< back to full list of articles
How to Work with a Book Designer

or Article Tags


By Deb Vanasse, Reporter, IBPA Independent

Deb Vanasse

To achieve designs that help books get noticed in a crowded marketplace, publishers need to choose a designer well-suited to their project and foster an environment of open communication and collaboration.

Everyone knows the cliché about not judging books by their covers. But, in fact, readers do judge books by their covers—and, more broadly, by all elements of a book’s design.
Successful design doesn’t just happen. To achieve designs that help books get noticed in a crowded marketplace, publishers need to choose designers well-suited to their projects, engage in meaningful dialogue, and sustain relationships that encourage the creative work that draws attention to their books.

Choosing a Designer

Tempting as it may be, book design is not an area for cutting corners. “You want your book designed and published good, fast, and cheap,” says designer Kathi Dunn of Dunn + Associates. “But the bottom line is that when you pay dime-store publishing prices, you need to expect dime-store quality books. For a winning product, you will need strong ideas, innovative design, and excellent technical execution.”

Publishers who invest in professional design services may in fact be money ahead, notes Dunn, whose firm has designed several books that have earned IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards™. “A veteran cover designer will ensure quality results and a cost-effective process through their design experience,” she explains.

The process involves a good deal of back-and-forth, so it’s wise to choose a designer with whom you can build a relationship. Seek referrals from other publishers, printers, and publishing organizations such as IBPA, suggests Shannon Bodie, a designer with Bookwise Design. Publishers should then review the online portfolios of prospective designers as well as their pricing schedules, she adds.

The selection process should also involve preliminary discussions with the designer, Dunn advises. “Talk, listen, ask questions, get a feel for the relationship you’ll share,” she says.
Having earned first place in the 2017 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards™ for Interior Design with Three or More Colors for Periwinkle’s Journey, publisher Chris Capen of Southwestern Publishing Group affirms the importance of choosing a designer who will work well with the production team. Having worked for 15 years with designer Vicky Shea, he knew her work was good, but he also knew she would work well with the book’s illustrator.

Chris Capen, publisher South Western Publishing Group, shows off Periwinkle’s Journey at IBPA’s 29th annual Benjamin Franklin Awards

“We did not want a clash of design talent or egos,” Capen explains. “Fortunately, it worked out well.”

Author Julie Benezet’s first book, The Journey of Not Knowing, took top honors in the 2017 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards™ category for Cover Design Small Format Non-fiction. In choosing a designer for the project, Benezet and her team considered both her own preferences as well as the book’s cross-genre appeal.

“Given my propensity toward modern, clean design and the fact that my book is a business book with a large fiction component, we looked for designers with a diverse portfolio, compelling and edgy designs, and experience in both fiction and nonfiction,” she explains. Ultimately, Benezet and her team settled on theBookDesigners, a firm recommended by a colleague of the book’s editor.

Larger publishers have traditionally kept authors out of the design process, but with the growing influence of independent publishers, that practice is changing, notes Dunn. Such was the case when hybrid publisher SparkPress produced Kalifus Rising, winner of the 2017 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards™ for cover design in the Children’s/Young Adult category.

Benjamin Franklin Award- Winning Kalifus Rising, written by Alane Adams, illustrated by Jonathan Stroh and published by SparkPress.

To illustrate the cover, author Alane Adams brought in Jonathan Stroh, who had fashioned artwork for a mobile game app based on the series that includes Kalifus Rising. Publisher Brooke Warner then assigned an in-house designer to assist with layout and specs for the book.

Getting Started

After a designer is selected, the design process begins with an exchange of information between publisher and designer regarding the book, the schedule, and the budget. In many cases, this exchange is facilitated by a design brief—a series of questions posed by the designer and answered by the publisher. (See design brief here.)

“The publisher can help steer the project in the right direction if they can clearly articulate their vision, goals, and audience,” Dunn says. “If the publisher doesn’t provide a design brief or any of that information, the designer has to make assumptions.”

For Periwinkle’s Journey, the initial exchange of information facilitated the effective work of the project team. “The creative brief focused on the most important aspects of the story and how the illustrator’s very vibrant style could best coexist with the manuscript,” Capen says.
In initial discussions between Benezet and her designers, style and tone were the focus. “We told [the designers] that we wanted a design that would intrigue by providing edge, stretch the imagination, and have an elegance that would appeal to the business community,” Benezet says. “As the book also contains a mystery, we wanted the design to convey an element of a problem to solve.”

At the outset, budget discussions are especially important to every project. “When designers know a budget from the start, they can support publishers by finding ways to achieve high-quality results that match their target budget,” Bodie says.

Publishers on a tight budget might take on a portion of the work themselves, she notes. “The time to research the right source art and design competition is important to receiving a successful design, but that work doesn’t necessarily need to be done by the designer themselves,” she explains. For instance, publishers might do their own image and market research.

A design budget should consider the scope of the project as well as the adjustments that might be required as the design process unfolds, Bodie says. Contingencies such as design variations, book title changes, rewrites to the copy, fees for changes at press, and the extent of the designer’s involvement with the printer are among the items she suggests that publisher and designer discuss from the start.

Of course, not every contingency can be anticipated in advance. “Being a designer in this business is like delivering babies,” Dunn says. “We are constantly monitoring and planning for a birth date, but we are at the mercy of things that are often out of our control. Staying in touch and conferring with a positive, problem-solving mindset helps to manage these adjustments more comfortably.”

Along the Way

Based on the initial exchange of information, designers translate concepts into proofs. Bodie opts for a full front-cover design as opposed to a mockup. “If a design is too rough, it can be difficult to envision how the finished design will look,” she explains.
Adjustments follow—often in the form of multiple proofs with color, font, or image variations. After the front cover is decided, it’s on to the full cover and the interior style layout.

Throughout the process, open and honest communication is crucial, says Dunn. “For me, it’s all about relationships—respectful, long-term, mutually beneficial ones—between designer and publisher, between designer and author, and between designer and (in theory) the prospective target audience,” she explains.

Per Benezet’s design contract, the publishing team provided feedback via e-mail on the 10 initial designs they received. A follow-up phone call helped to clarify the direction of the project. “It was clear the designers had read the material we sent and understood what the book was trying to accomplish,” she says. “They also provided us with great insights on what they thought the cover needed to convey for its target market, given its hybrid nature of being both a business book and a work of fiction to support its business ideas.”

To get feedback on the proposed designs for Periwinkle’s Journey, Capen went first to his production team. “We also shared initial layouts with some of our key customers to get their feedback,” he says. “Many small pieces of feedback played a part.”

During the back-and-forth process, Bodie warns publishers to be mindful of budget. “When requesting any changes, be sure you know ahead of time if there will be any additional fees for the adjustments,” she explains. “You want to avoid any billing surprises later on.”

Meeting of the Minds

Book design is a collaborative process that works best when publishers and designers respect their mutual areas of expertise. As Capen points out, a publisher’s role is not to create the design but to communicate effectively what the design should achieve and whether a proposed design meets that goal.

Julie Benezet’s The Journey of Not Knowing. Published by Morton Hill Press.

Benezet concurs. “During the work on The Journey of Not Knowing, there were several tweaks along the way,” she explains. “The designers went along with most of them. When they overrode us on a few calls, we were fine with it, as we knew they had listened, and we respected their judgment.”

On the other hand, publishers can be too reticent in expressing their thoughts, Bodie says. “They hold themselves back during proof reviews, thinking a designer knows better than they do or may take offense at the critique,” she explains. “However, the publisher and the author have key knowledge about a book’s subject, target market, and competition. If something in a design feels off to a publisher or author, I encourage them to share it and ask for their designer’s feedback on [potential] adjustments.”

If conflicts arise, it’s often because the process of heavy research, deep conversation, and establishing a clear vision has been rushed or skipped entirely, notes Dunn. Problems can also arise when team members aren’t in agreement on the vision from the start, she adds.

“A good designer will take the time to ask questions—lots of questions,” Dunn says. “A good publisher appreciates that these critical questions are about visual cues that most people don’t see, but that a designer translates into color palette, font, composition—all consistent with the book’s vision.”

The Creative Edge

Publishers and designers embrace a common goal: creating a design that draws attention while staying true to the book. Communication, teamwork, and mutual respect empower designers to achieve these results.

Brooke Warner

“I appreciate a designer who’s both assertive and flexible, and who will communicate if a design tweak is perhaps not what they feel is best for the project, but who will also make changes when the publisher insists and whose ownership of the project doesn’t end up creating tension in the relationship,” Warner says.

Bodie agrees that design is a team effort enhanced by good communication. “I welcome critiques and open channels for feedback, and believe that helps assure the results are the best possible,” she says. “Keeping the ego in check during a design is key to being a good designer.”

At the same time, Dunn notes, it’s important for publishers to extend creative freedom to their designers. “Our goal isn’t to create something trendy, but to create something that effectively communicates the author’s message and vision in a way that is consistent and coherent,” she says. “Give the designer space to do that and you might be surprised what happens.”
Like any creative process, book design also takes time. “It isn’t plugging into templates or spinning the font-of-the-day wheel, but a process of questioning the client, doing research of competing titles, and thinking and creating concepts that convey ideas,” Dunn says. “Be crystal clear about timelines with the designer to avoid the stress of unrealistic deadlines that kill creative potential.”

Finally, Capen urges publishers not to limit their thinking to their own vision for the book. Approach the process with mutual honesty and appreciation, Benezet adds, and you’ll be well on the way to design success.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the author co-op Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse is the author of 17 books. Among her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest and What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion as well as Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold.





Sample Creative Brief Format

Book Cover for: Title of Your Book

About the book:

Provide the following information to help your designer understand what the book is about and what the cover needs to convey:

  • Synopsis
  • Genre
  • Tone of the book (serious, funny, romantic, etc.)
  • Target audience (gender, age group, other defining characteristics)
  • Examples of covers that you like in your category

Part I: Cover Image

  • What images or symbols relate to your story (e.g., The Eiffel Tower, a wolf pack, a woman with empty arms, etc.)?
  • Do you prefer a photograph/illustration or special type treatment?
  • Should the designer use a stock image? Or will a photographer be hired to capture a custom image?
  • Provide examples of images that are similar to what you are looking for.

Part II: Cover Design

This is the place to provide all of your specific design requirements. The printing service you choose should be able to provide you with a template that shows measurements for trim size, safe zone, spine folds, bleed, barcode placement, etc. They should also give you a list of file requirements that your designer can follow to ensure optimal printing.

Front Cover – Must include:

  • The cover image
  • The title: provide title (specify where the title should be placed: top, bottom, or center)
  • Subtitle: provide subtitle (indicate where the subtitle should appear)
  • Author’s name: provide author’s name (specify where it should appear)

Spine – Must include:

  • The title: provide title
  • Author’s name: provide author’s name
  • Publisher’s logo: send the publishing company’s logo as a separate file; be sure to ask your designer what type of file and resolution is needed.

Back Cover – Must include:

  • Genre (generally placed in the upper left corner): provide genre
  • Text (near top): Does your book feature a reader’s club guide or bonus material? If so, be sure to call it out.
  • Hook (above the synopsis): Is there a question or statement that sets up your book and captures readers’ interest? If so, include it in a prominent font size above your synopsis.
  • Synopsis: provide your book’s synopsis (this will generally take up most of space on the back cover).
  • Author photo: provide your designer with a high resolution headshot (specify where you want the photo to appear on the back cover).
  • Author bio: provide your bio; don’t forget to include your web address.
  • Barcode: be sure your designer leaves space for the barcode, which is generally a 2″ by 1.2″ white box in the lower right-hand corner of the book’s back cover.

While you may not have answers to all of these questions, it’s important that you verbalize as much of your vision as possible, so your designer has something to work with and you have a better chance of ending up with a book cover you love.

*This template was recreated with permission from author Erika Liodice.

Connect With Us

1020 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Suite 204 Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
P: 310-546-1818 F: 310-546-3939 E: info@IBPA-online.org
© Independent Book Publishers Association