Artwork and graphics play a key role in any book, especially children’s picture books, where illustrations often carry equal weight to the text. Writers focus on words, and sometimes we tend to forget the importance of artwork in complementing those words. That holds true for adult texts as well. Even a book that is all text needs an attractive cover to draw readers into it and good typography inside to prevent readers from getting bogged down.
If you work with a commercial publisher, you may have surprisingly little input into how your cover looks or how graphics are treated in the text. That’s one of the beauties (and challenges) of self-publishing. You have control over how your book will look, but you also have to procure, work with, and pay for the artists and designers you work with.
I have self-published two picture books (The Sound in the Basement and Beach Fun: Poems of Surf and Sand), and I learned some useful tips working with illustrators and designers. My experience with picture books may not exactly mirror the needs for a novel, memoir, or informational book, but many of the principles remain the same.
Cover Art, Graphic Elements, and More
If you’re self-publishing a novel or nonfiction book, the text carries the weight, but artwork and design are still important. Here are the areas you need to be thinking about.
A Killer Cover
Let’s face it, there’s a reason the covers of romance novels feature steamy scenes. The artwork and typography of the cover are designed not only to showcase the book’s title, but also to establish the “feel” of the book. And whether your book is sold through bookstores, on Amazon, or at fairs and festivals, an appealing cover can attract potential readers to open the book and explore what’s inside.
Author Photo/Flap Art
If your book has a jacket flap, it may feature an author photo. It pays to use one taken by a professional photographer. Like the book itself, you want to present yourself in the best possible manner. And even if your book doesn’t have a flap, there may be an author photo somewhere inside.
Many nonfiction books feature charts, graphs, and photographs to illustrate key points in the text. While we may not take the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” literally, graphic elements certainly help make complex facts and figures more understandable. Two tips for charts and graphs: 1) Make sure you are being fair. The manner in which charts and graphs are presented can illuminate—or distort—the true meaning. 2) Have several people who are not familiar with the subject matter review the graphics. What seems clear to us as experts on a topic may not be clear to the casual reader.
Most writers realize the importance of a great book title and strong chapter titles, but the manner in which those titles are presented also plays a key role in their effectiveness. In addition, nonfiction books often rely on various levels of subheads to break up the text. Likewise, “call-outs” in large bold type can spotlight key facts or quotes. Choosing the right font size and style for these graphic elements contributes greatly to the book’s readability. Although some self-publishing packages make it easier than ever to format a book, you may still want to consider working with a professional designer/formatter to enhance your book’s appearance. You want your self-published book to look just as professional as a commercially published book.
Treat the Artist as a Partner
For any book project, but especially a children’s picture book, it’s important for the author and the artist and/or designer to work as a team. While you have different areas of expertise, you are working toward a common goal—providing an optimal experience for the reader. Some key points to consider.
Partnering is easier for those who self-publish.
In commercial publishing, the publisher selects the illustrator (possibly with input from the author), as well as the book designer. Everything filters through the publisher—sketches, comments, and revisions. That’s partly for efficiency. It also prevents authors and illustrators and/or designers from potentially arguing. But it may limit your input. Self-published authors have control over each part of the process.
Be open to new ideas.
You may see your book cover in a particular way, and your characters’ appearance may be described in the text. Speak up if the artwork runs counter to that. But also be open to the artist’s conceptions, especially for picture books. When I wrote Raindrops to Rainbow (Penguin Workshop, 2021), I pictured a young boy (a young me), but I didn’t specify a gender in the text. Illustrator Charlene Chua created a delightful red-haired girl and added a cute Corgi sidekick. Great choices!
Consider the technical aspects.
Books must be prepared to certain specifications in preparation for either print or online publication. Commercial publishers take care of that for authors. Those who self-publish need to handle those details themselves. Various self-publishing companies offer varying degrees of support in this regard. If you are publishing a novel, and the only artwork is the cover, it may be easy enough to use a template. If your book is more complex, you should enlist the services of someone who is skilled in this process. You’ve spent months—or years—making your words the best they can be. Don’t let all that work be undone by a substandard “look.”
Decide how much control you want to maintain.
In the end, it’s YOUR book, and you want it to reflect your vision. Remember, however, that illustrators and designers are professionals. They know the elements that make books visually attractive and readable, as well as the technical specifications for making sure they print properly. Look for ways to incorporate their vision without sacrificing yours.
John Micklos Jr. of Newark, Delaware, has written more than 50 children’s books, including picture books, poetry books, and many nonfiction books. His latest picture book, Raindrops to Rainbow (Penguin Workshop, 2021), is Delaware’s Great Reads from Great Places selection for the 2021 National Book Festival. John also has written dozens of articles for local, regional, and national publications. He has spoken at national conferences and often does presentations in schools. His books The Sound in the Basement and Beach Fun: Poems of Surf and Sand are available at The Palette & The Page in Elkton, Maryland, or from First State Press.