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According to one of the oldest maxims around, we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But we do. A good cover with a nice “Book Club” stamp of approval will always be more appealing than a shoddy, thrown-together book. The long and short of it? Aesthetics matter—more than we care to admit.
But it’s not just the outside that we judge. It’s the book design—the way the pages unfold, the way the margins look, the font and typography, the formatting, the overall aesthetic presence of the words in our hands.
Admit it: Even book lovers have to place some weight on the book design. And while not every glance turns into a purchase, a good book designer can get people to say, “Wow. I have to at least read the back cover to find out if this is the kind of book I want to read.”
If you have ambitions in overall book design, there’s never been a better time to get into the market. The digital revolution has seen millions of new self-published books released every year, which means there are millions of freelance book designer projects available. With that in mind, let’s look at the art and business of book design—and find out what there is to learn.
First things first, we’re not talking exclusively about book cover design. A cover is like the first picture in a book’s online dating profile—it’s going to win the most “right swipes,” sure.
But it’s not everything.
Book design also includes everything else about the book except the content of the words. It can encompass just about anything you can think of, from the binding of the book to page layouts to the flourish of artistry you put next to the page numbers. If you’re working as a freelance book designer, your job is to take the words a writer gives you and turn them into a visually pleasing experience for the reader.
What is a book designer in the grand scheme of things? The job of the book’s cover design is to be eye-catching and eye-popping. Compared to that, the overall book design often fades to the background. You may create little eye-catching touches that fit with a book’s theme, but the best book design gets out of the reader’s way. Think of yourself as the book design’s cinematographer: the writer is the director, and theirs is the ultimate vision. But it’s your job to make sure everything looks just right.
Let’s imagine you’re applying for book designer jobs online. What sorts of skills will hiring managers expect you to possess?
- Book covers: A picture is worth a thousand words, but a book cover might be worth about 25,000. Your ability to assemble a cover that entices potential readers, fits the book’s genre, and previews the content within is its own art form. And it’s the point of the book design that will require the most creativity.
- Layouts: From selecting artful typography to putting together tables of contents and appendices, you have to nail the layout every time. This includes putting together book designs for both print publishing and digital download. Both categories include their individual quirks—and it requires both know-how and experience to get a handle on each.
- Communication: It may take only one writer to finish a book, but it often takes a team to publish it. That means being in rock-solid communication with publishers, editors, and authors. You’ll have to be the coordinator who gets it all together into one completed and aesthetically pleasing package.
Master the Basics of the Inside Pages
Book Design Basics: Styling Novel Interiors with InDesign
Given the bullet points above, you might expect it takes some time to become an accomplished book designer. You’d be right. One quick online search for book designer jobs yields publishers who are looking for real-world experience.
The trouble is, how do you assemble a book design portfolio if you don’t have a design job in the first place? A book designer job description can look like a paradox: You’re supposed to have the experience to get started, but how do you get experience if everyone requires it?
One place to start is in freelance jobs. Given that there are millions of self-published books a year, there are bound to be a few active requests for book designers on platforms like Upwork and Fiverr. You can charge a small amount—just to get some experience under your belt—and build your portfolio while you learn.
What Kind of Design Degree Is Required?
Graphic design is preferable. Most often, hiring managers want to see a bachelor’s of some sort on your resume, typically that graphic design degree. The better the school, the better the resume. But it won’t be a dealbreaker if you come from a small school. This is a job where the proof is in the pudding—if you have an excellent portfolio and proven experience, the place you went to school won’t matter quite so much in comparison.
Building Experience in Place of the Graphic Design Degree
On the other hand, you might not need a degree if you have a portfolio of best-selling book covers and book design packages. Obviously, that’s not easy to achieve from the outset, but it does highlight one quirk of becoming a book designer: For all of the formal education required, it ultimately comes down to one question:
How good do your books look?
After all, some writers start out with almost zero professional experience. But literary agents and publishing houses are eager to snatch them up if the book they put on paper is remarkable. It’s the same in book design: The work you do matters. For that reason, consider building a portfolio of freelance book design experience even as you receive a formal education. There’s no substitute for a degree from the University of Hard Knocks.
As with any field, the salary can vary depending on experience, who’s employing you, where you work, and a number of other factors. But let’s get the basic information down first.
One “senior designer” position, for example, merits nearly $70,000 a year. That’s quite a leap from $26,000 as an entry-level book designer salary, which shows that while book designers might not pull in mega-dollars, there’s enough wiggle room to build a career out of it.
You might have noticed we’ve recommended building a portfolio of freelance book design jobs as a foot in the door. And then you might have noticed that the book designer salary numbers aren’t exactly that inspiring. But there’s good news: This is the gig economy.
Your career can be more like a choose-your-own-adventure book than a static novel.
You can easily go the traditional route with book design. Publishers across the world need people to assemble books from simple Word documents into publishable works of art. And they’re more than happy to pay you a tidy living if you can do that consistently, particularly with a strong background.
The advantage to standard jobs? Benefits like health insurance, retirement plans, and the steady reliability of having a consistent paycheck coming in.
Freelancing can feel like the Wild West compared to a standard, salaried job. On one hand, there’s more opportunity: You can dictate your own prices and schedule, and potentially earn far more working far fewer hours. On the other hand, all of the risks fall into your lap. It becomes your responsibility to handle more complicated taxes, save for retirement, and fund your own health care benefits.
A Hybrid Approach
Then again, there’s no one who ever said you have to pick one or the other. Just as you can build a portfolio from freelance book designer jobs as you get your education, you can also work side hustles as you work your way up through a standard job in the industry—just make sure you check out those non-compete clauses in any contract you sign.
The writer’s job is to assemble a loose collection of words into a cogent story that engages the reader on an artistic level. But there’s more art to the average book than just that. There’s also your job: turning the feel, aesthetics, and appearance of those words into a seamless reading experience that reflects the content of the words themselves.
If you approach it the right way, this isn’t just an endeavor to take your graphic design skills to an artistic level. It could be a career that lasts.
Put Your Skills to the Test
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