Helping Authors Self-Publish: What I Learned with My First Book

We have never had more opportunities to connect with others and tell our stories. Social media, blogs, and self-publishing are all low or no-cost ways to connect with large audiences. Writers no longer need a book deal to hold a professional looking copy of their life or ideas in their hands.

So, they write a book and decide to self-publish it. They have this text document that is hours, days, weeks, months, years of work. It’s a piece of them. What now? How do they take that document and turn it into a book? Some people simply upload a pdf version of that text document to Amazon’s CreateSpace, slap together a cover, and call it done. Others look to people like me to do some final polishing they might not have the resources or skills to do.

Self-publishing presents new opportunities for designers to connect with other content creators (writers) and form mutually beneficial professional relationships that don’t end when the book is completed and for sale. Designers who do the layout and design for a book will find themselves with intimate knowledge of that book that can then be used to market it across many channels. Designers can take the work they’ve already done and adapt it for social media, websites, and other promotional print assets. It is an excellent learning experience and I highly recommend it.

I feel particularly lucky to have experienced the same sort of situation with author and long-time marketing professional, Arthur Shapiro. He chose me and my frequent collaborator, Hannah “Neurotica” Forman, to take his book Inside the Bottle: People, Brands, and Stories from finished document to book format. Arthur even went the extra step and had me illustrate his stories. Actually, those illustrations and the cover design were all I was originally brought on to do, but things changed, and that’s why I’m writing about this experience.

Illustrating Inside the Bottle

Illustrating is hard work. Illustrating someone else’s story is even harder because you weren’t there, or you can’t see exactly what the author sees in their head. It also takes a lot of time, collaboration, and compromise before you get to an end result that everyone is happy with.

If you are asked to illustrate a book, and you haven’t done it before, take the time you estimate it will take and double it. That should cover any process struggles and change requests. Illustration is not the same as graphic design. You will have to develop a different workflow. If you finish before your deadline, great! What client doesn’t like it when work is done sooner and/or for less money?

Another important thing to remember is not to take criticism personally. It may seem silly to tell designers this. Our entire job is about criticism, but this process involves a different kind of critique.

Creating art is a highly personal process, so it can be tough to have someone tell you that you spent a lot of time and put a lot of effort into something that went in a completely wrong direction. It’s hard to have something you imagined in your head and put to paper described as simply wrong. The work feels different, so it makes sense that the feedback would too.

Working with Arthur on the illustrations was actually the easiest part of the process. He is great at using words to describe what he wants to see. I’m sure that comes from a lot of practice. He was open to new ideas and even allowed me to take a little creative license to make something funny. He also wasn’t afraid to reel me in when I went too far with a change. This was only possible because we communicated our wants and thought processes without being emotional about it. We were both working toward the same goal of creating art that enhanced his story. The end result is a unique book that has humor, insight, and manages to educate without being boring.

Designing the Cover

The author has probably thought about the cover of their book in greater detail than you ever will. It’s the thing that first catches the attention of a reader whether they’re buying the book in a book store or scrolling through Amazon. That’s why you should consider the author the expert when talking about what they want out of the cover. In the case of Arthur’s book, he legitimately was the expert.

Let me preface this by saying that I am a passable photographer. I have some experience with product photography. I’ve been paid to take pictures at events. However, I do not have dedicated home photography studio. Arthur wanted the cover to have a picture of a bottle with the title of the book inside it. My first version was a very literal take. I found some clear plastic and wrote the title of the book by hand on it in paint pen, then I submerged it inside the bottle and took photographs in an improvised setting.

I was thrilled with the way it turned out initially. It felt warm, and masculine, and the words seemed to glow from the bottle. I could also turn the bottle around and take another photo for the back of the book with the words reversed. It felt gimmicky and fun. I felt super clever. Arthur didn’t like it.

But, I’m a professional. I’ll give it another shot. I built a light box in my home office. I gave up on the words inside the bottle and decided I would Photoshop them in later. So, I started taking pictures of this bottle with a white background to match the aesthetic we’d recently used in the design of Arthur’s website, Booze Business. He liked that. He’d like this right?


He did seem to like the direction I was taking, but he had me get rid of reflections and the flare from the flash in the bottle. He got really specific about angles and shapes. For about thirty seconds, I thought he was just being overly picky. Then, it hit me.

This book is essentially a collection of much his life’s work. He’s probably been thinking about this cover for years. Of course he wants it to be just so. Also, the man worked for Seagram. His job was directing people until they had the perfect picture of a bottle that would sell the product. He was the expert here on multiple levels. I had to swallow my pride, check my ego, and learn from my mistakes. I adjusted my set up. Really listened to his input about angles and reflections. And we finally ended up a photo we could use. I’m not going to tell you all the secrets and tricks to getting the final photo. That is a mystery I will keep to myself.

To be honest, I’m prouder of the way it turned out than I would have been if Arthur had gone with my first attempt. I grew as a photographer and designer, and I produced something that a man–who knows a good photo of a bottle when he sees one–chose to represent his story.

Designing the Book’s Guts

I’d created larger print documents before, but nothing as substantial as a book. I’d also never created an e-book. So, Hannah (who was handling all of the administrative and organizational tasks associated with the book) found another designer who had worked on a few self-published books. He was going to take my illustrations and put them in the book while he worked on laying out the copy. He was also going to create an index for the book. He said that both of these tasks required specific software. I didn’t have either program he said he had to use, so I was fine handing things over to him.

The agreed upon deadline came and went. I offered to help him however I could. He asked for higher resolution versions of the images. So, I sent him those. It turned out he was doing the layout of the print version of the book in InDesign. I have InDesign. I use it all the time. So, I could finish the print version of the book while he worked on the e-book. He said all he had to do was finish the index and he would send me the InDesign files.

So, he sent me the files and I expected to see a version of the book that only needed the images swapped out for higher resolution images. That wasn’t what I got. First of all, the book was set up with the InDesign default 8.5” by 11” pages rather than the 6” by 9” pages of a book. As I dug into the file I started to understand why he had missed his original deadline. It was obvious he’d been having problems with layout. Spacing was inconsistent. My illustrations were resized to the wrong proportions. The index he had created (using some third party automated software) included entries for words like “the” and nonsensical phrases. He’d been struggling, but this was the first any of us had realized it.

This is when I was reminded of the most important lesson any designer can learn. If you’re digging yourself a hole, stop digging before you can’t climb your way out. Ask for help before it’s too late. Communicate with your client when you’re having problems so you can adjust deadlines rather than missing them. It may be difficult to admit, but you will be better off in the long run if you are honest with your clients. That’s what professionals do.

I knew that I would have to put a significant amount of time into fixing this file, but I also knew I would have to deliver this news to Arthur somehow. I had a meeting with Hannah and we discussed how to tell him how much of the work would have to be redone. She decided that because she was the one who brought both of us on board, and she knew Arthur the longest, she would tell him. Arthur took it very well, I thought. He decided to let me take over the redo of the print version, and he gave the other designer a chance to redeem himself with the e-book.

I had to start from scratch, but I learned how to use InDesign to create a book (complete with an accurate table of contents and index) in a week. I wouldn’t like to do it that quickly again, but I felt like we owed Arthur for the time he spent waiting for work that wasn’t the quality he’d expected. When I finished the print version before the other designer had finished the e-book, Arthur asked me to do the e-book as well. I did some research and found out I could also do that in InDesign! It took a bit of trial and error to get things to work properly, but with Hannah and Arthur’s help, we successfully produced both the print and e-book versions.

Professionally, I felt bad for the other designer. I never intended to replace him. If he had communicated his problems before he was supposed to have finished his part of this project, I probably wouldn’t have been asked. Even when he tried to place the blame on me by saying having more than one designer on the project made it harder, I felt bad for him. It was obvious that his struggle had been a blow to the ego and rather than learn from his mistakes, he became defensive. That told me he hadn’t worked as part of a creative team before. He wasn’t necessarily a bad designer, just an inexperienced one. I didn’t get mad when he blamed me. I wanted to mentor him.

I ended up not approaching him after the book was done. Chances are he didn’t want my input and if I offered it, that would be like salt in the wound. I did realize that this would be an excellent teaching opportunity for other young or new designers. This experience is actually what inspired me to start my blog. I realized that my experiences as a designer with all sorts of people and companies gave me insight that could help others not make the same mistakes I’ve made or seen over the years.

I will definitely apply the skills and lessons I learned to the next book, and the next. Helping authors self-publish is a rewarding experience, and if you happen upon this post as you start on your own book, I wish you luck and success!

One response to “Helping Authors Self-Publish: What I Learned with My First Book”

  1. Arthur Shapiro says:

    I have known many creative people over the years but very few could compare to Miki Hickel. She has that often rare gift of being able to listen to a client’s request and make it a reality — at the same time exceeding expectations. Leaving aside the fact that she came to the rescue as you just read, she intuitively understood what I was looking for and calmly set about meeting and exceeding those requests. I can’t imagine writing my next book without Miki’s involvement.

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