Your role in deciding the cover/page design

20 January 2010

Who knows most about your book? You do. Who decides what it should look like? Someone else. There’s a bit of a disconnect here, I feel.

Publisher territory

Publishers do not expect authors to design their own books, and in fact reserve the right to determine a book’s final appearance. After all, they are the professionals. If you look at your author contract, chances are that you will see a clause something like this one from the standard NIAS author contract:

The Publisher shall have complete control of the production and publication of the Work. Among aspects at the Publisher’s discretion are: the paper, printing, binding, cover (or jacket) and embellishments …

However, being the professionals doesn’t mean that the design of your book is best left to your publisher’s editors, designers, etc. alone. No, you too should be involved, right from the beginning.

Why? I can think of two reasons right off.

  1. With your inside knowledge of your book and its subject, you have a better feeling for what might ‘click’ with your readership and what might be appropriate (even allowed) as discussed in my previous post.
  2. Publishers may be the professionals but they don’t necessarily do a good job if left to themselves. This may be because of the attitude problem mentioned earlier (that the jacket/cover is unimportant) but more important perhaps is the time pressure that book designers work under; the temptation to apply ‘the standard treatment’ to your book will be strong as a consequence.

If you want to achieve a better result, something that brings to life your vision for the book, then it is up to you to work for this – even get a little pushy if need be.

But how much say do you have in the final result? Each publisher is different; some may be flexible in one area but will not budge a millimeter in another. Even so, chances are that your publisher will seize upon any good ideas that you have to make your book stand out in the crowd, shine among its competitors – and sell more copies.

Adding an author perspective to the cover

Chances are that your publisher will welcome suggestions from you for illustrations for your cover, particularly if you have copyright-free material. But your illustrations must be suitable. Keep in mind, for instance, that:

  • The image that you supply should be of a sufficiently high resolution (anything less than one megabyte in size is a waste of time; ideally, the file size should be larger).
  • It should go without saying perhaps but your illustration should be composed nicely, aesthetically pleasing and generally of a good quality (nothing that needs a lot of repair work, for instance).
  • There should be no copyright or other ownership issues with the image. If it needs the permission of someone else for its use, then it is your job to get that permission and pass on to your editor any associated requirements (e.g. that an attribution is given using a specific wording).
  • If the image has to be paid for, then that too is your responsibility (though you can of course raise the issue of compensation with your publisher). It is more than likely that an author is charged less for an image than a publisher.
  • The image must leave enough room for the other cover elements (title, subtitle, author name, etc.) mentioned in my previous post.
  • However, if the illustration is to cover the entire front cover, then it cannot be so ‘busy’ that it fights with the other cover elements. Having a uniform background (like sea or sky) in a suitable part of your image can be useful here.

Inspiration need not come from the world of your research only. Other books can also inspire. What works best for you as a reader? What attracts you aesthetically? Develop a sense of what works and what does not. If you can do this, then you will be able to communicate more knowledgeably and on more equal terms with your publisher on the book design.

However, it is important that you bring any design suggestions to your editor at an early stage. Otherwise, with some publishers, you may not be asked your preference about the cover design but simply be presented with a fait accompli for proofing (after all, you are ‘only the author’). At that point, the design budget will have been spent and any protestations from you are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Adding your perspective on the page design

Getting involved in the cover design is one thing, having a say on the layout of the inside pages is quite another.

Theoretically, you could contribute to the page design brief. Over the years I have had authors taking an active (sometimes too active) interest in the entire book design, but these authors have been few and far between; in practice, most authors show little interest in the page design.

However, perhaps you might like to warm your interest just a little more right now because our thread of posts on design is finished; now we are moving onto the typesetting of your book (first up, what exactly is typesetting, followed by a whole lot of ‘issues’ posts demonstrating why you should care).

(Post #7 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

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Making the cover design

19 January 2010

The soul of a book should ideally be seen (or sensed) in its cover. Illuminating the soul is not a simple or easy thing to do. As such, creating the cover is not something done in a moment, even if the final design may result from a brief spark of creativity.

Design brief

As with the page design, the first step towards designing a cover may be to prepare a design brief. This depends on how formalized the design process is. At NIAS Press, for instance, cover ideas are discussed and tried out in consultation with different Press staff and (especially) the author. Because it is a small press at which many publishing functions are undertaken in-house, both initiating and producing the cover is done by one person, and he knows what is required. The design process, then, is quite informal and any design brief largely internalized; any extra considerations are simply handled informally.

At larger (or richer) presses, the design process is likely to be more formalized. Usually a professional designer will produce the cover but it is the production editor (ideally with the author’s input) who will provide a design brief to sketch out ideas and elements to be included in the design.

Cover elements

As I intimated above, some of the elements of the design brief are given. As can be seen in the the following overview, only a few of the items normally found on a cover or jacket are mandatory. On the front cover:

  • Book title, subtitle (if any) and name of author/editor(s)
  • Illustration (optional)
  • Series identification (optional)

On the spine:

  • Author/editor name(s) and book title
  • Publisher’s logo (normal)
  • Series logo/identifying design (optional)

On the back cover:

  • Series identification (optional)
  • Author/editor name(s) and book title (optional)
  • Book description/blurb, if possible with endorsement(s) (normal)
  • Publisher’s logo and/or other identification (normal)
  • Bar code

On the jacket flaps (all items optional):

  • Author details
  • Short blurb
  • Publisher details
  • Place printed

Design considerations

Over and above the inclusion of cover elements, decisions need to be made on some other issues, among them the following.

  • What design is appropriate? Readership matters. Some time ago, we published a book about feisty Muslim women in a certain Asian country. Though Asian in its subject, the book had a very nice, subdued, Nordic-looking cover. This ‘Nordic’ cover worked fine in Europe and the States but feedback I received from the Asian country was that there would have been far greater local interest in the book if its cover had been equally feisty, tinged with local flavours.
  • What is permitted? Taste and sensibilities can affect what is appropriate (as above) but legal issues can also impinge upon the cover design. For instance, I have heard that the face of Elvis Presley has been trademarked. And, closer to home, we are still scratching our heads about the best cover for a new study of democracy and the monarchy in Thailand (a highly sensitive subject as some of you will know). A collage of images tracing the life of the current Thai king was mooted but quickly dismissed; no picture of the king may be reproduced without royal approval. At the moment we are playing with a design using the head of a Thai elephant as a metaphor for the monarchy but not everyone is happy with this idea. (You can see this cover design at the above link.)
  • Full colour or not? Technically, there is no reason today to restrict the use of colour on your book cover. A decade ago, it was far cheaper to print two-colour covers but that is not the situation today with modern printing presses. The two-colour mentality still seems to persist with certain publishers today but I may be wrong here. It may be instead that branding reasons are behind the restriction on the range of colours used; that is a different matter.
  • And what colour? Some factors may limit what colours can be chosen, e.g. a series template or physical restrictions (for example, large areas of solid black on a cover is not favoured in Asia where the sweaty hands of browsing customers can quickly ruin the appearance of a book before it has even been sold). On the other hand, cultural considerations may encourage the use of certain colours (or colour ‘moods’) over others, as should have been the case with the above-mentioned book about feisty Muslim women.
  • Illustration or not? A good illustration can transform a cover and dramatically increase the appeal of a book; a bad one can cause the book to look amateurish and unappealing. It is amazing how awful the covers of some publishers are.
  • Cover text. It is not enough to produce text for the front and back cover, spine and (for jackets) the inside flaps. All of these text blocks need to be designed, shaped to fit the location.

Bringing it altogether

Good design is more than a matter of taste. Even so, it is amazing how different people’s tastes and perceptions are (as so clearly illustrated for me recently in the cover design for our above-mentioned book on the Thai monarchy), and how these can impact on a design – for better and for worse.

As such, there is likely to be a fair amount of consultation (and argument) over the design brief and any cover sketches. But at a certain point, however, eventually a draft cover (or several alternatives) will be created and passed round for comment.

I suspect it is extremely rare for a cover draft to be accepted as is. After all, covers are like bicycle sheds: something ordinary and about which everyone can safely express an opinion. Eventually, however, a decision will be made about the cover though this may be (as in the case of our Thai monarchy book) to go with a temporary cover until something better can be agreed on.

If it is only at this point that you, the author, become involved in the cover design, then you’ve got problems. But more about that in my next post.

(Post #6 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Preparing the page design

14 January 2010

With finalization of the editorial process, your text is almost ready for typesetting. Often, however, a design brief is first drawn up, either by your production editor or by the typesetter, specifying how the book should be typeset. As noted in my previous post, the central concern here is ‘fit’: the finished book should end up with the number of pages it is supposed to have.

I shall not get into the specifics of copy-fitting and casting off here as I’ve written about these (and how to calculate book length) earlier. Suffice to say that the target number of words per page will play a decisive role in the page design.

Strangely enough, there is often no co-ordination between the design of the cover and the inside pages; the former lies largely in the world of the marketing department, the latter in that of production. For this reason, the cover designer and book (page) designer are usually different people.

This may make sense from the publisher’s perspective but it does signal a strange failure to take the reader into consideration. As I have written earlier, content may be king but design is the queen whose appearance attracts the initial attention and prompts the curious reader to pick up the book. Moreover, if the discord between the appearance of the cover and inner pages is strong enough, this will affect the reader’s receptiveness to the author’s argument (even if only subconsciously).

In short, aesthetics matters also.

Of course, some attention will (or should) be paid to aesthetics but just as important is enhancing the presentation and accessibility of the text. Why? Because the success of a book demands that consideration be given to:

  • identity (if part of a series, a standard design may apply)
  • readership
  • purpose
  • suitability
  • credibility
  • readability, and
  • attractiveness

Some of the elements that the design brief thus specifies are the:

  • trim size (physical dimensions) of the book
  • layout of elements (not least the appearance of chapter starts, the composition of double-page spreads, and the placement of notes)
  • fonts/typefaces and sizes for body text, headings, captions, notes, etc.
  • treatment and placement of illustrations, and
  • use of colour, if any (and, if so, its placement)

At this late stage, it is not unknown for the design brief to highlight problems in the text that have escaped notice throughout the earlier evaluation and editorial phases (the need for a series of explanatory illustrations in a ‘how-to’ book, for instance).

Just how the page design is translated into reality depends very much on who has prepared the brief and how much interest the publisher’s production department has in creation of a unique ‘personality’ for the book (indeed, because of the time pressures book designers work under, the temptation to apply ‘the standard treatment’ to your book will be strong).

Whichever the approach, it is not unusual for a single chapter to be typeset according to the proposed page design, then feedback then requested from the different interested parties (including, with luck, the author). Eventually a design is agreed and typesetting of the book can proceed.

(Post #4 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


After the editing

31 December 2009

Congratulations! You and your manuscript seem to have survived the editing process. Do not think, however, that now there is a moment to relax. This is highly unlikely.

All the while that you and your manuscript have been roiling through the intestines of editorial, other parts of the press have been at work on your behalf, not least marketing people getting your book announced. However, also busy is an area of the production department that you haven’t encountered before where more creative types of people may be found. It is, then, now time to look at the work of the book/cover designer and typesetter (though never forget that the role of the production editor remains crucial).

Over the next few posts, I shall explore this fascinating corner of book production (well, I think it is fascinating), looking at:

These posts will then culminate in a discussion on proofs and proofing, the next section in this series of posts.

(Post #1 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)