Publishing Your First Book: Choosing a Cover and Layout Designer

The next most important task after authoring a compelling an impeccably edited (and copyedited) manuscript is choosing a designer for your cover and interior layout. This may be two different people or the same person. As a first time author who is self-publishing I started by looking through my collection of poetry books. In particular I loved the design of Olivia Gatwood’s book “Life of the Party”. I reached out to the cover designer of Gatwood’s book, Zoe Norvell, and I was very fortunate that she agreed to take the project. The cover and interior design will likely be the most significant investment you’ll make in making your publishing dream a reality so take your time and choose wisely!

The designer I worked with had a well-defined process from cover to interior layout to “mechanical” (everything you’ll need to get your book printed). Knowing how the process works, how long each step was likely to take, and what would be expected of me greatly reduced my stress.

The All Important Book Cover

I learned that the design of a book starts with the cover – the design language and style needs to be consistent. Having a single designer for both the cover and interior layout worked really well for my book. A book cover can be the difference between a self-published book having professional polish and a self-published book looking amateurish. People do judge books by their cover.

The process started with the equivalent of a design brief. I answered a series of short questions and provided “comps” (one of many terms I’ve learned) which meant design “comparables” the designer could use to get a better feel for my style preferences. I looked at hundreds of book covers – both in my library and in “best of…” lists.

For my book I was very fortunate to have original cover art created by Kari Byron. I went through a similar process with Kari – she showed me a selection of her “black powder” art and I pointed out what could work, we talked about broad concepts and then, like with Zoe, I providing comps as references. You can see the final cover design at the bottom of this article and a video of Kari working on the design:

As is the case whenever you work with a designer there is a responsibility for you to provide clear and timely feedback, to be decisive when you need to be decisive, and to take your time if you need to in order to make a thoughtful decision. This will help the designer be more productive and will cost you less. Good designers charge for re-work – their time is valuable.

I briefly considered just hiring a designer for the cover and was going to do the interior layout myself using Adobe InDesign (effectively the industry standard for book design). The learning curve is very steep. Playing with InDesign and laying out some of the manuscript was helpful in understanding trade-offs I’d face with the designer but it wasn’t money well spent. I recommend using a professional for the cover and layout – the time you’ll save can be put to better use planning your book launch.

Below is the fully realized cover design – there are so many details that go into a final design. The style and voice, font selection, in my case having the art wrap around the cover. The ISBN and barcode talked about in a prior article? Here is where you’ll need them!

“canvas” cover design by Zoe Norvell and artwork copyright Kari Byron

With the cover design set, the interior design went quickly starting with a “font test” (a subset of the book layout with a few options to choose from – or mix & match). Below is an excerpt from “canvas” with the final interior design, which flows consistently from the cover design. Yet another decision is whether or not to have a color or black & white interior; I decided to go with black & white for several reasons – the artwork and photographs worked really well in B&W and it reduced the production cost. Note that a single page of color results in the entire book being priced in color.

And if you are planning to complement your print book with an e-book your designer should be able to do the “e-book” conversion for an additional fee.

Excerpt from “canvas”: poetry copyright James Morehead and artwork copyright Kari Byron

“canvas” by James Morehead is available for pre-order here. Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notification of new posts by email.

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