At least 27 Things I've Learned about designing and self publishing a coffee table/ illustrated book


In less than two weeks my new book, How to Style Your Brand, will be launched, shipped and in your hands. And now that the utter craziness of the design phase has calmed down, and my hectic February/ March commitments seem like a distant memory, I've had some time to reflect on my first foray into self publishing a coffee table book. My goodness it's been a journey. Producing a book is very much like being in labour. Including the teary "I can't do this" followed by a snappy midwife saying "You are doing it and there's no going back now" transitional phase. And now that the sleepless nights are a distant memory and my book is very real I've forgotten all the bad bits and am soooo doing it again! I'm already planning my next book which, depending on how this one goes, will be out Autumn 2016/ Spring 2017.

How to Style Your Brand Fiona Humberstone-1-3 My first book, Exhibit: How to Use Exhibitions to Grow Your Business was designed in days. I literally took the word file and imported it into InDesign. The text simply flowed on through and I used as many pages as I needed. Once I'd worked out the paragraph styles and fiddled about a little with the master page designs the book was done. I realised halfway through a highly intense January that if How to Style Your Brand was another Exhibit it'd have been long finished...

I'd originally expected the design to take five days and had allowed the first two- three weeks of January for design; a week or two for a break and for my proof readers/ editor to come back with comments and then maybe half a day for tweaks and refinements. Ha ha! How wrong I was. Designing How To Style Your Brand has been intense but very, very much worth it.

I thought it might be helpful for those of you thinking about producing your own coffee table style books (and for me when I embark on this roller coaster of a journey again) to share some of the things I've learned along the way.

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The big picture

1. It will take much longer than you think. At least an hour per page is a good bet. In my case that's 208 hours, give or take a few. To be honest I stopped counting - I didn't have time! I worked around 70+ hours a week, for five weeks, in January which is pretty tough if you haven't prepared yourself for it. It's a lot longer than the five days (40 hours) I'd planned to spend...

2. Get hi res images and artwork releases at the outset. It'll save a lot of time and heartache later. I made the mistake of asking for low resolution images for the original submissions. And I didn't insist people double checked with their clients before submitting. That meant serious added stress as images/ projects I'd planned to use had to be pulled at the eleventh hour because we couldn't get permission or the files weren't physically big enough. Never again. How to Style Your Brand Fiona Humberstone-1-6 3. People are immensely generous, kind and encouraging. Designing your own book is a lonely and scary business. It means a lot to realise there are people out there who you have always been a little in awe of who are rooting for you and who like what you are doing. This meant so much. Part of the pressure in designing a book like mine is that in featuring some of the designers that I most respect and admire I was adding another layer of pressure. Would they like it? Would it be right? I was so blown away when totally unprompted the lovely comments started coming in...

4. Having someone on your side who understands how things work is priceless. I was lucky enough to work with a really top editor, Jo Copestick, who has worked on lots of bestselling books by authors whose works grace my bookshelves. What I'd really underestimated was just how valuable Jo's industry know how would be. From advice on book design and layout to finding a printer and translating technical terms she has been worth her weight in gold.How to Style Your Brand Fiona Humberstone-1-2 5. Flat plans are life changing. A flat plan is something that was an absolute revelation to me. Knowing about it at the start would have meant I could have started designing my book in July, which was when the unedited content was finished, rather than in mid December which was when I had my edited content. Flat plans are, to my mind, life changing! A flat plan is quite simply, a plan of which topics will be on which pages. I used to do this when I was planning brochures for clients - and I do it now with website content so why I didn't think of it for my book I will never know!

6. Create a flat plan at the outset. Ideally before you start writing. Think in terms of double page spreads and keep all relevant info ideally to one double page spread or maybe two or three (as I've done with finding a designer section), even if that means editing out the waffle. This was the revelation. Rather than just throwing in the text and seeing how much room it took up, this was book design with intention!

7. Plan, plan, plan. One of the really lovely elements of designing the book was being inspired by the incredible projects that were submitted. It was great not to have a completely fixed idea of how I was going to do things in my mind. As soon as I saw Braizen's beautiful brand images I knew I wanted to use them in a creative way, and they inspired my Brand Stories spreads.

I'd like to be able to be flexible enough to do that sort of thing next time but I'd also like to be a little more organised which will help me sift through submissions more efficiently. Next time I will hand sketch each page layout and work out what image I want for each spread whilst the text is with the editor. That way I'm not condensing hundreds of design decisions into a highly short space of time.


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8. Matt Pereira is the nuts. Seriously; a reliable, trustworthy photographer who is as committed to perfection as you are makes all the difference. I was going to shoot all the images for the book myself, partly because of time, partly because of costs (self publishing a coffee table book takes an eye watering investment upfront so the more I could do myself, the better for this book). I'm so glad that I invested in Matt. One less thing to worry about and the book looks significantly, overwhelmingly better for it.

9. Plan images upfront. The timescales on this project were utterly nuts because we'd been squeezed with the editorial and also Christmas. Matt and I had just two days together over a period of ten days to shoot the remaining 70+ images for the book. Yikes! Determined to get the most out of our time together I worked through every single 'gap' and planned the shots. The content, the shape, the props and the colours. Those are the shots I love. The ones where I winged it are the ones where I wish my top was a different colour or I'd used different colour chips. Definitely worth planning...

10. Preparation is everything. I also took the trouble to set up the desk shots and gather all my props the night before. I also cleaned and polished everything within an inch of it's life. Dust so isn't a good look.

11. Print out contact sheets along with image identifiers for efficiency. Matt and I had a lot of very similar images, so printing out contact sheets did two things for me. One, it made it really easy to compare photographs, but more importantly, it enabled me to mark up the ones I was using and write on them where to avoid duplicating two very similar images - very easy to do when you have 208 pages to work with! Printing out the image identifier plates (this is just a checkbox in Lightroom) made it really fast for me to tell Matt which pictures I wanted.

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11. Keep a right hand bias for big images and chapter heads. As people flick through a book their eye is naturally drawn to the right so that's often where the big hitting stuff is. Sadly that doesn't mean you can do that all the way through or it would be monotonous. So mix it up a little...

12. Wide margins look good. I have hundreds of illustrated books so I pulled out some of my favourites for design tips. Generous margins give the book a generous, expansive feel. I think this is the only thing I'd change about the design of the book. On my next book I'd probably swap around the generosity of the margin to the inside rather than outside edges which would,  think, look better as you flick through the book.

13. Allow for the binding. Thick books will obviously curve a lot in the middle so you want to bear that in mind when designing so you don't lose captions or crucial bits of a photograph in the spine.

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14. Use coloured placeholder boxes to represent images. It helps you visualise the page layout even when you don't have all the images to hand and is also very useful to see what sort of size and shape you're looking for. I also found it quite rewarding to see all the empty coloured blocks on my printouts disappear as my design took shape!

15. 12pt is a good size for body text. Obviously this varies from font to font and also according to taste. I am really happy with the size of the font. I think designers have a tendency to want to make fonts unreadably small and book editors like things nice and big. I think we've reached a nice compromise at 12pt. The text is eminently readable (which is a relief since that's the primary purpose of a book) but it also looks smart and (I hope) really well designed.

Technical details

How to Style Your Brand Fiona Humberstone-1-8 16. Get your file setup correctly at the outset. Once you have decided on which printer to use, ask them to send you their profiles at the start of your design process, that way you know everything is as efficient as possible. Also - make sure you get your bleeds right at the start. and once you have confirmed you want to use an image, convert to CMYK straight away. Changing all images at the last minute is dull, dull, dull. Oh, and a little stressful.17. Grids are essential for maintaining consistency. I set up several two, five, seven and nine part grids depending on layouts for consistency. I'm not a trained designer and to be honest, despite much research I found the advice on grids pretty baffling. I do love things to line up though and I love consistency so I generally stuck to a few core page layouts so that the book felt reassuringly consistent.

18. Master Pages are your friend. I LOVE InDesign's master pages feature. It's a pretty core element of designing a book and allows you to make sure that things that you want in the same place on every page - like your page numbers, text boxes, rulers and columns etc are always the same.

19. Cmd+ Shift-Clicking on master page items like Running Heads overrides them so you can change the content. I discovered this late to the game and was seriously excited by this. It meant that rather than having to 'Override all master page items' as I'd done previously I could just select the thing I wanted to change - whether that was a pesky page number half obscured by an image or a chapter title that needed updating.

20. Running heads keep your readers on track. You know those headings at the top or bottom of a book? The one that tells you what chapter you're in? They're called Running Heads and I got them all wrong at the outset! Thank goodness for Jo... So the rule is that Chapter Heads go on the left whilst the section heading is on the right. Section heads will change from spread to spread depending on your flat plan.

21. Banish spot colours at the outset and try and avoid importing PDFs. Very techy I know but as someone who sold print for a decade I felt I knew a thing or two about preparing files for print - sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing as I also knew all the pitfalls! As well as insisting on hi-res images and signed artwork releases I will also insist on all colours being converted to CMYK. I must have wasted a day finding and those b*ggers.

And the cover...

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This was a huge learning curve to me! I've never thought much about cover design before - next time I'll allow myself a lot more time to plan the images...

22. The cover image should encapsulate what the book is about. It sounds obvious but I really hadn't given this much thought until the first day of our photo shoot. I'd assumed that we would just choose our favourite image and that it would work, but actually, it gives a real flavour of what's inside so it needs to be right. In my case, we needed an image that would give a sense of the creativity and structure of the process inside.

23. Striking and bold image. As if that's not enough the image also needs to stand out - especially as a thumbnail online. This is something I had totally overlooked! Matt and I spent half a day putting together what we considered to be the 'perfect' cover shot before realising (thanks Jo) that it just didn't have enough impact. It's a beautiful image, it tells the right story but it just doesn't have impact.

24. Space for title. You also need to leave space for a title - usually at the top.

25. The title needs to be bigger than you thinkso that it shows up on thumbnails. My book title is possibly a little smaller than a pro would have designed it. As someone who has spent decades designing promotional material I just can't get over that 'make my logo bigger' syndrome and create a huuuuge book title!

26. The book cover needs to stand out amongst competition. I literally screenshot similar titles and pasted in my prospective cover to see how it would work.

27. Should make people want to buy! Enough said.


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Around late February I realised that I probably wasn't going to be able to fit 2000 books into my spare room, which was what I had originally thought. Crazy, I know. I think the shipment is around 84 boxes across 3 pallets. It definitely wasn't going to happen! So I looked into options: self storage, friends with factories (yes, really) and then I chanced upon my distributor. Hurrah! YPS Books are based in York and are perfectly set up for people like me. They store, they pick, they pack and they ship, worldwide. Perfect!

Selling through was a little trickier. Whilst selling via Amazon in the UK is pretty straightforwards, I'm still not certain I have it nailed for the States, where shipping costs make the whole thing prohibitively expensive. It's fine on preorders where you're shipping a hundred or two in bulk, but if I were to get an order for three or four I suspect I would probably lose money...

Now that the preorders are shipped the plan is to switch to Amazon Marketplace and use Fulfilment by Amazon which I hope makes the whole thing viable. Predictably, working out exactly what the costs are is nigh on impossible but at least Marketplace gives self publishers a bigger margin (Amazon take 55-60% of the selling price) to absorb some of the storage/ picking/ packing costs.

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And finally

I know I've said it before, but I have to say it again. Thank you so much for your support and encouragement so far. Self publishing is a thrilling business. Exciting, fun, creative and overwhelmingly rewarding. It's also expensive, risky and quite scary. Seeing the book hover around the top spot on preorders alone is so encouraging. Over the past couple of weeks How to Style Your Brand has reached the number two slot on the bestseller lists most days! It's also massively reassuring because whilst I felt that this book would absolutely sell well, you never really know until you put it out there.

Thank you for spreading the word. Thank you for your lovely comments. And thank you so much for buying the book, it really means a lot.