Book Design in an era of Digital Formats and Self Publishing

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“Design works not because people understand or even appreciate it but because it works subliminally.” – Erik Spiekerman

Erik Spiekerman is one of the world’s most renowned book designers and typesetters, with over 323,000 followers on Twitter. We interviewed him last year at Reedsy and left us with this perfect quote. The core principle of design remains the same, whether it’s applied to apps, websites or books. It’s more than making something “beautiful”, or “appealing”, it is there to subliminally influence the experience of the user/reader.

When you open a book, you don’t think about the margins, the spacing, the font, the drop caps, the scene breaks; however all these interior layout details subtly influence the pace at which you read, and can go as far as create an atmosphere for the story.

The cover assumes a similar function. I often hear designers saying that they create “eye-catching” covers. I always wondered, what does “eye-catching” mean? Surely, flashy colours, big fonts and strong contrasts are eye-catching… But that’s not what they are referring to. A good cover is there to catch the attention of the right audience for your book. It needs to convey the story, the atmosphere, the genre in one single image or illustration. Again, it works subliminally in the mind of readers: when walking in a bookshop, or browsing through an e-retailer, our attention span for every cover we see is of just a few milliseconds. Choosing the one we pick up is a decision vastly influenced by our subconscious.

Because design works so much in the subconscious of readers, it tends to be neglected by a majority of self-publishing authors, who are often on a budget. Since starting Reedsy, we have seen a huge interest from independent authors for working with professional editors, less so for working with a designer (especially when it comes to interior design or typesetting).

Self-publishing and the rise of templates

Typesetting is not cheap, especially since today’s technology in this field is not all that up-to-date. After investing in editing, proofreading, ebook formatting and (sometimes) cover design, most independent authors can’t afford to hire a book layout designer to design and typeset the print edition.

Moreover, it is no secret that self-publishing is predominant in genre fiction, where the layout of the books is actually pretty straightforward (no images, tables, graphs, illustrations, etc.). As a result, more and more “template services” have emerged in the past few years, making indie authors’ lives easier when it comes to print and e-book formatting. Some websites sell them (like Joel Friedlander’s Book Design Templates) while others make theirs available for free as part of their publishing services (like Bookbaby or Blurb). Our Reedsy Book Editor, which we released this week, also leverages the efficacy of templates, while providing more customization possibilities.

This DIY tendency and the “templatisation” are arguably a good thing for simple interior design, but the same cannot be said for cover design. No survey has been carried out to firmly back this up, but it is my impression after two years of working with independent authors that professional book design is still being vastly underestimated. Most authors coming to Reedsy for editing either create their own covers themselves using royalty-free images, or purchase pre-made covers (the equivalent of “templates”).

The problem with this is two-fold: first, authors are generally just as good with images as designers are with words. The low standards in DIY book design have given birth to entertaining websites such as Lousy Book Covers or Kindle Cover Disasters.

Then, on top of the quality problem, the automation capabilities of digital publishing and the rise of self-publishing raise the question of the standardisation of book design. Even publishers are more and more wary of taking chances with covers, and want their professionals to stick to strict genre guidelines (look at how many thrillers have fog and pine trees on their cover). This is something I’ve discussed several times with Reedsy designers and they share my impression:

“I think there’s only a small window of time in which you can emulate an idea and still be successful. The rest of the time you’ve got to try something different. It is a risk, and although people have to take risks, they usually don’t want to be the first one. Even publishers will say to me: ‘this book has sold quite a bit and it looks like this, can you do something similar?’”Stewart Williams

So what is my fear? Simply that we are moving towards a time where books within a same genre will pretty much look the same, inside and out.

New formats and opportunities for differentiation

Of course, this is a slightly pessimistic view of the current state of book design in the publishing industry. The popularity of “star typesetters” like Erik Spiekermann proves that millions of people out there are still passionate about layout design and typesetting. The thriving of independent publishers who place a high value on design, like Faber & Faber in the UK, is another sign of this.

Moreover, though digital formats have introduced a form of “standardisation”, they have also opened new doors to authors, publishers and designers. You can adapt your novel into a graphic novel. You can create limited hardback editions of a successful book, with custom typesetting and design. You can create “apps” for children’s books, offering a more immersive narrative experience. There is almost no end of possibilities.

While new formats can be expensive to produce, they offer a unique opportunity for authors and publishers to “go the extra mile” for their readers and differentiate themselves. They also create new distribution and revenue channels: audiobooks, apps, games, etc.

In the end, “design” is there to there to both support the story and make the book stand out. This is just as true now as it was before the emergence of the digital formats. It is taking self-publishing authors a bit of time to realise it – and to admit that crafting stories and crafting covers are two very different skills. The ones who do, however, are way ahead of the competition.

In the end, “design” is there to there to both support the story and make the book stand out. This is just as true now as it was before the emergence of the digital formats. But it is taking self-publishing authors a bit of time to realise it – and to admit that crafting stories and crafting covers are two very different skills. The ones who do, however, are way ahead of the competition.

So if you’re just starting out, and becoming a “professional author” is your goal, I will leave you with three simple design recommendations that will immediately get you much closer to your objective:

  • Hire a cover designer: even if you know what you want on your cover, even if you have sourced the image yourself, hire a cover designer. You don’t have the knowledge of typography, space and arrangement that designers have. And you don’t have the experience.
  • Hire a layout designer: machines cannot replace art: free tools and templates will “do the job”, but they won’t differentiate your print book from thousands of others.
  • Do your research: whether you’re going DIY or working with designers, look at bestselling books in your category. Purchase the print editions, see how they are designed and formatted. Compare their covers and look for recurring themes or elements. Trusting your designer’s instincts always comes first, but knowing what works out there is vital to steer them in the right direction

And again, don’t underestimate the power of good design. Just because you don’t “see” it doesn’t mean it’s not changing the way readers will read your book.

Ricardo Fayet is a co-founder of Reedsy, an online marketplace connecting authors with the best editorial, design, marketing and translation talent. A technology and start-up enthusiast, he likes to imagine how small players will build the future of publishing. As you can see, he and the Reedsy team are quite passionate about book design, which is why they just launched the Reedsy Book Editor. Website | Facebook | Twitter

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