What a Book Designer Wants Self-Published Authors to Know

Being a self-published author means also being a self-taught editor, marketer, website designer...the list goes on. 


Although being a successful self-published author is basically the same thing as being a one-person circus, one act we don’t recommend doing all by yourself is designing your book’s cover and interior

No doubt you’ve heard the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”, but it’s something we all do as readers. From the general quality of the cover to the genre and visual themes, a book’s cover tells us right away whether the book looks like it’ll be worth our time and money.  

If you don’t have a background in design, you can run the risk of devaluing your story with a less-than-professional looking book cover and interior. That’s why it’s so important to find and hire an experienced book designer to give your story the visual support it deserves. 

Working with editors, agents, or designers is new territory for most self-published authors, and is an exercise in communicating your project’s goals, expectations, timelines, and more. 

That’s why we interviewed HR Hegnauer, a Denver-based senior designer to get her perspective on the process of designing books for self-published authors. 

For over a decade, HR has specialized in working with independent publishers as well as individual artists, writers, and non-profit organizations. She has designed over 250 books along with countless other projects including CDs, posters, catalogs, ads, websites, and more.

Discover what a book designer wants self-published authors to know — from how to provide clear direction to setting expectations about revisions to avoiding what designers see as a red flag when working with authors.

Let’s start with a little bit about your background. How did you break into the book design business?

I first went to school for graphic design and photography, and then a MFA in poetry and MBA in business. It was sort of a strange combination of things…maybe because when I finished my MFA, I knew I didn’t want to teach. I moved to NYC and started working with publishers, and did what I could to get a way in with people who I admired who were publishing books.

The first book I designed was in 2007. I worked full-time for a publisher doing graphic design and marketing, but did part-time book design on the side. 

From 2009 and on, I’ve worked full-time as a book designer. I normally work with the publisher, since they’re usually the ones actually making the book. Right now, I work with publishers in NYC and Seattle, and I work directly with a few local authors as well. I’ve made about 250 books or so, and I really enjoy it. 

What book cover and interior design advice would you give to self-published authors? 

Being both an author and a designer is a big undertaking, and I can see how that would feel overwhelming. To start, I would say to the author: Begin with what you know. Sit down and think about the following:

1. Visualize Your Story

Think about what your story looks like visually. This can be very challenging for someone who usually works in words instead of visuals. 

I provide authors with a detailed survey that asks questions like:

  • Is there anything (an idea or theme) that needs to be specifically addressed on the cover? 
  • Are there reoccurring colors—or feelings of certain colors—present in the manuscript? For example, warm, cool, shadowed, red, etc. 
  • Are there colors that are consciously not present that I should avoid?
  • Do you have a specific piece of visual art to incorporate on the cover?
  • Is there a specific culture being represented?
  • Does your book have a specific time period? For example, is it set in the present day, 19th century, a non-linear time, etc? Are there multiple times?
  • Is your language elaborate and descriptive or compacted and minimalist?

I try to have authors excerpt one paragraph that best represents the work. I know that can seem like a ridiculous question to some degree, but I think that’s a good exercise to try to see how this passage can work visually. 

2. Keep the Interior Design Simple

With prose, you want to keep the text clean and easy to read. This isn’t a place for experimentation with fonts. Once the reader notices the font, they’re getting distracted from the content and not really enjoying the book. The reader shouldn’t even notice the style of the text, like if it’s too small or strange. 

Choose typefaces that are most common: serif for the main text, sans-serif for titles, accents, page numbers, etc. That sans-serif should match what’s on the cover as well.

3. Get Creative with Your Title Page

One fun thing I like to experiment with is pulling some element of the cover into the title page or half-title page. Even if it’s something subtle — like a line or shape — or something more involved, like a little graphic or some element excerpted from the cover. Incorporating this small element can bring unity to the overall thematic feel of the book’s design.

As an example, a press that I used to work for in NYC (which published all non-fiction scholarly and trade books) designed all their book covers in-house, but the interior designs were internationally outsourced. Sometimes the interior didn’t match up with the cover design, so intentionally adding that unity can be a really nice touch.

4. See What Sticks Out on Your Bookshelf

Front and back cover design by HR

When it comes to communicating your cover ideas to a designer, I’d advise looking at your bookshelf and seeing which book covers stick out to you.

Or if you’re a part of a unique community of writers, be it local writer friends or an online network, ask these resources about the types of covers that they feel work within your genre or story’s themes.

When you start working with your book designer, be sure to already have examples of book covers that you like and don’t like. Make those examples clear to the designer: “Here are 5 different cover options that I like and that inspire me, and 5 examples of what I don’t want and why.”

If you look at the copyright page on any book, it will say who the cover designer is. If the book was published with a large press, then the designer likely works directly for that press. But if it’s a smaller press, the designer is probably a freelancer, meaning there’s a chance you could reach out to that person, or try to find their contact information online. 

5. Give the Designer a Clear Direction

One of my biggest red flags as a book designer is when the author says, “I don’t know, make whatever you want.”

There’s no way I can guess what an author is thinking, so this kind of response shows me they can’t articulate their vision. When this happens, I try to ask a few more questions, like “Show me what you like or don’t like.”

6. Ask for The Logic Behind their Design Choices

Front and back cover design by HR

Some authors want me to have a lot of input on their book cover design — like 100% — and sometimes authors want to have nearly full control. Either way, when I send over a draft of my design, it’s my job as a designer to explain why something is working, and the context for my comments.

For example, it’s a designer’s job to explain, “This color is working because it’s a cool tone, which echoes the emotional dissonance of the story. And I chose these fonts because the story has a modern aesthetic.” 

A designer should always explain their design decisions — especially as a freelancer. Most of my clients I’ve worked with for years and years, but when establishing a relationship with a new client, I want them to know that I didn’t just make up a bunch of stuff and throw it on a page — there is thought and process behind it. 

And part of “telling an author why it works” helps the author articulate in their own mind why the design works, which helps inform their conversations with readers or agents in the future.

Lastly, it’s important for me as a designer to not have a “signature” look so that I can be malleable and provide designs across several different genres, time periods, and styles. A good designer needs to respect the spectrum of different visions. 

7. Give Yourself Time to Process

Not happy with the iterations? Step back and don’t rush it.

Take a week, a month, whatever it is, don’t respond and sit with it. This is called “white space” or “blank space” time, where you can step away and come back to it. 

There’s some research that shows the time right after you return to your work after a break is the most creative and efficient time to problem solve. This can be more useful than you may think. 

Go back to the basics and say “What colors are we really talking about here? Let’s decide on a tone. Do we want artwork on the cover? Do we want the text to be graphic?”  

8. Set Expectations for Rounds of Revisions

I have contracts that delineate how many edits I provide on any given project. It’s important for the designer to be compensated if they’re going to be making many different covers. 

I’ve written my own contracts and adjusted them over the years with time and error, but those are important for both sides. If the author really needs many different iterations that’s fine, but it needs to be understood from the beginning what that relationship looks like so everyone feels like their time is being respected and understood. 

Where Self-Published Authors Can Find Book Designers

Now that you’ve learned the ropes on how to successfully collaborate with a book designer, you’re ready to start shopping your options. We’ve put together a list of platforms where you can find and hire the perfect designer for your next book cover »

HR Hegnauer holds an MBA in Business from the University of Denver as well as an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University. She has taught graphic design and literature courses in universities, as well as given private instruction to individuals and organizations. She is also the author of two books of poetry. Check out her full book design portfolio here »

Adam user

President & CEO,
Steuben Press

Adam Ellis has worked in the book industry since 2002, when he was first exposed to the wonderful world of Self Publishing. Over the years he has worked with thousands of authors and helped to produce, print and publish countless books.

Carnality 2
Printing our books at Steuben Press has been the easiest step in the very hectic journey of publishing a book. They were friendly, accessible, and delivered a quality product right on time. Will definitely be working with them again in the future. 
– Josiah Hesse, Denver, Colorado
Pick up a copy of Josiah Hesse's latest book in his Carnality series at http://www.suspectpress.com/product/carnality-sebastian-phoenix-and-the-dark-star/.