Indie Publishing Interviews: Isaac Stewart, Book Designer

When I was getting ready to publish EVERYTHING’S FINE, I had print layout fear.  Enter my awesome friend Isaac, who walked me through how to do layout in Indesign.  (When you have an expert, it’s super easy.  When you don’t, I’m guessing not.)

Isaac has lots of book design experience, and currently designs for Brandon Sanderson.  (Does it make you want to buy my book knowing that the guts were designed by Brandon’s assistant?  No?  Ah, well.)  Today he’s here talking about book design as a whole, including cover design.  Welcome, Isaac.

So, Isaac, tell us.  What is the role of a book designer?

In its purely distilled form, book design is the art of getting readers to pick up the books that will interest them. So, it’s a combination of market research, keeping track of design trends, and producing professional output.

On the technical end, the book designer is responsible for taking working with an author or publisher to create the design of the book. For e-books, that usually just means the front cover, but when you get into printing the book, you add more complexity the further you go, adding the spine and back cover design for a paperback to jacket and hardcase design for a hardcover. There are even more steps to adding embossing and print effects.

What tools do you use in book design?

Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator. This is what I reach for first, but since I’ve got a background in animation, I sometimes reach for 3D programs like Max and Maya. Additionally I’ll use pen and paper to sketch thumbnails, use stock photo sites to see what’s available, browse Pinterest for researching similar books, and sometimes even schedule photo shoots and hire photographers when what’s already out there doesn’t meet the needs of the book.

What advice do you have for self-publishers? Should they hire a book designer or do it themselves?

Hire a Cover Designer/Artist. If the book looks professional, a reader is more likely to click on it.

Conversely, I believe that if you have enough drive and time, you can figure out book design for yourself, but like anything, your first attempts are probably going to be subpar. If you are as interested in book design as you are in writing, then by all means, take the years you need to figure out the trade. Then you can write books and design the covers and feel like an all-around awesome superperson.

But ideally, you want to be writing books, so almost universally I suggest that self-publishers hire a professional book designer. You want your book to grab the right audience and look professional. Too often, people try to do the cover themselves, using programs not meant to design covers. So they’ve hired a high school art student, or the neighbor’s artistic nephew–both of whom are great artists, probably, but they lack the experience and finesse of a professional. Same goes for typography. You really need to use the right tools for the job.

A designer is going to have access to the right tools and be able to help a self-publisher hit the market with a professional looking cover.

A Google search will turn up ebook cover designers, but make sure their work looks professional before you hire them. Some people think that they can make their own cover, but unless you’re a professional designer, I wouldn’t recommend it. Too many do-it-yourselfers think their books look good when they really don’t. If their work–or your own attempts–start looking like something from the Lousy Book Covers blog (, then you really ought to look into hiring someone.

What advice do you have for self-publishers who are designing their own books? What should they do/avoid?

Look at a lot of professionally-produced books whether online or at the bookstore. Find books that are similar to what you write, and try get your designer to emulate those covers. Graphic design is a whole other language of pictures that we’ve been taught our whole lives to unconsciously to read. You want to tap into that unconscious language and give the reader the right image that attracts them to the type of book you’ve written. Falsely advertising the book with the wrong kind of cover is only going to get you one-star reviews from people whose expectations aren’t met. Title, mood, tone, color: all this will build up the resonance of your book and help you find the readers already predisposed to like the kind of stories you’re telling.

An author friend of mine–John Brown (link here)–pointed out something that’s become one of my favorite principles when designing e-book covers. They’re basically movie posters. Good movie posters are designed to be seen and recognized at a distance. In the case of e-books, you want that thumbnail to really grab someone’s attention, so work with bold ideas. Pick a theme, and stick to that with only one or two elements on the cover. Look at movie posters, dissect what they’re doing to attract the right audiences, and see how you can use some of those same principles on the covers for your e-books. Take Janci’s latest book Everything’s Fine, for example. The big idea here is a well-photographed close up on a sad female. This draws your eye even in thumbnail. Next you see the title, which informs the reader that this is a YA book about coming to grips with strong emotions. Now, as a reader, you’ve been given all the information you need to know if it’s a book you’ll likely enjoy, which will motivate you to click the links and read the cover copy.

That’s what good book covers do. They look professional. They portray the mood and genre in a simple-to-read image. They draw a reader in, saying, “This is probably the type of book you would enjoy.”

Thanks, Isaac!