What a publisher does – part 2: design

In this second guest post from publisher John Köehler he explains the book design process and the author’s role in it.

Co-operative design

A publisher has the right to essentially do as they please with regards to the creative development of the editing and the design of any given book. But as we established in the previous article about co-operative editing, it is advantageous to the publisher to have the author involved with all stages of the creative process of preparing the book for publication.

The cover

The cover is typically the first design element considered. We want to know exactly what the author is thinking about their cover. True enough they are usually not award-winning designers as we have on our team, but they know their book. Often an author will have a very specific idea of what they want and in many cases come to the table with a design in hand.

Of the 50 or so books we’ve published, we have never used a design offered by an author. Which sounds like it contradicts my point about keeping the author involved, but it doesn’t. The original thoughts and desires of the author may play into a design the publisher comes up with, and for us, it usually does.

We ask authors to not only tell us their written thoughts and share any sketches they have, we ask them to show us 3-4 book covers they like and why they like them. Once again, this is not intended to get the author to do the publisher’s job, but to establish a criteria and general consensus on style and look. For our designers, this gives us much more to work with, and also increases the likelihood we are going to ding the bell and create a cover that is perfect for the manuscript, and gives the author buy-in.

This does not mean that we limit ourselves to the covers we are shown or the written concepts that are shared – on the contrary. They are all a jumping-off point. Sometimes the winning cover comes directly from that process. Sometimes the design team will diverge completely away and try something new and decidedly different than what the author is thinking. Whatever it takes, we do.

We tell our authors that they will be a part of the process, but that when it comes to making creative decisions, it is no longer about them, or us, but it is all about the work of art that we are creating. The cover, like the editing, must be the best cover for the book we are producing. Period. That is a good way of reminding them that while we insist on working collaboratively, it is not their call; if in fact a creative call must be made due to lack of consensus, the publisher will make the call. Regardless of the collaboration and cooperative spirit of the endeavor, there can only be one boss! Surprisingly we rarely have an issue with covers and usually achieve consensus with the author.

Text layout

Design co-operation extends into the layout of the text. The author will review the layout top to bottom, including title page, legal page, acknowledgements, etc. There are usually fewer issues or decisions on the text. Lastly comes the cover spread, showing the back cover, spine and front cover.

Design co-operation extends into other items such as tip sheets, author signing posters and the like. Regardless of the design element, if it is related to the book, we want the author’s eyes on it. Because, like editing, the more eyes the better, and the more likely the author will get behind the book, own it completely and engage readers through promotions and marketing.

In my next guest post for The Crafty Writer I will be discussing marketing and distribution.

John KoehlerJohn Köehler is the author of five books, including his latest, Billy Blue Sky. He is the founder and publisher of Köehler Books. Köehler Books offers conventional and co-publishing book deals. See here for a discussion of how co-publishing differs from conventional publishing, and here for some tips on how to identify the different kinds of publishing deals.

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