Luna Station Quarterly is a speculative fiction magazine featuring stories by emerging women authors.
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Damn, that’s a nice looking book

by Jennifer Lyn Parsons

After finishing the layout on Luna Station Press’s latest forthcoming novel (hint: it’s mine!), I realized that I have a lot of knowledge I could pass on that will help those who are self-publishing and want to make their books look like they came from a big publisher. It would be wonderful if every author could enlist a designer to lay their book out for them, but that’s not the reality.

Today I’m going to pass on a few tips and tools that will hopefully get you a more satisfying (and exciting) final book in your hands. This won’t be an exhaustive resource, but I’ve noted a few patterns in self-published books that make the difference and keep books from having that polished appearance. For now, I’m going to focus on print layouts, partly because once you do the print design, the ebook becomes a lot easier to put together.

Let’s get started!

Layout Tools

First things first, you need a piece of software to layout the interior of your book. There are a couple roads you can go down for this. Microsoft Word is perfectly acceptable if you want to keep it basic and already use it, or you can choose to go all in and get a copy of Adobe InDesign and learn the ins and outs of that powerful piece of software. There are a lot of other options in between as well. This article lists the pros and cons of making various choices.

Depending on how you’re printing your copies, many services will provide a template for you to use as well, which saves lots of work getting things generally set up. I have a thought or two on this option that I’ll get to in a moment.

In general, the most important thing about using whatever tool you choose is that you take your time and have patience with yourself and the software. It might take a bit of effort and involve reading some instructions and tutorials, but the result will be worth it.

Interior Design

Earlier I mentioned printer-provided templates, and here by “printer” I’ll include Createspace/KDP and other print-on-demand services. These are a great foundation for putting your book together, but here’s the thing about them: they’re set up for marking the limits for the content you can fit on the page. This means that if you don’t make adjustments to the margins then you’ll be filling the entire printable area of the page. The text won’t breathe and will be much harder on your readers’ eyes.

My biggest tip for creating a pleasurable experience for your readers is to go look at your favorite books. Take measurements of how big the margins are, including the inner margin that touches the spine. Check out different styles of books and see how they’re arranged. When in doubt, always give it a little more space than you think it needs.

Using books from the big publishers as a guide goes for more than the margins, too. Take a look at chapter headings, page numbers, title pages, etc. Definitely pay close attention to how big the font or text size is in these books. Copy anything you like and incorporate it into your own layout.

If you want to dig a bit deeper, I can highly recommend “The Non-Designers Design Book” by Robin Williams (not that one). For a quick overview, I found a couple of videos that give you a few basics and terms.

Notes on Cover Design

The cover is going to be the face of your book–the thing everyone is going to see first–so of course you want to make a good impression. Covers are tricky business. This is one of those times where I will suggest getting a professional to do the job if you can afford it. If you can’t, I have a few tips that will help keep your book off those “worst covers ever” lists.

Tools for Designing Your Cover

If your choice of printer offers a cover creation tool, go ahead and use that. The templates they provide will be solid, if simple, and produce a consistent result. Without that kind of tool, dealing with spine size, bleeds, and other technical aspects of creating a cover can be tricky. It’s all learnable, but may take a bit of trial and error to get things working properly.

If you decide to go full DIY, my tool of choice is Affinity Photo, which is a much less expensive tool than Photoshop, but does many of the same things. This has a learning curve to contend with, so it may take a while to get your cover put together.

If you’re just looking to design a nice front cover and can use your printer’s creation tool for the rest (spine, back cover, etc.) then Canva seems to be a good option. This would also be great if you’re doing an ebook and only need a front cover.

Design Inspiration and Art

Yes, go look at your favorite book covers for inspiration. Think about what your book is about and what kind of cover would fit it best. This page is filled with cover templates you can use as inspiration for creating your own. Pay attention to the fonts and layouts they use.

As for art, there are plenty of places to find stock imagery. Shutterstock is one of the biggest and most popular, but Pixabay is a great choice for free art.

If you’re looking for a painting or illustration for your cover, I would suggest looking at DeviantArt, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter’s #visiblewomen tag, and other places where artists show off their work. Many artists are willing to license existing works for a royalty fee that will be more affordable than commissioning custom art.

Cover Tips

You have your tools and your art; now you need a few more tips to get your cover put together. This article is a great starting point for ideas and guidelines. I’ll also include this article as a solid resource for getting started.

My own two cents is to keep things simple, tidy, with a large, easy to read title font on the cover. Make sure there is enough contrast between the text and the cover to keep it legible. Also, it’s better to go with no art at all than bad art.

Final Thoughts

Once you have your interior and exterior all ready to go, the final important step is to get a proof copy of your book. You need to see what it looks like in real life and make changes before you send it out into the world.

You’ve worked hard getting the story itself just right, so take your time and get the cover right, too. Show the proof to someone you trust to give you helpful feedback. This is where that designer acquaintance or the friend with great taste comes in handy. When you ask for their opinion, don’t prompt them. Let them tell you what they like and don’t like and then consider if those are changes that would improve the presentation of your book.

Putting your own book together is not something that should be rushed. Take your time with it, have patience if you’ve never done this before, and get feedback before you hit that publish button.

Good luck and happy publishing!

A bit about the columnist:

A software engineer by trade, Jennifer Lyn Parsons is a life-long lover of story with a capital S. Her work has been seen in various magazines and she has published three books, with quite a few more in her back pocket. She counts Jim Jarmusch and Laura Ingalls Wilder as two of her biggest influences. Make of that what you will. When not writing either code or fiction, she reads books and comics, and sometimes makes things out of wool or paper. She finds joy in making things, be they digital or analog. Visit author page

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