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Silver Spring, MD
United States


Stories To Tell is a full service book publishing company for independent authors. We provide editing, design, publishing, and marketing of fiction and non-fiction. We specialize in sophisticated, unique illustrated book design.

Stories To Tell Books BLOG

Why a Book Designer?

Nan Barnes

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Good advice, and yet that’s exactly what we all do. Appearances matter. You know when you see a well-designed book, as compared to an amateur DIY project, in the same way you see and know the difference between a designer suit and a workman’s overalls. You may never have met me, or any other book designer, but you appreciate our work every time you browse in a bookstore or library.

Photo Courtesy of Albertopg123 under Creative CommWhen you’re writing a book, you think only of the text. You imagine your text in a printed, published book. Yet there’s a step in between a manuscript and publishing. We must transform that Word document into a digital file that a printer will use. (Actually, two files – the interior of the book, and the cover.) Large publishers have an art department to handle this step, but self-publishing authors usually hire a book designer.

Photo Courtesy of albertogp123 under creative CommonsA book designer serves two functions for a self publishing author. Obviously, we design the book. We also bridge the gap between author and printer. If an author needs to select a printer I help them to compare cost and options. After designing the book, I create the account, upload the book to the printer, and place the first book order, sparing the author a lot of unforeseen technical hassles. Can you do this yourself? Great! If you’re inexperienced and/or don’t have the right software, it will be more difficult.

Like a clothing designer, a book designer has specialized tools, knowledge and training. Also like a clothing designer, we work with the best materials. For a book, the materials are text and typefaces, formats and photos, illustrations, shapes and colors. From these raw materials, a good book designer can transform mere blank paper into an interesting, emotionally powerful, visually pleasing work of art.

Graphic design software makes all this possible. The best software, used by most professionals, is the Adobe Creative Suite. Book design requires the use of three of Creative Suite’s programs: Photoshop (for image manipulation) Illustrator (for artwork and cover composition) and, InDesign, the software that the book is composed in, page by page. InDesign is a wonderful tool, making it possible to manipulate text and page layouts, to automatically generate tables and indexes, and so much more.

If I have whetted your appetite to try this wonderful software out for yourself, there are some caveats. Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign each can take years to learn. And there’s the cost: CreativeSuite is $1,899.00 and up. Unless you already own and use the software, it is better (and far more affordable) to hire an experienced designer.

We usually think of the book cover first, but the interior of the book is also designed, so I will focus on this little known subject. You probably have written your book in Microsoft Word, or a similar word-processing program. These programs are great for text, but have very limited options for the appearance of text. Word is terrible for images, too. When you import an image into Word, it compresses it, so the quality is unacceptable for a printing press. (If you talk to a printer who says he will print your book from Word, he’s offering a very low quality book, or he’s going to charge you to redesign it. Ask which.)

Your Word page is an 8.5x11, but what is the layout of the book you’re publishing? 8x10? 6x9? There are many options, all of them different from your Word document. As a book designer, I research your printer’s specifications and set up your page layout. For example, an 8x10 book has an 8x10 trim size, but may be designed with a .125 inch bleed area beyond the page, and then specifications for the internal margins and a gutter for the binding. Printers require all these measurements to be exact. If this seems technical, you’re right! Book design is artful, but it requires a calculator, too.

What happens to your Word manuscript? I cut out all the text and copy it into InDesign. (If you have placed images in Word, send the original high resolution digital files separately.) Then I place images on the page, perhaps with space for captions or a colored background motif. Then the text styling begins, with fonts for the chapter titles, headings and subheadings, fonts for captions and endnotes if you have them. The table of contents, the title page and copyright page are composed next, with some added design elements for a good “first impression”. Finally, any special sections, such as appendixes or an index, will require their unique formatting.

In the end, this book interior, called the bookblock, is formatted according to your printer’s requirements and saved to a PDF file. You can open the PDF in Adobe Reader and see what your book will look like. (Of course, it will look even better on paper – computer screens are fuzzy and their colors are terrible!)

I’ll spare you the details of cover design here, except to say that a cover differs from a book, because its images are more complex and perhaps more important than the words. Covers are designed in layers, often with many superimposed elements that interact with one another. The process of developing a cover is not only technical, but also requires some artistic talent.

Many of my clients have a starting point, a photo or an idea, and leave it to me to build on that idea to develop the cover. I often create a few contrasting mockups, or rough samples. The author can view the cover mockups in Adobe Reader and choose the elements they like.

For the author, this process of working with a book designer seems simple, especially after having worked so hard to create your manuscript. You email off your Word file, choose your book size and printer, and sit back and wait. (If you’ve read the article above, you know what I’m doing in the meantime.) Two PDF’s will show up in your email, and after you have finished admiring your book, you reply to the email “yes, go ahead.” That’s my signal to send it to the printer. In a matter of a week or so (more for offset printing) a package arrives at your door, your masterpiece inside. Voilà! Finis!