Photographers have many options for creating a fine art or professional photo book: layout tools like InDesign, tools in Lightroom and Aperture, software from POD services, and, of course, hiring a book designer. This post covers the last option.

Book Design: Using Who the Pros Use

When an art or photography book publisher publishes a book, they use a professional book designer to design the cover and lay out the pages. This is also an option for individual photographers. While hiring a pro costs more than DIY, the results are more likely to reflect the level of quality that a collector or consumer is going to expect when they buy an expensive photo book. (The exception to this rule is, of course, if you have the eye and skill set of a pro.) Also, an experienced book designer will bring to the project specialist knowledge that can help you get the best printed book for your dollar.

Now, I am a big DIYer myself, and I’m a halfway decent book designer—but if I had spent the time and effort creating a collection of images that I thought deserved to be made into a book (I’m not there yet!), I would seriously consider hiring a pro to actually do the design. I say this because I have seen several collections of remarkable photographs turned into very unremarkable books because of DIY design on the part of a good photographers who were not good designers. (On the other hand, if you are just making a handful of copies using one of the POD services—Blurb, Createspace, Lulu—it might make more sense to use the book design tools they provide, or use the photo book design tools within Adobe Aperture or Apple Aperture. I’ll be reviewing all of these options in the next few weeks.)

All Designers Are Not Created Equal

When first-time publishers think about getting their book designed, they often mention to us that they have a sibling, nephew, niece, uncle, dachshund etc. who can do the job, basically because the relative in question has a computer and took an art class. All I have to say is this: knowing what you do about photography, would you hire a relative to do a high-stakes editorial or wedding shoot just because they had a consumer DSLR?

Even if someone is a professional graphic designer, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are up to speed on designing books. Graphic designers are specialists: one who knows how to design a book might do lousy product labels, and vice versa. If you are not going to do it yourself, what you want is a good book designer.

Where Are All The Book Designers?

Book designers either work as freelancers on a book-by-book basis for publishers, work as employees of publishers, or work for companies—like Bookmobile— that provide services to book publishers. Often, a publisher will hire one designer for the cover of the book and another for the interior of the book, because these are specialties in themselves. But that’s not appropriate for photo books. For a novel, the cover design is like a movie poster—all about drama, conveying an emotion, grabbing attention—while the interior should be well designed but not particularly obtrusive. The purpose of a photo book, on the other hand, is to showcase the photography. One of the photos (the most striking!) should be on the front cover, and the design of the cover and interior should be in total harmony. That means one designer.

Freelance Book Designers

Freelance book designers are all around the country, though they tend to cluster in centers of publishing. Try Googling “book designer, [your city]” to find freelancers in your area. Another option is regional book production organizations, whose websites may have freelancer directories. Here are a few examples:

Bookbuilders of Boston

Minnesota Book Builders (no website, but there is a LinkedIn group)

Publishing Professionals Network (formerly Bookbuilders West. Their website has a freelancer directory.)

Publishing Services Companies

These companies provide services to book publishing organizations, including design, editing, page layout, project management, and sometimes help with distribution. These companies focus on serving publishing organizations rather than individual authors. Often they will only work with individuals on sizeable projects. Bookmobile’s own excellent publishing services department, which operates in parallel with our printing department but also works with many offset book printers, has produced hundreds of books, including numerous award winners. We do work with individual photographers who have a focused publishing plan, as well as with galleries and other organizations publishing photo books. On the other hand, we do not work with individual authors publishing novels and text-heavy nonfiction.

What a Book Designer Does

A professional book designer doesn’t just sit down at the computer and start hacking out pages in InDesign. They start by planning the book, based on the the text and images you provide. They will choose, or help you choose, a page size that best displays your work without being uneconomical (a difference of 1/8 inch in a page dimension can mean thousands of dollars difference in printing cost). They can advise you on paper selection and printing processes. They are usually typeface maniacs and will propose typefaces you have never heard of but that are the right balance between cool and not garish. They will do sample designs of the cover and interior—based on your initial input—for you to approve prior to doing final layouts. They will make printed proofs of the cover and all the pages for your review and proofreading. They will make corrections based on your review. (There are always corrections, and multiple rounds of page proofs.) They will prepare the files properly for printing either on digital or offset presses.

(If the process of book design interests you or you are interested in DIY, I cover many topics relevant to book design in my Print Positive blog series.)

A Note About Page Layout Software

A professional designer works in either 1) Adobe InDesign or 2) Quark Xpress—In 98 out of 100 cases, the former. Not Microsoft Word, Latex, or cool open source software. Not Photoshop! That’s for images, not laying out pages. (Although if they are doing a photo book, they should be conversant with Photoshop.) Not anything but InDesign, and, very rarely these days, Quark. Period. Unlike image editing, where there are valid alternatives to Photoshop—Pixelmator, Lightroom, Aperture, and others—there are, honestly, no alternatives to Adobe InDesign. The reason is that when you hand off a complicated color file to someone who’s going to run it on a million-dollar digital press or a five-million-dollar offset press, the files have to work. Every book printer in the world is intimately familiar with printing from InDesign-created files.

Photo Books As Design Projects

A typical photo book with not a lot of text is, to the tell the truth, usually not a difficult or super time-intensive project for a good book designer. It can be a prestige project, assuming your photos are interesting or gorgeous or have some other cool factor. What adds complexity to book projects is a lot of text, and especially the combination of lots of images and lots of text—something like the amazing Eyelids of Morning by photographer Peter Beard, for example, a project that was pretty sloppily produced but is a tour de force because of the extraordinary images and the novel collage-like layout.

Stages In Working With A Book Designer

Stage 1. Get A Design Estimate

After you’ve identified a book designer you’re interested in working with, you’ll need to provide them with some basic information for them to provide you with an estimate of their design fees. The request for an estimate should include:

Title: Title of your book (or at least a working title).

Frontmatter: Number of frontmatter pages.

Text Elements: A list of any other text elements of the book: introduction, preface, artist’s statement, essay, captions, end notes, etc., along with word or character counts of any blocks of text more than a page long.

Images: Number of color photographs in the book and number of black and white photographs in the book.

Page layout guidance: How you want the photographs to be laid out. For example, if you have 40 photos, are they going to be laid out one per page or will some pages have more than one photo? If the photos are one-per-page, will the facing pages have, perhaps, captions or another photo? You get the idea.

Page size: Rough idea of the page size you are thinking of. Are you thinking a smaller book with a square page? A medium-sized book in a portrait page format? A landscape format book with the largest page size you can get without taking out a second mortgage?

Binding: A paperback or a hardcover with dust jacket? If you haven’t made up you mind, ask for an estimate for a paperback, with the additional cost to design a hardcover broken out. (It takes more time and is trickier to design a dust jacket than a paperback cover.)

Timeframe: When do you want to go the printer?

The information listed above should be sufficient for the designer to give you a quote. It also demonstrates that you are organized, which is important, because a client who wastes time is an unprofitable client. And, while I would say that everyone I’ve ever met who is a book designer is in it because they love good design and well-made books, they are also trying to make a living.

Speaking of Money

Book designers work for book publishers, who are all frugal because they have to be. A specialist book designer will likely have lower fees than, say, a graphic designer who is used to the plump fees paid by ad agencies. Although sometimes the agency designer will lowball their fees because of the glamor of book design, generally they are not bringing book design experience as part of what they offer.

Stage 2. Hand Off Your Book Materials to the Designer

Organize your book before handing it off. Make a list of all the text and image elements, in the order they are to appear in the book: this is the plan for the book that the designer will follow when laying out the pages. List file names both for images and text on the list. Provide printouts of all the text. Put the printouts in order and number the pages, so that if the manuscript is dropped the order can be reconstructed. (These page numbers are temporary—the actual page numbers will be assigned as the pages are layed out.) Provide the text files in Microsoft Word or a compatible format. Provide the image files in the highest resolution you have in PSD format. A key point: unless you want the designer to tweak your images, they should be edited and soft proofed using a CMYK profile on a calibrated monitor. (Consult with your printer on whether they should be left in RGB or converted to CMYK before submission.) If you have a rough layout on paper you want to give to the designer, that’s great: it doesn’t have to be perfectly laid out or even in color.

Stage 3. Page Layout, an Iterative Process

Book design has well-established procedures for ensuring that 1) work gets done efficiently, 2) errors have the maximum opportunity to be caught and corrected before going to press, and 3) nobody goes nuts. (Very large books, especially, can completely overwhelm anyone without good organizational skills, causing the project to spiral downward into a chaos of typos, mixed up image versions, and worse.)

The Rules

I’m not a guy that’s particularly partial to rules. I’m not particularly organized (my office is proof!). However, I am a book pro, and I have learned through very painful and expensive experience that the rules of producing a book cannot be violated without financial and aesthetic risk of the ugliest kind. Here are the rules.

Rule 1: Verbal instructions do not count. Every instruction must be emailed or put on paper and delivered. Even the production of a small book requires organizational skills, and part of being organized is to have a paper trail for everything. Also, if and when—sadly—a finished book turns out to have a major problem, everybody can tell who’s fault it is.

Rule 2: Every step must be done in order and completed before the next step is taken. If you are editing text or images in the middle of the designer’s process of making pages or after they have laid out the book, you weren’t ready to hand off the book to the designer in the first place. It’s like installing the plumbing in your new house after you put the walls up and paint them. The only exception to this rule is a project so massive that tasks must be performed in parallel. But such a book project requires a dedicated project manager in any case.

Rule 3: Each round of proofs should have fewer errors than the previous round. Book design and production is an iterative process: make page proofs, check them for errors (which is not the same as editing them!), fix the errors, make a complete new set of page proofs, check those, correct any errors, make a new set of page proofs. At each step you should only have to check the corrections marked on the previous round of proofs, not recheck every line-ending image position, etc. that you already checked! And the end of this process, you have pages that are perfect (well, 99.9% perfect, in the real world), and files that can be printed.

Rule 4: Check your proofs. Really, really check them. If you are a brilliant photographer but can’t spell your way out of a film-changing bag (am I dating myself?), get somebody else to check proofs. Here’s the ultimate reason to check your proofs: after you sign off on them, in writing, you are saying you will accept any errors in the printed books that were on the proofs that you approved.

The Layout Process, Step by Step
  • You give the designer the original text (edited already!) and images, along with the plan for the book.
  • The designer produces sample designs of the cover (or dust jacket) and interior, showing their type choices, positioning of images, etc.
  • You approve the sample designs. Or not, in which case the designer goes back to the drawing board. (They will likely have a stipulation in their proposal about how many times they are willing to do so.)
  • With approved designs, the designer lays out every page with all type and images in position and produces proofs for you to review. Those proofs may be just black-and-white laser prints. That’s okay: they are just to check all the type and the details of the layout. Personally, I wouldn’t bother with color page proofs until the last round before going to the printer.
  • You check the proofs, marking any corrections on the paper proofs.
  • The designer makes the corrections in the files, and produces the next round of page proofs for you to check. The designer will likely charge by the hour for making corrections. If they are pros, they won’t charge for any errors they made, but will charge for any changes you make or corrections to errors that were in the original materials your provided.
  • When you check each round of page proofs, you should only have to check the specific things you marked on the previous page proofs. Therefore, the amount of checking diminishes with each round of page proofs. One of the errors of rookie book designers is to allow things not marked for correction to reflow or move around between page proofs This means that things that were checked before have to be checked again: a major time waster that slows down the whole process. Plus it is scary: what if they hose up the pages before producing the final files for the printer?
  • When you get the set of page proofs that has everything the way you want it, the designer is done except for providing the PDF files for the printer. These are not just PDF files like you might produce out of Word or from Preview on a Mac: they should be set up according to specific instructions provided by the printer.

The cover design process is similar to that of the page proofs iterations described above, except that proofs are more likely to be in color with each round.

Sending Files to the Printer

You can have the designer send the files to printer you have chosen, or you can do it yourself along with your order. But the designer is not done yet—if things need to be changed or errors corrected after you see the printer’s proofs (yes, more proofs to check!), sometimes the designer must make the changes if they are extensive enough that they can’t be made in the relatively rigid file structure of the PDFs provided to the printer.

In Conclusion

Hiring a professional book designer is not for everybody. Those who have design skills themselves will likely want to take the DIY route. Those who are just printing a handful of books would probably be better off using tools in Lightroom or Aperture, or those provided by POD services. But if you have invested a lot of effort in your photo book, want the best presentation possible, and are investing thousands of dollars in printing hundreds or thousands of copies of your book, a professional book designer is a critical investment.

If you are going the DIY route, check out my post on page layout software for photo books. Also, I cover many aspects of designing and printing books in my Print Positive blog series.

Need a quote or more information?

For more information on our photo book design services contact Rachel Holscher, Design & Digital Publishing Services manager.

Request a printing quote here.

I’d be happy to answer questions—you can contact me via email.

Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook, and distribution services for book publishers since 1982. He set up his first darkroom in a basement bathroom in fifth grade and has worked as a professional photographer. He continues to satisfy his love of photography through appreciation of great images, an interest in photographic technology, and trying to improve his own photography.