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A Guide to Design Book Publishing for the Non-Rich and Non-Famous

Writing a book is so time-consuming that a minimum wage worker would earn more per hour and would have better sleep. So why do we keep on doing it?


Every designer has an unwritten book in them, or at least dreams of writing the ultimate ode to their particular obsession. While the rise of self-publishing platforms and the success of independent publishers has made that fantasy seem more attainable than ever, if you’re penning your next opus, don’t do it for the money. Producing a quality design book—particularly a picture-heavy volume—is an extremely laborious, emotionally draining enterprise that won’t result in big bonuses, or even (sometimes, sadly) equitable compensation.

Steven Heller, the design industry’s most prolific chronicler with over 130 titles to his name, cautions that writing a book is largely an act of love. “Realize that this is not a way to make a living or burnish a reputation,” he says. “It is an act of generosity.”

Indeed, producing a design book today is as complex as it is exciting. The first thing to know is that a good idea is not enough.

“A good idea can get your foot in the door, but it’s not enough to get an offer from a publishing house,” says editorial consultant Caitlin Leffel. A former editor at Rizzoli, Leffel says interesting proposals would be turned away if they didn’t have a clear audience or were too expensive to produce. “The acquisition of a trade book is a business decision based on projected performance in the marketplace and cost of production, among other factors,” she says.

PS1, book, book-design, publishing, Unit-Editions

Spread from PS1 book by Unit Editions.

Phaidon’s editorial publisher Emilia Terragni reveals that rarely does a book materialize from a new author’s pitch. “Most of our books are the result of our own research into people and projects that interest us,” she says. Publishing houses like Phaidon have teams that monitor design trends and hot design studios they can potentially build a monograph around. Editors then generate a roster of topical titles that they commission professional writers to develop.

“Over the years we’ve built a robust network of authors and people in the fields of architecture and design who refer us to others who are doing really interesting things. Through this community, we continue to cultivate remarkable new authors and exciting new projects,” says Terragni.

In other words, if you’re not already famous or well-connected, it’s going to be tough to land a plum book contract from a major publisher. And for the few who do get the green light, a book project isn’t exactly the road to fortune.  

Writers hired by mainstream publishing houses typically get an up-front sum that pays for their time to work on the manuscript, at least in theory. The fee is usually paid out in chunks as writers meet editorial milestones over the course of an average 18 month-production schedule.

Writing a book is so time-consuming—from pitching, to research, writing, and round and rounds of editing—that a minimum wage worker would earn more per hour and have better sleep.

High on the list of headaches is obtaining image permissions, especially for the history-based books, says Heller, who until recently, woke up at 3:30am each day to get ahead on his writing. This step alone can take months of correspondence and negotiations with archives and image banks—all tallied in spreadsheets to account for every photo and illustration in a book. “With electronic rights and intellectual property issues, it’s much more difficult to get the material I need without killing myself in red tape,” he says.

This reality hit first-time author Nick Kokonas, who recently co-authored a book with Alinea chef Grant Achaz. In May 2017, Kokonas bore his grievances on a Medium post, tallying the true costs of making a book. “Having never published a book before, I was fairly mind-blown by the terms of the offering and my inability to properly and easily research the process, costs, and revenue potential of a cookbook,” he writes.

The-Moderns, book, book-design, publishing

Spread from The Moderns book, by Steve Heller and Greg D’Onofrio (Abrams)

After the allure of a six-figure advance check wore off, Kokoknas started to crunch the numbers. “For every book sold after 30,000—and let’s be clear *very* few cookbooks sell more than 30,000 copie —we would recoup at a rate of $7.20 per book and need to sell another 12,222 books before we saw another dime.”

So is there better way to get your dream book out to the world?

If mainstream publishing sounds arduous, self-publishing isn’t any exactly a cake walk either. Apart from skipping editorial gatekeepers, crowdfunded authors go through the same toil as all commissioned writers—and without the help of an editorial and publicity team backing them up.

Crowdfunding guru Alex Daly describes mounting a successful Kickstarter campaign as a “full-time job.” The author of the The Crowdsourceress: Get Smart, Get Funded, and Kickstart Your Next Big Idea, Daly is the go-to advisor for many designers yearning to see their names on the cover of a book. “One thing I’ve told everyone is that you’ll need to be prepared to invest blood, sweat, tears, hundreds of hours, and a ton of strategizing to ensure your campaign succeeds,” she says. “My big piece of advice is get ready to put a lot of time and resources into launching a project.”

A designer seeking to fundraise a book is essentially using Kickstarter as a platform to audition their talents and taste, and no winning campaign is complete without designing graphics, taking photographs, and filming a witty project video. “If you’re appealing to a design crowd, your campaign page needs to look the part,” says Daly. “It needs to look and sound exceptional, so that backers can expect to get an exceptional book too.”

And even after all this work, many well-presented book projects still fall short. German photographer Frederik Busch ran a compelling and well-publicized Kickstarter for a genius tragic-comedic tribute to neglected office plants, but ultimately failed to meet his €25,000 goal. “My team and I are truly grateful for the overwhelming support you gave us… we received many lovely emails from you and your friends. Unfortunately, we didn’t meet our goal,” he writes, dejected on Kickstarter. Only after a fortunate interview with the BBC did he manage to attract a private donor to help him print his opus, German Business Plants.

Daly says an aspiring U.S. author needs to raise at least $50,000 for their book to see the light of day, and this only funds the design, printing, and shipping. “If you overfund, you can use that extra money to enhance the book, produce extra copies to sell later, or pay yourself back for your time,” she says.

The-Moderns, book, book-design, publishing

Spread from The Moderns book, by Steve Heller and Greg D’Onofrio (Abrams)

The burden is even greater for valiant designers who dare to write, design, and finance their own books.

New York-based imprint Standards Manual and UK-based publishers Unit Editions and Volume are new book publishing arms run and operated by graphic designers. Like crowdfunded projects, self-publishing gives designers control over the design specifications—niggly but crucial details like format, paper, inks—and the subject of their books. For instance, making luxurious coffee table books from the internal brand guidelines of government agencies like NASA or the Environmental Protection Agency may sound ridiculous to editors at traditional publishing houses, but former Pentagram designers Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed have proven that design fans will pay $45-$79 for the repackaged content. The duo, who formed the imprint Standards Manual in 2014, has raised $1.75 million on Kickstarter.

“Making all our books requires hundreds and hundreds of hours of work—photography, retouching, specifying paper, ordering book dummies, print tests, and the design and layout process itself. We’re always struggling to get the right balance between text and image on the page… And then there’s the cover. We agonize over covers,” says graphic designer and writer Adrian Shaughnessy, who co-founded Unit Editions with Tony Brooks and Patricia Finegan in 2010.

And after the first, beautiful box of books arrive,the selling them presents another back-breaking hurdle. “The traditional model of supplying books to distributors—waiting months to be paid and having to deal with unsold copies when they’re returned—is unworkable for small independent publishers. I’d dearly like to see a different model, but I’m not holding my breath,” says Shaughnessy, who sells titles exclusively through Unit’s website and a handful of bookshops around the world.

Despite the colossal costs and challenges, every author says going through the infernal process is worth it—if only for the simple joy of seeing their name on a bookshelf.

Some firms use handsome design books as a marketing tool—like it the fanciest, most permanent calling card ever. “A monograph is the most interesting and the least invasive way to insinuate yourself in front of someone’s face. It’s a very smart way to pitch yourself,” explains Molly Heintz, who’s worked on several monographs for high-profile architecture and services firms.

Heintz, who co-founded the editorial consultancy Superscript, says that helping a design firm codify their story is another way to feed her design writer’s curiosity. Work-for-hire authors also typically have a greater chance of expecting an equitable salary because studios can tap into their marketing budgets for these types of monographs. She advises that writers carefully negotiate their credit line. Only names listed on the cover page—not necessarily the cover—are eligible to be registered with the Library of Congress.

For Heller, who recently co-authored The Moderns (with Greg D’Onofrio, published by Abrams), a new volume about the pioneers of American mid-century graphic design, the rush of holding finished volume is without compare. “I get joy when I know an idea of mine has come into existence. I’m also joyful that my material is in the world,” he says.

NASA, Graphics-Standards-Manual, book, publishing, design-books

NASA Graphics Standards Manual published by Standards Manual.

At a time when most visual communication has gone digital, the labor of birthing a beautiful, well-researched printed book is nothing short of heroic. A counterpoint to opinion blogs and images published out of context, book authors go through the rigor of scholarship. “Art and design are better served on the printed page than they are online,” argues Shaughnessy. “The dynamism that can be achieved on a double page spread by combining text and image is many times better than most of what we see online, where everything is shoehorned into a rigid template.” But of course, “Nothing good is ever easy.” he adds.

Heller has valuable advice for first-time authors preparing to embark on that noble odyssey of book publishing: “Be certain of your ideas. Read other books. Find the niche where you’ll find without redundancy… There are proforma books and there are books of passion and expression. Try to do the ones that have passion.”

Anne Quito

Anne Quito is a design and architecture reporter for Quartz. She holds a Master’s degree in visual culture from Georgetown University and an MFA in design criticism from the School of Visual Arts.


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