How Much Attention Should You Pay to Book Design? A Q&A With Joel Friedlander

Joel Friedlander

I’m very grateful to Joel Friedlander (@JFBookman), at The Book Designer, for taking time to answer a few questions about book design, especially as it relates to self-publishing.

I’m a firm believer in the power of design. I think it affects purchasing not just in obvious ways, but also on a subconscious level. So it often frustrates me when independent authors do their own design work to keep costs low. But I also understand the need to limit financial risk. Let’s say we have to make a compromise. What do you think an author might be able to accomplish reasonably well on her own (that has least potential to adversely affect sales), and what’s the No. 1 thing an author should hire a designer for (because of its potential to increase sales)?

Great question, Jane. Lots of authors want to “own” the process of creating their books, want to have a say in the overall look and feel of the book. After all, what good is having these great bookmaking tools if we don’t use them?

For people who write fiction, memoir, or narrative nonfiction, this question is easier to answer. Creating book interiors for these books is not as demanding, and the result won’t rely quite as much on the typographic sophistication of the designer.

Outside the typographic part of the design, it’s critically important for authors to construct their books properly. There are conventions that are hundreds of years old in book design, and expectations readers bring to books that must be recognized and respected.

So outside what font she uses for the text of her novel, your author will want to make sure all the other details of bookmaking, like the treatment of other page elements like running heads, page numbers, display pages like chapter openings, and so on, are treated properly.

Clearly, the one area where your author should look for professional help is in cover design. This is a specialized type of graphic design that demands good type treatment, the proper font usage, and an understanding of how browsers interact with the words and pictorial content on most book covers.

Because your cover is so important in positioning your book and attracting interest, it really pays to hire a pro.

What are the most common mistakes you see authors make when they design their own book interiors?

Here are some of the mistakes I see most often in self-published books:

  • Not using full justification for their text, so that both the right and left margin square up and create a rectangle on the page
  • Not hyphenating the text, resulting in gaps and spaces on the page
  • Putting the odd-numbered pages on the left, when they should always be on the right
  • Leaving running heads on display pages like part or chapter openers
  • Margins that are either too small to allow the reader to easily hold the book, or that don’t take the printing and binding of the book into account
  • Publishing a book with no copyright page

How can an author find a good interior designer who’s right for their book? How do you properly evaluate one?

Oddly enough, it can be a lot easier to find cover designers than it is to find interior designers. Part of the reason is that the cover designer only has to know how to create an effective cover. The interior designer needs to know all the rules of bookmaking, including how to present all the different kinds of information found within a book.

This is even more true for heavily formatted nonfiction books, because of the typographic and design skills needed to properly organize the hierarchy of information.

One of the best ways to find designers is by referrals from other authors. If you know someone who has published a book like yours, ask them who designed it. Local publishing groups can also be a great place to find designers and talk to authors who have worked with them.

Trade publications like the IBPA Independent are also good sources since it’s one of the few places book designers advertise their services.

We’re also seeing a growing category of websites that are sprouting up to help authors put together a “publishing team” by pairing them with service providers like book designers, but I think it’s a little too early to tell how these services are going to pan out.

And if you’re the author of one of those heavily formatted books we were talking about a minute ago, make sure the designers you’re querying have produced books like yours before. Ask to see samples or a portfolio of similar books.

When hiring a designer, how much should an author expect to spend for a typical trade print paperback novel (cover and interior)?

For novels and other lightly formatted books, you can expect to pay between $200 and $1,500 for interior design. At the low end you’re likely to get a “template” design. At the higher end, expect to receive several custom designs prepared expressly for your book. You’ll also want the designer to take responsibility for producing the reproduction files for your printer, and make sure there’s an allowance for “author’s alterations,” because I’ve never seen a book yet that went all the way from manuscript to press without at least some changes being made.

Make sure you have a signed agreement with the designer, and that your agreement states explicitly that you will own the copyright to all the work they produce, and that you’ll be able to get the original application files the designer created when the project is complete.

For cover designs, expect to pay between $200 and $3,500. This is a very large range, but it’s real. For many authors, just getting a pro to do their cover will help their book stand out. But there are also self-publishers with bigger ambitions, who want to mount a national campaign, attract real media attention, and perhaps establish a franchise. For these authors, investing in a top-quality cover designer can yield real benefits, but this has to be approached as a business decision, and demands that you go into publishing with a realistic marketing plan.

Should an author ever use design contest sites (e.g.,

As you know, I run an e-book cover design competition on my blog every month, and I’ve been getting submissions from authors who have gone that route. Some of these covers are quite good, others not so much.

I don’t see a reason not to use these sites, but make sure you understand exactly what you’re getting before you sign up. And keep in mind that you should demand the same contract and materials requirements we talked about just above, because they still apply.

Do you think there should be a different cover design for print vs. electronic editions? What special considerations come into play for e-book covers?

Aha, one of my favorite topics! I started the ebook cover design competition to see what designers were doing with this new form, and to try to encourage them to look at the ebook cover as a separate opportunity to use it to their advantage.

From what I’ve seen, designers haven’t done much with this challenge. The requirements for ebooks are similar—but not the same—as the requirements for print books. All too often, what we see, particularly from larger publishers, is the print book cover reduced in size and used for the ebook.

This makes no sense. Print book covers use texture, finish, testimonials, subtle color palettes and other devices that simply don’t translate to the tiny graphic images you see on e-retailers’ sites.

And why should an ebook cover look like a print book cover anyway? The print book cover actually covers a book. An ebook cover could be more like digital music album covers, blog sidebar ads, or any other type of online product “packaging” or advertising.

What I’m really hoping to see is more designers exploring different ways to represent ebooks, and not slavishly follow the print book model. As long as the branding is recognizably the same—assuming you are producing both versions—then why not?

If an author wanted to educate themselves on what constitutes good book design, aside from reading your blog, what resources would you recommend?

Two other bloggers who write about interior design are Dave Bricker and David Bergsland at The Skilled Workman.

There are classic books on book design for people who really want to dive into this subject. Probably the most appropriate one for self-publishers is Pete Masterson’s Book Design & Production.

Also, pay attention to the books you read. Book design is design with type, so the more you know about typography the better your designs are likely to be.

There are lots of authors who are creating books in Microsoft Word. Although I tried for a long time to convince authors that Word was not intended for books and wouldn’t produce a truly “professional-looking” book, I’ve recently changed course.

To help writers who want to do their own book interiors, I’m now offering templates that authors can buy that will solve a lot of the problems we’ve been talking about in this article. The template is a pre-formatted container. You pour your text into the file, apply the styles that come with the template, and you’re done.

What this means is that you can be sure you avoid a lot of the mistakes that new self-publishers make. Your book will be sized properly, have the right fonts, correct page numbers and section breaks, and will be industry standard.

About Joel Friedlander: Joel (@JFBookman) is an award-winning book designer, a blogger, and the author of A Self-Publisher’s Companion: Expert Advice for Authors Who Want to Publish. He’s been launching the careers of self-publishers since 1994 and runs a popular blog at, covering book design, book marketing, and the future of the book. Joel is also the founder of the online training course, The Self-Publishing Roadmap.

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Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
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  2. Great, informative post! I’m not sure I agree that the eBook and print book covers should be different for a novel. Of course, they CAN be, but should they be entirely different? Maybe I’m just a sucker for consistency, but other than varying the cover for the demands of whatever format it’s being showcased in, online or in-store — making adjustments for typeface, margins, etc. — I like having both versions similar.

  3. Always great content from Jane, and Joel always teaches me something. In re: Ebook covers: agree, too often they are shrunken, illegible facsimiles of the physical cover.Love the idea of breaking out of that mould, as Joel suggests, but early adopters take the risk their new breed of cover won’t match reader expectations (Joel points to this re another point) and trigger a click through/buy. Especially in genre titles. Any thoughts on this?

    • Probably the best thing you can do is model your cover after other e-book bestsellers in your genre. (Check Kindle & NYT bestseller lists.)

      I also highly recommend taking a look at the e-book covers produced by Open Road Media, which is known for re-releasing major authors and classics across genres, but ALWAYS uses new covers for the digital editions. (It’s pretty much a must in their case; they don’t have copyright or permission to use the original print cover.)

    • Hillari, thanks for your comment. Part of what I’m trying to do with our monthly ebook cover design competition is encourage cover designers to “think different” about the ebook cover. Most publishers simply won’t go to the expense of creating a separate cover for the ebook, and that’s a shame. But designers need to tackle this also. There’s no reason why an ebook cover can’t be a simplified version of the print book cover in which the branding, typography, and images are the same, but in a simplified form more suited to tiny ebook cover files. So far, I have to admit I haven’t had a lot of success, but it will come.

  4. Wow! I visited Joel Friedlander’s site and the book design templates are gorgeous! Thanks so much for this post, and for sharing insights on the elements of great design.

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  7. Joel:
    What is the reason for your recommending full justification? For ease of reading, ragged right is better. Plus it eliminates most rivers/ladders and the odd spacing problem you mention. Is it simply because it’s been done that way forever and thus people expect it?

    • Yes, exactly. Reader expectations have a huge role to play in how people respond to your books. Although rag-right composition is fine in books with little text, like art books or cookbooks, virtually all other books, in my opinion, ought to be set with justified composition.

  8. Hi. I self-publish my own books and the one thing I don’t do is this:

    Putting the odd-numbered pages on the left, when they should always be on the right

    I’m curious as to why the odd-numbered pages need to be on the left? The way I currently do it, the first page is my title/copyright page and it’s on the right. Then the next page, which is on the left, starts as #2. I do write in Microsoft Word, so that effects how the page numbering is calculated. I can probably change it, but I never considered that it was wrong (an argument for hiring someone to format) Honestly, as a reader and as a writer, I’ve never noticed which side the page numbers are on.

    • Hi John, I think you may have misread the article. I was pointing out that this is a mistake that authors sometimes make in laying out there own books. Odd-numbered pages, as you note, should always be right-hand pages.

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  10. Great advice Joel. In regards to using hyphenation … I’ve always turned off automatic hyphenation because I, personally, find it distracting to find a word hyphenated (especially when it happens within the first couple of letters of the word). I do understand the problem with gaps and spaces on a page. I usually activate the H&J violations feature in InDesign so that I can see where I need to go in and adjust spacing. Of course, it’s a lot of extra work, so maybe I should just go with allowing hyphens. Something to think about. :-)

    • BookStarter, the hyphenation in InDesign is quite good in my experience and also has extensive controls. For instance, you can set it so it only hyphenates after the first 3 letters, or the first 4. In other words, you can meet almost any requirement and this will eliminate quite a bit of handwork later. If you pull books off your bookshelf, you will find that you’ll almost never see a trade book without hyphenation.

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  12. Joel, I’m a little late to the party here (but still in time for a discount!). The templates are dandy—thanks!

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  17. Joel is without a doubt one of the leading experts on book design. I hope to have as much skill and knowledge as he does one day! As always, very informative and great advice for self-publishers. Thanks Jane and Joel!

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  19. Great article.I’m a freelance book cover designer (both print and ebook). I would love to work with any self-publishers to design a professional cover that is functional in both print and digital. My site is to view my portfolio. Thank you!

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  22. I’m really late to this party, but I am curious about the sites Joel referred to that will help authors put together a publishing team. Any examples?

    • Ben, I’m equally late replying, but try to assemble the talent you’ll need for your book project.

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  35. Great post. It’s really important to find someone who is actually skilled in typesetting (designing the interior of your book), as I’ve bought books that I never finished reading simply because the design/typesetting of the pages made it ugly and hard to read. I think there are some important skills that cover designers need too — primarily the ability to design a cover that looks great at all sizes (particularly the Amazon thumbnail size!).

    —Matt (

  36. This is a great article; Joel really knows his stuff, I learned a lot about formatting from The Book Designer site. Things are getting easier with cool stuff like for front covers – not perfect but easy and much better looking than what most people would make on the first try. There’s an iPhone app called WordSwag that’s amazing for easily turning your words into excellent layouts, with lots of options – but you’ll
    need to download the photos you want to use to your iPhone first (you can email
    them to yourself, then save them). It’s still not easy to make full print covers (that look good). Joel’s Word templates for full print covers are pretty cool for that.

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