Live Chat: How to Become a Book Designer
Below is the transcript of our May webinar on how to get into a book design career. Our guests are:
Asya Blue has worked as a graphic designer and art director of various in-house art departments. She currently runs her own freelance business through which she has completed over a hundred book design projects in the last two years. She also teaches graphic design at many New York area universities, mentoring students towards successful completion of their studies and portfolio preparations.
Jeff Brown is a book of a designer and illustrator specializing in epic fantasy and science fiction. You've worked over 800 covers with indie authors, as well as major publishers like HarperCollins, Bloomsbury, and Audible. He has experience in video game concept, art board game illustration, and logo design.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Skip to 4:54 for the start of the discussion.
Martin: Please welcome: Asya Blue. You're in New York — the center of the publishing universe. Are you there because you're originally from there, or do you find that you have to go into an office quite often?
Asya: Having my own business, I work from home — before everybody worked from home. But New York is a huge publishing hub. And when I got my first job, it was at a publishing house here in New York City at Penguin Books.
Martin: Yeah, and I also work fully remotely in London. What's the point of being able to work remotely if you don't still live in one of the most expensive cities in the world?
Thanks for joining us, Asya. Let's bring a second guest. Please welcome Jeff Brown.
Martin: It only has just occurred to me now that your names are Blue and Brown. You were either planning this, or you guys are in witness protection. Either way, very happy to have both of you here. You both come from quite diverse backgrounds, but you're now living in the world of publishing.
A good way to start is maybe looking at your origin stories. You could both, as we mentioned, have experience in non-publishing industries. Asya, can you tell us what led you down this road?
Asya: Ironically, I did start my career in book publishing. As I mentioned, right out of college and art school, I didn't plan on being a book designer, but I got my first job at Penguin Books doing book covers. And it is actually a connection from there that introduced me to Reedsy.
I would say 20 years later, I went on to do design in marketing departments in all sorts of other industries, including magazines, children's publishing, and educational publishing.
Then, when I went out to work on my own, I reached out to Robin Locke Monda, who was and still is a book designer on Reedsy and I said, “Oh, I see you're doing covers through this website — what is that?” And she introduced me and recommended me. That's how I got onto Reedsy and back into doing book covers and book design — almost 30 years after my career began.
Martin: Nice. Jeff, you mentioned you come from video game design and board game illustration. Can you tell us what games you've worked on?
Jeff: I've worked on mostly indie games. A lot of it was actually RPG campaigns and board games, and a bit of mobile games. That was my start. I'm self-taught so I just started out and tried to get work where I could find it. And game art was the main place for me back in about 2012 - 2013.
Martin: I guess it involved a lot of fantasy and science fiction imagery — did that lead you quite naturally into book design?
Jeff: Yes, I actually just asked some of my clients where they think I could find work, and one of them recommended book covers. I never really thought of that before, so I gave it a shot and it just kind of blew up. And then I pretty much transitioned fully to book cover design within about a year.
Key skills for beginners: typography and observation
Martin: Well, let's first have a talk about starting in book design. Asya, you said you came straight out of college and into Penguin. When you started there, was there any mentorship or formal on-the-job training available? Or were you expected to figure stuff out by yourself?
Asya: It was definitely a mentorship situation. I was hired as a junior designer: I worked under an art director and some senior designer, so I really learned a lot.
Also when I started out, the industry was just transitioning into working on computers. So we got trained in that respect. So it was a really incredible time to learn about books — book covers specifically — and how to implement this new tool we had.
Martin: Jeff, coming from a background where there was a lot of artistic, illustration-based work, were there any skills or experience you gained that you were surprised to find lended itself to moving straight into book cover design?
Jeff: A lot of the illustration skills and techniques just carried over. There were definitely some differences, but the illustration I kept mostly the same. It was mainly for typography and graphic design skills — things I had some experience in, but not not at a professional level — that came with a big learning curve for me. But in terms of illustration, I just carried my style right over to book covers.
Martin: What were the first few things you learned about using type?
Jeff: First few things I learned — there was a lot, and it was a big learning curve, working with thumbnails and figuring out how to get the fonts to work well. Making sure all the tracking and kerning are right.
I'd worked a little bit in just typical graphic design projects like brochures and logos. But it’s not as specific as books. There was just a lot to learn at the start, so I basically tried to learn by copying other covers that I really liked and literally tried to get the tracking and kerning, and the layer effects exactly right. Obviously I wouldn't publish that — it was just to learn, and that was the way I did it.
Martin: When you're working in a publisher with a house style, is there something like a Bible that tells you exactly what the tracking or kerning should be?
Asya: No, there isn’t a Bible. Type design, as Jeff points out, is really important. As designers, that's the core of what we do — to really understand key concepts like kerning and tracking, and knowing the difference between them is important. You have to know these basic principles because every book is different. And when you work with independent authors on your own, without a publishing house, you make these decisions.
And like Jeff said, it's actually valid to look at other book covers. We're not copying, we’re looking at what's out there, what's good, and what's bad, using it all for inspiration in different genres. It's important to look. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. You just do it your own way.
Martin: Would you say that there’s a feeling that you need to bring something new to the table each time? Do you push back against that idea that everything needs to be unique and play into certain tropes that you know work for a reader?
Asya: Yes. And as far as the author (your client) knows, the cover you do for them is new and unique. But you might've done five different design options for someone and they will only pick one, meaning you still have four in the bag to be reused — as appropriate, of course.
Book design in the Internet age: thumbnails and stock images
Martin: Jeff, you mentioned having to work towards a thumbnail, especially these days when a lot of sales happen on online stores like Amazon or the Kindle store, where shoppers often make purchasing decisions by judging this small-sized image. What are the big challenges you find with designing a cover with a small dimension in mind?
Jeff: Yeah, I think it's really important to make things very simple and iconic. This is what I explain to my clients: we want to do something that's very detailed in terms of illustration, but at the same time, it's not very complicated when it comes to the story. We don't want to tell a really complicated story — it's just going to fly over people's heads when they look at the thumbnail. So it's about keeping the cover very simple in its story and then choosing a very iconic, very powerful image and detailing it up.
Also, keep to very few focal points. I usually have maybe one or two focal points — and the title counts as a focal point. Whereas, if you take a big Medieval mural, you'll find there are 30 focal points that together tell this whole story. When you're looking at a thumbnail, you've got a few seconds, if any at all, so you have to focus on one point.
Martin: When you work in the genres you do (science fiction and fantasy), there is a history of excess with the design there, especially when you look back at some of the classic titles. Do you feel like those complicated designs don’t quite work anymore?
Jeff: Yes, a lot of it doesn't work as well anymore. A lot of the art that I really loved growing up, I would find by picking up the biggest fantasy books I could find in the library. I would just stare at them for hours. And a lot of these features like having multiple characters all over the cover and being able to tell this whole complex story — they work great when you've got a physical book in front of you and you can look at it for a while.
But for a thumbnail, you can keep some of that complexity, but you have to make it a little bit more iconic. So I like to use silhouettes. If I'm doing characters, I make it more silhouette-heavy.
Martin: Some of my favorite books growing up were the Terry Pratchett Discworld ones which had incredibly small, fiddly detailed illustrations that look like hot garbage once you see it as a thumbnail.
Asya, you said you had a transition from working in the analog to the digital ages, starting to work with computers. These days from what we see, stock imagery is quite a big part of most book cover designs. Was that the case back then as well?
Asya: No, you know, back then — back in the day — budgets were bigger, so you could commission illustrations and photography. Now, the budgets, even at publishing houses, are a little smaller, especially for books that have smaller print runs. And of course, working with independent authors, then the budget is small.
I'm sure Jeff bringing illustration and design to the table all in one is a great benefit. I don't do illustration, but I work with a lot of stock imagery — stock illustrations and photography. The research is super important; it sometimes takes longer than the actual design. And then, once I’ve found the right images, I manipulate them because I don't want it to just be like, here's a stock photo with some type slapped on it. You've got to make it a little more unique.
I have had authors who were willing to pay an illustrator for a custom piece, and that's been great. That way we can go and hire somebody and art direct them to achieve what we want. And that's really special — then the author gets a really unique design and illustration.
Martin: As a designer, working with that stock imagery, is it almost like a superpower to be able to find a stock image that's perfect and hasn’t been used a hundred times for other books?
Asya: I mean I've seen blog posts where they show the same stock image in different designs. But sometimes the imagery drives the design. So much of cover designs are conceptual — you don't want to literally tell the story, you want to hint at the style, evoke a feeling, or something like that.
And when you try to create this, it's all in the research, it's all about the keywords you put in. Sometimes something unexpected pops up and you're like, “Oh, this would work if I combine it with this other image and put some type — it all comes together.” There's definitely an art to that too, to put it in the right keywords and select the proper images. Less is more, as Jeff said as well. .
Martin: Jeff, do you actually use any stock imagery, or is everything you do illustrated from scratch?
Jeff: I actually do use quite a bit of stock images. I don't use it to the same extent as Asya, but I would include it as textures. Or if I have a mountain in the background, that may be a stock photo or three stock photos mixed together. So I'm usually using quite a few in each piece.
I usually mix that with making illustrations by hand and 3D renders. Some of the 3D renders I'll build on my own, and some I'll just purchase and then render after.
Working with indie authors: communication and guidance
Martin: One of the things that you always feel when you're dealing with illustration, maybe more so when it's something super narrative like a children's book, is that it does take a lot of time. And for a lot of indie authors, a fully illustrated cover can feel prohibitively expensive. How do you go about balancing designing something that is suitable and is what the author’s looking for without necessarily taking up a whole month or blowing a client’s budget?
Jeff: For me, my process is pretty quick. I would say there's definitely a lot of illustrators who would take a long — a month or so like you said — but I do use a lot of short cuts with 3D and with photos in most of my work. That can bring the time spent down on its own.
For me, some of the covers will take way less time than others. That's kind of the luck of the draw. It doesn’t affect the pricing — I personally charge the same thing for book covers. The pricing is really irrelevant to me when it comes to how much time I put into a piece; it's the final product that matters. So sometimes I have to spend four times the time illustrating one cover compared to another, and that's just part of the luck of the draw for me. I have a lot of fun on those ones.
Sometimes I can finish a cover in three or four hours, if it's a simpler one and I'm just mixing photos together.
Martin: Don't tell your clients that.
Jeff: There's no clients here, right? If you're here, it was not your cover. It was a different guy’s.
Martin: Asya, do you also have a bit of a flat fee structure or do you base your quotes on whatever the brief is?
Asya: I definitely take the brief into consideration. I do give a flat fee, and to explain what that covers, I outline what's included. I like to give clients options at the beginning — at least three design directions, and that’s usually followed by two rounds of corrections. Doesn't mean we always stick to that plan. But it’s only if the work goes way beyond that do I renegotiate the fee.
As Jeff said, it all kind of evens out. Some collaborations are very smooth and go quickly, some takes a long time. But in the end, it all evens out, so my fees are more or less the same when it comes to book covers. Unless there's something very specific to a job, because I also design the interiors of books, then the pricing stays pretty much the same.
Martin: You've mentioned before that you have art directed a cover with other designers or commissioned work from an illustrator. If you're doing one of those jobs, what exactly would your role be? Would you be the person communicating directly with an illustrator?
Asya: Yes. So I try to explain to the author that I’m the person who works directly with the illustrator — it's just easier that way.
The illustrator will do a sketch, and I'll put it into my layout, do type design — this way they know best how much room to leave for the title and author name, etc. And then we work together. It's a really nice collaborative effort.
I also help the client, the author, find an illustrator. I'll point them to websites, portfolios, illustrators that I know. So I let them choose, but kind of guide them through the process. Then the author will pick a few illustrators for us to send out requests with the specs of the project. Illustrators will all come back with different prices, then the author decides which to work with, and we take it from there.
Martin: Jeff, two of the hardest things you could probably work with in terms of a brief is 1) when someone says, “Surprise me, I don't know what I want.” and 2) when someone is ultra prescriptive with what they're looking for. In terms of a brief, what’s the perfect level of instruction from a client for you?
Jeff: Ideally, one or two lines would be great. As long as it's a good idea visually.
What I actually do, for the most part, is I don't start with a reading through a brief. This is very different from what most people do, but I actually start with a Zoom call for most of my projects, where I basically talk through the project with the client. Basically, the idea is to convince authors away from bad ideas if they have some, because it's really frustrating for everybody when you're working with a bad concept that’s not working really well, because the thumbnail is not going to be legible or the design is not the right look for the genre.
I move away from briefs and towards a conversation, because we're both on the same side, we're both trying to get the best possible cover. I think that level of communication that a call offers is really helpful for me.
Martin: Asya, do you also prefer shorter briefs?
Asya: I do. The longer the brief, the more work there is for us — to read through it and understand it. I also do a Zoom call to kick off the project. It's really the best way, I agree, because you can guide the author and explain things more easily. You want to explain to authors that we don't need to tell the whole story on the cover, it's more about capturing the style, a mood, or a feeling. That is hard to do with a brief and writing back and forth.
A call gives you time to ask about what colors the author sees for their book cover — is it dramatic or comedy? To get more of this kind of feeling from the client.
Martin: Having seen a lot of clients and collaborations over the years here at Reedsy, I think there is quite a common excitement that independent authors have, especially if it’s the first time they've written a book. Getting a cover done is like the first chance to manifest their book and actually see a picture of it.
We’ve had a project with one of our designers where the brief included a specific description of a woman in a red dress outside this stucco mansion, and she’s wearing a necklace — a necklace that’s very important later in the story. It's not so much because they're complete control freaks, but just the idea of seeing this detail in the story visualized and actualized on the cover gets them so excited that they don’t think about designing something that can actually sell. To that end, are you conscious of what's going on in the space you're working in — the waves and trends in your genre?
Jeff: Yes, I try to stay up to date with trends. I do think that there are other genres that are a lot more trendy than what I tend to do, which is science fiction and fantasy. I think SFF stays a lot more similar through time. I would say keeping things up to date in terms of marketability, but they're usually fairly consistent.
I definitely keep researching on Pinterest and ArtStation, especially for illustrations. But I do think there's a lot of genres that are less consistent than mine.
Martin: Asya, are there certain genres or types of books that you are particularly excited about working on?
Asya: I like fiction — I do tons of memoirs and nonfiction because that's what everyone has been writing in the last two years, but when a good fiction novel comes along, I'm really happy. Because you get a little bit more freedom creatively, telling a made up story.
When it's a memoir, the writer is very connected to the book and it's very much about them. They know every detail, and it's just a different kind of back and forth there.
Martin: When you actually are working with a new client, are there some technical things that you need to secure for them in terms of where they're publishing, and the actual trim size that that allows for? Is it not a given like exactly what’s required of the cover and book interior?
Asya: For me, I have to explain a lot to the author. Some come in knowing the process, having done their homework, and understanding that different platforms ask for different sizes. Some I have to ask, “What size do you want the book to be?” They haven't thought of it, but I need to know because the file needs to be set up in a very specific way.
Also, when you do the full, physical cover, the spine ultimately gets adjusted depending on how many pages there are inside the book. That gets decided once everything's formatted, so if I'm not doing the interior, the author needs to give me that information.
So there are a lot of technical components. Self-publishing platforms like Amazon and IngramSpark have different requirements — it's not hard to meet those requirements, it's just a matter of getting that information and setting up the files properly. In order to get all this information that we designers need from the author, the client needs your explanation on, for example, how to measure things and what publishing options there are (paperbacks vs. hardcovers, jackets vs. case-bound books, physical books vs. ebooks).
Martin: Starting up a career as a graphic designer or an illustrator, most folks are probably working freelance throughout the entire thing. Jeff, what things did you have to do to build your brand or reputation? Did you find yourself having to do the same things again when you moved into designing books?
Jeff: Of course. I think a big thing for building a business that a lot of people don't consider, especially as illustrators coming into a different field, is that they tend to just say, “Here's my work, please enjoy it.” As opposed to that, I would try to make people who are coming from the publishing industry, who are trying to self-publish their book, feel at home with my work. Anything I wrote would be for them.
So I think making sure that when somebody comes to my website or any profile of mine, things are very well-explained, make a lot of sense, and are personalized to exactly the kind of person I want to work with — which would be a person writing a book in science fiction or fantasy. And so with the whole process explained, they feel like I would like to work with them. They feel basically at home with my website, and my brand.
Martin: Asya, you said that you moved back into book design and straight onto Reedsy. Maybe some of the teething pains are glossed over with that process, but do you find yourself still developing your professional brand and trying to branch out to new clients? How much time and effort do you put into business development?
Asya: Because I do other types of design work, not just book design, I do network a lot. I try to keep up with my website, but I haven't updated it in a while. I have updated the book section because that's kind of the easiest to get up there. But in terms of my brand, it's more about staying in touch with people, networking, and knowing what's going on.
Final tips: learn from the best and become a self-publishing expert
Martin: There are a lot of folks who are looking to get into book design or publishing design. If you could go back to the start when you started designing books or getting into this world, is there anything you could’ve done differently to make things a bit easier? What would you tell yourself?
Jeff: I think I would’ve probably spent a bit more time just studying art and getting better at that to start with. Obviously, as far as the illustration goes, higher quality artwork can bring you up quite a bit. So I’d want to make sure my skills are up to par from the beginning, rather than learning while I'm working — it's a lot more difficult.
And the other thing is just making sure my typography is impeccable. Like I always say to my clients, you can have good typography on bad artwork, and the cover can work; but if you have bad type biography, it doesn't matter how good the illustration is.
So if I were to go back, I would just spend more time learning.
Asya: For me, it's to really understand all these authors who are self-publishing. Now I know, having worked with so many different personalities. But maybe being a little bit more prepared for all the hand-holding that people need would’ve been good. You're more than a designer — you're taking them through the process.
And I’ve learned so much about the self-publishing process now, and I pass that information onto my authors. A lot of it was through my own research and by chance, but if I were starting again, I would maybe do all of that homework. I didn't know how much of an expert I needed to be at the whole rest of it, not just design because I thought, “Oh, I'm just going to give you the cover, there you go.” But then I got into doing book interiors as well as ebooks, and that’s when I needed to understand what the authors needed to do once I gave them those files.
Martin: In terms of interior design, what sorts of books are we actually looking at that requires this kind of work?
Asya: There are a lot of tools that people can use on their own to format the pages of just a regular novel or nonfiction with straight text and chapters. But to do it really right, you should have a designer format it.
And not a lot of designers do book interiors because it's just texts — some people think it's boring. But it's not, there's an art to it as well, but it's a completely different type of thing than covers. It's really about understanding texts, the size, what are the different variations, how it flows. You have to know InDesign inside and out, as well as know the styles — paragraph styles, and character styles, too. Because you're working on books that are 200 - 300 pages, you need to make that process efficient.
I have done coffee table books that have art and texts, too — those are much more manual in design. But usually you’re just working with chapters and straight text.
Martin: Would you do ebook interior designs only for something quite straightforward, like a novel?
Asya: I do ebooks for all the books that I work on — I do print and eBooks. I’d do a print book first and use that as the basis to generate the EPUB file. You can do it yourself through InDesign, though now I work with someone to whom I just pass the files and they generate the EPUB version. When I started, I figured out how to do it myself through InDesign.
What tools do you mainly use?
Jeff: As far as hardware, I just have a really good PC and I use an Intuos tablet for all my illustrations. For software, I mainly use Photoshop, though for 3D characters, I use DAZ, and for 3D environments I use Blender.
Asya: My Macbook Pro laptop goes with me everywhere. And I use InDesign for the most part. I use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop for stock image manipulation, but everything comes into InDesign in the end — that’s where I set up the files for covers and book interiors.
What are some good free or cheap stock image sites?
Asya: I think somebody in the chat mentioned Pexels. My three go-tos for free stock images are Pexels, Unsplash, and Pixabay. They’re free and the resolutions are great. Sometimes they require credit, sometimes they just ask for credit, but those are perfectly fine to use. They’re more generic — like if you need a nice texture, a sunset, some water, then you can find some good stuff there to use in combination with other things.
I also like Depositphotos for paid stock, but it’s very reasonable. Not all stock photography is expensive. Just take a look at the rights, make sure it’s not editorial use only. It has to be royalty-free.
Jeff: I use Depositphotos pretty much for everything. I haven’t looked into the free sites much, I just know that sometimes they don’t verify it very well. Those sites don’t always check everybody to see if they took the photos and have permission to post them.
Depositphotos comes with this deal that you can find on AppSumo. It looks like a scam but it’s not. They have this deal twice a year where for $39 you get 100 images, and I think that’s very reasonable so I buy a bunch of those.
When you’re illustrating, do you stick to your own style or do you change to fit the client’s preferences?
Jeff: Yes, I stick to my own style. I can shift it a little bit to something more painterly or more technical (say photo-based), but in general, I pretty much have my style. If they want a different style and they come to me with images like that, I will suggest they work with somebody else who specialize in it. It’s just not fun trying to be someone with your artwork.
Can you recommend any short courses for people new to book design?
Asya: I haven’t heard of book-specific design courses. I teach graphic design, and we teach book design, too, but it’s part of a BFA program at a college. So I don’t know any stand-alone professional book design course.
Jeff: I would actually say that cover design is a kind of “Jack of all trades” in some sense. So if you want to learn, learn from the best of each industry. If you want to learn illustration, learn it from illustrators; if you want to learn typography, learn it from graphic designers. And then obviously working it all together. There are definitely still things to know, but I think a lot of that is just spending time studying and spending time looking at people’s covers that are doing well to learn through observation — there’s a lot to be said for that.
It’s just if you were to learn everything from a Jack of all trades, you won’t be able to learn anything at the highest level.
Asya: Book cover design is like poster design — they’re just little posters. So if you’ve done magazine covers and posters, it’s more or less the same — it’s all about a hierarchy. You’re really dealing with image, book title, author, and sometimes a subtitle. It’s a puzzle of getting those things to look good together.
Do you know any resources or tools to get better at typography?
Jeff: I took a course in typography from The Futur — it’s a great online course. Other than that, I learnt most of it through online tutorials, through Youtube, and through studying other people’s work.
Asya: And the great thing about book design is that designers are usually credited. So if you find designers that you like, Google them — they might have Youtube talks about design. Go to and learn from the designers that you like.
Some authors claim a quote is too high, others think it’s good value — how do you set your rates to balance that?
Asya: You definitely have to go a touch lower in rates, but then it’s a matter of working efficiently. Not everything’s going to be precious and take hours and hours, so work within the budget you set. It’s true that some people aren’t going to be willing to pay, but you have comfortable with the number of hours you spend on a project, and what that would mean for your hourly rate.
There have been projects where I’m sure I went way over time and lost money, but then you get a quick easy one that evens it out. I definitely hear the “you’re such good value” — it’s just a matter of finding that sweet spot for your rates.
I would try different ones. If there’s a book that I really want, I would go a little lower because I know I want to work on it. But if it’s one where it’s fine if you get it, fine if you don’t, try quoting a little higher. If you don’t get it, the next one, go a little lower, and you’ll find that spot where it works.
Martin: Jeff, with illustration, it’s a little bit more expensive than some designs. Do you have any tactics to convince people of the value of the work? Rather than lowering the prices, do you educate people on why exactly it costs this much?
Jeff: I think I’ve got it a little bit easier there. People do tend to value illustration a little bit more — they understand that there’s a lot more hours going into it so I have that advantage.
But I would say I don’t try to argue with people because I really don’t want to work with those who aren’t sure about spending that amount of money on my work. I’d rather spend more time on my marketing.
And my mentality has always been having this certain price until I’ve booked up for about three months, and then I’ll move the rate up. I’ve gotten my price quite a bit higher with this tactic. So I don’t mind if someone says no since I’m booked up for three months. Obviously, if it’s getting down to one month, I might reconsider. That’s sort of my touchstone.
Martin: That takes us to the end of today’s webinar. I really want to thank you guys for spending this time talking to us. Before we finish, is there anything you want to share with people watching?
Asya: I mean, I'm always happy to answer more questions. People can reach out to me. I don't mind — I teach graphic design so it’s in my nature to help people out. You can connect with me on Instagram (@asyablue).
Jeff: Thank you for having me here, and I'm also open to any questions. You search @jeffbrown_graphics on Instagram, I’m there, too.