You can learn from each person you employ but there may also be help available informally, through friends and colleagues. You could find yourself accumulating more advice than you can manage. The final decisions are yours, but remember the reasons why you chose any experts you’ve employed and consider their guidance carefully.
We self-published and did much of the work ourselves but there were professionals and experts whose contribution was critical. The advice we received also included informal input given freely by friends and contacts, which can be valuable coming from someone with knowledge and experience in specific parts of the publishing process. Too many opinions can become confusing so look for patterns to find the threads of good advice.
Before you can brief a designer or begin work on the design yourself, you need an idea of the way you want your book to look and feel and a sense of how each ingredient in the design might contribute to that. The overall look doesn’t just come from the obvious things like whether it will be hardback or paperback, but also from more subtle things like how big it is and how heavy. Books of different sizes feel different in the hand and the weight of the paper affects how the pages flick when a reader flips through them in the shop. What might seem like small and unconnected decisions, such as the font and the spacing between one line and the next, combine to create what will be the final ‘look and feel’ of your book, and some of the reasons a reader might decide to purchase it. Try to have a clear idea of what you want your book to be like so you can translate that, as far as possible, into the details you’ll be asked for by the printer and, if you have one, the designer.
Tip: if it’s difficult to find the words to describe your ideas, find a few books that have the right kind of features so you can show them as examples.
A designer experienced in working on books will know how to achieve the visual consistency that’s needed. If you’re doing the main design yourself, make sure the look of the pages flows through. Readers tend to flick through a book when they’re browsing so it works best if chapter headings and other ongoing features look the same throughout in placing, spacing and fonts. The main design will include the ‘front matter’ such as information pages, dedication page, contents pages, flyleaf/blank pages and ‘end matter’ such as bibliography, index or glossary. You’ll need to decide on the style of page numbering, footnotes, endnotes, references and any colour pages.
I knew what I wanted my book to look like but I had no idea how that would translate into the design questions I’d be asked. I didn’t know the answers or the words I needed to explain what I wanted. Mike did the main design inside the book and when he asked me about the dimensions, the fonts and the line-spacing, I chose a book I’d read recently that I really liked the look of and said, “I’d like it to be just like this.” We used it as a template. I compared fonts to find one that looked as similar as possible then changed the font size until ours matched as closely as possible. Mike measured the book, including the line-spacing, then visually matched that to our own printed pages.
Tip: not all fonts are free to use in every way. Check that the font you choose is not covered by a copyright regulation. You may need to purchase the right to use it in a commercial context.
The features of the main design for the inside of your book might be a long list, depending on the complexity of the content but for any book you’ll need to decide on page dimensions, fonts, page numbering style, print space and borders, titles and other headers. How will you chunk the text in sections or paragraphs, using indents or not? How will any images be positioned within the text? Will you use any ornamental section breaks (‘dingbats’ or ‘dinkus’)?
When my publisher (Alex Craig at Picador) began work on the book there were no changes in the text or the overall design of the front cover but there were other changes that revealed to us the things we didn’t know when we produced the self-published edition. These were the subtle but important details that give a book its polish, small things that inexperience can easily miss. I’m not expert enough, even now after learning more, to describe them all but if you look at both editions next to one another, the difference will be evident.
The spine is the book
Unless you’re lucky enough to always have the book displayed front-cover forward in bookshops then the spine is all that can be seen until someone takes the book off the shelf to look at it. What can you do to make it stand out? Next time you visit a bookshop, look along the shelves, notice which book spines attract your attention and work out how they caught your eye.
Designing the spine
The spine is a very different kind of blank canvas, long and thin, and it needs to be viewed upright as it will usually stand that way on the shelf. The spine shows the title, author and often the publisher’s logo, which doesn’t leave much room for additions but many designs manage to include an image of some kind. Have a look around and you’ll see that not all visual shapes work well in those dimensions. When you’re collecting ideas, notice where on the book spines the images are positioned in relation to the titles. Will you be using your own publisher’s logo as well and, if so, how will it fit in the overall design of the spine?
Tip: whether you’re doing the design yourself or using a designer, you won’t be able to complete the exact dimensions of the cover art (which includes front, back and spine) until printing decisions have all been finalised because paper thickness and number of pages affect the thickness of the spine.
Publishers’ marketing teams know what sells books, including their covers, but they are also limited by their own budgets and it’s usually evident which covers have been the most expensive to produce. It’s not simply a case of the cover image being beautiful, unusual or distinctive. Depending on the way you prioritise what’s important for your book, it’s even possible your own budget for the cover might exceed what a publisher’s would have been.
Go to bookshops and look at the shelves and displays in a new way. What are the dominant colours? Would using those colours mean your book will fit with current trends and therefore be attractive to readers or do you want to do something different and stand out, perhaps at the risk of being too unusual? Focus on books in the same genre as your own and notice if there are trends in the style and type of images used. You can choose to follow what publishers believe is a good selling style or go against the trend.
The area that took the largest chunk of our design budget was the cover art. It was very important to me for creative and personal reasons, apart from being one of the most significant selling points of all. We’ve both worked with designers before on publications and Mike is experienced in using technology so we could have created an attractive cover ourselves. Even so, we decided to employ a professional. I wanted to base the cover on a new portrait of Georgiana Molloy and already had an artist in mind. Lauren Wilhelm, who’s also a graphic designer, agreed to take on the commission for the portrait and explained that a painting and a cover design are two different things. I did a lot of research on covers that appeal to me as a reader and gave Lauren a brief for the design – the things that were essential – but also the artistic freedom to interpret that herself. We liked all the ideas she came up with and the one we chose developed over the next few weeks into the final design.
Designing the cover
Deciding whether or not to take on this critical part of the process yourself depends on your own level of expertise and is closely tied in with the budget decisions you’ve been making. If you can reduce outgoings by doing some things yourself, it gives you some flexibility to employ someone for tasks you can’t do to the level of quality you want. Whether your readers find the book in a shop or on the Internet, the cover is going to be hugely important. If the title and synopsis have attracted their interest, the cover can be the ingredient that leads to a purchase or not. If you have basic design skills using a computer, you can easily produce an attractive cover design but that doesn’t always mean it will do its job well for you, so think carefully.
Tip: the giveaway for a self-published book is sometimes a front cover that’s overly fussy, with a lot of different fonts and images. If you’re designing your own cover, keeping it as simple as possible is a good idea.
What is its job?
The back cover performs several different jobs for you. Potential readers very often turn to the back cover before they open the book. When you first take your new book to booksellers, the text (‘copy’) on the back might be the only thing they read that helps them decide whether or not to make an order. The back cover copy will also be used by anyone who decides to publicise your book. You’ll find it appearing on the websites of shops and in reviews. If you do radio interviews or talks, the person introducing you might quote from it. When you send the final version to the printer, be aware that your back cover copy (sometimes called ‘blurb’) will come back at you, often in unexpected places, for a long time to come.
Tip: you may also need to include one or more logos on the back cover, for example if you received funding or grants to write the book, and this is also the place to add a barcode if you decide to include one.
Writing the back cover copy
In a genre of its own, not simply a synopsis or summary, this can easily read like a stereotype but there’s a reason for that. The number of words is restricted, for obvious reasons, so each sentence has a lot of work to do. It has to say something about what the book is about, not in the same ways as a summary or synopsis, but in a way that will interest and intrigue. It also has to include the Big Hooks you hope will grab your target audience, without being obvious. You need to have an idea of what those hooks might be because, even if you hope the book will be very widely read and you don’t want to categorise it yourself, bookshops will need to place it somewhere that gives clues to browsing readers who prefer particular genres. Have a look at the section descriptors and think about where your book might be placed in a bookshop. Depending on the way each shop signposts its displays, your book might go in more than one section, such as Local stories, Biography and History and then, hopefully, Books we love and Bestsellers!
Tip: when you write the text for the back cover, bear in mind that reviewers and booksellers will often use only the beginning, particularly in online bookstores and catalogues, so the first four or five lines should work as a standalone, bite-size introduction to your book.
I find this a difficult writing task, reduced to perhaps 100-150 words to pitch the book to a reader and say what’s important. This isn’t the same thing as a synopsis or a summary because you don’t want to give the plot away. The hooks I included were historical and geographical as well as well-known names. I dropped in the hint of a story of adventure and also mentioned genealogy because I know many readers share that interest. There’s a strong local and regional interest in the topics of my book so I included the names of several places on the back cover. That’s a lot to fit in a few lines! Writing so briefly means finding ways of holding a lot of information in a few sentences and that affects the style. Look at successful books in the same genre and work out the kind of hooks they include to attract readers. The more you read, the more the rhythms and shapes of the style will become familiar.
Tip: if you can tell someone what the book’s really about in one sentence that’s a good start to the kind of thinking that will help you write the back cover copy.
What are the choices?
The look you choose for your inside covers depends on decisions you’ve made about artwork and printing, and your budget too. You could leave them blank but you might be able to add attractive features with very little additional cost. Colour opens up more choices for creative design. Look at other books, not necessarily in the same genre as your own, note any techniques you like and discuss them with the printer. Some books have beautiful art on inside covers, both front and back, but a simple option can be just one large image, or even a photograph of you with your website address.
On the inside back cover you could include your ‘author photo’ and a short ‘bio’ if these are not going on the end page.
What should be included?
Obviously, the Title page shows the title and subtitle, and the author’s name. The number of pages available as ‘front matter’ will determine how much information you include on the title page. You need to decide where you’ll place other details, which usually include the copyright symbol and statement, the name of the owner of the intellectual content including that of the cover art, the publication date and year of imprint (to show whether this is a first, second, third edition etc), the name of the printer used, where the book was printed (including additional information you want to add about the font and paper used) the publisher’s name and address you’re using, which will be the same as that on the ISBN and National Library forms you complete when you register the book.
We had no experience and started from scratch on this. We looked at other published books similar to mine and noted all the information they included as front matter. It varied in content and in where it was positioned. From that we worked out what was always included and what was optional. I added a few idiosyncrasies too, some extra detail about the cover image and a short quotation. It was a small way of creating the kind of book I wanted it to be, a whole experience for the reader that went beyond just the body text. Those extras were not included when my publisher produced the book but they had to fit a lot more information of their own into that space, including logos.
Designing the additional pages
You’ll probably be writing all this information yourself and it is small detail but also another opportunity to contribute to the overall look of your book before and after the main body of text. The way you write and design any foreword, dedications, acknowledgements or frontispiece can make a difference, and there are other options too such as an ‘Author’s note’. Browse around and collect ideas for both content and design, bearing in mind that these may well be the first pages a reader sees when they sit down to begin your book. You might end up with available blank pages because of the printing set-up, and that can give you flexibility to add more or space out more attractively the information you want to include.
There are some wonderful advantages in being your own publisher apart from making your own decisions about the title and cover. I wanted the acknowledgement of country to be the very first words in the book, on its own, on a blank page, so that’s what we printed. I was very happy and thankful when Picador kept the same in their design.
Getting an ISBN
Before the book is printed you need to include your ISBN and provide the bar code to go on the back cover. The ISBN is an international unique identification number used by booksellers and libraries. When you first purchase an ISBN you do not need any information about your book, but you will need to add information such as the number of pages, illustrations, dimensions and much more, when you assign the ISBN to your book.
How to register the book
Before the book goes on sale you should catalogue it with the National Library of Australia and deposit a copy with the National Library of Australia as well as your state or territory library.
Cataloguing-in-Publication (CiP) is a free service offered to publishers by the National Library of Australia to provide a catalogue record for publications which have not yet been published.