Basic Design Principles For Self-Publishing Authors

by Renée Layberry

When an author finishes writing a manuscript, the work is far from over – especially when embarking upon a self-publishing project. In addition to seeking out reliable and professional proofreading and editing, developing a visual concept for your own book is tremendously difficult to be objective about.

Most authors have a vague idea of the impression they want to give with their cover and book block. However, common pitfalls include:

  • Trying to create a cover concept that tells the entire story in a “storyboard” fashion
  • Choosing Papyrus, Comic Sans, or a Script fonts in the book block in an attempt to give an moody, ancient, or handwritten feel
  • Trying to cram as much text or visuals into the layout out and creating a crowded look

None of these approaches take into account what will be most attractive to their target audience.

What will be most attractive to the target audience?  Something effortless that compels with barely a glance is a good place to start. It shouldn’t be complicated: think locking eyes with a quietly and ironically smiling Alan Rickman (Sense and Sensibility era) in a crowded hole-in-the-wall pub somewhere in Ireland over a frosty pint of Guinness. If that doesn’t do it for you, visualize meeting Cate Blanchett unexpectedly on an isolated windswept beach in Tofino as she meanders wistfully barefoot, along the edges of cool, lapping waves whilst her wild blonde hair plays loosely around her face.

How’s that for effortless and compelling?

As the saying goes: “Capture the heart and the mind will follow.”

There are three basic criteria for attractive layouts:

  1. It works – by conveying the message quickly and appropriately
  2. It’s organized – the reader moves through it smoothly and easily
  3. It attracts viewers – it’s original enough to stand out from the competition without being overly generic or contrived. Research your competition!

To make it work:

  • Clarify and summarize your main message
  • Keep the target audience in mind
  • Think about where it will be seen (Online, or on display in a “Bricks and Mortar” bookstore?)

How to organize:

  • Contrast type weights and styles (while following typographic rules) to illustrate hierarchy of information. Titles should be large, sub-titles smaller, author name distinct
  • Keep reading patterns in mind. How will the eye travel with as much ease as possible?
  • Embrace simplicity, and don’t be afraid of “white space”. Don’t fill all the corners – let the eye “breathe”

How to attract:

  • Surround a small picture, graphic, or piece of text with plenty of space, or employ strong, large type for a title or chapter heading
  • Use a motif or symbol
  • Purchase high-resolution, professional stock photography for your book cover

Remember, you’ve already accomplished something praiseworthy and extraordinary by birthing a story and completing a manuscript! A bit of graphic design literacy can make the often-overwhelming transition from solitary-in-the-cave-maniacal writer to loud and proud marketing rock star that much smoother.