Alan Dino Hebel & Ian Koviak – How to Work with Book Interior and Cover Designers
Nonfiction Authors Association Podcast | November 16, 2022
‘Designers work well with parameters. So the more detailed the design brief is, the better I can do my job, because I can really connect with who this book is needing to target and connect with.’ -Ian Koviak, The Book Designers
About Alan Dino Hebel & Ian Koviak
Ian and Alan formed theBookDesigners in 2005 as a one-stop book design studio servicing indie authors and trade publishers.
Alan Dino Hebel is CO-FOUNDER, MANAGER, CUSTOMER RELATIONS for The Book Designers. Alan graduated from San Diego’s Platt College and now has over 20 years experience working in the publishing world as both a book designer and production manager. Alan lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay where he mountain bikes, plays basketball and jumps in the cold ocean to stay on top of his game. HI ALAN !
Ian Koviak is CO-FOUNDER, CREATIVE DIRECTOR for The Book Designers. He was born in in Brooklyn, New York, and spent many years living in India, the Philippines, Hawaii and California. He brings this diverse life experience to his work, including the benefit of 20+ years in the publishing industry. He has designed thousands of books spanning every genre. He lives in Northern Oregon with his family and lifts weights, plays guitar and does archery to keep in top form.
Nonfiction Authors Podcast: The Book Designers
Find the video podcast, show notes, links, quotes, and podcast transcript below.
Live on 11/16/22 at 10:00am PT
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In this episode…
- What independent authors should know about both cover and interior design of books.
- The three round process that the Book Designers use.
- The timeline of a book design, and how much time an author should budget for it.
- When to hire a book designer.
- General rules for book interiors.
- How book design transfers over to ebooks, and whether or not it’s a good fit for the book you are publishing.
- Materials you should have ready before hiring a book designer.
- Redesign standards to be aware of for award-winning titles.
- Cover trends in book design.
Hello and welcome to the interview series for the Nonfiction Authors Association. Today’s session is with Alan Dino Hebel & Ian Koviak, The Book Designers, and we will be talking about how to work with book interior and cover designers. I’m Carla King, your host, and I’m happy to have you with us today. This interview will last only 30 minutes and you can find the replay on our Nonfiction Authors Association website and social media platforms including YouTube, and wherever you listen to podcasts.
And now I’d like to introduce our guests.
Ian and Alan formed theBookDesigners in 2005 as a one-stop book design studio servicing indie authors and trade publishers.
Alan Dino Hebel is co-founder and manager of customer relations for The Book Designers. Alan graduated from San Diego’s Platt College and now has over 20 years experience working in the publishing world as both a book designer and production manager. Alan lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay where he mountain bikes, plays basketball and jumps in the cold ocean to stay on top of his game. Hi Alan!
Alan Dino Hebel 2:05
Hi, Carla. Thank you for having us.
Carla King 2:06
Yeah, thank you. And Ian Koviak is co-founder and creative director for The Book Designers. He was born in in Brooklyn, New York, and spent many years living in India, the Philippines, Hawaii and California. He brings this diverse life experience to his work, including the benefit of 20+ years in the publishing industry. He has designed thousands of books spanning every genre. He lives in Northern Oregon with his family and lifts weights, plays guitar and does archery to keep in top form. Hi Ian! No jumping in cold oceans for you, right?
Ian Koviak 2:45
I’ve done the cold ocean thing.
Carla King 2:47
Oh, you have. Okay.
Ian Koviak 2:48
Yeah. We’ve tag teamed on that.
Carla King 2:51
Really? So you live quite a ways apart. Just quickly–how did you meet and become The Book Designers?
Ian Koviak 2:59
We met years ago–I’d say when we were around 17 or so. We were both Hindu missionaries. And we were doing different missionary work for the ashrams that we were a part of. And we lived in ashrams in India and traveled around there for a while. And then when we came back–kind of exclusively, individually–we went to different colleges. I was in Hawaii at the time, and Alan was in the San Diego area.
Maybe about two years later, after finishing our degrees, we joined up forces in San Francisco at a small publishing house. They specialized–in the beginning–in Eastern philosophy books, spirituality, and then ended up segwaying and having a lot of imprints that did music-movie tie ins. And that’s kind of their mainstay now. They’re called Insight Editions. Music, movie tie in books, TV show tie type stuff, as well as the more philosophical Eastern philosophy things. And after working there for about six years, we ended up just starting our own studio, and focusing on book cover design and book interiors.
Alan Dino Hebel 4:22
And I would like to add to that–it was nice meeting with Ian in South India in different circumstances, and having experiences as friends with him in that kind of environment. And then going off to college and coming back and working with a publisher that really specialized in that kind of philosophy–Hindu Gods and Goddess type, beautiful coffee table books that they were printing. So we had the opportunity of working on some really, really amazing projects in the first five years of working with a publisher. And then, like Ian said, we branched off from there. So it was a nice segway. Especially into the Rock and Roll books–doing books for the Rolling Stones, 40 years covered by their 20 best photographers–done with clamshell and limited edition signed prints and vellum sleeves. So really fun, fun projects with a lot of bells and whistles, so to speak.
Carla King 5:19
You probably have a procedure with these publishing companies, and they really know how to express what they need from you. But you work with independent authors, too. And I imagine they don’t always come to you with the design brief. So I wondered a couple of things. What do you wish they knew about both cover and interior design? You can both tackle this.
Alan Dino Hebel 5:47
It’s good–we’ve actually been able to extract some of the cover design direction information we’ve received from publishers to kind of put together a list of information that we request from indie publishers that may be new to the process. So we have a very general questionnaire that we provide, which creates a design brief for us. I’m happy to go over that list if need be. But in general, it’s just very standard questions in regards to the cover design. And Ian, as our creative genius, he is going to thrive more off of more direction and some creative–something that the client will have in regards to a vision.
Ian Koviak 6:36
Yeah. I think one of the things that’s interesting about design–I mean ultimately, books are kind of like little posters. And it’s something that needs to grab your attention–especially now more than ever–from a distance at a small size. And the main thing for us is really making sure that indie publishers that are coming to us understand their audience, where their books are going to fit on the shelf, so to speak.
And I think a lot of times, there’s this feeling like– you’ve written this very unique piece of work, and that there’s nothing out there like it. And there’s kind of a limitation to that kind of thinking, because your book ultimately has to sit somewhere, and it does have to fit within a searchable range of the topic that your audience is going to connect with. And that they have to be realistic about who their audience is, competitive titles, things that are out there that are similar. We definitely urge authors to go out there and look at successful books, and what makes them successful. Why are they picking those books up?
And so we try to extract that kind of information in sort of a general, point by point brief. Which is essentially what a big publishing house would provide to us–that a sales team and a marketing team has sat–and editors and whatnot–and agents have sat with authors and developed so that they can have as much ammunition for their designers and enough building blocks to start somewhere with. That part of the process is really important, especially for self publishers, because they’re doing a lot of the heavy lifting. They end up honestly playing the part of a marketing team, a sales team, an agent to themselves, and numerous other things, obviously. So it’s sort of asking them to wear many caps. And now there’s this other tremendous job that is really about getting the book out there. So we’re willing to play with things and try things out, but I think what Alan was kind of getting at is that designers work well with parameters.
So the more detailed the design brief is, the better I can do my job, because I can really connect with who this book is needing to target and connect with. In traditional publishing, especially nowadays–it used to be that an art director and a publisher sort of had the last word of what a cover looked like. But a lot of agents are–right now–including in their contracts for authors to have an opinion on that. So it’s not uncommon, even with Random House and larger houses, to have a really grueling process of a lot of things getting sort of dumbed down, or becoming too cumbersome, and to elaborate in their thinking about it.
And like I said, a book cover needs to have a certain balance of simplicity to it, especially nonfiction work. I mean, you’re talking to a fairly literal audience–be that business books, or self help, or diet stuff, or any number of other things in the nonfiction realm–memoirs and whatnot–they benefit from a particular look. And I think that the more indie authors familiarize themselves with–the books that are out there right now that are successful, what is it about them that’s successful? That’s going to help them in honing their ideas, and getting realistic about how much a cover needs to really say. And for interiors as well.
I mean, it’s not uncommon for us to get book interiors that are just way over done with sub headers, sub sections, sub this, sub that. It’s a lot of little side elements–quotes, sidebars, this and that. There’s an aspect of that that can be interesting. And as long as the information is not redundant, or not distracting, or cumbersome, as you’re reading through a piece that something’s just always pulling you away from the core theme, then I think it’s okay. So we work with authors to highlight when we feel that’s happening. And at the same time, it’s our job as designers to take anything that an author has come up with, and try to kind of distill the vision–be that for the cover or interiors. And say, ‘Out of these things that we’ve presented, this is your idea executed per our interpretation. And here are some things that we feel could also work, or our best foot forward, and professional opinion of what it could look like.’
Alan Dino Hebel 11:41
We do try to–you know, me, who’s dialoguing a lot, and interfacing, and working on corrections after Ian establishes the look and feel–we try to have a process so that it doesn’t allow for too much micromanagement. Because there has to be some letting go in us being able to do our job to provide a full layout, and to get to that space–a place where we can get the layout completed.
So try to stick to what we call a ‘three round process’ 1-2-3. Try to keep it simple. The first round, we develop our concepts, whether that’s for a cover or an interior. Second round, we get feedback and make adjustments. And again, we try to go three rounds to achieve an approval. We’re always fine going for five rounds, if there’s minor changes being made. But we try to stick to that, so that we can kind of move from stage to stage of a process. From a front cover being approved, to a sample layout being approved, to then the full layout being approved. So in order for there to be not too much micromanagement, we do try to request feedback to also be provided in a very clear manner. All in one fell swoop, so that it’s not just commenting on parts, and there’s not a lot lost in the translation.
Carla King 12:58
Back and forth. Yeah, it can make you crazy–I know on the author’s end, too. Because we’re also juggling our launch plan, and our email funnels, and all that kind of thing as well. How much time does it take from beginning to end, normally? How much time should one budget for it? Now, of course, you have to do the competitive analysis first, and all that. So, I may hire you and you say, ‘I need to know A-B-C,’ right? So if I haven’t done it, I need to do that work.
Alan Dino Hebel 13:30
Each project is somewhat different. But a comfortable amount of time for a project–if it’s going to be a novel with running text only, 200-300 pages–about four to six weeks is comfortable. That allows for a lot of back and forth time for the cover, the layout, for each approval process. But it is dependent on your feedback timing, on how finalized all your materials are, making sure there’s not going to be a lot of editorial changes after the layouts already been formatted, etc. Those types of details.
Carla King 14:06
I wonder also–a lot of designers are booked way in advance. What is the normal timeline? How much heads up do you need?
Alan Dino Hebel 14:15
You know, we like to take on projects as they come. We never say that we need lead time. I mean, Ian’s one of the most efficient. I’m probably one of his biggest fans. I think he’s one of the most efficient and best book designers here on the planet. When we get a project, he dives into it. He studies the background information, he researches what needs to be researched, and he puts his best foot forward with every project right away when we get it. So for me, my job is to really work out all the details of a project so he could really just funnel in on the creative aspect of it. So I tried to get the details of the trim size, making sure all the front cover text is dialed in and finalized, so that really he’s just doing what he’s most amazing at.
So we’ve been fortunate to work on a lot of wonderful books, and New York Times bestsellers. From Penguin Random House to Simon Schuster, and HarperCollins. And a lot of fun projects. A lot of university presses we’ve been working with for over a decade–over 10 years. Source books has been a wonderful publisher that’s continually counted on us, and to this day works on us with a lot of fun projects, and even series. We had a huge run with Amazon publishing as well, and their imprints, for many years. And we did some really beautiful Limited Edition collections with them–the whole Jane Austen collection, and a Sherlock Holmes collection.
Carla King 15:51
Wow. So I imagine, since you’ve done so many–and Ian, you might already be super familiar with that genre. And I just have to say too, that I can just get lost not only in your covers, but when I look on your website for the interior design–memoir is just text, right? It’s just text. And it’s an immersive experience. But the cookbooks, and the textbook type things, the full color books. Even some memoirs might benefit from a grayscale running image, or something like that. It’s astounding to me how creative you can get with interiors.
Ian Koviak 16:37
But I think as a general rule, book interior should have what’s called a transparent design, right? That shouldn’t be something that’s really distracting from the core function of needing to just have the text be readable. It’s a balance–I think that we put most of our eggs in the basket in trying to make a real nice typographically sound clean layout. But at the same time, I always feel there’s room to spice something up–give something a little bit of detail and effect that either ties in the cover ar, or creates a continuous experience from cover to cover. And it really depends. I mean, a lot of authors of ours like that type of stuff.
But as far as traditional publishing–I’d say in general, most books are pretty straightforward interiors. It’s a functional thing that needs to just read nicely. But we definitely like doing some nice fun things with chapter openers, and lead ins. And even simple stuff, like a table of contents being different from book to book, and not having a standard fare approach to everything that we touch. I definitely like to do something different with everything. And hopefully that comes through in the stuff that we have presented on our site. But there’s go to’s. There’s traditional treatments of things that just make sense. There’s a reason why it’s done that way, and why it’s been done that way. And so you know, you don’t futz with that too much.
Carla King 18:16
And certainly, it makes it easier when it comes to creating the EPub–the ebook version, right? You’ve got your reflowable ebook, which is just the words reflow into your iPhone, or your mobile device, or whatever. And then you’ve got the fixed layout, which so many authors dream of, until they see how much it costs to do that. And then they go, ‘Okay, text, picture, text, picture is good enough,’ right?
Ian Koviak 18:44
I guess the more complicated the layout is–be that cookbooks, or photographically driven layouts–where content needs to really be married to a particular location, and the overall aesthetic is really critical–then yeah, we’ll definitely opt for a fixed layout. I mean, it’s difficult, because the books that are really overdone, and nicely designed, and there’s a lot of moving parts to it, and it really doesn’t work well for a traditional ePub format–it’s almost like that book is meant to be experienced in print. So it’s a tough call.
I think a lot of people want to get that extra exposure by having it available as an ebook, but how much of that experience of the book is lost when you do that? And are you really, in the end, getting it to the audience that will buy a book of that type, and appreciate it because of the level of design and interest that went into the artistry of it all? So it’s a catch 22 for a lot of authors–where they feel like they’re going to lose a lot of the effects of something. But yeah, that is your only option–is doing a fixed ePub, or just seeing how it goes without having a digital version of the book.
Carla King 20:06
Right. Interesting. Okay. Yeah, sometimes it might be good to have two versions of the book, even. I’ve consulted with authors who have both. And then they might have bonuses on their website, things like that. Oh my gosh, we don’t have a lot of time left. And I could talk to you guys all day about this beautiful design process that you do. You know, you talked about your creative process–just thinking about and looking at the comparables, and all of that, and business and communication. Just tell us–what are the materials that authors need to come to you with to get the ball rolling quickly–to prepare?
Alan Dino Hebel 20:57
I have a little list here of items that we request to start a project. And that’s a synopsis of the book–it can be a synopsis really written for us, if need be. Or something that ideally can even go on the back cover. The latest manuscript, in case we feel like diving into various sections of the book just for curiosity. We don’t always read the full manuscript, because the design briefs generally suffice. However, occasionally, we will be requested to read a manuscript, and we can accommodate that as well.
The other thing is a description of what your vision is for the cover. So we do like to receive that–some vision that the author has. Suggested images–sometimes that’s helpful. If someone has any suggested images, or an idea of the images, even. Doesn’t have to actually be the actual image, but some words leading to the proper research terms for imagery. Covers of competitive titles is another thing that we request, so that people can do research in regards to their target audience and competitive titles out there. Another request is covers that you’re attracted to. So kind of like your top favorite covers out there–your top three to five covers. That will kind of give us an idea of your taste and cover design. So that’s sometimes helpful for us to know.
And then the last two things are technical things. Confirmation of all the text on the front cover–very important, but making sure, if there’s going to be a testimonial, we leave room for it, or use a placeholder if it’s not ready. And then confirmation of the trim size so that we know we’re designing in the right dimensions. So that’s it. Just a little list. And from there, when people provide us that requested information, we’re ready to hit the ground running, generally.
Carla King 22:50
Right. And I just want to mention, too, that a lot of authors–they submit their books for awards. So you redesign afterwards? What happens?
Ian Koviak 23:00
Usually, if it’s a project that’s a print on demand, and the author’s printing their work with KDP, or Ingram Spark and the like, it’s not a problem for us to adjust the cover to accommodate some kind of a badge, and a blurb that needs to now go on there, or any number of things like that. But as a general rule, unless it’s provided up front, and it’s something that’s communicated that they’re expecting, it’s a small amount of real estate. 6×9, your general cover, 5 1/2 x 8 ½–kind of use that, play up the title, especially now with a lot of covers just being so small on mobile devices. And things like subtitles, also needing to carry some weight–especially for nonfiction books. Subtitles sometimes are even more important than the title. A title can kind of be a catch phrase, and it shouldn’t usually be something short and sweet. But a subtitle lets the reader really position the book in their minds. And so that’s our main goal. But yeah, definitely at some point, and if need be, there should be some room for stuff like that–that it doesn’t look like an afterthought and shoehorned onto the cover and detracting from the overall effect.
Carla King 24:21
A lot of the covers for nonfiction books–especially business books–are huge. They’re just big text blocks. And the typeface is lovely. I mean, I’m always amazed at what designers do with typefaces.
Ian Koviak 24:35
I know, it is fun. Sometimes it’s one of those dreaded tall orders for designers. ‘We just want an all text cover.’ How to make that interesting. And sometimes it’s tough, right? If you have a short word and a long word, it can look lopsided, it can look off. And so, how to balance all that out, and give proper emphasis to all the some concepts in the hierarchy.
Carla King 25:02
And I also just want to mention, too–there are certain cover trends. Every time I go to the bookstore, I see a new cover trend. And sometimes it’s super fancy–like foil or whatever. But the past couple of years there’s been this–it’s especially in fiction and memoir, I have to say–this sort of text that has plants growing over and into it, and things peeking out. And I don’t know–is that trend at its end? I mean, what’s coming next?
Ian Koviak 25:28
Yeah, there’s definitely trends. There’s definitely illustration being used a lot now for things like memoirs. And I guess it really just depends. But certain things achieve a certain amount of success. Other publishers jump on board, and obviously indie authors and small time publishing houses kind of want to fit in, so they’ll buy things, and copy things. We’re asked all the time by even larger houses to mimic the general feel of some other successful title. It’s just part of commercial design–it needs to have a familiar flavor to it. And it’s just pop culture–people need to be able to vibe with it as something that they’re familiar with, comfortable with, and they get it immediately. So it’s a balance, it’s definitely a balance.
Carla King 26:21
Well, it’s super interesting. I’ve seen color trends, like lavender and orange, all that kind of stuff. And I don’t know, I just accidentally saw a magazine that said, ‘New for 2021. Lavender and purples are going to be next year’s colors.’ I was like, ‘Okay, go figure.’ We all have our little industry trends. Well, is there anything I’ve missed, Alan? Is there any last words? Or have we covered enough?
Ian Koviak 26:53
There’s always more stuff.
Carla King 26:57
Well, maybe you could just tell us–do you have these materials on your website? Where can we find you? I know you’re big on Instagram. Give us your handles.
Alan Dino Hebel 27:06
Pretty generic term ‘book designers.’ We’re The Book Designers–we have bookdesigners.com. Ian posts a lot of our recent work there that we’re allowed to showcase. A lot of times, we have to wait till it’s in the public realm to feature the projects we’re working on. But yeah, bookdesigners.com. And then we also have Instagram, which you can get to very easily from there. And we have an info link on our site, which has a lot of information about the publishing process.
Ian Koviak 27:34
We used to have a more complicated form on our website that included a pre-brief that helped us construct the brief upfront, but we found that it was a little cumbersome–a lot of people are searching for designers. And it’s really just about getting a project quoted with several people. And so we wanted to make the process a little bit easier, rather than have them fill out some kind of a long list of check off items.
Carla King 28:03
Exactly. Okay. Well, Alan and Ian, thank you. Thank you so much for joining us today. I’m really, really glad that you explained this mysterious process for us.
Alan Dino Hebel 28:21
Thank you, Carla.
Ian Koviak 28:21
Carla King 28:23
And thank you to our listeners for joining us today and every week. For a list of guests and topics just check our schedule on the site, use your favorite search engine, or better yet, sign up for our mailing list at NonfictionAuthorsAssociation.com.
Quotes from our guest
‘Designers work well with parameters. So the more detailed the design brief is, the better I can do my job, because I can really connect with who this book is needing to target and connect with.’ -Ian
‘It’s our job as designers to take anything that an author has come up with, and try to distill the vision–be that for the cover or interiors. And say, ‘Out of these things that we’ve presented, this is your idea executed per our interpretation. And here are some things that we feel could also work, or our best foot forward, and professional opinion of what it could look like.’’ -Ian Koviak
‘I mean ultimately, books are kind of like little posters. And it’s something that needs to grab your attention–especially now more than ever–from a distance at a small size. And the main thing for us is really making sure that indie publishers that are coming to us understand their audience, where their books are going to fit on the shelf, so to speak.’ -Ian Koviak
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