Book Artwork Basics

Book Artwork Basics


If you have found a fantastic illustrator, but they’ve never illustrated for a book before you need to send them this article. Creating artwork for a book has its own pitfalls that can make the professional artist look bad simply because they didn’t know about things they didn’t even know to ask.


Each printer has its own settings, so always check with the printer you’re going through.

Creating a book involves printing content on a page and then cutting that page to create the book. Unfortunately this cutting (or the technical term cropping) process is not accurate. It is up to the artist to understand and plan for this in their artwork.

(Note: the graphic to the right will be used in the demo illustrations below.)


If you want your artwork to go all the way to the end of the page, you actually need to create the artwork larger than the page itself knowing some will be cut off. (Did I mention the cropping process is not accurate?) The part of the page/artwork that will be cut off is called the bleed.

With the new digital printing technology there is now a negative bleed where printers cannot print all the way to the edge of the page near the spine because the glue will not adhere to the page if there is ink on it. If this is the case, you’ll need to keep it in mind when figuring out the dimensions needed for your artwork.

Do not make your artwork to the exact size of the finished page.

Do not just add a solid color to fill in the bleed area.

Make the artwork to the size of the page plus bleed.

Safety Zone

The safety zone is equivalent but opposite to the bleed. This is the area on the inside of the trim size (term for the final page size of your book) that may potentially be cut off. (Did I mention enough times the cropping process is not accurate?) All printers have their own settings, but you are usually safe (ha ha) if you double your bleed to estimate your safety zone. You do not want to plan for any “important” content to be in the safety zone—this includes any text from the story, the end of appendages, or anything that might get cut off.

If you are going to have an image that spreads across two pages, the center of your artwork should have an area double the width of your safety zone (because it is the edge of two pages) as another safety zone. Be careful of what content goes in this area—you don’t want to be splitting a character’s face in half. More information about this will be given later.

Do not have “important” elements in the safety zone.

Keep important elements out of bleed and safety zone.

If you don’t want your artwork to go to the edge of the page, be sure to size it within the safety zone.

Artwork Dimension

Besides knowing about bleeds and safety zones, the most critical information to know is the final size (trim size) of the book. It is always best to create the artwork to the size of the book. Not only is it easier for the artist and author to plan associated text, but you end up with a more professional product.

Each trim size has its own height-width ratio. This is critical to know, plan for, and keep during the artwork creation process. It is easier to explain what happens if you don’t plan for this than try to convince you why to keep it in mind. Below are some errors that occur quite frequently.


One of the most common errors we run across is artists will create their artwork on a normal 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, but that won’t be the final size of the book.

8.5 x 11 Artwork

On 5.5 x 8.5 page

Filling 5.5 x 8.5 page

Note how even though 5.5 x 8.5 is half of a 8.5 x 11 piece of paper, the height-width ratio are different so that you are left with either having blank areas around the artwork or having to cut off bits of the artwork in order to make it fit.

However an 8.5 x 11 piece of artwork is the same height-width ratio as a 6 x 9 page.

If for some reason you cannot create your artwork at the final size, knowing your height-width ratio will be just fine as you can work with the resolution (see below) to create artwork the perfect size for the final book. (Just don’t forget to factor in the bleed and safety zone area in the ratios.)

Filling 6 x 9 page


If you have artwork that you want to spread across two pages, the dimensions are not just doubling the width of a single-page illustration. You need to factor in that there will not be a bleed on the side of the pages that hit the center (spine) of the book. And if your printer has a negative bleed (see above) you need to factor that in as well.

Note this will affect height-width ratios as some artists might not have paper large enough to work at the final size. (Also see the section about artwork medium below.)


  1. Double your trim size (example: 5.5 x 8.5 = 11 x 8.5)
  2. Add your outside bleed (example: .125″ is common = 11.25 x 8.75)
  3. If necessary, subtract 2x the negative bleed (example: .125 is common = 11 x 8.75)
    *NOTE: Inkwater’s POD printer uses negative bleed. Our authors should factor this into their artwork if printing POD.

Two-page spread safety zone:

It is important for the artist to keep in mind the page split in the middle when positioning characters. You don’t want a character’s face or possibly some important detail like words being split between pages.

If you want a character near the middle consider the space and positioning some of their limbs across the center to where the important elements are on either side of the split.

Do not have the page split at important elements.

Keep the characters within safety zones.

If you want the character across two pages plan the split around unimportant areas of the design.

“Impossible” Trim Size

Another really common error we run into is that the author tells the artist the trim size of book they want—usually by going to their own library and pulling out a ruler—but the author doesn’t check to see if there’s a printer that can print in that size.

Virtually any size is possible if you have enough money—like if your printing budget is in the $7,000–$10,000 range. But if you are on a smaller budget or are using a POD printer, then you are limited to the sizes possible with those printers.

It is a good idea to figure out first how you are going to print and distribute the book and then decide on the trim size.

Note: If you are working through a publisher like Inkwater Press, you will need to work with their preferred printers to utilize the publisher’s distribution system.

Artwork Resolution

Most printers need artwork to arrive at a minimum 300 dpi (dots per inch) at the final size they want it to appear in their book. (Note: some require 600 dpi, this is why Inkwater asks for 600 for all our artwork.) We accept JPG, TIF, PSD, AI, and EPS formats.

Decreasing the size of artwork is never a problem. However, increasing the size of artwork is where problems occur. If we have to increase the size of an image, it just makes the image blurry—the greater the change in size, the greater the blurriness.

It is important to know that most images from the internet (and from digital cameras) come out at 72 dpi. To increase the dpi without sacrificing quality we must decrease the height and width in proportion. Roughly any image from the internet will need to decrease 400% to create a high-resolution version.  For example, if you have an 8″ x 8″ image on the internet, it will become a 2″ x 2″ image in the book.

So if you have artwork that is smaller than how you want it to appear in the book, scan it in at 600 dpi (to double the size) or 800 dpi or 1200 dpi.

Scanning it in at a higher resolution never hurts and can only help you. However, if you scan it in at a lower resolution and just try to change the width and height, all you’ll get is a blurry image.


The way you create your artwork will have an effect on how that artwork will come out and is treated.

Increasingly, artwork is created purely in a digital arena. If this is the case, then the artwork needs to begin life at 300 dpi or higher. A number of programs default to starting at 72 dpi which means the images will either be 4x smaller or blurry in the final book. Also, note, that not all colors available in the digital arena can be printed. Please see below about color.

If your artwork is created on paper, here are a few tips:

  • Use the same kind of paper for all the artwork. Differences in the paper’s texture and color (not all white is the same) will come through on the final artwork.
  • Because all artwork is scanned in at high-resolution, all the imperfections will show: pencil sketching, white out, staples, holes, etc.
  • Not all scans preserve the original colors. Different scanners will produce different results. It is best to have all your artwork scanned from the same source.

If you are going to have your story’s text over the artwork, be sure the artist knows how much “quiet space” to add to their artwork.

“Quiet space” is not an absence of artwork, but more of an area where details are fewer and and the contrast in colors is kept to a minimum.

Also, in preparing an area for text, do not scrunch this area all the way to the safety zone. Yes, the text would always appear on the page, but having it crowd to the edges is not the most professional appearance. Give a good inch (minimum half-inch only when necessary) between the area set aside for the text and any edge or important (or busy) graphical area.


It is generally recommended that illustrated books also have the artist design a unique piece to serve as the cover of the book. As with all artwork, keep the trim size and safety zones in mind.

Also, it is best not to have the artist put text on the cover. Instead, let the book designer handle it so that they can use the same fonts inside and out to create a more cohesive and professional look for your book. It is best to have the cover be at least 2/3 quiet space for the title design to be clear. Most likely your cover will be seen at thumbnail size, so if the title is not given enough breathing space (or quiet space) you may lose a chance for your audience to pick up your book.


Not all color is created equal, and not all color is seen equally.

When it comes to book design, color is created in two different ways: by light (on a computer screen) or by ink (on paper). Color created by light is said to be created in RGB (red, green, blue). Color created by ink is in CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black).

In general, CMYK colors tend to be duller than RGB.

Not all colors can be reproduced in both areas. See the illustration at right. If a color cannot be reproduced it is said to be “out of gamut”.

We’ve all noticed in a store’s television department that there may be ten TVs showing the same channel or movie, yet the colors on the screens vary from one to the other. This is also true with computer screens. What you see on your screen isn’t necessarily what your artist or what Inkwater sees. What gets printed will be different as well.

POD printing is not an accurate color process. One book to the next can have shifts in color—sometimes drastic, sometimes subtle.

Illustration in RGB

Illustration with CMYK out of gamut warning

Illustration converted to safe CMYK Gamut

Illustration Credit: Digital illustrations on this page are © TheDoodleTree. Used with permission. All rights reserved.


  1. Sue Logan

    My original artwork will be done in iink with watercolor. Is there a paper weight, type, and quality you would recommend?

    Since it is okay for rhe artwork to be made smaller what ratios do I need for a 81/2″ by 8″ book?

    Thank you.

    1. Masha Shubin

      No particular paper is recommended, however you want to use the same paper throughout the project. Also, paper texture (and any sketch guidelines) will come out in the scans. If you’re wanting the artwork to have the look of a highly textured paper, then use it. Otherwise see if you can find some watercolor paper with a smooth texture.

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