Design challenges beyond 101 under sharp scrutiny in Looted Gold

Screened images and line drawings are used on double-page spreads on all 15 chapters of the book Looted Gold.

If you think that writing a book is challenging, then think again.

You’ve been misinformed. Design challenges are just one of many difficulties you will encounter.

Because the hard part is waiting just around the corner. After completing the maiden copy of the manuscript, you’ll launch into the lengthy reworking process. There could be many more iterations of the original manuscript incorporating changes not only to grammar, sentence construction, chapter choice but also to content direction.

Towards the end of that process comes the submission of your masterpiece to a proofreader for a heavy, medium or (if you’re lucky) soft edit that will include a check for plagiarisms.

At this point I’ll qualify these comments by stating that I’m referring to a non-fiction work, the content of which is drawn mainly (but not only) from documents more than a century old in the case of Looted Gold.

Title challenge

If you’re anything like my co-author Mike Dwight and me, you’ll have given thought during the various processes to the title of your book. We went through a range of titles, researching motivations and nuances of potential titles as our content morphed in line with new information emerging from the hundreds of thousands of words we read.

Our book title emerged after many harrowing hours spread over a period of six months, convinced that the words Looted Gold captured the essence of what our book is about.

With that hurdle safely navigated, we spent a few minutes practising yoga breathing before addressing the next challenge: what brief should we develop to give pertinent direction to a graphic designer to create a front cover that would capture at a glance the main thrust of the book’s content?

Cover design challenges

I’m told that a great manuscript can lose traction in the marketplace if the front cover design and title are not carefully thought out. The title and front cover design must resonate with your target market.

You may ask why we concerned ourselves with these issues. Well, we had decided for several reasons that we would self-publish.

Self-publishing challenge

Two main reasons forced our hand. We were not convinced that a traditional publisher would recognise the marketability of our manuscript. We’d read that a few of today’s most successful authors have had manuscripts rejected by some of the world’s leading publishers only to have the rejected manuscript turn into a best-seller.

And more importantly, Mike and I were working to a tight timeframe that did not allow us to wait up to a year for a response from a traditional publisher.

Earlier this year I spent a few hours carefully filling in the forms required to submit a manuscript to a traditional publisher. Six months later I have yet to receive a response. Perhaps my applications have been binned, perhaps not.

Mike and I are probably among hundreds of authors who’ve chosen the self-publishing route. That means we shoulder full responsibility for the quality of the book, including the title, front cover design and content.

What were the drivers that shaped the front cover design of Looted Gold? Since the book is about gold and a high percentage of the gold we write about has been stamped into coins, our route was clear. Some may even conclude that it was too clear.

And since the book content refers to gold coins from Paul Kruger’s era, we needed images of gold Kruger ponds from the early 1890s to 1900. Randburg Coin kindly supplied the required images and will also retail copies of the book.

Our initial idea for the front cover was captured by freelance Australian designer Taylor Bartels before being translated into a balanced, high-quality image by Vanessa Wilson of Quickfox Publishing in Cape Town.

The back cover more-or-less sold itself. While researching in New Zealand, Mike had discovered an oil painting of our Kiwi Boer War veteran soldier Thomas Brown. We were given permission to use a high-resolution image of a portion of that painting for our back cover.

Challenge of managing costs

Self-publishing authors have to be circumspect about managing costs, especially when pride can be severely dented daily by seeing hundreds of copies of unsold books stored in one’s garage. And since the price of choosing the digital printing route for short runs is far lower than going the litho printing route, our choice was clear. An overriding factor here was the choice of printer. I’ve seen self-published books that fall apart within days because the perfect binding was anything but perfect.     

Looted Gold is based largely on historical fact, a logical progression of ideas arising from discernable trends, and a soupcon of conjecture. Most of the action portrayed in the book took place around 120 years ago. The majority of images from that time are out of copyright and the unknown photographers are no longer with us.

Page layout challenge

Our way forward to identify a creative, pleasing layout for our pages was dictated by our choice of remote distribution that precluded the use of colour. Channels like Amazon and that organisation’s print-on-demand facility means that the use of colour is not an option. We will be offering readers in Britain and Australia this option.

Many of the images we had gathered were of relatively poor quality, given their age and the fact they had been shot using photographic equipment that reflected the technology of the era.

We overcame that challenge by using screens of the images as backgrounds on our double page spread chapter pages. We commissioned line drawings of good quality to replicate low-quality head-and-shoulders photographs.

We added to the creativity of pages by including circular, drop-in screens that are also used for quotes taken from the text. And since Kiwi soldier Brown had maintained a hand-written diary throughout his war-time service in southern Africa, we included a screened sample of handwriting at the bottom of those pages that carry reports from his memoirs.

Neat design mechanisms elevate the page designs of Looted Gold out of the ordinary.

The execution of the page layout concept was done by Andrea Willmore of Cape Town. Her design adds interest and value to the narrative and serves to highlight pertinent quotes.

Looted Gold will be launched in Cape Town on 11 December at Origins Coffee in De Waterkant.

Marketing challenge

This topic is the subject of reams of printed material and thousands of erudite words on the Net. Suffice to say that others better qualified than me are assisting Mike and me. Members of Safrea’s Chronicle have walked the extra kilometre to assist writers, photographers and other freelancers to work the magic of social media. And that’s a steep learning curve. A special thanks to those who’ve taken the time to run workshops and provide off-line assistance.

For more information about the book, see To read more articles by Blake Wilkins go to

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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