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Publishing: Why I Love Working With Indie Authors – By A Book Designer

Publishing: Why I Love Working with Indie Authors – by A Book Designer

Working successfully as both a self-published author and a book designer, Jane Dixon-Smith, a member of the Triskele Books collective, brings a unique perspective to the relationship between writers and artists. She also kindly leads us through a case study of one book cover as it goes through the design process.

Head shot of Jane Dixon-Smith

Jane Dixon-Smith, author and  book designer

How It All Began

I wasn’t always a book designer. In fact I originally wanted to be an interior designer (as in home interiors, not book interiors). I went to college to study art and design, but it wasn’t for me. I was too business-driven, too eager to get on and build a career, so I applied for a job in a graphic design firm making tea.

Twelve months later and I was a full time graphic designer, with my very own Mac, working for clients including ASDA, Motorola, M&S, as well as lots of local businesses on branding and brochures, logo, leaflets, exhibitions, all kinds of corporate stuff.

Around 2001, my friend and colleague read some copy I’d written and said, ‘It’s really good. You should write.’ So I did. Just like that. I wrote the most awful book imaginable. (I’ll refrain from getting it out of the bottom drawer to compare, because it’s that cringe-worthy). Then I wrote another, slightly better one.

The Turning Point

I had two passions, design and writing, and in 2012 they abruptly collided. I took voluntary redundancy and made the decision not to apply for another job – I couldn’t imagine wanting to work for another agency, the soul-destroying work of creating adverts and receiving emails back from marketing people saying ‘thanks, I’ll pass it on to the newspaper’. I just couldn’t face it.

But I did need to earn a living. I had been working for some time with Pam Howes, my first ever freelance book cover client, and I put the word out: ‘Please, please, can you refer me to people, tell everyone you know I’m available for hire, I’ve been made redundant!’ The response was overwhelming. Within three months I was working full time again, but now almost exclusively on book covers (as well as some advertising for Mitsubishi*). The biggest turning point of my career: not only working from home, but on books and with hugely talented and enthusiastic people.

Why I Love Book Design

Cover of Jane's latest book, The Rise of Zenobia

Multi-talented and multi-tasking, Jane Dixon-Smith also writes books

Book design is the most rewarding job I have ever done:

In fourteen years working as a graphic designer, I never experienced such enthusiasm for the work I produce, nor such effective collaboration.

Books are my passion and my hobby. They are a part of me. It’s why I love being immersed in the world of books so much, and why this is my perfect job. Writers are incredibly lovely to work with. Enthusiastic about their work – they write because they want to, not because they have to – and it shows in the emails and enquiries and messages I receive every day. Care and attention is there in each and every one.

As the rise of the independent author continues, more have realised what it means to work with professionals; editors or proofreaders, marketers or designers.

I no longer wake up dreading my working day, I sit at my desk encouraged and motivated by other authors, writers, booklovers …

How I Operate

Cover creation comes from both me and the author. That is the beauty of self-publishing, and why working with authors is so satisfying, because I can liaise directly, understand what it is they want to achieve, where they feel they sit in the marketplace, and how they wish to express themselves.

Working for myself, I can also spend as much time on a project as I choose to, unencumbered by allocated time constraints put on designers by agencies. If I go over what I have quoted, that’s my problem, and why I like giving authors fixed quotes, so there are no nasty surprises. I can work in my own way, tailoring what I do and how I do it depending on who I’m working with, producing designs directly with authors, knowing that they will feed back on visuals straight away, because they’re sat at their desks as much as I am sat at mine.

Together we can work through the process of creating the face to that manuscript they’ve spent hours and months and years honing to perfection.

I anticipated working from home as the loneliest occupation, but far from it. I have made many friends within the writing community, people who make working life a wonderful place to be, people like Triskele Books who persuaded me to publish my own work. My reward, in addition to being able to support myself through my skills, are many emails of gratitude, wine, chocolate, cookies and flowers (*still waiting for the thank you car from Mitsubishi)! It should be the other way around. Surely I should be thanking authors for trusting me to deliver a suitable cover they love and for always paying promptly because they value what I do?

Why do I love working with authors? As soon as I started working with authors, I realised it’s my perfect job.

A Snapshot of the Book Design Process

Here's an abbreviated stage-by-stage overview of the design process demonstrating what can be achieved with stock imagery and a little bit of Photoshop magic, using the example of David Helton's The Last Walk Out.

Array of lots of possible photos

Having received a handful of existing covers in his genre, excerpts of the scene David really wanted to portray on the cover and other information about the book, I went on a hunt for suitable imagery.

Shortlist selection of images

With David's input, we then narrowed down the imagery to a very small selection which David really felt works for the scene. However he was in two minds which way to go …

Selection of mock-ups

So we mocked up rough visuals of both using watermarked stock images. One using more photographic imagery to describe a specific scene, with the help of Photoshop to create the dome of light and merge a sky and grass image together, and the second being more illustrative, cartoon based imagery.

Three mock-ups using same picture but different type

The former was the winner, and we progressed the design, trying out different elements, including the mc, an elephant, and subtle differences in title size.


The finished cover design

Once everything was agreed, and David was happy with the design, I downloaded the images to produce the final cover.

 To make it easy to share this post with other authors and designers, here's our suggested tweet:

“Why this designer loves working with indie authors & how she does it: https://selfpublishingadvice.org/publishing-why-i-love-working-with-indie-authors-by-a-book-designer via @JDSmith_Design & @IndieAuthorALLi”

Author: Jane Dixon-Smith

JD Smith, is the author of "Tristan and Iseult" and "The Rise of Zenobia", editor of Words with JAM and Bookmuse, and the mother of three mischievous boys who can browse her website and find her on Facebook. www.jdsmith-design.co.uk.


This Post Has 16 Comments
  1. Recently I read the following passage, would yo be the graphic designer mentioned? :

    “What’s A Book Cover Worth?
    Posted on 12/3/2014 by Jim Pickerell

    At the annual Self-Publishing in the Digital Age conference in London last weekend one of the speakers, who is a graphic designer, advised the audience that they should never pay more than £10 for a picture for their book jacket. The speaker also acknowledged that the jacket picture is the most important choice an author can make when it comes to selling the book.

    At another point a man from Amazon.com said they offer 550,000 self-published titles a year and the average title sells 250 copies. ”

    So do you think £10 for a photograph is fair to the photographer. Perhaps then the book cover design should not cost more than £10 either.

  2. Lovely article, informative and personal too. Jane is a fantastic designer and a dream to work with. No wonder she’s winning awards! I’ve had huge praise for each of my covers. Have to say I love Zenobia cover too, and can’t believe anyone would seriously see that image as anything other than a warrior with a sword and shield!!

  3. It’s always a pleasure to work with Jane. She’s truly one of the best and always interprets my thoughts and ideas to perfection. My readers love my book covers and I get many positive comments about them. .

  4. In my opinion, you are the best in the industry Jane! I LOVE the cover to The Haunting of Highdown Hall but more to the point, so does everyone else – it’s got the Wow factor for sure!

  5. A great guide through the process. Stunning cover for Zenobia – I just downloaded a sample as a result. 😉

    Seriously, Zenobia is a fascinating woman who didn’t shrink from taking on the Roman Empire during the “Crisis of the Third Century”. But she came up against Aurelian…

    1. Hi Alison, yes, I found Zenobia to be a massively intriguing historical character. I cannot wait to reach the stage of writing those final, epic battles … 🙂

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