Type and Design Tips for self- and small publishers

Self-publishing and niche press publishing is going through an explosion right now, thanks to the ease with which modern tech lets us produce digital books and connect with the readers for those books.
However, a lot of folks, both writers and small presses alike, are pushing forward producing books with only a vague idea of the rules and standards for design, typesetting, and other elements of production that formerly would have been farmed out to a trained professional.
A lot of what I see going around is some re-invention of the wheel. Plus I see a lot of rookie mistakes being made that are just ignorance of the principles of type and design. All too often I see POD books that look, sadly, like they came from someone who didn’t know anything about making physical books. I’m not talking about the manufacturing, which has gotten to the point you really can’t tell a POD book from a traditionally printed book. I’m talking about basic errors in typesetting and design.
The thing is, these things aren’t that hard to fix if you know what they are, so I got the idea to do a series of blog posts on the basics. This’ll not only help people do it themselves, but will also help tremendously those who go the route of paying someone else to do it for them. Because how are you going to know if your designer is good and worth the money or if you might as well have done it yourself? I’ll tell you how.
I didn’t get into the book biz intending to be a book designer. But when you run your own press, sometimes you’re everything, from publicist to janitor. So I’ve had to learn the basics of book design and production. (I also had a class on the subject at Northeastern University many summers ago when I first started working in book publishing…)
So, forthwith, I begin here a series of short blog posts with Clues on book design and production that You Might Not Know.
The biggest question for me is always how much am I going to do myself, and how much am I going to farm out for a price? Sometimes it really is easier and more cost-effective to just pay someone to do, other times it makes more sense to pay “sweat equity.”
At this point, at Circlet Press, we pay Jim Brown of JimandZetta.com to do all our ebook conversions, as it reached the point where it was more efficient and cost-effective to pay him to do it rather than muddle through it ourselves anymore. But when it comes to Print on Demand books (or printed books of any kind) I’ve been keeping the design and production management in-house for the past several years for the simple reason that it wasn’t in the budget to do it any other way.
I’m guessing that most of you would rather invest a little time in learning how to do some things rather than shell out to a third party, and that’s why you’re reading this. But do remember that it is a legitimate (and fairly standard) business plan, too, to just Hire Qualified Professionals to take on that piece.
In fact, that’s where I’m going to start, with hiring out. But, I hear you asking, how much should I pay a book designer or freelance production person? That is the subject of this first post. (below) Then in the one after I’ll get into what to do if you decide to Do It Yourself with typesetting and design.
1. Farming Out to Professionals
2. Elements of Book Design
3. Page Layouts
4. Widows, orphans, and hyphenation
5. “Smart” quotes, section breaks, and fleurs
6. Ebook design versus print design
P.S. Comments are welcome! Please include pointers to other online resources for small publishers, as well!
* * * *
Someone recently asked me “how much should I pay a book designer”? The short but frustrating answer is: it really depends.
First of all, I realized that is too simple a question, since most of the design, layout, and production people I know vary widely in the amount of work they quote per project, depending on what the client needs.
I feel like there are four main jobs that could be part of the freelancer’s job, or they might be separate, depending on who you hire and for how much.
1) Cover design — Assuming that the publisher/client is supplying the cover art or illustration, or at least a budget for the designer to go and get some stock photography or something, this job usually includes creating a few versions of a mock cover for the client to choose between (i.e. the same image treated different ways, with different colors or styles of type, for example), and then providing a finished file suitable for the printer to manufacture from, which includes the complete front, spine, and back cover, barcode, etc. The client must supply all the copy to go on the cover and the client is responsible for proofreading it.
2) Interior design — “just the design.” Coming up with the basic elements of what fonts to use, how headings should look, conceptualizations of the pages, breaks, dropcaps, margin size, etc etc, creating a template that could then be handed off to an intern or in-house assistant to actually input all the pages and apply all the designed styles.
3) Interior design including making all the pages — includes designing the look of the book, inputting all the pages, and then also inputting all changes to the proofs, right through to producing an electronic file suitable to go to the printer. THIS IS MUCH MORE COMMON THAN “just the design.”
4) Production management — including all three of the above steps as well as interfacing with the printer to get the book manufactured to specifications, approving printers proofs, etc.
These days most people who ask me the “what should I pay a designer?” question actually need the complete package including production interfacing, but sometimes they just want the person to do 1) or 2).
In my experience, cover design ranges from a flat fee as low as $250 (not including art acquisition costs) up to about $900, while others charge an hourly rate of $25 to $50 per hour and may even advertise “covers for only $50”. Interior design usually runs about the same range in hourly fees, and runs $500 to $2000 flat fee depending highly on the complexity of the project, whether there are illustrations and multiple types of formatting, and how intensive the proof corrections stage is expected to be. Typesetting a simple novel is a lot easier than doing an illustrated cookbook, for example. And if you need complete production management on top, that it might be anywhere from $100 to $500 more.
Thing is, if you find a designer willing to do your cover for fifty bucks and your interior for $200, sometimes you get what you pay for. The designers who are charging $2500 for that package instead of $250 may really be ten times better.
If you’re going to hire a designer, insist on seeing samples of their work beforehand, and even better is get a recommendation from another publisher you know. And when you find someone who fits your budget, turnaround time, and aesthetic needs, KEEP THEM. Give them all the work you can!
By the way, any freelancers reading this, feel free to chime in with your actual rates or thoughts on the way I’ve divided this. I’m so used to bargain hunting and trying to find the lowest possible budget for every book that it’s been a while since I hired someone really good at it.
Next post, my tips on how to get started doing your own typesetting and design. Knowing how to do your own typesetting and design will also help you judge the work of a freelancer you hire, as well. (Click here to continue!)


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