In a previous blog post, I discussed the importance of treating a self-publishing project as a small business—an entrepreneurial venture—rather than a solo effort. Here we’ll talk specifically about hiring and working with a freelance graphic designer as part of your publishing team.

Understanding the needs and responsibilities of both yourself as the client/project manager and the freelancer as your layout artist or cover designer is important to ensuring that your project runs as smoothly as possible. While I can’t speak for every design professional and every book project, what follows are some important points for working succesfully with a freelance book designer.

Gathering Information About Your Book Project

In order to start looking for a suitable designer—and obtain an accurate estimate on project costs—you’ll need to provide a clear picture of the scope and requirements of your book. The following list of items are a good place to start when discussing your project with potential designers.

Your book’s manuscript

  • What sort of content is it (novel, poetry, cookbook, photo book, etc.)?
  • Is it finished, or does it still need rewrites and editing?
  • Will it be sent to the designer in Word format, or similar?
  • What’s the word count?
  • Are there any images, and will they need scanning or digital recreation?
  • Are there any tables, charts, diagrams, footnotes, endnotes, indexes or other extras to accommodate?

Printing considerations and specifications

  • What trim size will the book be?
  • Do you have a print service provider lined up already?
  • Is the book to be paperback or hard cover? Does it need a dust jacket?
  • Will you need an ebook version in addition to a print version?
  • What’s your timeline or deadline for final production?

Your project budget

  • What sort of budget do you have in mind for the design portion of the project?
    Providing a general range is usually sufficient if you’re not sure. In the event your budget is much too low for the freelancer’s usual range, then sharing this info helps everyone avoid a lengthy estimate discussion when the project budget and service level being offered are simply not a good fit.

It’s best to have as much of the above information ready as possible before you begin asking for estimates from potential designers. Ideally, your manuscript will be in as close to its final form as possible, aside from any last-minute typo corrections, so that the designer can accurately gauge costs.

You might not have answers to all of the information above if you’re still in the early stages of writing and editing your book. Don’t sweat it if you find yourself in this position; provide as much information on your book as you can, or as requested by your designer. It’s better to provide too much information than too little. If you’re not sure whether a detail is important, go ahead and pass it on to them. Most designers will appreciate your thoroughness; it’ll show you’re serious about your project, and it helps them understand your project goals better.

Researching Book and Cover Designers

When deciding on a graphic designer for your book interior or cover, you’ll want to be on the lookout for a few key points:

  • Does the designer’s portfolio of work match what you’re looking for in terms of genre/subject, quality and style?
  • Do they have a client list or references that you can check?
  • Are they responsive to your emails or quote requests, and do they communicate clearly and take the initiative to ask questions for clarification?
  • Do they routinely have a lot of work on their plate? Will this impair their ability to work accurately, efficiently and to deadline?
  • If they have exact prices or typical costs listed for their services, do their rates fall in line with what your budget can support?

Take some time to research a number of options, and make a shortlist of the best 3-4 candidates. Then, you can begin submitting your estimate requests to each to gather comparisons of services vs cost.

Reviewing Estimates for Book and Cover Design Work

Once you have a list of designers to contact, you can provide them with your book info so they can put together estimates for your specific project. Once you receive your estimates, you’ll want to review all the details to be sure you’ll be getting the services that suit your needs and budget. Here are some important points to consider before signing any contracts:

  • How many initial design proofs and revision rounds will be included? While it may seem a better “bargain” to have unlimited revisions or initial drafts included, this can indicate a designer that lacks the ability to thoroughly discuss, understand and nail down your ideas to a short selection of best concepts from the start. With no one at the reins, the project lacks direction and can result in an unsatisfying (and unmarketable) end-product.
  • Will the designer’s required turnaround meet your deadline? Also, will you be able to supply all necessary materials adequately in advance to help them meet this deadline? Designers typically require all content to be supplied at least a few weeks in advance of a publishing date.
  • For book covers, does the fee include complete transfer of copyright? This is a standard practice in the industry, since ongoing royalties for the cover artist are not usually part of such an arrangement.
  • Are all stock photos included in the cost of a cover design?
  • What sort of files will be delivered upon completion of the project? Are design source files included or do they cost extra?
  • Will the designer communicate with your printer, or will you need to handle that task yourself?
  • Is a deposit required, and/or is there a kill fee to back out of the arrangement at any given time?

If any of the service terms are not clear, make sure to contact them for clarification; they should be happy to answer any questions or concerns you may have. If you wish to negotiate any changes to the agreement as it stands, be sure to do so now before starting the project.

Supplying Files and Starting The Book Project

Once you’ve decided on a book or cover designer, you’ll need to send them all of your materials. Here’s a list of tips for supplying designer-friendly content:

  • Your book’s manuscript should be as complete and fully-edited as possible before submitting for layout. While there’s usually some allowance for post-layout editing/revisions, it can add to costs or timeframe significantly for anything more than a few typo fixes or word changes. This is especially true for complicated layouts (e.g. pictures and captions with text, tables and diagrams that require precise positioning on every page).
  • Avoid applying excessive amounts of formatting to your content. This means using just simple bold, italics, and only basic headings (e.g. change font sizes) to indicate the hierarchical structure of your content. A lot of other formatting—precise indentations, list styles etc.—need to be stripped and applied to clean text anyway, so it’s a lot of wasted time and effort on the author’s part to finesse these details pre-layout.
  • Supply all materials at the same time, preferably as a single zip file (or on a data disc/USB stick). This includes all text, images, tables, cover design ideas, page layout samples, notes and instructions, and anything else your book may require.
  • Text should be supplied in .doc or .rtf format, images as high-resolution JPGs or TIFs (e.g. 300 dpi for colour photos, 600 dpi for pure black and white diagrams).

In a future post, I’ll go through a more thorough discussion on the best ways to prepare and send your files, but the above list is a good start for now. If in doubt as to what you should send and how, ask your designer for their preferred file formats and delivery methods.

Managing Your Book Design Project

Since you’ll be acting as the project manager for your book’s design process, it’s important to keep on top of its progress and ensure everything flows smoothly. Below are some tips for communicating effectively with your chosen designer:

  • Keep in touch regularly, but avoid daily interruptions to their schedule. Be sure to keep them informed of important changes to your deadline or project particulars, and check in at pre-arranged project milestones. Otherwise, allow them to do their job with as little distraction as possible. If they have questions for you during the process, try to respond as promptly and thoroughly as possible.
  • Try to avoid the temptation to micro-manage or act as the designer in this arrangement. There’s a reason you hired a professional to design your book and cover, rather than doing it yourself; trust them to know what’s best for your book’s appearance, and you’ll instill their trust in you as a project manager. Your job is simply to help ensure things keep moving forward with a direction and vision that everyone is happy with.
  • When you receive design or layout proofs to review, be sure to look them over thoroughly. Make a list of any questions, concerns or desired changes you may have. It’s best to compile as much feedback as possible into one place (such as a Word doc or email) to stay organized.

You may wish to keep a production schedule on hand—say as part of your digital daytimer or handwritten journal—to remind yourself of important milestones and delivery dates. That way you can build in reminders to get in touch with your designer to ensure things are proceeding according to plan.

Additional Tips for Working with Your Designer

  • Remember that you can usually request a no-obligation estimate for book and cover design services. This can help you shop around for the best fit in terms of cost and overall services supplied.
  • Be as accurate and honest as possible with your estimate/quote request, and be prepared to pay extra costs if you need to change project particulars after the estimate has already been issued.
  • Provide a budget or cost expectations for your project, if you’re able. For some service providers, this can help them choose which offerings might suit your needs best, if they supply a range of options.
  • Estimates usually expire after a minimum of 30 days, but can sometimes extend to 90 days. If you aren’t yet ready to begin the project, let the designer know before they prepare your estimate; they may be happy to offer an extension on the terms of the estimate/proposal to give you time to make a decision.
  • If you’re planning a Kickstarter campaign to fund your project, be sure to gather some ballpark estimates for the design work first. If in doubt, lean towards the high end of the cost range, and include a buffer (e.g. add 20%). That way, your campaign has a better chance of fully funding your project with fewer surprises.
  • Be sure to obtain estimates as far ahead of your printing, publishing or marketing deadline as possible. This will usually be somewhere before or near the time of your final editing run, when most of your manuscript is more or less set in stone.
  • As a guideline, try to allow at least 4-6 weeks prior to your final deadline to complete an entire book project (interior pages plus cover). You should expect to pay a premium for a designer to accommodate a very short turnaround time (i.e. 2-4 weeks or less for a complete book package).

Final Thoughts

Working with a freelance book designer might seem daunting at first, but bear in mind you’re working with a professional who enjoys helping their clients succeed. If you follow the tips in this article to help you organize, manage and communicate effectively about your project, you’ll be able to cultivate a long-term working relationship with a designer who’s just as passionate about your work as you are!

If you’re interested in an estimate for your book or cover design project, please feel free to fill out this form for a no-obligation book or cover design estimate!