Paul Nylander

7 Questions With Book Cover Designer Paul Nylander

Paul Nylander is a Minneapolis based artist and book designer operating as illustrada design ( He is passionate about using design to enhance the functionality and impact of the written word, be it a work of non-fiction or literature, a novel or memoir, poetry or picture book. His guiding principles of curiosity, consideration, and commitment have taken him from his early days in science, earning a Ph.D. in physics, to running an instrumentation business, and later exploring the visual arts through photography… all while keeping an ever watchful eye toward solid design in the service of clear communication.


Paul is also a letterpress printer and book artist. He serves on the board of the Midwest Independent Publishers Association and the Minnesota Bookbuilders, and is a member of the AIGA, Minnesota Publisher’s Roundtable, the Fine Press Book Association, and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts’ Artist Collective.


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What types of design do you offer and how can an author benefit from your skills?



In offering both cover and interior design for books, I’m able to work on both the marketing (cover) and functional (interior) sides of a book projects for authors and publishers. In addition to design, I offer typesetting, photo/illustration work, and production assistance.


The best way to benefit from my skills is to have a conversation with me, where we can talk about the publishing process, your goals and dreams, where you want to do things yourself, and where you will need help.




What details should a new author offer you upon requesting a book cover design? Can you share more details to help new authors prepare for this experience?



This can be daunting for new author-publishers! But the key is to remember that a good designer, like a good writer, is at heart a creative person. Treat them as a part of your creative team, and not some sort of an interchangeable and generic tool. Listen to your designer’s ideas, and give them room to explore—just as you need room as a writer to explore your ideas.


That said, all creatives are more productive when they understand their constraints. Any designer needs a creative brief to guide their process: a synopsis of your story, the key characters, the genre, time frame/period, mood, as well as an understanding of your audience, your market, and your plans on publicity and promotion. I want to understand you, what you like and don’t like—so if you have some “comps” or comparable covers that you like (and some you don’t like), share them and plan to discuss why you like or don’t like them.


Other constraints to be up front about are your experience, your own management/work style, as well as your budget. Any designer can work within whatever limitations you have, but the more open we are about this up front, the more efficient the process will be.



How do you manage to juggle life and design?



I don’t. I love working with books, and so to me, they are one in the same. But I also know that creativity needs time to blossom, and I try to allow time in my day for this—planting the seeds of an idea, and then continue to nurture those ideas and see what they become as they grow.



What dictates the price of book cover design? What’s an approximate price authors would pay upon hiring your service?



The main factor in cover design pricing (as well as interior layout, typesetting, photo retouching, or any other creative endeavor) is time. Time is spent on research, understanding the author/publisher’s vision, ideation, sketching, developing proofs and mock-ups, revising and refining, then finally creating the print-ready files and exporting the various special formats needed (website, ebook cover, etc.).


As with any creative process, until you do it, you don’t really know how long it will take. But the largest uncertainty is actually how much time needs to be allotted to client communication and project management.


So be honest: are you clear, concise and articulate in your needs, or are you harder to work with, require constant communication and hand-holding through the process? It affects the workload, and so should affect the price.


Production considerations also factor in: will there be a dust jacket, too? Special printing needs (foil, deboss, spot varnish)? So even if these aren’t finalized, it helps to understand upfront how much “room” we have for printing details.


Other factors I try to consider: is it a cover only, or is the cover part of a compete book project? Will there be an advanced reader copy (ARC) version as well as production? Will it be typographic, photographic, or illustrated? Do we have assets (or stock) to work with?


All that said, typically an author should expect to pay between $500 (ebook only) and $1,500 (for print and ebook, more iterations and review) for a genre appropriate cover design. Interior design and typesetting depends on the type of book and length, and whether an ebook is also being created, so this has a much wider range of, say $500–$3,500. Depends on the amount of work, and I highly encourage author/publishers to be up front about this, as squeezing your creatives to “get a good deal,” tends to mean you get less service, or higher rate “scope creep” escalators in your contract might kick in.



How long does it normally take to deliver a finished book cover design?



Depends on constraints, but from a good creative brief, I usually take a couple of weeks to noodle on ideas and create 3–5 initial rough concepts. Review these with the author/publisher (and others on the team, such as a publicist), refine one or two of the concepts, additional feedback, and a working final draft. Then the spine must be finalized (width depends on the number of pages, and paper thickness), back cover, book jacket and flaps (if used).


It can be faster, but I say to allow a month on the front end to get to the final proof, and at least a couple weeks on the back end to finalize the full cover and prepare printer files. That is allowing for reasonably responsive review time, and scheduling around other projects I might be working on at the time.



What would you do if you wouldn’t be creating digital magic?



I also create analog magic! In addition to my commercial book design work, which is nearly all digital, I also am a book artist, creating hand printed, hand made limited edition books. That means working with wood and metal type and letterpress printing presses, and intaglio printing processes such as hand inked photogravure prints. But really they are two aspects of the same world for me—a world of self-contained narratives!



What’s some of the terminology used by designers that authors should know?



Design is the bridge between the editorial world of words and imagery, and the production world of paper and pixels. As designers, we deal with both technical issues as well stylistic ones. And so we will tend to use a lot of terminology to streamline details. Always ask if you don’t understand!


Type: it might come as a surprise, but type—the words themselves, and how they are represented on the page/screen—is actually the most important thing to a book designer. It is so important, there are actually three different ways we talk about interacting with type: typography, typesetting, and type design.


Typography: design with type, the shapes the words make and how they interact with the space and other elements of the page, especially the cover. It is a part of the interior page layout, as well, as the shape of the printed page (and perhaps more importantly the shape of the unprinted white space) is very important—as it is to any visual artist!


Typesetting: the arranging of words in the interior of a book to make a (usually) pleasurable experience for the reader. Good typesetting is transparent, in that if it is done well, you shouldn’t notice it (unless you are trained to look for it). While it may be invisible, it is not “free.” Software such as Microsoft Word does a poor job of typesetting. Adobe InDesign does a better job, but still is inadequate for real professional results, because ultimately it is as much about the style rules (e.g. Chicago Manual of Style) as it is about the visual appearance. And that is only accomplished by the trained eye of a typesetter.


Type design: the actual illustration work of the letterforms (called glyphs) themselves, and how the individual letters interact with one another. Collectively, a complete set of glyphs is known as a font, and generally a family of fonts is referred to as a typeface. While a cover designer is very concerned with typography, and may chose to do some custom lettering or other type design sort of actions on the title, they rarely bother to design an entire typeface. Similarly, the design of the interior of a book relies heavily on the solid work of a good type design, and will use that as a basis of fine tuning spacing to provide an uninterrupted reading experience, i.e. good color on a page.


Color: the relative proportion of “lightness” to “darkness” on an interior page, which has (almost) nothing to do with pigments or hue. “Good color” means a pleasing balance of a font’s weight, and the space around it, and provides a comfortable reading environment. This depends on the printing technique, though, so don’t be surprised when a book designer asks you how many copies you are planning to print at your first meeting—because print volume determines printing options, which in turn affects the font choice, and thus the color of a page.


Bleed: an image or page layout that extends all the way to the edge of the page. A photo is said to bleed if it prints to the edge—in fact, over the edge, to allow for slight inaccuracy when trimming a book. Typically a cover always has bleeds, but a book interior may not, especially if cost is a factor (bleeds require a larger printed sheet, and so waste a little more paper).


Font licensing: the use of fonts is a bit peculiar, because they are treated by our legal system as software. As such, they generally cannot be freely distributed, at least not without carefully checking that the requirements of the license agreement have been met. It is very important to understand who owns the license, and the limits of a font’s distribution. For example, a “free” font might be limited to personal use, and so cannot be legally used for a book produced for sale (a commercial use).


Or a font might be licensed to one user (i.e. the designer) for “desktop” use, and so can be used for the printed book (provided the designer sends it to the printer embedded in a pdf), but it cannot be used in the ebook version. That is a separate license, and it may be restricted in number of views. It is all quite confusing, but a good thing to discuss with your designer. Bottom line: you usually cannot legally “give” someone a font to use.


File Formats and Design Files: the various software used to create books, and the files they create, are a source of constant confusion. Here are a few you should have a passing familiarity with (denoted by their extension, the part of the filename after the period), and how they are used.


.doc / .docx—Microsoft Word document, usually your manuscript.


.txt / .rtf—also text files for manuscripts, with less clutter than a Microsoft Document.


.jpg / .jpeg / .gif / .png / .tif / .tiff / .psd—these are all bitmapped image files. Pictures if you will. They are measured in pixels and usually have a reference number of “pixels per inch” (ppi).


.ai / .svg / .eps—these are vector image files. Usually illustrations, they are “drawn” by the software instructions contained in the file, and so have “infinite resolution,” or will render sharp at any size. Fonts are another type of vector drawing.


.indd—an InDesign file. This is the layout document, and can only be opened by Adobe’s software. But as a designer, this is the file I need. It contains all the text, set as type, and is also a container for all the images in a book.


.pdf—an Adobe Acrobat file. You view this with “Acrobat Reader,” or other pdf aware software. In theory, it is self-contained, in that it has all the type, fonts, layout, and images in one neat package. However, there are many variations: I typically produce a “low resolution” pdf for editing and review, or uploading to a website, and a completely different “print ready” pdf with higher resolution images, and other embedded information such as crop marks and page bleeds, that the printer needs.


Resolution: one of the most confusing things about image files for non-designers (or non-photographers) is the resolution of an image. Typically this refers to either the actual pixel size of an image (found in the image file’s properties or info). But it might also refer to the pixels-per-inch of an image when used at a particular size. They actually are related via a bit of simple arithmetic, but if you aren’t used to it, it can be disconcerting.


The key is that we need to have enough resolution so the image prints/displays well. In print the rule-of-thumb is 300 pixels-per-inch (300 ppi) for a photograph or continuous tone image. Let’s say the photo in your memoir will be 4 inches wide; at 300 ppi that means I need a minimum of 4 x 300 = 1200 pixels wide. But also remember that pixel resolution is only one aspect of an image that affects its reproduction.




This is an optional but truly fun part of this interview. I’d like you to make a personal top 3 of the very worst cover designs you’ve seen and explain what was wrong with this selection.



You know, no one ever wants to throw someone else under the bus. It just lacks professional curtesy. We’ve all created designs that we’re not proud of because we were inexperienced, the budget was too constrained, the client was impossibly over-constraining, whatever. And, like writing and editing, there isn’t a single published book that couldn’t yet be improved just a touch more.


But what I would say is that there are a large number of very amateurish covers produced for book that fail to meet even the most basic “rules” for good design. This is usually the result of poor typography, poor contrast control, and/or excessive visual clutter. Clean, simple designs work best.


But there are some online and IRL book cover critique groups out there. Goodreads is one place I’m fairly active. And here in Minnesota, we have the Minnesota Bookbuilders Critique Conversations meeting every month.


Find Paul Nylander on his Website