In the very large publishing houses, authors typically have zero control over the formatting of a book’s interior or the design of its covers. Even well-recognized writers often don’t know what the book will look like until it’s delivered into their ink-stained fingers.

The smaller the publisher, however, the more the author can exert influence over a book’s aesthetics. But to enjoy that influence successfully, you must understand the natural division of labor between writer and publisher.

Interior Design

In general, the author has no control over fonts, margins or trim. (Trim is the physical dimensions of the final product.) Most publishers use standard templates to reduce variation and to effect a consistent look-and-feel across the company’s catalog; for example, Caffeinated Press uses Adobe Caslon Pro at 11 point for body text in long-from works. Likewise, header or footer text — including page numbers, author names, chapter names and book titles — are rarely open to negotiation.

Exceptions: Poets may be engaged for some interior design, especially if their poems feature line breaks that exceed the publisher’s selected trim size. And works that are primarily visual in nature, like photo collections or textbooks filled with graphics, usually require author-editor coordination to ensure that the final product appears as intended.

The arrangement of books follows industry standards. A print novel, for example, will start with a title page, then a half-title page, then the copyright page, then (optionally) a table of contents, an author’s note and a dedication. The back of the book will include the about-the-author page. This sequence is fixed. By convention, new chapters or content begin on the recto page — the page on the right as an open book lays before you. (Left side is verso.) Depending on the publisher’s guidelines, in some books the verso page may be numbered but left blank.

If you’re asked for your opinion about some aspect of a book’s interior arrangement, feel free to offer it — but unless your contract gives you an explicit role in the design process, it’s better to avoid commenting on design. If your editor presents a PDF page proof, for example, assume you’re only being asked to validate the text of the story.

Book Covers

Usually the publisher handles covers. Covers, however, are a tricky problem for small- and medium-sized publishers, because authors often come to the table with ideas or even fully planned designs in mind.

A few points:

  • To the extent that you as an author have any say over a cover at all, it’s at the publisher’s whim. As a default position, the cover isn’t the author’s business unless the publisher is a vanity press. (At Caffeinated Press, we require authors to concur with the final cover design before we can proceed to print, but we neither expect nor desire for authors to participate in the design process.)
  • However, a good publisher should probe, at a high level, whether the author has some sort of vision for the cover, to avoid unnecessary conflict during the production process. Broad directionality can often be incorporated early in the development cycle.
  • A front cover isn’t a cover; a true cover includes the front, back and spine and can only be developed after the interior is complete and the true page count is calculated and the final trim size is determined. Working on covers in any depth beyond proof-of-concept storyboarding, before the interior is finalized, is a waste of everyone’s time.
  • Publishers must have space to insert bar codes and press branding. That space is often templated.
  • Art or designs intended for the cover must be licensed by the publisher. So if you have a friend who drew a picture you want to use as art, understand that the publisher must independently contract for the rights to use that art, if the publisher is even inclined to use it. Generally, authors aren’t entitled to have friends or family work on their covers.
  • Art usually must meet stringent commercial-printing standards (including CMYK colors at 300 dpi minimum, among many other criteria).
  • Most art is contracted on a per-project rate, so spending $250 or $500 or whatever on a cover designed by an outside designer almost always means the author will see that cost come out of his or her long-term royalty payments.
  • Think thrice about revisions. If you have the chance to influence a cover in progress, understand that most designers are contracted for a finite amount of revisions before additional (large) charges apply. Tweak at your financial peril.

Authors inexperienced with the publishing industry sometimes think of a work as “their” book, over which they have complete control, but really, a physical book is an product of co-creation between an author who supplies the text and the publisher who supplies the artifact upon which that text appears. Authors own the words, but publishers own the covers and the design and the layout. It’s likely that in some cases, some parties won’t be 100 percent happy with the result — some publishers may wish a scene had progressed differently, for example, while some authors may have preferred a different dominant color on the front cover — but no one party holds a trump card that gives them what they want. Ideally, everyone works together to arrive at a mutually satisfactory result, but “working together” requires a healthy respect for each party’s jurisdiction over various inputs into the final work.

For authors, then, it’s important to remember that partnering with a publisher means you’re trading some part of your control over the artifact in exchange for the expertise and market reach the publisher offers. Accordingly, your aesthetic preferences are not, inherently, an important consideration in the design process. If you want absolute control over layout and cover art, then self publish.

Publishers are people, just like authors are, so if you as an author respect the principle of co-creation, you may find ample opportunity to help guide the finished artifact to everyone’s satisfaction by offering constructive feedback where appropriate while avoiding the unnecessary antagonism that arises from expecting the publisher to act as a service provider that prepares books to your specification.

An Author’s Guide to Book Covers and Interior Design
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