November 5, 2013

At Your Service: book design 101 with Nick Zelinger

By Camilla Sterne

“At Your Service” is a blog series in which we ask a self-publishing industry professional to describe his or her services, in order to help self-publishers understand the intricacies of the various steps needed to create a polished book. 

Today, Nick Zelinger shares with us an insider’s perspective on cover and interior book design.

Zelinger, owner of NZ Graphics, has been a graphic designer for 20 years. He received a degree in graphic art technology from the Colorado Institute of Art;  was the art director for “Centennial Aviation,” a bimonthly magazine for private pilots; and is now an independent designer, specializing in book (cover and interior) design and production. He also creates collateral marketing materials for authors, such as logos, brochures — virtually anything to aid authors with book promotion. He has won multiple awards for his cover designs, including Best Cover Design from USA Book News in 2012 and ten Colorado Independent Publisher’s Assn. EVVY awards since 2003.

Q: How many of the book covers you design are for self-published authors?
A: The majority. I’d say 65 to 70% are self-published. The remainder is a mixture of (cover design  for) independent publishers and small presses. Sometimes I get contracted to do work for an author that’s been signed with a publisher. That is growing because, like anything else, as you start doing more of those books that do well, they start to ask for you more.

Q: How do you decide on your rate?
A: I have a range because I really do charge by the project. In some instances, I have a package deal where I will give an author a set price for the whole package that includes bookmarks, business cards, postcards, and visual imagery the author needs for their website and social media. I don’t always get asked to do everything. They may just want me to do the interior or the cover. I charge a set price for the cover, depending on the complexity of the book, its subject matter, and based on what the author wants. I’ve done covers for $100; I’ve done covers for $1,000. On average, it’s $350 to $500 for a cover, front, back, spine, and barcode.

Q: How do you usually proceed? Do you read the book?
A: It would be a luxury to be able to read the book. I don’t. I usually start by consulting with the author about the book. I’ll ask for a synopsis or a sample chapter so that I can get a feel for what the book is about. Then we’ll do a detailed consult about who the author’s target audience is, who their competition is, what their goals are in terms of how they want to sell the book. We’ll envision what book would stand next to theirs on the bookshelf. I also find out what they like and don’t like about some book covers.

Q: Do authors typically come with a concrete idea of what they want?
A: Some authors are very specific about what they want. Right now, it probably falls in the middle: Some are open to anything and some have no idea…Some say exactly what they want, but you still have to shepherd them through the process, as (often) they think they need ten different things on the cover; this happens with first-time fiction authors. I’ll typically ask what they envision their cover to be— anything from elements, imagery, color, mood, title, subtitle. I always suggest authors go to a bookstore and look at titles in their genre so they can see what’s out there before they even meet with a designer.

Q: How long does it take to complete a cover?
A: One to two weeks to do cover design. I usually tell people to expect layouts in seven to ten days.

Q: How many designs do you provide the author to choose from?
A: I usually give authors anywhere from 3 to 6 layouts.

Q: Is there a similar process with the back cover?
A: Once the front is established, then we know what elements would fit or work for the back, and we work from that.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes self-published authors make when designing covers on their own?
A: If they do it themselves or have a friend or associate who does it, the Number One problem is that they fail to construct the cover for print specifications. Everyone in the world has Photoshop right now, but printers need covers formatted in a certain manner. They (authors) don’t know about print resolution. It should always be 300 dots per inch at the size that you intend to render the image.

Q: What elements should be present in a good cover?
A: That’s a good question because we’re talking about a mixture of art and marketing. It’s got to be aesthetically pleasing, but it’s also basically an ad case. It has to actually zero in on what the book is about. It really doesn’t do you any good if you have an absolutely beautiful cover and it doesn’t help sell the book. Then it’s a failure.

Authors that do it themselves put too much on the cover:  too many fonts, too many images. If you look at the cover in thumbnail form, you can’t even decipher the title. Brevity can actually be your friend on a cover. The fact is that you need to be able to read the title and you need to correctly choose a font. Certain fonts complement the mood and tone of the book and are better suited for some genres versus other genres.

Q: Can you give some specific examples?
A: In fiction, there’s a lot more leeway with what you can get away with and use;  (a cover’s emphasis is) more with mood and tone and emotion than a business book. Once you read a synopsis and get the mood and the feel and a direction from the author of where the book will be placed, you can get a feel for what you can get away with. The fonts for a women’s romance book, for instance, are really fairly simple: sometimes script font.  A financial book, on the other hand, can get away with a little more meat-and-potatoes font like Gill Sans or Futura— something more stable or structured.

Q: So font plays an important role?
A: The wrong font will actually kill a cover design. A font can signal to the reader the mood intended by the author. Sometimes, misplaced fonts can give an indication of a dated cover. Fonts have trends. For instance, the Harry Potter font is very recognizable, but you would obviously never want to use that, because it’s (so closely) associated with those books.

Q: What role does color play in the cover?
A:  That’s something I talk to authors about: What colors do you feel your book could represent or handle? Some colors work better than others. They have their lifespans. Last year, there were a lot of orange and lime greens; there was teal and lavender a couple of years ago. They come and they go. You can go online and find all sorts of info on color theory… Red means certain things: anger and power. Complimentary colors can be learned or come innately to some artists or designers.

Q: How do you approach interior book design?
A: Interior layout is just an extension of the exterior. I use the analogy of a home. You want to make sure the inside complements the outside in terms of beauty and structure. A designer looks for the correct style of font — something that’s readable and is the correct size for that layout. You’ll want to avoid too big of a font size because there will be too many hyphenations.

Q: Is book length a factor in choosing font?
A: They have to consider that too. How long is your manuscript? How many words? What is the intended size for the book? You can adjust any font, but it has to be readable, and you can’t calculate how long the book will be, but you can give a range.

Q: How long does interior design take you?
A: A lot of that depends on the book. If it’s a business or nonfiction title and has graphs and charts or sidebars, that’s obviously more time-consuming. But I can lay out fiction in a week. An involved medical book could take two to three weeks, but it’s about a two-week turn around for most.

Q: How do you charge for interior design?
A: That’s going to be very dependent on the nature of the book, but anywhere from $2 to $4 a page. The one thing that a designer learns really quickly is that once you lay out a book, the editor and author start seeing things that they want to change. We design line by line and don’t just run the word file. If the author wants to make a change, you have to allow for that with your pricing.

Q: How often do you decide to make the interior design more specialized, for instance using icons or specialized chapter headings?
A: I actually do that probably 99.9% of the time, especially if there’s an element from the cover that could be morphed or used as an icon for a chapter heading or something in the corner. I’m doing a memoir for “the hubcap queen” and we got photos of old vintage hubcaps as the icons for chapter headings. It’s nice to be able to marry the outside and inside.

Q: What don’t self-publishing authors understand about book design?
A: Pretty much that it’s a lot more complex than they think. If it’s easy to read, then they think it’s easy (to design).  It’s a lot more complex, and you work hard to make it look less complex.

Q: Do you ever redesign to accommodate excerpts from reviews on the (front or back) cover?
A: That happens a lot. Just this year, a fiction book I was designing won multiple awards and a really stellar review from somebody who’s really well known. We stuck that main endorsement on the front cover. If an author gets great reviews, then for the next printing we will stick those testimonials on the back cover, or,  if there are many,  on the front inside book pages.

Q: What is the rule on author names being bigger than a book title?
A: The rule of thumb is that if you’re a bestselling author and your name will sell the book, then it’s a no-brainer (to make the name bigger than the title). I’m doing a book right now where the author is totally unknown, but the book has had great reviews, so they’re making his name as big as the title. That high visibility is strategic to make him seem recognizable. Speakers often do that because their book is their gateway into speaking engagements.

Q: Do you ever advise an author to change their title?
A: Yes. That came up about three times this month. On one of them, the length of title was way too long. Titles should have a cadence to them. The shorter the better.

Q: Thank you for your time and information!

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Camilla Sterne is a senior at the University of Denver, where she studies creative writing and media studies. She is a freelance writer at the Boulder Weekly and assistant lifestyles editor at the DU Clarion. She was BlueInk’s Summer 2013 Intern.

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