your method of book production, and reliability. Book production is a specialized design pathway; simply hiring a designer is no guarantee that you've found someone who knows how to design books--and particularly books in the myriad options we now have. For instance, I'm a great print book designer. However, I don't have enough knowledge of or experience in Kindle publishing to feel comfortable offering that as a service. If that's your path, I'll do my best to help you find a great Kindle designer--or a reputable online service that will convert your manuscript for you. The second qualification, reliability, should really be a given, but all too often it's not. Designing a book takes time. It involves numerous, often highly detailed, revisions. Getting it right can sometimes be frustrating. You need a designer who will stick with you to the very end, make sure all necessary edits are correctly made, and get the file submitted to the printer or production house of your choice, in a format that meets their specifications.

    Like anyone else, designers are human. We like to know that our work is appreciated. We can also be motivated by money. A good way to help keep both you and your designer moving together in the creation of your book is to divide your payments up: a third up front, a third upon submission of the completed typeset first draft, and a third upon successful submission to the printer. Again, it would be nice to think that everyone stayed motivated with the money tucked safely in their pocket, but every designer I've ever spoken to on the subject has confessed that once full payment is received they tend to go into "finding new business" mode, rather than staying in "completing existing business" mode. Likewise, designers don't feel comfortable traveling too far down the job completion path without at least some of the money tucked away into their mattress--they don't like the idea that you might pull the job after they've expended hours of effort on it any more than you like the idea that they'll poop out on you before the job's done. Making sure that you both have time and money invested until the project's completed is a good way to help everyone stay reliable.

    I'm sure you were expecting me to include creativity in here. Creativity is nice. Many designers positively ooze it. It's nice if your designer has enough creativity and type sensitivity to develop a type language and book design that reflects your content, but the truth is that you really don't want your designer exercising her creativity in your book, unless it's a picture book, a coffee table book, or some other pictorial format. Standard novel type books are better served by using one well planned, consistently executed design throughout the book. Here's why. Novels are all about the words. A good book design exists for one reason: to convey the meaning of the words to the reader's brain as seamlessly and effortlessly as possible. You really don't want a type font that, while beautiful, is so unusual as to be distracting. You don't want a font that's hard to read, or that's set so large or so small that it draws attention to itself. A well-designed book is easily read. No one will ever say, "My what a beautifully designed book." They won't even realize it's BEEN designed. In that sense, good design and good writing are alike: both convey ideas so simply that they virtually disappear. I hope this is helpful. If you'd like to discuss your book in more detail feel free to visit my blog, leave a comment, or email me directly.

  11. That's great, Maureen--you've found the key, which is to find a system that works well for you, and which you can use reliably to produce quality books.

  12. You're right, Terry--typesetting and book cover design are two very different animals. Your book cover is all about marketing. Your book interior is all about readability. When I started out working for publishers I started out typesetting. Once I'd built some credibility I advanced to book cover design.

  13. It can seem daunting, Dibakar--you're wise to focus on writing your book first, and worrying about how you'll produce it, and who you will need to help you do that a little further down the road.

  14. I'm with you, Maryann--Even though I design books for a living, I'm still going to hire a Kindle professional to convert my next novel--I tried to do it myself, and didn't do it well. It comes down to buying the services I need to buy so I can focus on doing the parts I do best.

  15. I was referring to typesetting when the end result will be Kindle book, CGriffin--you're right about still needing a strong cover image to market your book. You can pay a book cover designer to develop that for you as a stand-alone piece. However, I would suggest that you pay the extra to have a print-size cover designed (think about 6x9, 300dpi) from the beginning. Even though you think you'll only be producing a kindle, you never know--and having the larger art available in your back pocket will allow you to transition more easily and cheaply to print, if you later decide to do that.

  16. Thanks, Kathryn--book production really is a specialized world unto itself--and with all the tech innovations it's a Brave New World unto itself!

  17. Dani's right--I was referring to Kindle books. Having a designer typeset your book interior if you're just planning to produce a Kindle book is worse than a waste of money--it's actually counterproductive. I don't know much about Kindle, but what I do know is that much if not all of that formatting has to be stripped out in order to take advantage of Kindle's features. Since the cost for typesetting a book is usually in the thousands of dollars, having it done only to have it undone is pointless. Better to put that money toward more editing, and toward developing a really stunning cover design that's large enough for print (even if you don't decide to go to a print version of your book, you will certainly need promotional materials like posters, which will require that larger image, anyway).

  18. Soon I'll be faced with that choice when I finish my paranormal thriller, Forever Young.

    I do know some people who can help along the way, but I'll have to decide how much help to pay for. I will hire an editor and someone to do the cover. Not sure if I'll tackle kindle formatting or send that out as well. I did Smashwords okay, but it took a while.

    Morgan Mandel

  19. Good luck, Morgan--I'm going to be coming up against that, too, before long. I think probably I'll always have paper books as one of my options, simply because I love them so much, and because increasingly I'm looking at including illustrations in my books, but I also always want to include Kindle. That's where most of my sales are coming from these days.

  20. Excellent post. Sometimes I really think we have too many options these days. It can be so confusing.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  21. Wow, always something else to learn and do, other than writing! Excellent post. Thank you.

  22. I don´t agree that you shouldn´t think of covers for e-books. But what you SHOULD think of is that all colours turn into shades of grey which means contrasts are good, similar colours are not. Besides, you should think of the thumbnail pic you can see in many e-book catalogues - so think in huge, clear letters.

    All in all, I am reasonably satisfied with my own amateur production after having compared it with a Laura Lippman ebook I bought the other day. A fine colour cover, but on the Kindle screen it turns into a blur.

  23. >>The book I sent Friday is being produced as a Kindle book, a traditional paperback, and a print on demand paperback.<<

    What's the reason for doing both POD and traditional paperbacks?

    How do you control which booksellers order which version?

    Michael N. Marcus
    -- Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    -- "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults),"

  24. Thanks for the clarification, BodieP. I suspected you meant interior design, but wasn't positive.

    There was recently an author who, in her blog, poo-pooed the necessity of getting decent cover art. So many writers nodded in agreement, I was befuddled. Mostly, she asserted you could do it yourself for free and get great results. I saw her results, and she certainly got what she paid for. ;)

    It's just one of those things some writers want to scrimp on. And I don't think they should...but I'm biased! Thanks again.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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