designing ebooks and other fun things

Ask a designer | Get your designer to really get your ebook

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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.

 

Question:

What can e-book writers do to make it easier for designers to work with their material?

by Paula Swenson

Answer:

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.

4 Comments on this Post.

  1. Lisa,

    What an incredibly helpful post!

    When submitting the book to the designer, is it helpful to format the text before sending, or does this create issues for the designer? I understand that the designer needs to be clear on chapter headings and such, but what about other formatting options?

    Also, do designers want the copy to come to them in a specific file format (Word, PDF, etc)?

    PS–I’d love to see your recipe card designs!

    • Thanks Jackie, those are excellent questions that I somehow didn’t think to include!

      I would say keep the formatting to a minimum. When the text is transferred into a layout program (InDesign in my case), most of the formatting is stripped. There are ways to keep it, but usually, formatting applied in a word processing program doesn’t follow the standards, so it’s easier to simply start from scratch.
      Using bold and italic if you want to emphasize something is all right (though I would just as soon you left it up to me), but definitely don’t go crazy with colors, highlights and fonts. After all, you’re paying someone to do it for you.

      As far as the copy itself, I generally don’t care as long as it’s easy to copy-paste, or import into InDesign. Word is fine, plain text is fine. PDF is not, as it usually adds forced line breaks, making me copy-paste a single paragraph at a time. This might be fine for a postcard, but for a 50 page ebook, not so much.

      My recipe cards used to be on my old site, before IdeaStylist was born. They will be making a comeback soon, but I figure they need a home of their own. (It’s in the process of being built.) Still, I might add a couple to the portfolio. :)

  2. Lisa, how fortuitous to find your site via Paula’s excellent question. Wonderful answer — very thorough, and nice to know you and your work.

    I follow a similar process for my Report Rescue clients (http://www.reportrescue.com). I find that the most critical components up front are what I like to call S.O.S. — I really encourage authors to use systems, organization and structure as they develop their content. When an author of an e-book or Kindle book writes with the reader or content consumer in mind, the transition to design and publishing becomes a more seamless one.

    I LOVE that you have addressed the passion factor in your reply! In my experience, both as a design / publishing consultant for authors and as someone who has hired designers, the end result is raised to a higher level and is that much more compelling when the selected resource provider really “gets’ what you, as an author or business owner, are all about. So, when I work with healers, coaches and visionary change agents, I naturally bring my own passion and enthusiasm for my clients work to the project and it shows in the finished product. Similar to your fire fighting example, I was for a time a marketing director for a medical device company and, while I have produced some pretty cool publications for medical device clients, there’s a certain magic to e-books and projects for clients who have a big message to share with the world around personal transformation, healing and growth, because those are personal passions I share.

    I’ve bookmarked your site, Lisa, and look forward to reading future answers!
    Fellow idea aficionado and passionate about clients creating businesses that begin with who they are,
    Dawn

    • Thank you for giving another excellent example of just how important passion is, Dawn! I think that passion is what often makes a difference between good and absolutely mind-blowing. But, more importantly, it’s that factor that allows us to add that certain magic that you mention — and I believe the magic is in making words and images, message and design become one whole instead of two separate parts.

      I am so glad you found my site, and am looking forward to hearing more of your opinions and examples!

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