At Ooligan Press, the students are privileged to write essays about topics that matter to them, and to investigate the industry that will be their future home. Publishing is a big, complicated business, and there are always areas of interest not covered in classes. For my bookselling class during the winter term, I wanted to investigate some of the nuts and bolts of how publishing houses function, especially smaller houses that hire freelancers instead of having a full-time staff.
Adam McIsaac, who also spoke at Write to Publish 2015 about book design, was kind enough to provide me with a more in-depth view of the freelance design industry. While not a freelance designer by trade, McIsaac works as creative director for Hawthorne Books and as director of Sibley House, a Portland cooperative of publishers and designers.
Are freelance designer fees similar to editorial rates? Thirty to sixty dollars per hour?
They’re low, I know that, but it depends on the experience of the designer. I bill by project, not hourly, and I’ve been a designer for almost thirty years. My fees are predicated on an hourly of $150.00, and I usually get within spitting distance of that. I’m pretty fast, been at it a long time. Some titles I might make a profit of anywhere from 5 percent to 30 percent on, and others I’ll take a bath. We did a guidebook recently and ate $10,000 of hours because I knew the book needed to be a certain way in order to sell; guidebooks are complicated, typographic problems, and the publisher couldn’t afford that. But we had a good relationship, and I wanted the book to be right.
I have a friend who designs art books in New York, and I think her design fee for a decent-sized book for the Museum of Modern Art works out to around $7,000, which is nothing, or next to it, anyway.
Are cover design and interior design charged at the same rate? Are they generally two separate projects?
They are for most publishers, and my sense is that internal is a lower rate. For Hawthorne, we charge a flat fee per title that includes both.
Keeping in mind that there can be a lot of variation between projects, what is the average amount of hours or fee charged for a cover design (e.g. around $2,000, give or take $500)? Does it take a similar number of hours to complete an interior design?
I think that for a regional press, $2,000 per cover is probably the upper end. Most presses are fairly parsimonious about that: they can see their way clear to, say, $1,200 for a cover, and that has to include whatever external asset (photograph, illustration, etc.) is used. At Hawthorne, we have a separate budget for those things, but try not to use it if we can.
What sort of time span does design usually take? For example, does cover design usually take a month on average?
On average, ten to thirty hours for a cover; twenty hours or so for composition of the guts, including revisions. The guidebook I mentioned above took close to a hundred hours for the guts, but there was a lot of revision and a couple of false starts in terms of content.
What’s the best way to find a designer?
That’s the toughest question on the list. Everyone—including design firms—has trouble finding good people. But the AIGA is fairly reputable. You have to be serious to pay the dues, so most—but not all—of the people you’ll find there are competent.
But I think Behance is a pretty good resource, and getting better. There are tons of good, young designers on there, and most of them are fairly assiduous about documenting their work.
Is there anything to watch out for when choosing a freelance designer?
Beyond a base level of competence, fit is probably the most important thing. That doesn’t mean you have to like the designer personally, but you should feel like they’re listening to you. You should also make sure that you’re listening to them: you are not your customer. A good designer will know that and works as a proxy/liaison between you and your customer.
But you should make sure that they write pretty well. If they can write, they can read, and you can’t do this kind of work without being able to do both.
Is there anything that I didn’t think to ask that you think someone starting a brand new publishing house should know?
Writers are in the business of writing books. Publishers are in the business of selling books. Writers work very hard and for a long time on one project, and during that process they will develop ideas regarding what they think the book should look like. But they’re writers, not salespeople. I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t have an opinion, but they bring a lot of personal baggage and subtext (because they’ve slaved away for sometimes years on a book) to the process that usually won’t matter in terms of getting someone to pick up a book in a store.
As a publisher, you have to treat their book with the utmost respect, but you also have to do what you think needs to be done in order to get the book to readers. You’re a businessperson, not a priest. We have been very fortunate in that the writers whom we’ve had the honor to serve have—with very few exceptions—been very happy with the way we’ve framed their work. We’ve also been fortunate to have worked with publishers who had the final say in the matter.
Finally: design and production value matter. A book is an object, and it is a product. Certainly, the text is the most important thing about it, but it isn’t the only thing, and if that were so we would only read ebooks. There are legitimate publishers who shit out books that look and read like the worst of the self-published shelf at Powell’s. To my mind, that shows a disrespect, bordering on contempt, for both writer and reader. You should make something that people will want to care about and keep. That means spending a little more money up front with absolutely no guarantee that you will see a return. But if it were easy, everybody would be doing it.