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Look Like a Pro – A collection of viewpoints on the critical yet challenging topic of book design.

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by Alexa Schlosser, IBPA Independent managing editor

Meet the Panelists

In terms of design—cover, layout, and other design features—what distinguishes amateur from professional?

Matthew Karanian (MK): Simplicity of design is important. There must be a unified design concept without clutter.

Richard Rieman (RR): Professional designers are artists who can create a few different cover versions from the book’s outline. They should all be totally different concepts, not just different colors of a template. Amateurs can give you one note; professionals can create completely different songs.

Paul Williams (PW): There are many approaches to book cover layout/design; there is no single approach. Some things that distinguish amateur from professional design are original artwork created or modified for the cover, the use of stylized text for the title versus standard typeface, attention to detail in layout and composition, and attention paid to provide enough white space.

Amanda Broder (AB): It’s hard to quantify, but I think weird font choices and images that don’t match the subject matter can look amateurish.

Carla King (CK): Adherence to genre standards, visibility in thumbnail sizes, publishing house name and logo, and whether the price is embedded in the barcode.

Lawrence Knorr (LK): You know it when you see it! As a publisher, it is very important we set high standards for our products. Though we’re a small press, you wouldn’t know it.

Jeremy Soldevilla (JS): Experience; knowledge of tried-and-true design practices and elements that come from training and experience; and dynamic covers that embody the spirit and sense of the material inside.

What resources do you draw on to procure or create book covers and other design features?

MK: The cover must reveal what is on the inside and entice the reader. We do this by using photography.

RR: I love to meet designers face-to-face so I can get a sense of their artistry. The cover designer I used plays in a rock band. I look for a variety of graphic art experience or other outlets for their inspiration.

AB: Our illustrators create the cover images and, sometimes, the whole design. We look to what other children’s books are doing for their covers. For example, right now it’s popular to feature a character on the cover.

RT: First and foremost: author input. I wrote the book and I have the vision for what the cover design should look like. I pass [the book] off with a detailed write-up to my graphic artist who then does concept mock-ups, and then I sit down with my publicist, editor, and beta readers to work through the artwork until we are in agreement on a cover.

LK: My wife and I are both photographers and graphic artists. But we also have cover designers and book designers on staff to bring in experience from other (larger) publishers.

JS: I have learned to only use experienced professional cover designers. I stick with the two I have worked with so I know what to expect.

How have you overcome problems with book covers and design?

MK: We overcome this challenge by seeking an image that is not a cliché. The image must depict an uncommon scene—a scene that the reader will not instantly recognize. Then we seek an image that is, nevertheless, identifiable. With our latest book, Historic Armenia After 100 Years, we selected an image of a building that looked like an ancient Armenian church but was not widely recognizable. This created intrigue and signaled to the reader that the book’s contents would be fresh and not a tired rehash of tourist-worn sites. Finally, the image must be beautiful. The image must be one that the reader would love to display at home. This requirement eliminated images that are edgy, provocative, or controversial. This also removes portraits from consideration. We produce several mock-ups, and we invite comments and criticism from advisors outside of the publishing industry.

RR: The real design challenge for me was e-book conversion. I have seen too many do-it-yourself messes from designers who think they can just use a software program. Design talent and proofing are critically important for a good e-book layout.

CK: It’s a difficult job, especially for indie authors. It’s all in connecting with the right designer and having an ongoing conversation. It’s good to choose one person to funnel feedback to the designer. I’ve found that the author is usually the worst person to direct a cover. I hope more indie authors just let the designer do their thing—assuming you’ve found a talented, competent designer who knows the genre and the research in the first place.

RT: First, every book cover is diligently researched to make sure that it best reflects the book’s content both for fiction and nonfiction titles. For my 30-novel, Los Angeles-based series, it is a branded series with a trademark protected logo. This means that while each cover in the series must have the TM logo on the cover, the background that it overlays must be unique so that the logo doesn’t distract the reader. One of the benefits of a logo and branded series is that a reader can identify a title in a matter of seconds from across a bookstore or online due to the trademarked logo.

LK: We have an open mind to new designs, while also being mindful of what seems to be working in a category with a specific target market. In other words, don’t be afraid to be creative.

Emilio Corsetti III (EC): I consider opinions from book professionals, friends and family, and informal polls on my website.

JS: I always ask for a .psd file of the cover, so if there is any last-minute tweaking, I can do it myself rather than having to go back to the designer.

In the overall success of a book, how important is design? Which design features matter most?

MK: When the consumer is deciding whether or not to buy, design may be more important than the text. The consumer is subconsciously informed about the quality of the text by the appearance of the book, so the design is of critical importance. Consumers judge the book by its cover and by its interior design. For the book to grow legs and enjoy sustained sales, favorable reviews and word of mouth are important. For this, the text must be great. But we don’t reach this stage without first having a beautifully designed book.

RR: The importance of the curb appeal of a great cover cannot be overstated. An amateur cover screams “Don’t bother with this book!”

PW: Design gives an immediate impression on the quality of a book. You can immediately tell from a distance if a book is self-published or put out by a small publisher. Print quality is another important feature. Most print-on-demand books look like print-on-demand books.

AB: Design is very important. I believe everyone judges a book by its cover. Our bestseller is the book that we get the most compliments for the cover. It’s an eye-catching cover that showcases the characters from the story.

CK: Cover design and editing are of equal importance to the success of a book, and they are the most expensive budget items. Genre compatibility matters most, but there are also small things like the publishing house logo, name, and matching half-title and title page art for the interior to complete the package. Our cover designer provides those artistic elements to the interior book designer to create a professionally produced indie author title.

RT: Cover, back, and flap matter are paramount; if you can’t attract someone to pick up your book by just looking at the cover, all is lost. The back matter and flap matter must be compelling and provocative in order to get the potential reader to open your book and look inside. Then the layout of the title must be neat, crisp, and inviting with great fonts, decorative chapter headers, and artwork that compels a reader to flip through the pages. Of course, it goes without saying, the writing must be clean, crisp, and professionally edited in order to draw a reader in, make a sale, and gain a fan.

LK: Metadata about the content is probably most important for discovery these days. Once discovered, the cover then becomes the next hurdle—it either excites or repels. You need a neutral cover design if you have strong content. I’ve put books down that looked self-published, with poor formatting. They are harder to read and reflect poorly on the author and publisher.

EC: Next to content, the interior design and cover design are extremely important. The cover should convey a sense of what the story is about. As far as design features, the cover should look good in all sizes and attract the attention of potential readers based on nothing but the title and cover art. I’m not a fan of book covers that have a title over a white background.

JS: Design is critical. Readers and retailers judge a book by its cover. They will determine whether the book is self-published, whether or not the content is of interest to them, and get a general idea of what the book is about. It should whet their interest and be dynamic—not just be pretty. The cover should tell a story itself and make the reader want to know more.

What difficulties have you encountered in procuring or creating top-notch covers and designs?

MK: The greatest challenge has been selecting one photograph that can serve as a stand-in for all that the book is about.

AB: Sometimes you try to be different and it backfires so the book doesn’t sell. One book we particularly like isn’t selling well and we think it’s the design. The colors are not well-matched and the layout is bland. The design could have been stronger, and the sales show that.

CK: It’s difficult to find designers who know every genre. There are many romance book cover designers, so that’s easy, but getting a designer who knows political satire, for example, is difficult. It’s important to find a designer who is willing to research competing titles and make their design fit.

RT: I write a novel every six to eight weeks, so I average to be ahead of everyone by at least three to four novels in my series. This poses challenges for both my editor and my graphic artist; at this moment, I am writing book 18 in my 30-novel series, yet my artists, designer, and editor are working on books 14 and 15, so my write-ups are important. It can also be difficult because I have used the same graphic artists for four years, and he has taken on a full-time job while working for me on the side—this has slowed down the progress.

LK: We publish a variety of categories and each seems to have its own expected look and feel. These category norms evolve, sometimes shifting dramatically when a new title comes out in the genre. It’s key not to fall in love too much with a cover that might need to be updated in a few years.

JS: I haven’t had any problem getting top-notch designers because I have asked for referrals from colleagues whose opinions I trust, then I reviewed the recommended designer’s portfolio.

Alexa Schlosser is the managing editor of IBPA Independent magazine. For the past five years, she has worked with various trade and not-for-profit organizations, developing content for both print and digital publications.

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