Let’s be honest, there is nothing easy about running a business by yourself. Whether it’s book cover design, landscaping, or accounting, a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff will come up and it will continue to come up until the day you shut your business down. In this series, I talk you through managing these behind-the-scenes small business hurdles and how to set yourself up for success.
In this blog, I want to talk about workflow management and automation, as these are cornerstones of setting yourself up for success.
Workflow management is the coordination of tasks that make up the work an organization does. By ‘workflow’ we mean a sequence of tasks that are part of some larger task and is sometimes synonymous with ‘business process’. The purpose of a workflow is to achieve some result, and the purpose of workflow management is to achieve better results according to some set of goals.
As a designer, you’ll have several workflows running alongside each other. There is the design aspect that we won’t be discussing, which consists of how to create your art in the most efficient manner, but also the administrative side of the business. That’s the workflow we’ll be discussing today. This workflow includes the entire process from the initial conversation with the author to delivery of the final product. I’ll write other blogs that will highlight each step, but today I want to talk about automation, specifically.
Administrative tasks take up time, and in a business, time is money. Therefore, minimizing the time you spend on administrative tasks is a sound financial investment. It means more profit for you per job (as you can charge the same amount of money for less time spent) and it frees you up to take on more work, increasing your revenue. Automation matters.
Let’s set out some steps almost every cover design job goes through:
– Initial contact
– Narrowing down the design with the customer
– Payment (wherever in the process you take this step doesn’t matter for the time being, but I advocate it should be here in the sequence)
– Signing a design contract
– Designing the cover (mock-up)
– Editing round(s)
– Finalizing the cover
– Porting the design over to various formats and templates
– Sending the design
– Closing out the order
How can automation help?
Per definition, automation is the technology by which a process or procedure is performed with minimal human assistance. In layman’s terms, automation means you make use of existing technological solutions so you spend less time, energy, or money on a task.
The initial contact happens how it happens, be it email, messenger, a contact form on your site or any other way people find you. You can’t automate that, but you can direct people to the medium that works best for you. Some designers prefer email and they will make it clear on their pages and on their site this is how all contact will be managed. I prefer messenger and I always offer the option for clients to switch to Facebook so I won’t have to keep going into my inbox. This saves me time and energy.
Narrowing down the design with the customer
You can automate large parts of this process if you have a website and if you feel so inclined. By using a contact form solution where you get a lot of information in one go, you have the basic of the design already and you won’t need to go back and forth with the customer. Things like the title(s), author name, tagline(s), series name, general design ideas and inspiration covers can all be handled with a contact form. After that, you can fine tune with the customer. Alternatively, having a set of questions ready to shoot over to the customer through email or messenger achieves the same thing and it saves you from having to type the same message over and over, thus saving yourself time.
I will die on the hill of getting paid before you work. This is the internet and there is no way to chase a customer down after they ghost you. Asking for payment upfront also shows you are a professional. Combined with a money back guarantee of some sort (be it partial, full, or conditional), most customers will agree to pay upfront. You have much more to lose than they do, after all.
Payment can absolutely be automated. Whether you use a business management software (BMS) solution like Dubsado or you set up a shop so you only have to point someone to a link, that’s up to you. It’s moving away from the ‘What’s your email so I can send you an invoice?’ back-and-forth conversation that saves you time and money.
Signing a design contract
Every designer should have a contract to sign. Period. It manages expectations for the customer, and it takes legal responsibilities off you. If you don’t have one yet and you (plan to) sell, set up a contract today. Getting a contract signed can also be automated through BMS software or a shop and it saves you so much time and hassle. You don’t have to make sure you actually send out a contract to sign, and you save yourself even more back-and-forth.
Designing the cover (mock-up)
This is where the magic happens and it’s a different workflow, so we aren’t touching the actual design process subject today. What I do want to offer is food for thought. Decide for yourself if you want to send over finalized designs or mock-ups and if you do mock-ups, how many. More than one should come with an additional fee to pay for your time investment.
I send out finalized designs. I do this because visual impact matters. When shown a finalized design with all the bells and whistles, customers tend to agree that this design is the one they are going to use and any editing they ask me to do is fine-tuning (“Can the light shining through the window be dimmed a bit?”). When sending a mock-up, the impact is way less because the bells and whistles are missing. Showing a customer an unfinished design also encourages them to ask for major changes, which means more work for you. It also looks less professional.
This is also where payment ahead of time comes into play: if you have already been paid, you don’t have to watermark the design and it’ll look way more impressive.
The only obvious exception would be illustrated covers. Check if the composition works with the client well before you start polishing. Redoing a dragon is a pain in the ass!
How many editing rounds are included in your design package(s)? They should all come with a cost that is included in the package you offer. My custom package comes with three editing rounds and people pay extra for additional ones (which very rarely happens, because see above). As this is part of the design process, you can’t automate it. You can, however, set yourself up for success by charging for them and minimizing their frequency by investing in a means to get a really solid brief out of a customer and trying to sway them away from asking for edits by designing finished products.
Finalizing the cover
Once you have gotten your feedback, you finalize the design. Nothing to automate here.
Porting the design over to various formats and templates
This one, you can 100% automate, and you should! You should at least be setting yourself up for success from the second you start. There are several ways to do this and I’ll make a separate post down the line about this, but here are some pointers:
– Start your design in a full-width template. Doing (parts of) the spine and back while you do the ebook design saves you a ton of hassle once the client upgrades to the full wrap. Here, you can have mine.
– Have a Kindle format template ready to export to. Here, you can have mine. Save your full-width version as a jpg and drag it into the Kindle template. Resize and save as a jpg. Lots of designers handle this step differently. That’s the part I’ll get back to and there are no right and wrong ways.
– Create the Amazon-ready Kindle file for your customers. Amazon loves charging authors for anything they can, including delivery fees for ebooks under the 70% payout option. Always minimize your kindle file and send a promo version (the full Kindle file) and a compressed version. I use FileMinimizer, which is free and works great. You can also save as a lower resolution straight out of Photoshop. FileMinimizer just does it in bulk.
Sending the design
Because I ask for payment upfront, I have their email address and can send any file to them whenever I want in the process. If I haven’t been obvious about this, I believe a designer should never have to ask for an email address. Designs tend to break inboxes, so email is out. A dropbox solution is a pain in the ass, imho, as you need back and forth and what if they don’t have it and where is the download button? Anyway, pain in the ass. I use WeTransfer for a few reasons.
1. It send sup to 2GB free, and that’s more than enough!
2. The customer gets a neat email with very clear download instructions
3. It sends a reminder when the files are about to be deleted, so customers are prompted to download (and you don’t have to keep track if they do, which is awesome automation).
4. You get an email confirming the download, so you are covered if they say they didn’t receive anything.
5. You get an email when the design hasn’t been downloaded yet when nearly a week is up. You can then choose to prompt a client or not, but at least you don’t have to keep track yourself and end up with a dropbox full of claimed or unclaimed (who knows?) designs.
Closing out the order
My client contact usually ends when I send them the designs. I tell them the designs are on their way through WeTransfer and thank them for the work. Done. Once the design has been downloaded, I close the order in my shop. This prompts the system to send them a thank you email which also includes a link for them to leave a review on my site. This is great, because nothing is more awkward than asking for a review. I also include all my links and customers who weren’t following me on social media or weren’t part of my Facebook group yet, often join through it. All BMS software has this option, to my knowledge.
Automation is a great tool of the trade. It structures the workflow for you and the customer, and it ensures things run smoothly on both ends. Lots of things can be automated, especially if you have a website. I have a calendar with my availability on there for example, and an easy way to leave reviews. All purchases go through there, be it customs, premades, or renders. I spend very little time on the business side of things, which frees up time for the actual designs. I encourage anyone who wants to design professionally to see where they can shave time off the items of this list and implement solutions where possible.