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Why hire a professional book designer? I’ll give you 239 good reasons

/by Chris Collins/

Chris Collins is the founder of RedLava Design, providing bespoke design and publishing services aimed at the self-publisher.

Self publishing is no longer the ugly sister of the fairy-tale princesses of olden days. No longer are new authors dependent on publishers big or small to have their voices heard. Yet it seems that we all know a self-published book when we see one, generally because people try to do the design themselves. And it just doesn’t look right.

Book design is a difficult and time-consuming skill and it does, sadly, still stand out when a book – either an eBook or, as my wife insists on calling them, a pBook (the p being for paperback) – is the result of the layman’s efforts. It seems that design is frequently the last thing on the author’s mind – but it’s always the first thing the public sees.

I know it’s in my interest to say so, but the importance of having an experienced eye take care of the layout and design of any book really can’t be overstated.

There are several reasons for this.

The first is sheer practicality. Whether we’re talking fiction or non-fiction, good design will bring a clarity that will only ever show your work at its best – even more so if you want to use illustrations of any kind.

Another consideration is one of aesthetics. You already know you’ve written something that is worth spending precious time reading. Shouldn’t it therefore be presented to a reader in a manner befitting its quality?

Yes, it certainly should.

Yet another consideration – much underappreciated – is that of tactility. Think of all the books you’ve ever loved. They didn’t just have a look, they had a feel. Remember how it felt as a child to hold that copy of – what was it? Noddy Goes To Toyland? Treasure Island? Lord of the Flies? To Kill A Mockingbird? I can almost guarantee that the mere mention of a favourite title will bring intensely evocative memories – in sight, touch and even smell – of a particular copy.

Because all of these books, and many, many more, have been not just loved, but also lived in by those who really loved them. Each had a touch that was uniquely theirs (and that will evoke memories when brought to mind) – perhaps the way it felt in your hand, the sensation beneath your fingertips as you turned the pages. And while the magic of the story is what creates the attachment, it’s the physical quality of the book that does a great deal to create and embody the associated memories.

And this is where designers come in – because if a book is to look good and have such an effect on the reader, there’s rather a lot to think about. 

Good design essentially comes down to the careful and considered manipulation of shapes and space. By shapes I mean text and/or pictures – blocks of type, single-line captions, sizes of chapter headings, sub-heads and body text. The use of fonts and type styles – not just serif or sans-serif but lower and upper-case; bold and italic. The use and positioning of pictures or illustrations – the weight of keylines or borders, text wrap around images…

The list goes on and we haven’t even begun to discuss space – margins, letter spacing, word spacing, line space, paragraph space … Or the furniture such as page numbering and running headers and footers. Index and table of contents.

And still there’s more. The decision over print cost is frequently a juggling act revolving around the number of printed pages. So what about page size and paper weight, for instance? And ink weight? The blacker the type, the more ink used – which will affect the cost – but type that is too light will lead to eyestrain for the reader and is less likely to be read.

Now all this may seem as if I’m trying to frighten you off. Really, I’m not – but whatever your involvement in publishing, these are things you will come up against at one time or another. And when you do, there will be times when you will feel as if you’re banging your head against a  – well, insert your favourite cliché here.

You could, of course, do all this yourself after all. You never know, you might have an eye for design. There are software packages out there that vary in degrees of expense and capability. And logic would dictate that, with practise, proficiency and skill can be acquired. But we don’t all have the money, the patience or the time to invest in layout software. And even if that were the case, it still doesn’t mean that the results would sit proudly on any bookshop display table alongside the latest biography or blockbuster. 

You want your book to stand out – but for the right reasons, not as a how-not-to-do-it.

Bringing in an outsider like me isn’t akin to giving your baby away, as self-publishers sometimes feel. A dispassionate eye can see the most suitable framework for a book and is much better able to find a suitable font, or fonts, to convey its message and enhance its appeal. To look after, in fact, all those potentially awkward points and pitfalls I mentioned earlier.

Stories are just like people – they need to breathe and they do so by the use of space on the page. Words on a page aren’t sardines packed into a tin – they need air just as much as the reader. Like most of us I’ve spent a huge proportion of my life reading and there’s nothing more annoying than opening a book to find minuscule type in large blocks. It does nothing for my eyes, my goodwill or the author’s sales, since I’m just as likely to put it back on the shelf again.

There is cost involved in this, it would be pointless to deny it or play it down. But the benefits of using the services of a designer far outweigh the potentially crushing disappointment of opening your very first parcel from the printer, only to find that it just isn’t what you expected it to be. Or even worse – you missed a huge spelling mistake on the cover and the only option is to have the printer pulp and reprint. Don’t think it hasn’t happened – I’ve seen it on more than one occasion.

And speaking of printers – bear in mind that while there are many of high integrity out there, many others will do exactly what they’re asked to do and no more. Some now offer a complete layout, design and printing service for what seems to be a very inexpensive price. Frequently the reason it’s so cheap is because the book is printed via template, with the text poured in like water into a jug and no real idea of, or regard for, appearance. If the final result isn’t so important to you, then this may be your way forward. I don’t recommend it (but then again, why would I?)

The answer is, of course, to make sure you find a designer who loves to read and who loves books. Many designers simply love design without really and truly appreciating content.  

Finally, a word on e-books. An e-version of your book is now an absolute essentiality for the growing market in downloads and e-readers. While the iPad is king of display for printed material, other e-readers have no real flexibility in terms of display, and many do have problems displaying graphics and text together. This will change as time and technology advances. There is a school of thought that says that the printed word is dead and the world now belongs to the Kindle et al. That may one day happen (although I doubt it) but it certainly isn’t the case yet. 

But even on an eBook, where the reader to some extent become their own designer and choose their own font and size on a screen, appearance matters. The cover becomes even more important as a selling tool as the e-book purchaser can’t leaf through the finished product in the same way – you need something bold, bright and professional-looking to standout on Amazon among the thousands of downloads now on offer. You also need to take the size of the display screen into consideration – what looks good on a Waterstones bookshelf will not necessarily carry the same impact when viewed on an e-reader.

Think about all this for a moment. Think about why you are self-publishing in the first place. Of course you have a story you want to tell. You want it to reach as many people as possible and a cloud-based medium is ideal for this. But you also want to be able to hold in your hand something you can take real pride in. You want to be able to offer people the tangible proof of all your efforts.

Of course you want it to be as beautiful as possible.

And that’s where I come in…

*at least, although the number of reasons can go down as well as up

RedLava Design are kindly donating their services to our Self-Publish or Perish Competition.

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One thought on “Why hire a professional book designer? I’ll give you 239 good reasons

  1. I did post this on the shortbread site as well but just want to say thank for this very interesting post

    “Another great blog post – thanks. I must admit when I tried self publishing for the first time I almost gave up at the first hurdle. The choices of shapes, sizes, weights and so on was totally bewildering. I struggled through and did manage to turn out what I feel isn’t a bad Children’s story with illustrations but I am absolutely certain that with expert help it could have been much better. I had never really thought about what it is that makes you love a book but of course much of it is down to how comfortable the book is to handle and, of course, to read and that is a great skill that I had given no thought to before today. As for e-publishing I must say that I feel very cross when there is no nice cover and the interactive parts on my Kindle don’t work. I have actually sent books back when they have arrived with no table of contents, no cover illustration etc. After all if the author thinks so little of their work that they can’t put in just that bit of effort then it doesn’t give me much confidence in the book. The fact that I send them back of course means that I never find out and they never have the chance to win me over. Yes indeed a very interesting post.”

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