The 10 gotchas of book graphics

Sample graphic from Jay Baer’s Talk Triggers

Illustrations, diagrams, and charts clarify. They’re worth including in your book. But every time I work with authors, they underestimate the challenge, delay, and cost that comes with graphics. If you’re going to use graphics, you need to be prepared.

Let me put this simply: If something is going to trip up the production stages of your book, it’s probably a graphic. And it’s going to drive you (and your publisher) bonkers. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use graphics — often they’re exactly what you need to clarify a concept. It does mean you must be prepared, with a realistic idea of the time, cost, and pitfalls involved in doing graphics right. Here’s a list of the surprises you’ll be dealing with as you include graphics in your book.

As you read this, recognize that I’ve worked with multiple publishers, traditional and hybrid, as well as self-publishing services, on books that I wrote, cowrote, and edited. And in a previous life, I ran print production for a publisher, so I know the business from the publisher’s side as well. I can show you the scars that resulted from every one of these gotchas.

1 The right graphic artist is hard to find

Graphics are varied. They may include:

  • Diagrams
  • Graphics and charts
  • Photos
  • Illustrations or drawings
  • Cartoons
  • Iconic pictures (these are the ones with titles like “The Three Tenets of Customer Service” or “The Marketing Pyramid”)

You want the graphics to look great, especially those iconic graphics that become touchstones throughout the book and your speeches. So you need the right artist. But somebody who’s good at drawings may be terrible at diagrams, while somebody who’s a wizard at graphs and charts may know nothing about iconic symbols. Sourcing the artist or artists who have the talent you need can be challenging. (Best strategy: find a book that has those kind of graphics and track down the artist who created them.)

2 The creation process is often ill-defined

Text is easy. Anyone can write it; anyone can edit it. As a result, it’s easy for authors, collaborators, and editors to share it back and forth in a disciplined process.

Graphics are different. It’s the rare author who has the talent to create their own book-ready pictures. This results in a creation process that is usually some version of the following:

  1. Author scribbles idea on a whiteboard or paper and takes a picture of it, or alternatively, roughs something out in PowerPoint.
  2. Author sends this to artist, along with some notes, and sometimes, a conversation about what the picture is supposed to represent.
  3. Artist creates something.
  4. Author is unhappy. Typical criticisms include “You missed the point,” “This is ugly,” or “This is just exactly the same as what I sent you, I was looking for an improvement.”
  5. Artist revises picture.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 a bunch of times until author grudgingly accepts graphic as “done.”
  7. Author or some reviewer has some incredible insight about the graphic, which requires going back to step 5, or maybe step 1, and starting again.

And this is the good process. Sometimes the process starts with the author waving their arms around in the air and hoping the artist comes up with something brilliant. Good luck with that!

3 Graphics are expensive

There are many artists who will do graphics for next to nothing. You can hire them on Fiverr. Maybe they are overseas somewhere. You might get lucky and get a great result. But you might get garbage. It’s a crap shoot.

Recognize that your own time is worth something. That means you want the artist most likely to understand your ideas and render them beautifully. Those kind of artists are expensive. Not only that, they don’t do an infinite number of revisions for free.

How much should you pay? That’s a “How long is a piece of string” question. A simple bar chart might cost $100, while a complex diagram with a dozen parts costs $600 or even $1000. And that iconic graphic? If it’s brilliant, it’s not likely to be cheap — and why would you be a cheapskate about something that important?

One smart way to save money here is to create a series of similar graphics. If you have six 2-by-2 diagrams, they won’t cost six times as much as one such diagram, because the artist can efficiently reuse their work.

4 Permissions are a pain

If you see a graphic or photograph or cartoon you like, you can’t just use it. If you grab such a picture and use it in online post, it may get you in trouble, but the most likely outcome is a cease-and-desist note after which you take it down. However, artists are more aggressive in protecting their property used in printed books, and you can’t unprint the books once you’ve been caught ripping somebody off. You’ll end up paying whatever they ask, which could be a lot.

If you want to use a photo, you’ll have to track down the original photographer and license it. And the same applies to a cartoon or drawing.

If you want to use a data graphic like a bar chart, you should get permission from the people who created the original, even if you’re re-rendering it.

If you want to reuse someone’s diagram, get permission.

In all these cases, it’s not enough to get permission from where you originally sourced the graphic or picture, because they may have licensed it (or ripped it off) from somewhere else. You need to get permission from the original creator. And don’t think “fair use” will get you very far. Unlike text, where you can typically cite a few sentences without asking, if you use a picture, you need permission.

Yes, this applies to memes too. Go ahead, try to put that picture of Mickey Mouse with words over it in your book and see if Disney comes after you. The results will be fun for all the rest of us to watch.

Some permissions are free, some have a cost, and in some cases, the original owner just won’t license. But regardless, permissions are always a pain in the ass.

5 Graphics complicate page layout

If your book is just text and headings and bullets, a good designer can turn it into pages quickly. I once saw a guy lay out a 50,000 word book like that in one day — and it looked great.

Tables are a bit more of a challenge, but usually the person doing page layout can do them relatively easily, although sometimes multiple passes are necessary.

But the placement of graphics on pages is an art. They should be near the reference to the figure. They should also be unbroken across pages. They should not be laid out in such a way as to leave large blank gaps in the pages. They should appear after the reference — except where that makes pages awkward, in which case you can sometimes have them appear before the reference. They shouldn’t be directly after a heading. If they’re too large for a page, you may have to break them up (which I said you shouldn’t do, of course), or lay them out sideways, which is a bit awkward. And what happens when there are multiple graphics in a row? All of these requirements conflict with one another, which is why page layout with graphics is an art.

You also have to consider ebooks. In those, the graphic should go as close to the reference as possible. That’s not the same as the print layout, so the publisher has to manage two slightly different sources of content for the two output formats.

Graphics also tend to include text, which of course is in a font. The design for the book is probably in a different font. That means you either need to change the graphic to match the text fonts, or live with the inconsistency. (Why not use the book’s font when you create the graphic in the first place? Because, typically, the book design is created well after the graphics are.)

These are solvable problems, but they require judgment. And in my experience, publishers never get the layout right on the first try. So if you include graphics, you’ll have to go back and forth with the publisher on how they fit on the pages.

6 Finding and fixing errors is complex

If there’s a problem in text, you edit it. You fix the capitalization, make things consistent, delete things and move them around. It’s easy.

If there’s a problem in a graphic, you have to get the artist to fix it. All the same things that can be wrong in text can be wrong in graphics (spelling errors or inconsistent capitalization and punctuation, or example). And lots of other things can be wrong as well (misalignments, unbalanced design, and errors and inconsistencies in arrows, boxes, chart labels, shading, and colors, to name a few). It can be much harder to describe these problems, communicate these problems, and fix these problems, especially when you don’t have the ability to edit the source.

Sometimes you decide to just delete or add a graphic. That requires renumbering the other figures and references. Did you catch all those changes?

7 Revision and proofing is more complex

Just like everything else in the book, graphics need to go through copy editing and proofreading. But the difference is, you can’t just make the edits that the copy editor or proofreader requests — again, you have to go back to the artist.

Sometimes authors make a global change, for example, deciding to use “AI” instead of “A.I.” to abbreviate artificial intelligence. In text, that’s a simple search and replace. But is it in a graphic somewhere, and does it need to be changed? Not quite so simple to check or to fix.

8 Incompatible formats, color, and resolution issues generate confusion

Most artists create graphics in Adobe Illustrator. But you can’t just stick a graphic like that into text.

Is it in black and white, grey-scale, or color? Depends on the printing process. If you submit color graphics and they’re printed in grey scale, they probably won’t look good — red and green might end up looking the same shade of grey, for example.

If you submit a photo or similar bit-map image, the resolution matters. If you haven’t provided a high-resolution image, it’s going to look fuzzy or jagged. And if you stretch the image so it’s no longer in the same proportions, it’s going to look terrible, and so are you.

These are niggling issues, but if you don’t deal with them, they’re going to make the book look unprofessional. In every book I’ve ever dealt with that had graphics, there was a discussion about graphics formats, and often it takes several discussions to get things working right.

9 Graphics require extra work when used in speeches

Once the book is done, you’re going to give speeches on it. You’re going to use PowerPoint or Keynote. And you’re going to want to use the book graphics in your speech.

After all, they effectively show the ideas in the book. And they’re right there. They’re done!

Except that the graphics formats used in books aren’t ready for your presentation program. They need additional work:

  • The designer or artist needs to provide you with a version that has the elements as separate items, so you can easily edit it. They usually grumble about doing that, because it’s extra work. (Alternatively, you could just take the graphic as a single bitmap or picture, but then you can’t edit it.)
  • If it’s in black and white or grey scale, you’ll want to change it to color for the presentation.
  • Graphics in books can be tall, but in presentations they need to be wide.
  • There may be too much detail in the book graphic to use it effectively in speech. A graphic with 20 boxes and arrows in a book bears close examination; in a speech, it’s just confusing and ineffective.
  • If you licensed a graphic or photo and got permission to use it, does that permission extend to its use in presentations?

Similar issues arise when using the graphic in other formats and channels, like infographics, blog posts, or contributed articles.

10 Translations generate more headaches

If you’re lucky enough to sell foreign translation rights to your book, the foreign publisher needs to translate, not just the text, but the graphics. That means they’ll need access to your original files (unless they’re photos or drawings with no words in them). The graphic that you carefully laid out with English words on it may no longer look so nice when those are replaced with Spanish words (probably longer) or Chinese characters.

It’s still worth it

Have I scared you off of graphics? I’m sorry, then. Pictures are great. You should definitely use them if you think they’ll clarify what your book is about. And they make the text look much more interesting.

A recognize that while a picture may be worth a thousand words, when you’re dealing with it in a book, managing the the thousands words is a lot easier than the one picture.

Just don’t go into the process imagining that graphics will be as easy to deal with as text. Be prepared for the process issues I’ve described. And if the value is marginal, don’t bother. Every graphic carries an overhead. It has to deliver value in its meaning to make that overhead worth the effort.

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  1. I love this post. We don’t think about these details. Also, made me appreciate my brother’s work so much more … now I know why he sighs so much! LOL.

  2. All excellent points. Almost all apply to advertising too. Only, the timeline is even shorter. Many clients for online advertising (e.g. on Facebook, Instagram, or Google Display) do not appreciate the effort associated with images (be they photos or graphics) – nor do they understand the value. Takes much more time than with text ads for Google Search.

  3. Great post! I may make this post required reading for my publication clients. I design publications that range from simple flyers and brochures to magazines and manuals. I help clients try to think through everything that you’ve mentioned (try laying out a publication in right-to-left reading languages, like Arabic) because most people don’t take graphics and page flow into consideration when putting together their projects. Thank you for posting this.