It’s design time! This is where you get to turn your book idea into a piece of art, one that will hopefully be marveled at by hundreds, thousands, or perhaps even millions of people! But how do you go from just a pile of text to a finished product? There’s a lot to know and digest when it comes to your book’s cover and interior design, so put on your seatbelt.
Designing a book is a holistic exercise in balancing multiple requirements, all of which affect one another; paper weight affects book size affects printing costs affects spine width affects cover design . . . you get the picture. As a result, it pays to brush up on what to expect before you dive in.
Your first step before proceeding any further is to find a designer! Do not DIY your book’s cover, unless you are yourself a skilled designer. And even if you are a skilled designer, your book cover design may be best handed over to another professional. As the author, you probably already have your hands full with the content production end of things. Plus, it can be helpful to outsource this portion of the book project to someone who’s not as close to the book as you are—fresh eyes and all that.
If you already have a designer who’s worked with you on other projects, like perhaps your website, then have a chat to see if they have experience designing books. Some designers are “cross-canvas” competent, but many aren’t, so be sure to verify before signing up to work with someone. If you end up working with your current designer or someone new, be sure to ask them to send you copies of books they’ve designed, so you can review them and determine if their style is up your alley and if they have the chops to pull it off.
Your Book’s Cover: First Impressions Still Come first
We start on the outside, with your book’s cover. This is the very face of your hard work, the visual distillation of your book’s essence, and the collective criteria by which people will judge whether your book is worth that one-click purchase or a trip to the cash register to part with their lunch money. For a print book, you have two pages and a spine to make the sale, and for a digital book you have even less real estate. So give your cover design the attention it deserves.
Learn What You Like: Front Cover Edition
When it comes to your book’s design, you’re going to want to focus on the front cover first. And there’s a great reason for this: It’s arguably your book’s most important design aspect, since it’s the most prominent element of your book. It’s what people see first, and it’s what people are going to use to form their initial judgment about your book. And in a sea of competition, you need to make it great, something that’ll catch people’s attention in the right way, the first time.
Maybe you’re coming into this step of the process with a clean idea of what you want your book to look like. Or maybe design is just not your thing, and when you try to picture the front cover of your book, the only thing that comes up in your mind is a big question mark. Just as you can learn from other books so you don’t have to start from scratch in determining how to structure your book, in the same way, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to designing the interior and exterior of your book.
Here are two exercises to get you started, by understanding what you like and don’t like and what works and doesn’t when it comes to front cover design.
First, grab a stack of (ideally nonfiction) books from your shelf—at least twenty or so. One by one, grab a book and examine the front and back covers. Don’t take more than a few seconds to decide: do I like this cover? Does it grab me, make me want to open the book and see what it’s about?
If you say “yes!” then place the book to the side and start a “yes” pile. If you say “no!” then start another pile—yes, this is your “no” pile. Go through each book this way, putting it in the appropriate stack based on your first impression. Try not to overanalyze it. Go with your gut. Which ones do you like, and which ones fall flat in your estimation? Once you’ve made it through all of the books, grab a notepad or open a word processing doc on your computer and keep it at the ready.
Now you’re going to go through each pile again, but this time with a bit more of an analytical mind. For each book, take a minute or so to try to understand what it is that made you say “yes” or “no” to it. Maybe it’s something specific, like the font, or the humorous juxtaposition of the title with the cover image. Maybe it’s something you can’t put your finger on—in that case, focus on how the cover made you feel—happy, safe, excited? Take notes on each book cover in your notepad or on your computer.
The next exercise works best at a real, live bookstore, but you can do it at home if you need to. It can help to have some sort of note-taking device for this one, too. As you walk into the bookstore, look left and right to scan the shelves from afar. As you do this, notice which books grab your attention. Take notes on which books grab you, and why they stand out.
The magic of these two exercises is that you’re using directed attention to tap into your innate preferences, so you can better understand why you have those preferences, and start to break down the elements that make a book cover appealing or not.
It’s great if you can also have a friend or two or three perform these same exercises with you, to enrich the data you collect from this experiment. Different people are going to have varying responses to a single design, and may be able to help you articulate why a particular design works or doesn’t.
Lastly, keep in mind you’re not going through these exercises to find the one cover design to rule them all. That will come later. Right now, it’s all about getting a better sense of what works and what doesn’t, so you’re better informed about what goes into your cover design concepts.
Next we’ll talk about the back cover of your book, and why you need to think about your entire cover design in a holistic way.
Don’t Belittle Your Back Cover
For print books, the back cover should not be an afterthought. The back cover might seem less important because it’s, well, on the back of your book. But it plays a powerful role in winning over potential readers, so don’t overlook the importance of getting this part right, too.
Why is the back cover so important? One way to think about it: the front cover is where you grab the reader, and the back cover is where you start to tell your story. The front cover is the enticement; the attraction. The back is where you begin to show the book's true character—what's, literally, underneath the surface. The back cover is where you close the sale.
Even though it’s not as visible as the front cover, creating cohesion between the back cover and front cover will demonstrate to a potential reader that you’ve thought things through. If you have a beautifully designed front cover, rich with colorful imagery and smartly laid-out graphical elements—and a black-and-white back cover with a few hastily penned paragraphs, what message does that send to your would-be reader? I didn’t think this whole book thing through, is what.
Hitting a homerun with your back cover is important in ebook land as well as the bookstore because sites like Amazon let would-be buyers preview books using their “Look Inside” feature. Often, this feature will let the user view the back cover as well, so it pays to imbue the back with some thought and quality.
So how do you create a great back cover? First, when it comes to design, it’s important to unify the back cover with the front cover into a full experience. The design of your back cover should flow from the design of the front cover. That doesn’t mean they have to look identical, but there should be some cohesion, some connection, some complementarity, between the two. A simple option is to use one of the main colors from the front cover on the back cover for color cohesion. You can blend the color directly from the left side of the front cover across the spine and onto the back cover. You can create this cohesion in other ways too—by borrowing graphical motifs and typeface choices from the front cover.
Since the back cover is where you start to tell the book’s story, the back cover may incorporate small, tasteful graphical elements, but here, text is your best friend. This is where you put a description of the book, along with testimonials from admiring readers (the more famous, the better).
Because back covers tend to be text-heavy, readability is especially important. Aim for a font size no smaller than 8 and no larger than 12; big enough to read at arm’s length but not so large that it looks clunky and unprofessional. The key here is to get a physical proof before you send your book to print, so you can truly judge the effectiveness of the text size. We’ll cover that later in this chapter, so stick around.
Learn What You Like: Back Cover Edition
Now’s the time to do a similar version of the first exercise you did for your front cover design. Grab a stack of books—it can be the same stack you used earlier!—and examine each of the back covers. What information does each one include? Which ones appeal to you the most? Why? Use your notepad to record your observations.
Again, with the back cover, we’re less interested in pizzazz—that’s front cover territory—and more in presentation and cohesion with the rest of the cover. Like the front cover, have your designer mock up a handful of options to choose from.
Logistical Considerations for Your Back Cover
There are also some logistical considerations for your back cover—not as fun as designing it, but important nonetheless. The first one is making sure you get a barcode. Pop a look at the back cover of any physical book, and you’ll see a little barcode there. Basically, if you want to distribute your book in physical form—including via print on-demand services like Amazon’s CreateSpace platform—you’re going to need a barcode.
A barcode is like an ISBN—it’s a unique identifier for your book that makes it easy for retailers to enter the code into their databases, so that the book can be scanned properly when someone purchases it. The information embedded in the barcode is associated with your book’s entry in the retailer’s database, making it easier for merchants to track inventory and check prices.
The back cover is also a good spot to add an attribution for your cover design. Give your designer (and illustrator, if applicable) a little love. Other items you may wish to include are an author bio, website, and publisher information. It’s also a great idea to include an author headshot on the back, especially if the front doesn’t feature one. Help the reader put a face to your name!
Coming Up with Cover Concepts
Now that you’ve gone through the exercises and have a better sense of what you like in a cover design, it’s time to come up with some front cover concepts. Sit down with your designer and go through the notes you took during your exercises. You can also show them some of the covers you like the most, and talk about why you like them. The designer will be able to bring their design expertise to bear to help you figure out which design approaches and elements might work well for your book and your brand. If you already have an established brand, then your book cover may benefit from inheriting some of those established brand styles—including colors, fonts, use of white/negative space, and other similar attributes and considerations. Be sure to share links to resources that will help your designer stay on brand with their cover concepts, such as your website and other printed or digital materials that demonstrate your brand’s visual identity.
The next step is to send your designer back into the wilderness to create a handful of design concepts for you to review. That’s right—you’re going to want to create more concepts than you think you need. In the exercise you did earlier in the chapter, you probably came away with some ideas of elements you’d like to include in your cover—fonts you like, whether you want an image on your cover along with some image possibilities, and perhaps even some rough cover concepts. You may have a strong sense about the overall feeling you want to convey with your cover, even if you don’t have a handle on the specific design elements you’d use to create that effect. All of these concepts, preferences, thoughts—go ahead and share them with your designer.
You might have a specific idea in mind for your cover, but here’s where you need to let your designer unleash their skills and come up with a few options. Your favorite cover concept may be one you hadn’t even considered, so don’t get wedded to just one or two ideas.
Stay on Brand
It’s crucial to ensure that whatever cover design you choose is consistent with your brand and author identity. If the designer is someone who’s worked with you before and knows you and your brand, then all the better, but if not, make sure to set aside time at the outset of the project to acquaint the designer with your brand identity. A good designer will seek out this information automatically, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure that they’re starting from the right place.
As a final note, be sensitive to how your cover looks as a thumbnail image. Your cover is going to (hopefully) appear all over the internet, including in thumbnail versions on sales pages of websites like Amazon.com and Borders.com. There are a few specific things to keep in mind when it comes to your thumbnail. First, it’s a good idea to avoid all white backgrounds, as this will cause your thumbnail to blend into the background of the page it’s on. Second, be sure to use a large font face for the title, for readability at thumbnail size. Next, consider using a large headshot or some kind of singular symbol as a metaphor for the book as the centerpiece of your thumbnail. Make it bold, memorable, and visible—even in minute form.
Understanding the Entire Cover Design Process
At this point, you may be wondering how the cover design process typically unfolds. Processes vary from one designer to another or from one service agency to another, as the case may be. To give you a sense of how these concepts fit together into a stepwise system that’ll help you feel confident about executing your own cover design process, here’s a distilled version of the process we’ve been through when working with a designer on a book cover (full jacket) cover design.
- Author (in our case, Pat) completes a creative discovery questionnaire to source the critical inputs needed to begin contemplating concepts. This is where you get a chance to share important details like your book’s value proposition, its “personality” or attitude, and what problems it solves for the reader—as well as your preferences about cover colors, fonts, images, and concepts.
- The designer delivers two low-to-medium fidelity wireframes of the front cover only. This step narrows in on a particular concept, anchored via the front cover, to then be used later to extend the concept around to the back jacket.
- Author chooses one of the two wireframes in addition to providing feedback on such things as fonts, colors, and general layout bits.
- Designer produce a high-fidelity concept (not a wireframe) of the front cover only based on all of the creative inputs and feedback thus far.
- Designer produces a high-fidelity concept (not a wireframe) of the front cover only based on all of the creative inputs and feedback thus far.
- Author has a final chance to give feedback. Acceptable feedback is minor feedback within the constraints of the chosen concept. Unacceptable feedback would be any request to deviate from the chosen concept or otherwise radically change the design.
In our case there have been times that we’re going through several more iterations of steps 4 and 5, but this is the basic sequence. And the number of revisions or iterations of the concept will usually be specified in your contract, to ensure that you don’t end up in an endless cycle of feedback and updates never finalizing the cover. This is for your sake as much as it is for the designer’s sanity and time constraints.
Book Publishing Cheat Sheet
Get the Cheat Sheet
Sign up to receive emails from SPI and we'll give you access to our free Business Toolkit, including the Book Publishing Cheat Sheet.
Get a high-level overview of the five stages of publishing, from pre-writing to marketing, whether you're writing an ebook or a print book, and whether you're self-publishing or going the traditional route.
Interior Design Matters More than You Know
Your exterior design deserves a lot of focus, but interior design shouldn’t be overlooked. We’ll caveat that by stating that it’s okay if the interior of your book isn’t the flashiest thing in the world, as long as it’s tasteful, on brand, and cohesive with the exterior design. Simple is fine—as long as it’s professional.
But if you do decide to create a custom interior design, know this: relative to your exterior cover, custom interior designs are a lot of effort. You have way more pages to deal with, and lots of options in terms of what you can do with the inside of your book. Essentially, custom interiors are like the entire front cover (or full jacket) experience all over again, whereby wireframes and/or concepts need to be created for different page types of a books interior such as chapter covers, section covers, main body text without image, main body text with image, and so forth.
The first major choice you’ll make regarding interior design is the fonts you want to use. Fonts are the foundation of the reading experience. With fonts, you have two basic choices: serif and sans serif. A serif is simply a small, decorative line attached to the end of a stroke in a letter or symbol.
This is a serif font.
This is a sans serif font.
Generally speaking, each font type has a different set of characteristics or connotations. Serif fonts tend to suggest a warmer, traditional feel. Sans serif fonts present a clean, direct, modern feel. In the past, serif fonts were frowned upon in some quarters, on the basis that the curls and swoops made these typefaces less readable. But research has shown that serifs are actually easier to read, particularly in print, because the added lines make each character more distinctive and thus recognizable. However, with the emergence of higher-definition and retina displays, it’s become easier to read all fonts on screen.
The bottom line is, don’t get too concerned with whether a serif or sans serif font is best for your book. There’s a case for either type of type.
Tread Carefully with Visuals
The interior of a book provides a rich playground for design-based enrichment. If your book is of a technical nature, you may want to represent some of your ideas in visual format, for instance through charts, graphs, and images. If your book will have a print version, you’ll want to make sure to select the appropriate paper type so that these elements are as readable as possible (more on paper type below).
Interior chapter covers could be a nice touch—a designed page at the beginning of each chapter, perhaps with an illustration that’s relevant to the focus of that chapter. Don’t be afraid to bring some flair to typically mundane elements like page numbers. Just keep in mind that the fancier you want to get, the more time it’s going to take to design it and get it right.
A Final Word on Interior Design
If you’re in doubt about how elaborate you should get with your interior design, err on the side of simplifying things—especially if you know that the majority of your audience is going to opt for the digital reading experience. The more variable elements you add, the more complicated it’ll be to keep the book’s entire design experience cohesive. Focus on creating a tight experience, with everything legible and on-brand. Staying within these bounds will still give you a lot of room to play—but straying too far outside them could run you the risk of ending up with a clunky end result that just doesn’t click. As the saying goes, less is more.
By the way, the main reason for simplifying the interior design if your book is primarily going to be digital? Interior design options are far more abundant with physical books than with digital books. With digital, you can’t control much beyond basic fonts and insertion of key images (like your cover design image). Beyond that, you’re at the mercy of the ebook formats, which are designed to keep file sizes down and make sure your book renders consistently on every device and screen size.
Size and Materials Shouldn’t be Ignored (for Print Books)
If you plan to have a print version of your book, as you embark on your book’s design you can’t forget about size and materials. Both of these items have a direct relationship with the rest of your design choices, so don’t leave decisions about these factors to the end.
One important note before we talk about these factors, though. The publishing route you choose—whether self-publishing, traditional, or hybrid publishing, all of which we’ll discuss in chapter XX—will largely determine how many decisions you’ll need to make when it comes to size and materials. For instance, if you self-publish, you’ll have the most freedom (and burden!) to make decisions about the book’s physical characteristics. If you choose the print-on-demand (POD) option, you may be a little more constrained, for instance, by having a pre-set list of options for the book’s dimensions. And if you’re going with a traditional publisher, then you likely won't have anything to do with your book’s design.
First up, how big should your book be? You might think there are only one or two “standard” sizes for nonfiction books . . . right? Not so fast. For nonfiction books, there are a few conventions to keep in mind. Most nonfiction titles are roughly 6”x9”, or sometimes 7”x10”, which can provide some more room in the margins if that’s important to you. Both of these size ranges should allow your book to fit on a bookshelf, which is an important consideration. If you’re creating a manual or a workbook, or a book with a lot of images, you may want to opt for a slightly larger size, in the range of 8”x10” to 81/2”x11”. And if you’re going for more of a coffee table book, perhaps an art book or one with lots of photographs or illustrations that’s meant to lie flat on a table rather than lined up on a shelf, then size conventions don’t apply nearly as rigorously as they do for other nonfiction books.
Cover Choices: Hard or Soft
Next is the question of hardcover vs. paperback. Here things are a bit more straightforward. As you’ve surely noticed whenever you’ve shopped for books, hardcovers are more expensive to buy, which means they’re going to be more expensive to produce. It’s also important to remember that hardcovers typically include a dust jacket, which will need to be designed and sized so that it fits your book correctly.
You could consider doing a limited run of hardcover copies, and a larger general run of softcovers. Keep the hardcovers as a special edition for your inner circle or most favored readers, and leave the paperbacks to your still-loyal-but-not-quite-as-loyal fans.
Paper Choices: Coated vs. Uncoated
Next up is the question of paper type. Wait, you mean there isn’t just one kind of book paper? It’s true—you’ve got choices up the wazoo here, too.
The basic choice is between coated and uncoated paper. Coated paper has an added layer, usually of china clay, that gives the paper a glossier feel and provides separation between the ink and the paper itself. The amount of coating used will result in a finish ranging from a matte appearance to semi-matte, gloss, and UV gloss. As a result, coated paper is often used for publications like art books and magazines that use a lot of images—because the ink stays in the surface layer and doesn’t bleed into the paper fibers, you’ll get crisper lines with coated paper. If your book has lots of photographs or intricate illustrations, you may want to use coated paper.
The downside of coated paper is it tends to be expensive. The premium paper feel will cost you a premium. Uncoated paper, on the other hand, is a lower-cost option that may involve some tradeoffs in image quality and paper feel. But just because coated paper offers a fancier feel, doesn’t mean you need to splurge on it. It’s also typically reserved for more specialty type books, as previously mentioned. If you do feel that coated paper would be a nice addition for images or photos you want to include, another may be to use coated paper for certain pages, and uncoated paper for the rest of the book.
Paper Choices: Weight and Thickness
There are a few other variables you’ll need to decide about when it comes to paper choices. Next up is paper weight and thickness.
Paper weight is also known as paper density, and it’s expressed as basis weight, which is the weight in pounds of 500 sheets of the paper at a standard sheet size. For uncoated book paper, 50lb., 55lb., and 60lb. are common basis weights, while coated book paper tends to run in basis weights of 70lb., 80lb., and 100lb.
Paper thickness is also known as caliper, and it’s measured in pages per inch (PPI); thinner paper will result in more PPI. A thicker page will obviously lead to a thicker book, so if your book is already 500 pages, you may want to opt for a thinner paper stock so that the printed book isn’t unwieldy due to its spine width. Along those lines, it’s important to know the PPI of the paper used in your book as you’re designing the book’s exterior. The PPI will affect the width of the spine, which will affect—you guessed it, your design parameters for the spine and rest of the cover.
Thicker papers also tend to be more opaque, which is a good thing because it helps readability. More opacity means less light will filter through the paper, making it easier to make out text and images.
Then there’s paper color. Most text-based books use paper with a natural shade—somewhere between off-white and cream. This softer spectrum can make it easier to read for extended periods, compared to a pure white. White uncoated stock is more commonly used for books with illustrations and photographs, as the white generally provides a better contrast against the images.
Get a proof. Always.
You’ve put it all together: the cover and interior designs, all laid out with your book’s content in a tidy electronic file, ready to send off to the printers. You’re so excited, and ready to decide how many copies you’re going to order! 1,000? 500? 100?
How about one?
That’s right—before you even think about plugging a three- or four-digit number into the “number of copies” field on your publisher’s order form, you need to do the smart thing and order a proof copy. This is the last, absolutely crucial step you must complete before opening the floodgates on your first print run.
Why is a proof copy necessary? Because there are things that just won’t become clear until you’re holding the book in your hands. Your looks different in real life. Colors may render differently in printing compared to what they look like on the screen. Fonts may look too small or too large on paper, even if they looked fine when you were reviewing the digital proof. There’s also an advantage to proofing your book’s text using a paper copy as well as on a screen. There’s considerable research suggesting that reading on paper is less tiring on the eyes than reading on a digital screen. As a result, you may find it easier to catch those last few typos by proofreading your book in print form. And in a holistic way, it’s also just difficult to approximate the experience of holding and reading a physical book via your computer screen. What might seem amazing on screen might fall flat in real life.
Out Into the World
We’ve covered a lot of ground so far in our lineup of book publishing stages—writing, editing, design—but we’ve yet to come to the heart of the order. Stick with us as we take you into the world of publishing and show you what it takes to bring your book to the masses. In the next chapter we take an indepth look at your options for publishing your book.