Write and publish your book in a year – Step 9: Design

Visit this blog's 'Write a book' category page for previous posts in this series.

When I set out to publish my very first book back in 2005, I never expected to sell many of them (and I met my expectations!). It was more of an experiment: I wanted to prove that it was possible to produce a self-published book that didn't look self-published.

I couldn't understand why so many independently published books look, well, amateurish.

What did I learn? I learnt that my hunch was correct. Trade published books look professionally designed because they are professionally designed. In contrast, many self-published books look like their design was an afterthought ... because it was.

Bottom line: if you want your book to look the part, invest in a designer. In fact you may even need two designers: one for the inside of the book (the 'layout'), and one for the cover. The skills for these two tasks are fairly different and many designers are better at one than the other.

Internal Layout

This is also called 'typesetting', though things have moved on a way since typesetting literally meant setting individual letters of lead into a block.

The layout designer will move your text and images into a professional page layout program – probably Adobe InDesign – out of which they will eventually export files ready to go to the printer. They will add 'running heads' and page numbers, format all the headings and incorporate images in a way that minimises the number of half-empty pages.

An experienced typesetter knows the basic structural requirements of a book. Open any number of books on your shelf and you'll find most of them include a 'half-title' page (usually just the book's title), a 'full title' page (title plus author and publisher logo) and a 'copyright' page (the page that includes the published date, author details, cataloguing information and so on. Again, getting these things 'right' will help your book look professionally published.

Half-title page, title page, copyright page and dedication

Half-title page, title page, copyright page and dedication

When working with a layout designer, they will normally send you two or three styles to choose from before laying out the whole book. From this point there should only be minor changes to the book – once laid out, adding (or deleting) content creates a lot of work for the designer. Once laid out, they'll send you a proof copy for checking before the file is readied for print.


Ideally the person who designs your cover should be a graphic designer with some experience with book covers. Not only will they have an appreciation of the need for the title text to stand out on the shelf, they will also know the ins-and-outs of technical stuff like getting the spine width right. Down the track, they will be able to talk directly with your printer if technical issues relating to file formats and the like come up.

This is only my opinion, but as a general rule I suggest avoiding the use of cartoons on a non-fiction book cover, especially for a business audience. Certainly you should never use clipart: if a cartoon is called for, pay someone to draw something original for you.

Similarly, think twice before featuring a picture of yourself on the front cover. Again, unless (or until?) you are an established celebrity, doing this gives your book away as self-published.

A handy thing to do before briefing your designer is to go and look at some other books, especially those that will sit near yours on the bookstore shelves (or in the digital catalogue).

The design process can be stressful, but with an open mind and a bit of give-and-take with your designer(s) you will eventually come up with a design that will make you feel proud when you finally see your book in print.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please contact me directly, via our Facebook page or in the comments below.

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