The Curious Case of "Do It Yourself" Indie Writers

book design self-publishing Aug 03, 2021

For some reason I can’t understand, a "do it yourself" mindset is quite popular among many self-published writers.

In fact, many of them think they are also designers. I don't know if it's because certain cloud-based platforms are marketed as "easy-to-use" or because great design looks so simple, so effortless, that one cannot help but feel like it's easy.

This mindset is so popular that when I decided to put together a course on designing a book for publication, my ambition was to teach writers how to do everything themselves.

After all, that's what I've been doing for the past decade.

Looks like anyone can do it, right?

After all, we have a plethora of tools and apps. You can easily grab a book cover template on, let's say, Canva, and format your eBook according to guidelines set by Amazon's KDP, and that's it.

Well, it doesn't work that way, and I believe it's harmful to most self-publishers to think like that.

Book design is anything but easy.

You have to consider the fact that there's a lot of marketing involved to make it seem like technology has advanced so much that design has become effortless.

You feel that way until you follow a tutorial step by step and still end up with a terrible result.

This happens because it's to no one's advantage to acknowledge:

1. Taste

2. Skills

The main difference between an author who decides to design a book cover themselves and a designer can be summarized as follows:

One of them spends hours every day developing taste.

Guess who's who.

And in order to develop taste, which is the ability to discern bad design from good, but also the ability to understand what makes good design good, you need to invest a lot of time and energy.

Now, let's talk about skills.

For instance, designing the interior of a paperback requires that you understand typography, bleeds and margins, that you understand the type of paper you should use, and how to arrange different elements of your book.

 

It sounds easy. It's not.

But What if I Don't Have the Money?

The number one argument for the "do it yourself" approach is the fact that the self-publisher simply can't afford to pay a designer.

Well, a lot of people would really like to go to space, but I don't see them building giant slingshots in their backyards.

Of course, there's also a mindset issue here.

Again, it's just the way self-publishing platforms like KDP have been marketing themselves.

Self-publishing is free, right?

It is.

But if you pay $0, that places you right at the bottom of the food chain, where it's so overcrowded that your sales will closely resemble your financial investment.

Good design work isn't cheap, and mediocre design is just as worse as doing it yourself.

And I get it. Maybe you're on a budget. And it all feels like a balancing act.

How do you prioritize what to spend on when every single element is just as important?

You don't.

Look, when working on my course on book design, I had to make a choice:

1. Turn it into a 6-month project that would be comprehensive enough to teach people all the skills they needed to design a book themselves. And then, there's still taste to account for. How many would give up precious time that they could spend writing or promoting their book in order to develop taste?

2. Put together a couple of resources, offer some simplistic advice, and call it a day. This type of course wouldn't help anyone. It would just have pointed a few brave souls in the right direction.

That being said, my advice is this:

If you publish a couple of titles every year, pay the price. Hire a great designer. Invest in a package that ensures your readers will enjoy the experience of holding your book in their hand, and they'd be proud to showcase your book on their coffee tables.

On the other hand, if you publish over ten titles per year (some actually do that) or you have an entire portfolio of books you want to self-publish at once, it might be wise to spend the next 6 to 12 months developing the skills to do everything yourself.

The Bankrupt Vision

Most often, however, it happens that the author has a specific vision of how their book is supposed to look.

Of course, they also happen to be oblivious to the design language of books within their genre, the limitations of that design, and the psychology behind that particular design language.

In other words, books within a certain genre look a certain way, and readers are expecting them to look like that.

Even Working with a Designer Is a Game of Compromise

Another important aspect to consider is the fact that even if you hire a designer, you still have to be relatively fluent in book design, so you can understand the limitations of the genre, for instance (how readers within a particular niche expect a book cover to look like), and so you can better work with your designer.

In other words, even if you end up paying someone to do it for you, there's still taste and skill involved, and you must also get a sense of what design language appeals to you most.

A lot of authors have this vision of how their book is supposed to look like. 

At the risk of irritating you, I must tell you that compromise is inevitable. Parts of your vision might not make much sense from a design perspective, or they might not be practical. 

Trust your designer, prepare yourself mentally for compromise, and understand that sometimes your vision can't be properly translated into an actual product.

You're Not a Designer... And That's Okay

The truth is that unless you're a designer, you shouldn't design your own book.

It's that simple.


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