What is Advanced Book Design?

This short article is based on a portion of a presentation I gave for the 2008 PMA University in Los Angeles

Beyond the covers of many cool looking books, there’s more going on than beautifully typeset pages. At least this is true for that category of books that fit into what I think of as advanced book design.

To help explain what this concept really means, I have some diagrams. You may be thinking —”Whoa!, I want to see some interesting book designs, not diagrams illustrating concepts.” But hang on, these are pretty interesting concepts, especially if you are a small publisher or self-publishing author wondering how far you can take your book idea.

Graphic chart illustrating the basic conponents of Advanced Book Design

Advanced book design is achieved by bringing together two things:

  1. Your brand mission and vision (i.e., the mission and vision about yourself as a author or publisher that exists or you want to exist in the mind of consumers), especially it’s visual identity, and
  2. Quality book design, meaning design that adds value that the book would not otherwise have—such as design features that give the book increased functionality, specific benefits, and create a desireable user experience, and an overall image that increases user identification (so that, in effect, the consumer believes “this book is so me!). To better understand the idea of quality book design, see Figure 2.

Graphic diagram illustration Quality Book Design

Quality book design involves a wide range of things that can be done to make a book better and more appealing — like clear navigation graphics, visual information categorization, a fashion that appeals to the target market, etc. — but ultimately advanced book design goes further, but marrying these qualities with the author and/or publisher existing or planned brand identity. It can, in fact, be a tool for developing a publisher’s brand identity and brand value. In time, such design can translate into well-known measurable benefits:

• Good design adds higher perceived value to brand identity.
• Stronger brand identity guides purchase decisions.
• Stronger brand identity commands a price-premium.
• A perception of quality is created by a price premium.
• Perceived quality increases customer usage.
• Strong brands give immediate credibility to new product introductions.
• Design quality can be a point of differentiation.

These brand objectives can inform the book project in the developmental planning stage, the formulation of design briefs, and aid evaluation of market testing. The designer engaged in advanced book design does more that simply make the author’s stack of pages ready to look like a bound book. The bar is set much higher. Ultimately, advanced book design takes the end user of the book as close as possible to the station of complete identification. That, at least, is the holy grail of advanced book design. The final design communicates not merely what features the book has, what benefits it offers, or how you will feel, but who you are—the central goal of brand identity itself.

If you have a book idea that is successful, you know that, as with all products, at some point this success will likely end. To prevent or delay this inevitability, you’ll need an advanced book design strategy. Most every product has a product life cycle. First you plan and create the product, during which time you may also introduce it, Second, you’ll take it into the growth stage, during which time competitors will emerge. The product then reaches maturity—the stage when it faces competition, market saturation, commoditization, and possibly begins to go out of fashion as well. See Figure 3.

Graphic illustrating role between book design and product life cycle

To counter these trends, you can use design to

• Repackage the book’s content to make it more visually appealing and up to date.
• Take the book’s content into new forms (diversification)
• Reconfigure the product layers
• Re-brand it
• Design it for new markets
• Co-brand it with different products

Each of these tactics involves design that can be part of a long-term advanced design strategy.

Practical application

On a number of occasions self-publishing authors have come to me with large tomes and ask me about design ideas. Often very good material, but in a few cases, these huge books would make a better series than a single publication. This is something that needs to start with developmental editing. The author started out with the assumption that everything needed to be told in one book, and so, for perhaps one purchase fee, they would give a life’s work away in a form too cumbersome to attract buyers or readers.

A more effective alternative may, in fact, be two, three, or more books generated from the same material. The more technical it is, the more it will need to be developed and shaped into a digestible presentation. It may, for example, require developmental editing to parse out the contents of each chapter into special design elements, such as chapter objections, case studying, key terms and definitions, summaries, etc.


Graphic illustrating product management

The Fine Print of Self-Publishing

The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, The Contracts & Services of 45 Major Self-Publishing Companies — Analyzed, Ranked, & Exposed, by Mark Levine (3rd edition) Hillcrest Publishing Group, Inc., 2008

Anyone considering using one of the many online Print-on-Demand (POD) services available today would do well to read The Fine Print of Self-Publishing by self-publishing author and attorney Mark Levine (only an attorney could risk writing a book like this). This is a critical guide to the legal and economic pitfalls of POD with the names of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Actually, he ranks the services according to 4 basic categories —1) outstanding, 2) pretty good, 3) okay, and 4) publishers to avoid. He examines over 40 companies, including Booksurge, LuLu, CreateSpace, Arbor Books, iUniverse, etc. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t compare them in a uniform way. That said, this is a useful book that can no doubt says authors from making some expensive blunders, including loosing control of their life’s work.

On the down side, he doesn’t discuss Lightning Source, a subsidiary of Ingram Industries Inc. a good guy in the world of POD and a company used by many of the companies he reviews. It is the sister company to the wholesaler Ingram Book Group. They are said to produce around 100,000 books a week. The reason for Levine’s omission is, I assume, that Lightning Source only works with publishers. That said, most of my self-publishing clients use Lightning Source. Anyone who self-publishes, is in effect, a publisher, so why not act like one and go about business in a way that makes the most economic sense? The other services are really for people who can’t or don’t need to get published with a traditional publisher and who do not want to be bothered to do the work on their own — i.e., the work of getting a designer, their own ISBN, etc. In a few cases, as Levine points out, you can still profitably use some of he companies Levine reviews for POD even if you have the book prepared through a different provider or series of providers—which is really your best option with POD.

Because Levine is critiquing services that offer additional services like design and pre-press layout, as well as the printing, he doesn’t really address true “self-publishing” in most instances. Most of these services are actually a POD version of what is better known as vanity presses.

This seems to be reason he spends a fair amount of time complaining about how these companies don’t actually give their clients the production or press-ready files when the job is completed, except in some cases, companies that charge large fees (over $1000 for copies of the press-ready cover and interior page files). Oddly, none of the companies give a satisfactory explanation for why they with-hold the files. I suspect it’s because the sales representatives are unaware of what’s going on in the company legal departments that craft the policy.

One likely reason is the complexity of font software license agreements. Companies purchase 3rd party font software licenses to create the files and are not allowed in many cases to distribute the fonts even embedded in PDF files excepting when the files are being sent to a printer. In some cases font software licenses are not so restrictive. Fonts can be embedded in PDF that are distributed, sometimes without additional fees, sometimes with (Emigre fonts for example require royalties for ebooks/PDFs). That is, these companies simply don’t have a license agreement that would allow them to give up the files.

POD companies have eliminated the headache of sifting through hundreds of changing font license agreements for the few exceptions that effect PDFs by simply issuing a policy to withhold all the files. Smaller companies and design studios usually provide a list of the fonts (i.e., omitting the fonts) so that clients can match marketing materials. Font costs for a single book project can range from $20 to over $2000. Design studios continually invest in new font purchases, costs that are not passed onto clients in a proportional manner. Nonetheless, even design studios today rarely hand over source files. There are other reason besides fonts. One is the proprietary nature of how the files are put together. You may think, surely production methods are straight out of the application manuals and there’s no secrets in that. But the reality is that most design studios get handed badly composed files all the time with pleas for help. Usually the project has to be re-done. And finally, if the files are altered after being made press-ready, they may fail at the press.

A few other details: On page xiii, take note of the conflict of interest between Levine’s own business and the services he critiques. No index. And perhaps, most important—keep in mind that there’s no way the author can keep this %100 up-to-date as companies often change their contracts, some for the better and some for the worse.

Even with that said, I still recommend the book. This book will open the eyes of many who are new to self-publishing.

Ads that Pop, an early lesson…

This the story behind the pop-up card that turned around my career

There are times when opportunities are abundant and money seems easy. The economy is booming and everyone is dreaming of glory. This is how it was when I was starting out in design and illustration. Then, seemingly overnight, things changed. Almost everyone I knew was out of work and the economy was sliding into a deep recession.

There was talk of lay-offs where I was working and many of my free-lance clients were cutting back. Not wanting to be tossed out, I quit my job and headed back to college. (Truthfully, the college experience wasn’t looking good either, as I had already studied commercial art under Bud Norton—once the student of Burnt Horgarth (legendary American cartoonist)—who was a tough teacher with the gift of being able to efficiently pound high professional standards into my head at a tender age.) When I quit my design job, my expectation was that I could carry on in school supported by my free-lance illustration work for advertising agencies. It didn’t take long before I found so few clients left standing that I had to search for a new strategy to break out of my local market. Pop-Up Card featured in How Magazine

With next to nothing left in my bank account, I was up against what has remained the most difficult and gut-renching existential moment in my career. I needed a new ad plan for my illos, something that would really “pop” to get people’s attention. As I thought about this, I came up with the idea of a pop-up card—a literal take on the idea of advertising that pops. This was not to be the usual mass-mailed illustration postcard idea, but a carefully targeted 3-D self-promotion—something strange enough to leave viewers wondering.

I was confident it could be done, but I was short on cash. It had to be printed in B&W and I would have to hand cut each card. Maybe a risky way to deal out my last bucks, but the alternative was sure career death by invisibility.

I made a few prototypes to ensure it would work, printed the minimum print run, built a jig for applying an even layer of spray-mount glue, and started hand cutting each card.

This laborious task of cutting complex cards seemed to take forever. I carried cards and fresh X-acto blades with me everywhere for the next few days—to class, to dinners with friends, etc.—until I had cut out about around 25 cards. One of these cards I sent to HOW magazine, a periodical for print design professionals. This is when the gods smiled on me. The HOW magazine’s editors gave me, without any charge, a full page in an upcoming edition. Among the people who saw it was a designer at Henry Holt publishing in New York. This is how I got my start illustrating children’s books…