This post is part of the Ask a Designer series. You ask me questions, I answer them to the best of my ability. The questions can be about design process, branding, software, technical things – or even completely unrelated. Want to play? Leave me a comment here, or use the contact form.
What can e-book writers do to make it easier for designers to work with their material?
Thank you for a thought-provoking question, Paula! My own process tends to be looking at the draft of the e-book first, and then asking questions and clarifications if needed, so I had to really think about this to find some common factors. I am not sure if you were referring to the writing process only, or to the communication with the designer as well. I think both are equally important in getting the final product to look and feel just right, so I’ll mention all the little things that came to mind.
Structure your content
It should be clear at a glance what the chapter titles, heading and subheads are, as well as any other repeating elements that need to have a specific visual style. If there are graphics, charts, or illustrations that need to be created to illustrate a certain point, specify that. (If you are hesitant to include notes within the body text, I find that the comments feature in word processing software works well for this purpose. Or simply making the notes highlighted or of a different color.)
Summarize what your book is about in one or two sentences.
You are going to have to do this anyway when you publish it, so start now. This is the foundation for the concept from which the cover will be built. Make it short, strong, easy to grasp and interpret. We are looking for one main concept here, no bullet points allowed!
If you have specific requirements, make it clear from the start.
Maybe you must have a specific font for body text, because that’s what you have always been using. Maybe you have to have a specific image on the cover, or within the book. Maybe the titles have to be purple because that color is central to the message. Whatever your list of must-haves, make sure they are communicated right at the beginning of the project, and not after a number of pages have already been laid out in a font that is different to what you wanted.
Also make it clear which things are an absolute must (a logo or a specific typeface that you have always used as a branding element are a good example of this) and which ones are would-like-to-haves, while you are open to other ideas.
A word of caution: having too many of these, or trying to micromanage, can harm the creative process. Especially when each idea is met with a “can we try it this way?” or “can you move that graphic over there?” I am one of the designers who doesn’t mind plenty of input and feedback — in fact, I welcome it — but it can get to be counterproductive. If your designer feels like he has no control over what the ebook will end up looking like, he will stop caring. Not intentionally, but it can get to that point if he feels that all his input is overridden. And that is certainly not a place where you want to go. (I know you would never do this, but I thought it was worth a mention.)
If you know the overall look/feel/vibe that you are going for, give examples.
Concepts like “modern”or “whimsical” or “feminine” mean different things to different people. Show your designer some examples of the styles you like. (As before, know when to stop and let the designer take over.)
A tip for not overdoing this part: giving examples of other books or ebooks are easy to take too literally. Look to other sources instead. Posters, fabric, drawings, packaging, photograph — whatever calls up that particular style.
If you have the time and enjoy this sort of thing, you and your designer could even create a mood board (real or virtual) together to set the tone for the ebook.
The best example
Did you choose your designer because of a particular project you saw in their portfolio and absolutely loved? Tell them! This isn’t just about flattery (though that’s always nice too), by giving them an example of their work that you love you will give them a very strong indication of the style that you are drawn towards. Having that kind of a reference makes the creative process a lot easier.
Is your topic something they can get passionate about?
No, I don’t mean it should be a topic they have experience with. That one is used way too often in the decision process, and I think that is a huge mistake.
For example, I happen to have experience designing promotional materials for fire fighting equipment. (Don’t ask!) But I will most likely run and hide if someone contacts me and asks if I would like to design an ebook about that. Or, should I accept the project for whatever reason, the result will likely be uninspired.
On the other hand, there are topics that I am so very passionate about that I could come up with concepts and layouts just for the fun of it, even when I haven’t done it for a paying client. Recipe ebooks are a good example of that for me. (I actually started designing some recipe cards just for fun.)
Yes, designers are curious by nature, and we can easily immerse ourselves in all kinds of topics and industries. Yet there are always things that are less than inspiring. This differs for everyone. And I am not saying you won’t get a great looking professional design when your designer isn’t all that passionate about the topic. However, when there is that spark about the topic itself, the design can be taken to a whole new level.
Be passionate. Be interesting. Get your designer to be one of your biggest supporters.
If you nail this one, you can ignore pretty much everything else. If your designer is as excited about your ebook as you are, then you will find ways to work around any obstacle. The words and images will be in tune with the core message, and the entire process will be the most fun you both ever had while working.
This isn’t always easy to do, but if you are passionate in your writing, it is much easier to spread that passion to everyone who collaborates.