Book Design for The Joy of Creative Discovery

It is really exciting to work with authors and independent publishers who care about quality and the reader experience. Pasha Hogan’s new book, The Joy of Creative Discovery definitely falls into that category. This book is an engaging collection of interesting activities, writing prompts, art projects, nature excursions, stress-reduction techniques, and much more—all carefully put together by the author to help those who are journeying through difficulties or anyone who wants a happier life.

I first met the author a few years back when I designed her book, Third Time Lucky, an inspirational account of her journey of transformation following a third cancer diagnosis. It includes her insights for living “beyond life challenges.” Her new book builds on the groundwork of her life and experiences helping others get through similar difficulties.

From a book design point of view, this book shows that, even with only a black and white interior, a book can be fun, imaginative, and engaging. I really believe that book design should draw the reader in and add to the whole pleasure of reading the book. Obviously, the approach used for The Joy of Creative Discovery wouldn’t work for all books. I design many business books that require an entirely different approach. But in this case, the author’s writing and content, and her openness to creativity allowed this beautiful book to happen.

This project provided me an opportunity to use both my design and illustration skills. The content and book title—“The Joy of Creative Discovery”—is perfect for visual representation. The cover illustration depicts a confident and capable woman, that we can rightly assume is the author, navigating uncertain waters that represent the journey of life. The illustration depicts an open expanse of rolling sea waves, clouds, a setting sun, and star-filled celestial realms above as well as the real and mystical creatures large and small that inhabit these layers of creation.

Custom cover illustration
Custom cover illustration for Pasha Hogan’s The Joy of Creative Discover
Custom back cover illustration
Custom cover illustration wraps around seamlessly to the back cover.

These diverse cover elements could then be pulled from the illustration to support the different content features in the book. Knowing in advance that the book would be printed in B&W, I used a line-art illustration style that would produce clear results for that print method.

The interior of the book included four main reoccurring features or information categories — “Playtime,” represented by birds (swifts); “Map It,” represented by the sailboat; “Treasure the Moment,” represented by a whale tale; and “Practice,” represented by three jumping dolphins.

Illustrated book
Illustration book elements for The Joy of Creative Discovery

In addition to these categories, additional birds, the Phoenix, and especially the dragonfly reappear randomly throughout the book. There are also a few unique illustrations created in a matching style for special content and projects.

book illustrations
Book illustrations for The Joy of Creative Discovery

Together, these line-art illustrations create design continuity between the pages and cover concept. And more important, they add joy and creativity to the reading experience.

This was definitely one of my favorite recent book design projects.

Illustration title page.
Illustrated title page.

Book Design Tips

Book design project: Navigating Change

One of my recent book design projects is Navigating Change (Flame Lantern Press). This was a fun project and it was a great pleasure to work with the author, Christine Warren. This book, as I will show, illustrates some important things to consider when designing a book.

Book cover design.
Book cover design and closeup of original illustrated cover art.

Christine is a presenter of transformational workshops, a consultant, life coach, and speaker. Her book brings together teachings, stories, and tools to help people move through life’s changes or transitions. In her words, the goal is to help people move through “life transitions with magnificence.”

Book cover design
Front cover of Navigating Change.

Her book shares the principles and practices found in her workshops. Her presentation is divided into four phases represented by the four points of the compass in this diagram.

Custom diagram design for book
Compass diagram created to represent the Four Phases of Change. The interior book design is coordinated with the cover design.

Put in the simplest way, two main concepts converge in Christine’s book—navigating and wisdom.

I put together various cover designs and from those options, Christine chose the compass concept. There are all sorts of books that use a compass on the front cover, so it was crucial to create one that was as unique and original as possible. Generally speaking, compasses have masculine associations, so the additional challenge was to re-envision the compass idea in a way that would balance both masculine and feminine to resonate with her inclusive audience.

Book cover art
I used Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to create the cover art for the book cover. The art is wide enough to wrap around to the back.

The spiritual themes in the book led me to draw inspiration from Gothic rose windows to develop the unique compass needed for the cover. How the two merge isn’t entirely obvious, but the end result has the desired effect. The compass art is worked into a series of translucent layers with a floral lattice-like pattern for the background, plus light effects and a small rose-window-like design at the center, which together transform the compass. The result is a visual image that helps communicate her concept “Conscious Endings, Visionary Beginnings.” It needed to be subtle so as to not be too Western because the wisdom in the book draws on both eastern and western ideas and sayings.

The cover design is carried over to the interior pages by using the compass art for a diagram in the introduction, for the four phase-opening pages and a smaller compass for the sections within each phase.

In manuscript form, most books are just pages of paragraphs with very few other features. Put together in a small format with no special features a book can be uninteresting and more difficult to read. Unfortunately, too many books are produced that way. And that simply would not do for a book that aims to inspire readers. So I was very happy that the author wanted to take this book to a higher level.

This is where design makes a difference. To make the book beautiful, as well as reader friendly, the main text is set on large format pages (7.5”x9.25”) with a generous margins and 12pt type. This allows for some of the content to be moved from the main text into the outer margins—such as special quotes and poems, as well as pull quotes from the main text.

Compass are used in page design.
Page spread showing section opener.

I also created original decorative art used for each of the four right-hand phase openers. This helps the four phases openers stand out and makes the book easier to navigate because each of the four phases can be easily located. The art is an illustration consisting of small flowers, delicate trees, birds, and stars. The idea is simple—to visually communicate how life is interconnected, one of the reoccurring themes in the book.

Decorative book art
Color options of the artwork used for the four opening phases (or parts) in the book.
Art created for sections of book
The B&W version of art that appears in final print edition.

“Michael is deeply involved with his authors and cares passionately about not only the beauty of the physical books, but their success… His patience, attention to detail, and work exceeded my greatest expectations. He is deeply knowledgeable about the publishing world and has a wealth of information to help his authors succeed… There are many people out there offering book design services, but not the caliber of Michael Rohani. I could not be more pleased with the end results of our work together.” —Christine Warren

Need a Book Design? Start with these Questions:

When you are thinking about the art direction of a book cover, start with these five basic questions:

  • The concept: What concept best represents the central idea in the book? The visual concept should fit with the title of the book.
  • Product differentiation: Will the design stand out when compared to other books in the same category?
  • Readability: Will the cover idea be clear when the cover is shown in small sizes on the internet and in ads?
  • Memorability: Will the design be recognizes and remembered.
  • Audience: Will the design appeal to the author’s intended audience?

There are lots of other important questions and issues to consider, such as print options, keyword strength (discoverability), cover copy (use of endorsements, book benefits description, the author bio), retail requirements, BISAC, etc. For this blog post, I just want to focus on the book design.

The design is the first step for communicating what the book is about and for whom it is intended.

It can also make an important difference to how a book is noticed and remembered and the purchase decision. People like books that have a good user experience. If for example, the type or margins are too small, some buyers, without even knowing why, may decide they are unlikely to enjoy reading the book. The more competition there is, the more design becomes important.

Self-Publishing Success Story: Pacific Northwest Wildlife

Pacific Northwest Wildlife is another interesting self-publishing success story. I met the author and photographer, Aaron Baggenstos, at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. I was there because of my son, Lorenzo is also wildlife photographer.

Coffee table book design, book jacket design, photography book design, self-publishing
Jacket cover design for Pacific Northwest Wildlife
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
Aaron and Lorenzo at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

As I got to know Aaron, I learned he was transitioning to a new career as a photographer. Making a living as a photographer is a hard thing to do, and I was skeptical that Aaron could sell enough photography. But his vision included the idea of leading wildlife and photography tours. For that I thought, he certainly had the right personality and skills, and I knew I could help him. A beautiful coffee-table wildlife photography book would be a great marketing and promotional tool for letting people know about his skills and talents.

As time passed, we stayed in touch, and Aaron’s portfolio of wildlife photography grew in quality and size. When Aaron knew he was ready to create a book to showcase his new work, he came to me with a project idea.
Early on, we needed to discuss the budget, because one of the biggest challenges of creating a color coffee-table book is the print cost. It is a significant amount of money when you’re just starting a business. There are cost-saving strategies for both state-side and off-shore printing, but it is essential to not sacrifice quality. The book marketplace is competitive, and buyers have plenty of good choices. The book needs to be unique and immediately recognizable. Above all, it needs to be high quality. Looking at the costs, we calculated a cover retail price of $34.95. This left some room for occasional discounts and the retailer cut (usually 40–50%).

Before investing any money in printing, Aaron pitched the book to Costco, the largest American membership-only warehouse club. Generally speaking, getting a book into a store that is not bookstore is a great opportunity, because there are fewer books to compete against and the buyer rightly assumes the books are cherry-picked for the audience. To increase the book’s chances, we were careful to make it conform to important Costco criteria and use good presentation images. They agreed to take 1700–2000 copies, and he could be at locations to sign books. Even with a 50% distributor cut, that could be worth more than $30,000. This one arrangement could cover all production costs and hand Aaron a nice profit. Plus he would still have copies remaining that he could sell and use to promote his business. Most businesses have to spend money on advertising; few get to sell that advertising for a profit! Publishing is one form of content marketing that pays back.

Aaron took my advice and agreed to follow publishing best practices—professional editing and proofreading, design, a marketing strategy, and a printer who specialized in color books. As a designer, I focused on creating a product with a high perceived value that would showcase both his work and introduce him as a photographer. To achieve this, I would do a number of things, including creating custom maps and chapter icons. The maps reinforced an important concept behind the book—travel across the Pacific Northwest—the region where the wildlife habitats are located. This would help communicate the “tour” aspect of his business. The maps were both decorative and functional. The first map is designed to create a distinct and striking table of contents spread at the start of the book. It is a very simple depiction of the Pacific Northwest and shaped to suggest the contour of the globe—no labels or markers. The second map is more functional, giving names and details of the various locations for National Parks and habitats found in the book.

Coffee table book design, page spread design, custom map design, self-publishing
Table of contents design showing custom map design for Pacific Northwest Wildlife




Coffee table book design, page spread design, custom map design,self-publishing
Page spread design showing custom map design for Pacific Northwest Wildlife


The chapter icons represent Aaron taking photos. It is a small touch, but it helps convey and remind the reader that Aaron is the person behind all the beautiful photographs in the book. It also helps communicate to the reader that photography is a skill and an adventure activity that they too can experience.

Coffee table book design, page spread design, chapter opener design,self-publishing
Chapter opener design showing custom icon and text wrap.

Rather than simply “self-publish,” Aaron set up a publisher identity, making himself an independent publisher. He could use this identity for the book and any future projects. I redesigned the logo to create one that would go with the perceived value and elegant style of the book—simpler and cleaner. The new logo was also more functional for applications on book products.

Coffee table book design, title page design, self-publishing
Title page design of Pacific Northwest Wildlife and publisher logo design for Nature’s Prime Publishing.


Coffee table book design, publisher logo design, title page design, self-publishing
Book jacket showing publisher logo design for Nature’s Prime Publishing.

The story of Aaron’s book got interesting again when the Costco buyer changed her mind. While we were working on the book, Costco had agreed to carry a new anthology from a very well-known and famous wildlife photographer. This was not a huge problem because the book would sell. But it was an unfortunate setback. However, I was reasonably confident that if he took a copy of Pacific Northwest Wildlife and showed her how nice it had turned out, the original offer would hold together. It worked. Once they saw the book, the show was on again.

Coffee table book design, page spread design, self-publishing
Page spread design in Pacific Northwest Wildlife

It is a lot of work promoting a book, doing the book signings, and managing the fulfillment with the stores, but Aaron did it, and it paid off. The book remains an important showcase of his photography work in the Pacific Northwest. His tour business grew and now includes amazing trips to Africa, Costa Rica, and Alaska. He has expanded his portfolio vastly and is now an Award-winning wildlife photographer, recognized by National Geographic, Nature’s Best, Outside, NANPA, and the Audubon Society. Recently, several of his images were chosen for both final rounds in the prestigious 2015 & 2016 BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year. As someone who knows Aaron personally, he’s exactly the kind of guy you would want leading your tour and helping you with your photography skills. When I met him, his goal was to earn of living selling photography. Now, he does the photography he loves, but he also makes his living doing something just as valuable—creating memorable life experiences for his tour clients.

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Book project, Living Large in Small Spaces: The Cottages of Lake Worth

I love self-publishing success stories. Sometimes success comes just by chance and sometimes by thoughtful decisions and a commitment to quality. The book, Living Large in Small Spaces: The Cottages of Lake Worth is the latter case.

Cottages, Lake Worth, small homes, self-publishing, independent publishing, book design
Living Large in Small Spaces: The Cottages of Lake Worth. Front cover jacket. Under the jacket is an adhesive case with the same cover design and image.

I knew from the start I was working with smart people who had a brilliant idea and a lot of great content. Too often self-publishing authors are thinking “sell globally” on the Internet when, in fact, success is much easier when you start with “sell locally.” If you’re selling a coffee table book that is $32.95, like The Cottages of Lake Worth, direct sales for even a small print run of 3500 books, adds up to $115,325.

As Alex Shephard recently wrote in the New Republic, what sells books is discoverability. “Guiding audiences to a book is the key to successful bookselling. Word-of-mouth buzz can turn a book like The Girl On The Train into a cash cow, as can reviews and other media coverage…” Obviously, Word-of-mouth buzz is much easier to start locally than nationally or globally. That’s good to know, because it can steer many aspects of a book project.

The group behind The Cottages of Lake Worth book project were themselves cottage owners and an award-winning photographer, which is why there are so many excellent photos in the book. The book brings together popular topics that are of interest to audiences everywhere—inspiring cottage photography, garden design ideas, and solutions for living in small spaces. But getting almost instant success comes from having many local advocates, beneficiaries, and stakeholders such as the cottage owners featured in the book, the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, and various supportive individuals and local businesses. There are also many local venues and opportunities for selling the book. So, not surprisingly, I received this email shortly after the book was published:

Hi, Michael—“Can you believe it, we are going for our second printing of our book? On Monday, the board gave a collective thumbs up for more books. . . . We are down to fewer than 150! Thank you again for making our book so, so successful!”

Cottages, Lake Worth, small homes, self-publishing, independent publishing, page design, book design
Chapter openers feature a custom sun and wave design.

Yes, I could definitely believe it. Their success had nothing to do with Amazon or national bookstores—which they didn’t use to sell the first print run. In fact, it was mostly word-of-mouth marketing and commitment to creating a quality product.

A big part of the book’s success comes from the creators’ decision to go beyond self-publishing. That started with creating their own publisher identity to become an independent publisher. They carried this through, following publisher best practices with the editing, design, branding, printing, and marketing strategy. They were receptive to professional guidance and made decisions guided by marketing ideas that you would expect from an acquisitions editor at an experienced publishing house. The result is a book that anyone would find interesting and enjoyable to look through. Not only does it not look “self-published,” it is easily competitive with the best books in its category.

“. . . it was wonderful that we chose to work with you after receiving a recommendation from mutual friends.  Our book has been a huge success and you are a great part of that success . . . People love it and smile when they look at it.  You were always available to talk to us and guide us through some important decisions . . . AND the book is beautiful, thanks to your design! We could not have asked for more . . . By the way, we are selling so fast that we are depleting our supply of hardbacks . . . We should have listened to you when you wanted us to print more! The Best to You.” —The Cottages of Lake Worth Book Committee

“Well, it seems we ALL did a great job on our book. The public loves it, and they are selling fast.” —Janice Snearer

Cottages, Lake Worth, small homes, self-publishing, independent publishing, book endpapers, spot varnish printing, book design
Flaps with spot vanish and custom endpapers.

Here’s a video that shows the spot varnish effect:

Cottages, Lake Worth, small homes, self-publishing, independent publishing, book design
Page spread design showing photo, caption, and lizard decorative element.
Publisher logo design, Cottages, Lake Worth, small homes, self-publishing, independent publishing, book design
Publisher logo design created for the Cottager Press

The photographer who created the photos in the book was kind enough to send me this nice endorsement:

“Michael Rohani . . . guided us through the production of the book . . . Without him, we are certain, that our book would not be the successful tribute to Lake Worth and its cottages. His sage advice saved us money and helped us make good decisions to ensure that we produced the most beautiful coffee table book our region has ever seen. In four months, we have sold 80% of our print run. I wish Michael could hear the wonderful comments from those viewing the book. He would hear praiseful words such as “wonderful,” “professional,” “gorgeous” and “spectacular.” We always say, “Well, the best decision we made was hiring Michael.” We appreciated his warm, patient and personal approach through the laborious process of getting our book to print. . . . He completed his tasks quickly and expertly, and our pages reflected his immense talents. We can’t recommend Michael Rohani more highly.”
—Taylor Jones, Photographer for Living Large in Small Spaces: The Cottages of Lake Worth

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