By now, if you’ve been a follower of my blog, you know that one of my fervent goals as a professional book doctor is to keep self-publishing authors from making costly mistakes—both money-wise and credibility-wise.
Let’s face it: Once your book has been produced and published in a substandard way, recouping your reputation and overcoming the often poor reviews is no easy road for a writer, not to mention the cost of the stack you enthusiastically purchased to have on hand for eager fans and speaking gigs. Having your book subsequently redone the right way is the only smart choice—yet has the damage already been done?
I don’t have to tell you that first impressions govern every aspect of our lives. How we feel about people, food, websites, book covers … you name it … determines whether we stick around for more or revisit them later. Our human nature wants to be pleased at the outset, perhaps so that we innately don’t waste too much time on the myriad choices placed before us on a daily basis. And when the first impression isn’t good, we’re often tainted for a second look … or taste … or read.
This is precisely why it’s vital not to take short cuts when editing, designing, and packaging your labor of love. The chances that a reader will come back to see the “improved version” are slim to none (unless they love you!), so do yourself a favor:
Produce a top-quality book in every way the first time.
If you haven’t read my posts on the importance of professional editing and stellar cover design, I invite you to do so; they are vital components of a well-polished book. But here I want to touch on interior book design in more detail as a continuation of Why Interior Book Design Costs More Than You Think It Should (Part One) because I’m seeing more and more authors kill their books by attempting this segment themselves. Quite frankly, it’s breaking my heart for them, for readers, and for the literary community as a whole.
Case in point: Just because you’re a writer doesn’t qualify you to be a book designer. (I know I said that in Part One, but it definitely bears repeating.)
If I want you to take one crucial lesson from this post, it is this:
Book design is an art; it requires training, proficiency in an appropriate program (Word does NOT qualify in this regard), and an understanding of the numerous rules and special secrets utilized to make a book look easy to produce when it’s anything but. In short, it’s a specialized talent just like music, art, or athletics. Even prodigies in these arenas practice a great deal to become masters, and book designers are no different in learning and honing their craft.
You know those commercials that say: “Kids, don’t try this at home.”
Well, that statement applies to self-publishing writers too.
The many components that make up excellent book design start with typography, one of the biggest and most challenging decisions a designer makes for any particular book.
Choosing the right fonts for the main text, chapter headers, subtitles, and other set-off text requires much thought and experimenting. If the fonts don’t appropriately reflect the material and create a pleasant experience for the reader, a huge part of the book’s appeal has already been sacrificed. Some questions we seriously ponder are:
• Does the content beg for serif, sans-serif, or a fitting mixture? (Times New Roman size 12 may be fine for a manuscript; it’s definitely not fit for a book.)
• What style displays the correct feel for the different elements?
• Do the letters need to be spaced out (tracked) a bit for better presentation? (freebie: spacing out letters in headers and subtitles almost always automatically brings the book up several notches; same goes for book covers. The tighter the font, the more amateur it tends to look).
We sometimes purchase or download special fonts for a particular book's theme; we likewise must try a multitude of combinations before striking just the right one. Font size and line spacing are also big considerations—too big and the book looks amateur; too small and the reader can be frustrated. The delicate balance is key. It’s truly an art to achieve the best typography in each of its aspects.
Once that segment of the book’s design is conquered, we must move to the other vital elements of the book’s presentation, each with its own set of important decisions, and each with multiple options.
Custom Title Page
Truly professional books have customized title pages, often as the second title page, the first being the one with the book title only. The second, or custom, title page often uses the typography or graphics taken from the cover to create a lovely introduction to the book for the reader.
Symbols and Flourishes
The small icons that separate paragraphs for time breaks or that are used for custom bullet points are one of the special touches that makes a book more professional. Choosing from the thousands available can be quite overwhelming as we strive to make each author’s book unique to him or her.
Table of Contents
Layout and style here vary according to the type of book and what feels right for the content, and the vital step not to be missed is that the page numbers match every section accurately. We must always remember that changes happen in the book as we’re designing, so paginating the TOC—especially for books with many chapters—is a critical last step.
A design that complements the cover art or theme, including the creation of a custom graphic, is often a critical ingredient in the introduction to each chapter. There are always hundreds of possibilities; the trick is coming up with the best one.
Custom First Letters
Those large letters that typically begin a chapter? They're not just the main text font in a much bigger size; rather, they're created in a specially chosen font in a graphics program, then inserted and spaced appropriately one at a time.
Customarily indicating the book’s title, chapter name, author, and/or pagination, it’s important that these are in the appropriate font and size, the best width from the top of the page and from the main text, and that they are NEVER on a blank page, the first page of a chapter, or on those of the front matter of a book (title, publication, dedication, TOC, etc.).
Page headers and page numbers are likewise never to be placed on pages with photos only, the author page, or any other page that isn’t part of a section of the book within the table of contents. This has to be achieved in the mastery of a program conducive to book layout, whereby individual decisions such as these can be made.
Photos/Graphics/Call-Out Boxes/Special Text/Footnotes/Captions
Depending on the type of book and its components, all of these elements require careful consideration, formatting expertise, and pristine spacing to ensure every aspect looks and reads just right.
These highly technical sections demand a keen eye and layout for ease of reference for the reader. Cross checking for accuracy is vital, and you can imagine how tedious it is to make sure every reference is spot-on!
Okay … so I know this is a lot to absorb, but that's precisely the point!
With a clearer understanding of what professional book design entails, my hope is that your appreciation of it as refined expertise is no longer taken lightly. Part acute instinct, part technical prowess, part creative interpretation, book design commands a range of proficiencies, all with the author’s, book’s, and audience’s best interest at heart.
Writers should no more attempt to be book designers than a trained chef should take a stab at practicing medicine … or a nutritionist should draw up blueprints for a house. Desire to properly learn the intended skill is wonderful, but honing the talent before performing it is key.
Once writers embrace that self-publishing does not mean attempting to produce a book by themselves in its entirety, but rather to hire the proper professionals to see that top quality is achieved, credibility will reign stronger in the literary world, readers will be more fulfilled, and authors will be better reflected by excellent books.
Now isn’t that what every author dreams of?
Stay tuned for next week's post: Sense and Sensibility (in Self-Publishing, That Is), where I'll share three key points to carry with you on your publishing journey.
In the meantime, I wish you greater understanding of putting your book into the marketplace in its top-notch form the first time so you won't be disappointed and regretful later …
Please share in the comment box below if you gained new perspective on book design from this post … and if you think this article has value for others, please share it on Facebook, LinkedIn, and/or Twitter using the buttons to the side. Thanks so much!
Write from the heart,
Stacey Aaronson is a professional Book Doctor who takes self-publishing authors by the hand and transforms their manuscript into the book they've dreamed of—from impeccable editing and proofreading to engaging, audience-targeted cover and interior design—rivaling or exceeding a traditional house publication.