Is Book Design Dead?

Add comment October 7th, 2018 02:32pm admin

I mean, obviously, books continue to be designed and laid out for print. And even fixed-page layouts of books are produced for e-readers. But a curious thing has happened in the way we speak of book production. Rather than looking for book design, many people, and the ads they post, ask for book “formatters”.

As if all we need to make a book is to arrange the words.

I prefer to assume that we’ve reached this point because ebooks read on electronic device such as Kindle, Nook, iPad, and even smartphones are so ubiquitous many don’t think of print books anymore.

I’ve said many times before that I would have loved to have had all my textbooks on an e-reader when I was in college. But the plain fact is that, for me, an ebook will never carry the same sense that it is an object of art independent of the content of the book the way a print book does.

And, yes e-devices not having been around when I was a child, I grew up with the anticipation of cracking open a new book and sniffing that new book smell. So I’ll admit to a certain amount of nostalgia. However, my objections to reducing book design to mere formatting go beyond that.

There’s something about approaching a book project with an eye toward serving the reader, not just the client who hires me. I always aim to bring the author’s work to print in a way that is easy on the eyes, presents pages that somehow look appealing to readers, and yet are not distracting.

It’s a balance I try to strike with each book. It begins with looking over the material, words and pictures (if there are any pictures), and choosing typefaces that somehow marry with the material, that are appropriate for the reader, and that just plain look nice, do not annoy the reader, and do not irritate the reader’s eyes.

Initially, this means matching typefaces sometime from being from the same era and/or place as, say, a story is set in. But it also requires taking into account the reader—for instance, children or older readers may benefit from and often prefer typefaces with larger x-heights. Beyond that, I always think about the balance between providing enough white space on a page that invites readers in without seeming to “pad” a book’s page count. My preference for such generous white space stems, I think, from memories of slogging through books of densely typeset pages that were dark with all the ink coverage and seemed to tax the eyes.

So even though I wouldn’t trade in any of my e-devices, I lament the tendency not to think of book design and layout as a thing the same way it used to be. I’d even prefer hearing more about the designing of ebooks and not merely formatting them. I hope the train hasn’t left the station on this.

State of the Union

Add comment July 16th, 2018 07:16am admin

Corrections on one of the two books I currently have in production, the book on ethics for attorneys, arrived late last night. I saw them a little while ago this morning when I did my first check of email, while deciding whether to sleep late or get up and have a nap this afternoon.

That’s my lot, now that I’m semi-retired—that is, I’ve retired from my 9-to-five employment as a court clerk into book design as my sole non-leisure pursuit—my schedule can only be defined as flexible. I go to bed late, enjoying late-night shows like I never had before. I get up when I feel like it, sleeping as late as I like, but more often getting up normally or even early and taking a nap during the afternoon.

One thing that hasn’t changed a bit is how much I love making books. I think it may be one of those callings that bores deep into a person’s being, goes a long way toward defining who that person is, and for e, only grows in how much fun it provides.

I thought of this just a while ago, because I got up at my usual time to decide whether I’d sleep late, during which time I make my first check of email, and discovered I had received corrections for the book I mentioned above. It struck me that I felt genuinely happy to have this work to do, that the completion of the book is in sight, and later this week I’ll find out whether my proposal has won a really great book project, a guidebook involving my subcontracting map-making work.

With that we’re a little past the midpoint of the year and I need to begin looking at the half dozen or so possible books I’d discussed with people for the second half of the year. It will be interesting to see how many materialize and what newer ones reveal themselves.

Details, Details

Add comment June 17th, 2018 11:49am admin

Freelancing as a book designer is a wonderful thing. I imagine it’s the same for freelance editors, freelance illustrators, and … well, you get the idea. But that doesn’t mean we want to go full-tilt forever. In my case, working a secure, full-time day job for over 30 years to pay the bills, for the benefits, and for the pension, enabled me to work at developing my business, which, of course, is what freelancing is.

At some point, however, you want to ease up, slow down, work less, perhaps retire (or semi-retire), and still live a good life. If you’ve had a career all along, in addition to your freelancing, perhaps you were lucky enough to participate in a pension plan that will contribute to keeping you comfortable in your later years. But whether you have a pension or not, there’s Social Security.

Of course, Social Security is not a whole lot and needs to be part of a whole network of savings, investments, and, perhaps—if you still love the work—some continued freelancing. But if you began collecting Social Security before you reached what the Social Security Administration (SSA) calls “full” or “normal” retirement age there’s some fine print.

Now, before I go any further, let me make clear that I’m not an accountant, an attorney, or someone who ever worked for the Social Security Administration. You need to do your own homework and ask the right questions of people well-versed in the details of all this. I’m just sharing the little I’ve learned about these issues.

To start with, there’s that matter of when you reach “full” retirement age. From the SS website there’s this:


Age To Receive Full Social Security Benefits
(Called “full retirement age” or “normal retirement age.”)
Year of Birth * Full Retirement Age
1937 or earlier 65
1938 65 and 2 months
1939 65 and 4 months
1940 65 and 6 months
1941 65 and 8 months
1942 65 and 10 months
1943 – 1954 66
1955 66 and 2 months
1956 66 and 4 months
1957 66 and 6 months
1958 66 and 8 months
1959 66 and 10 months
1960 and later 67
*If you were born on January 1st of any year you should refer to the previous year. (If you were born on the 1st of the month, we figure your benefit (and your full retirement age) as if your birthday was in the previous month.)


So if you continue to freelance, you haven’t reached that full retirement age and have elected to collect Social Security benefits, you need to make yourself aware of what the earnings limit is for each year until you do reach that “normal” retirement age. If you go over that amount, you will have to pay back to the SSA 41 for every $2 you exceed the limit through a reduction in your benefits.

Last year, 2017, the limit was $16,920 ($1,410 per month). This year the figure is $17,040.

The limit does rise in the year in which you reach your full retirement age. If you reach it in 2017, for instance, you’re allowed to earn up to $4,480 without penalty. And if you collect your Social Security benefits and reach full retirement age next year, 2019, your earnings limit rises to $45,360.

Interestingly, you don’t necessarily lose those penalized benefits permanently. That is, the SSA will apply those withheld (penalized) benefits as a delayed credit. And this will would permanently increase your Social Security benefit when you do reach full retirement age. The catch is, of course, the same as if you waited for your full retirement age to collect benefits from the jump: you need to live long enough to recover what you lost by either delaying collecting or because of penalties.

Oh, and then—as a Social Security agent I spoke with told me—once you’re in your first full year having reached that normal retirement age, there are no longer any earnings limits. “You can earn a million dollars without penalty, she said.”

Another Designer’s Musings Make Me Think

Add comment May 13th, 2018 02:54am admin

A no-doubt well-meaning fellow on LinkedIn, after designing over a thousand book covers “and earning about a quarter of a million bucks from [his] design business,” is done with working as a book cover designer, because he wants to turn to writing full-time. And he’s created a bunch of templates and “ready covers” for DIYers to do their own design and layout on, as well as tutorials on YouTube. I’ll grant you that the sentiment is likely from the heart and a nice one.

But whereas he probably worked hard and each and every template and cover, he created them without a hint of knowledge about the books they’ll be used for. And that’s not original. In fact, it reeks of one-size-fits all bookmill work.

Then again, who am I to question the guy’s skills, experience, or success. After all, he’s made “a quarter of a million bucks” on “over a thousand covers.

Well, wait a sec! $250,000 for 1,000 covers averages to $250 per cover. That’s really not professional money in a first-world economy. And that got me to thinking about my earnings over the years. So I took to looking at all my records. Now, I’ve been freelancing as a book designer/layout artist for over 27 years. Twenty-five of those years my book design practice was a moonlighting enterprise. That is, I held a full-time “day job” (totally unrelated to graphic design, publishing, or making books) for those 25 years. During that time I worked on about a hundred books and earned almost $325,000.

I feel pretty good about what I’ve accomplished, how I built a book design practice to work at full-time after retiring from that “day job.” I’m thankful to that fellow on LinkedIn, because he got me thinking about all this to start with.

Closing the Door on 2017

2 comments December 17th, 2017 09:17am admin

Another year almost over and once again it’s time to take a look at what I accomplished and just what kind of year it was. Even though I blog pretty infrequently these days, I always want to sum up the twelve months that are just about to end (even if it is a tad early yet).

For starters it was my second full year of freelancing without a net. Anyone who knows me or has read even a little of what I have to say about working freelance knows that I held a full-time job as a court clerk for over 32 years and that I worked my freelance book design practice the last 25 of those years; and now I continue to do book design and layout as my sole form of gainful work. And when I’m not playing golf.

So what kind of year has it been?

I feel as if it was a slow year. And then I look back and see that I worked on five books this year, and did some clean up work on two other books completed in 2015 for an indy publisher that had shut down and then rose up again briefly.

I also want to smile at how my perspective has changed over the years and that I now call that amount of work “slow”.

A good amount of time was spent on an 800+-page book of photos and text in the form of short essays, as well as a question-and-answer format. The hundreds of photos required a lot of Photoshop work, editing backgrounds and playing with colors. That part of the project was pretty intense and required me to stretch my comfort level with Photoshop, so I had a lot of fun with that book. Despite all that, it was a case of—for the first time in years—where I severely underestimated the value of the job and took kind of a beating on what I was paid, considering the scope and amount of work. But that’s on me for underestimating.

At the same time, I got involved in another of what I’ve come to call “pay-it-forward” projects, taking one design-and-layout job for a young author, a first-year high school girl, and having that blossom into another fledgling indy publisher for whom I’m serving as Creative Director. I just sent the second book for my young author off to the printer this past week.

And looking forward to 2018 I already see a year that looks busier still. I have a handful of proposals and promising initial contacts out, at least a couple of which I honestly expect to result in projects. I have two PDF-only (not PDF for print) projects, both continuing a book I worked on this past year, translations of reviews of the works of Beethoven. The first of those is scheduled to start in January.

To all my friends and clients—past, present, and to come: Happy Holidays (whichever you celebrate) and here’s to a healthy, creative, and happy New Year.

Money Changes Everything Redux

Add comment December 3rd, 2017 03:05pm admin

A while back I wrote about how I took on a “pay-it-forward” project, designing and laying out a book for a young high school student who had already authored a few books and published them on CreateSpace. That book was The 100 Most Important New Yorkers. While we were in the middle of that, Agatha Edwards’ dad informed me that our young author planned other “100 Most Important” books, the next being The 100 Most Important African Americans. So it seemed a no-brainer to me for them to set up a publishing company. That’s exactly what they did. I signed up as Creative Director and dove back into the design with an eye toward establishing a “100 Most Important” brand for this new indie publishing company, Brooklyn Bridge Books.

We put out a book we were all proud of and I created a look for the series that we could easily adapt for new books.

Now that we’re working on bringing The 100 Most Important African Americans to press, the feeling that we’re a real publisher is hard to deny. Agatha, of course, has her hands full with writing—well, and having a life, too; I mean, she’s a teenager and according to her “About the Author” bio, she has school sports (she’s both an indoor and outdoor competitive runner), debate team activities, as well as music and a composing to occupy her.

But her parents direct the business end of things and edit her, too. And I try to give them a little of the benefit of what I’ve picked up over the years.

For me the “paying it forward” is actually starting to pay off, even though that was not my motivation when we started. Additionally, it’s fun for me to see both the growth of my young author and to participate in the building of an imprint from the ground up. And it’s nice to be appreciated. From the Acknowledgments in The 100 Most Important African Americans:

Most importantly, this book has been produced by Steve Tiano. Steve is a freelance book designer who made this book amazingly intelligent, as he did with my previous book, The 100 Most Important New Yorkers. Steve grew up near where I live and often walked to his grandmother’s house a few blocks away. Steve took a liking to me because I live in his old neighborhood and poured himself into this project. This book is finer than I could possibly imagine because of him. Steve, you are the greatest and I continue to owe you!

Sometimes Business Takes a Backseat to Staying Sane

Add comment September 27th, 2017 05:55pm admin

I think I’ve mentioned in the past that I only turn over cross-platform, printer-ready PDFs to clients. It’s what I arrive at by job’s end that they pay for; and I spell that out in every contract I write. Perhaps because I worked that day job for over 32 years in New York’s Unified Court System, I use the attorney’s phrase “work product” to describe the InDesign and Quark files I create to get to those PDFs at job’s end.

But I just ran into a situation that made me rethink this position of mine.

I’ve been working on the book Veritas Pictura, a book of some 300+ photos illustrating a series of philosophical questions that are then answered by thinkers from many different walks of life. Or maybe it’s the other way around: it’s a book that delves into some of life’s questions using a kind of Socratic method, punctuated by those 300+ vivid photographs. Either way, the book is a very interesting bit of work.

I’ve been working on this one for a while, since Valentine’s Day, February 14, of this year, when I began editing photos. It proved an opportunity to hone some of my Photoshop skills—in particular, Selecting—and I sharpened my ability to edit out and drop in elements of photos.

Then there was a break of a couple of a few months while the author finished writing and the final editing was done. Aside from some back and forth fixes the printer needed, my end of things was completed.

Until today.

Today, much to my client’s consternation and not just mine, the printer said certain pieces of art used on the jacket, were low-resolution. So, of course, I started by checking what my client had sent me and found that they were the requisite 300 dpi. Next I looked at the art placed in my actual InDesign file for the jacket. Same thing: 300 dpi.

In a burst of flexibility, I packaged the InDesign doc for the jacket, the fonts used, and the images the 300 dpi images they say are “lo-res” and sent them to the printer. Perhaps they can find some issue I’m unaware of that’s causing the problem they see. That’s not something I plan to make a habit of doing, but in this case, when it’s simply not clear to me what they’re talking about I think that is the prudent step.

Money Changes Everything

2 comments June 1st, 2017 08:38am admin

I first started freelancing as a book designer over 26 years ago. It was slow going getting started. I’ve mentioned more than once on this blog about the lucky break that became my first steady work and that helped me start a track record. But it wasn’t until about three or four years later that someone online, an experienced freelancer, dropped the nugget of wisdom on me that raising what I charged for book design and layout would get me taken more seriously and help me expand my business.

And you know what? That worked.

Over 20 years after that, my situation’s changed. I’ve also mentioned here more than once that I started out freelancing “with a net”—that is, I had a full-time, 9-to-5 job all those years. So I was secure and could be patient growing my book design practice.

I’m semi-retired now and still secure. And there are tax consequences to consider that I didn’t have to concern myself with when I was a full-time employee. In addition to the pension I earned from the day job, I decided to not be presumptuous about life expectancy and hold out on collecting Social Security until I would be entitled to the maximum. But there is a maximum I can earn for the next few years, above which there is a payback I would have to make to Social Security.

On the one hand, I’m not averse to paying into Social Security if I make above the maximum. I just don’t want to get into a situation where my next year’s payments could be recalculated at a lower amount. Just as important to me is that for the first time, since I don’t want to reach that maximum in just three or four projects, I can take worthy book projects from self-publishers who are working on a shoestring and can’t afford my normal rates. I’ve figured that the optimum reduction is to 25–50% of what my typical full price would have been.

The first such project, one I haven’t completed yet, is a book written by a young woman, a junior high schooler. I’m working on her book, The 100 Most Important New Yorkers, for about 25% of my usual fee. I’m having a good time doing it. Plus I actually feel like I’m doing something that matters, helping a young author come to press in a serious and professional way. The author, Agatha Edwards, has actually self-published before. But I’m doing my best to place this latest book of hers on the same level playing field as every adult who is self-publishing. I think she’s that good and worth the read.

And it’s only by lowering my rates that I am able to “pay it forward” like this. I understand that most freelancers should not do this. They shouldn’t cheapen the value of their efforts. But I’ve been through that already, for years now. Now my prime concern is to keep making books, especially the ones that wouldn’t get quite the professional push without me.

Freedom of the Press and This Book Designer

Add comment January 21st, 2017 11:25pm admin

It’s been said that freedom of the press belongs to those who own the press. Nowadays the whole “ownership of the press” thing has largely been turned on its head, thanks to digital typesetting and print-on-demand (POD). These two babies have brought the possibility of getting published to virtually anyone who wants to publish a book.

I’m aware of this because for the last five or so years the lion’s share of my clients have been self-publishers. This is a sea change from when I established my freelance book design and layout practice 26 years ago. Back then I started out with traditional publishers and a book packager or two as my clients. Back around 2009–2010 I began to see a steady diet of self-publishing authors as clients. By 2011, the majority of my clients were self-publishers. As of last year, I work pretty much exclusively for self-publishers.

This isn’t exactly alert-the-media/stop-the-presses kind of news.

But it strikes me as particularly of the moment, given the political climate and the repressive attitude toward the press of the new administration. So in addition to the work self-publishers have provided me over the years—in fact, perhaps whether or not I’d ever gotten work from them—I am thrilled that this outlet exists for getting ideas and people’s books out into the world. Inasmuch as the current federal government seems to be leaning away from facts, science, and intellectual freedom—the latter not to be confused with deliberately telling lies to fuel hate and make money—more than ever we need authors to get their books out into the world.

It’s my business and I stand ready to assist in that task. But it’s also something I believe in.

Looking Back at 2016 and Ahead to 2017

Add comment January 1st, 2017 02:52pm admin

Last year was full of shit.

And I use that last word above as a substitute for the word “stuff”; to mean, too, that it got to be too much, too full of itself; and, finally, to indicate that something bad and nasty happened.

Last one first. While this is my blog on book design and freelancing, not politics, God knows I have to acknowledge the election. I am horrified by it, because, from the point of view of a small businessperson, it seems to me that the whatever-he-is-elect (because there are so many obvious issues, the emolument clause, first of all, that I don’t quite picture him in office for long) is not someone who’s interested in doing things for or protecting things that help, the little guy. And so I foresee everything from tax policies that hurt freelancers, as well as greater incentives for people who would ordinarily have turned to those of us within the U.S. for freelance projects to third-world country freelancers, thereby both depressing prices and depriving us sustainable work.

On the other hand, 2016 was a heady year. And given that I’ve grown more superstitious as I’ve gotten older, I sometimes want to hesitate to talk about how well things have gone. But the truth is, that, given my relatively new status as a semi-retiree (I had worked in New York State’s court system for over 32 years, before retiring from it Thanksgiving, 2015) to pursue book design full-time, there were certain logistics to work out with just how much book design-and-layout work—and income from it—I really wanted to take in. Because there are consequences to it, with a “limit” on allowable income before a penalty kicks in when one opts for collecting Social Security early, as I have.

I guess I had no idea that, with more time to pursue new freelance projects, I would just naturally work more and reach that limit more quickly than I could have imagined. And that brought me to a kind of crossroads: Do I stop working when I reach that limit? Or do I start working for less, so that I avoid the limit longer each year (until the limit is eliminated in a few years)?

If I do the latter, I decided, it allows me to accept interesting jobs for less money if I am so inclined. This requires a bit of reorienting to my thinking, as I’ve spent years railing against folks who accept “pennies-on-the-dollar” rates, thereby depressing all freelancers’ prospects. Now I tend to see it that it’s a way to keep some freelance projects and prospects from looking outside the country for freelancers, as well as giving me the opportunity to accept interesting projects that I would normally have turned down because of the low rate of pay. However, I am endeavoring to do this only in instances where the people who offer such work are genuinely people I want to help, because I see something in them and in what they have created that I think needs to be brought into the world.

I’ve grappled a bit with the idea that it may be a bit hypocritical of me to change my tune now that I’ve “got mine” thanks to a decent pension plus Social Security. But I’ve been working pretty much, one way or another, since I was about 13-years old. And, as far as freelancing goes, that means a lot of nights when I worked deep into the night on books, going to the civil service 9-to-5 job on four and five hours of sleep, and building my book design practice over the course of 25 years. I sort of feel that I “earned mine,” rather than I just somehow have it now.

At the same time, I always told anyone who would listen that, as tired as I sometimes was from working one full-time job only to go home and—especially when factoring in the long hours of searching for freelance projects—then working a second full-time job from my own studio at home, it kept me sane. I got to have one foot in the real world where the ability for someone to earn a living was increasingly less secure, as well as the relatively secure world of civil service whose only real hardship was the occasional indignity of seeing how, sometimes, knuckleheads achieved heights that better workers, better people, couldn’t because of Politics and politics.

Finally, the great personal stuff that 2016 closed out with … The secure footing that my freelance book design practice is now on—and God knows I worked at it for enough years—combined with a reasonably secure retirement from the 9-to-5, has enabled us to take advantage of low interest rates in a recovering economy (reminding me again of the miserable and uninformed choice the country made this past November). My wife and I sold our old home and were able to move into a newer home—actually, a dream house—with an improved kitchen, solar panels, on a golf course.

* * *

And that brings me to this bright, new year’s potential: more books, certainly, to begin with. I am already beginning preliminary work on a very interesting project, a book of translations of critiques of Beethoven’s works. I am also awaiting the start of the third in a series of children’s storybooks. And there may be a sort of professional memoir somewhere ahead, about one man’s experiences as a pioneering agent for professional athletes. And I am always open to listening to anyone else’s proposals for such work: traditional publishers, independent and university presses, and self-publishers.

That, plenty of golf, and an ever-expanding life of new experiences with my wife lie ahead for 2017. I am even again interested in finding an over-40 hardball league on the eastern end of Long Island to pitch in this summer.

I wish everyone a Happy, Safe and Healthy, Productive, and Fulfilling New Year in 2017. I invite you all to grab for just such a year.

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