How To Design an E-Book That Gets Downloaded, Read, and Shared

by Danny Iny

Last updated on February 21st, 2018

Nice-looking site? Check.

Mailing list software and follow-up messages? Check.

Good opt-in rates thanks to a compelling free offer? No?

Then this post is for you.

The knee-jerk reaction that most people have in this situation is to write up a quick and dirty “seven steps to whatever” e-book, save it as a PDF, and turn that into their free opt-in offer.

They get a cover designed on Fiverr without giving a second thought to layout, colors, or cover design.

Big mistake…

The Design Really Does Matter!

Of course, the most important thing is the substance of your content, and great design won’t save a terrible e-book – but will make the difference between people giving you a chance in the first place.

In other words, if your design sucks, and your content is great, nobody will download it, read it, or share it. And if your design is good and the content is good? Well, then you’ve really got it made!

So how do you go about designing an e-book? There are four steps:

  1. Choose a layout, based on how you expect the e-book to be consumed.
  2. Choose memorable colors that will support your brand.
  3. Design a cover that will work for you even when reduced to a thumbnail.
  4. Plug in the content, and off you go!

Let’s explore these steps one at a time, starting with layout…

Layout: Consumption Dictates Form

The first thing that you need to figure out is how you expect people to consume your e-book.

In other words, do you want it to be a short, information-packed e-book that people print out and read on paper, or the kind of e-book that is read straight off of a desktop, laptop or tablet screen?

Depending on your choice, you’re going to want to at least think about some very different layout options:

  • E-books destined for print can be oriented either portrait (i.e. long side is vertical, the way most articles are printed) or landscape (long side is horizontal, as though the page were turned to the side), and can have much more tightly packed text.
  • E-books that will be read on a screen, in contrast, should be landscape (because that’s how our screens are oriented), with bigger fonts and more spaced-out content for easier on-screen reading.

Some format considerations will override others. In the case of my book Engagement from Scratch!, for example, even though I offer it as a free PDF download, the fact that it also went to paperback limited my options.

The ultimate medium of consumption will also dictate other things, like colors…

Colors: Create a Recognizable Brand

Colors go a long way towards making your e-book feel like it was professionally assembled, and is a high-quality piece of work (before your reader consumes the first word!).

But what can you do with colors?

Well, to begin with, your options are dictated by your medium; if you’re planning for it to be printed, then go easy on the colors, because people might want to print in black and white. If it’s intended for screen reading, on the other hand, then you have all the freedom in the world.

Once you know what your constraints are, you can choose the actual colors. Aim for three main colors at the most, with at least one of them being an accent color.

The actual colors, of course, should be consistent with your brand, and with the feel that you’re looking to create. When in doubt (or lacking expertise), invest in a designer!

Speaking of which, let’s talk about cover design…

Cover: Design for an Attractive Thumbnail

The frustrating reality that you have to remember when designing your cover is that most people won’t actually see it in any level of detail – and those who do are already “sold”, in that they’ve already downloaded it to their computer.

Most people will see your beautiful cover in thumbnail format, which means that you have to design a cover that looks good full-size (of course), but also when scaled down significantly.

What that means for you is that the design should be clean, and that your headline and topic should be super-clear even at a shrunken-down glance. In other words, the thumbnail (not the full-sized cover!) needs to be attractive and clear enough for someone to see it and say “yes, that’s relevant, and I want it!”

So, if you’ve got a good cover that scales, consistent colors throughout the document, and a layout that fits the way you want the content to be ultimately consumed, then you’re all set, right?

Err… not quite…

Remember the Substance (It’s Not Just About the Design!)

Yes, the actual substance of the content matters, too.

At the beginning of this post, I wrote that if your design sucks, and your content is great, nobody will download it, read it, or share it.

Well, the flip-side of that is an e-book with excellent design and terrible content, and that’s even worse, because it WILL get downloaded, it WILL get read, and everybody will remember you (and maybe even talk about you) as a purveyor of low quality content.

So take the time to figure out what your audience actually wants, and take as long as you need to create a product so good that they’d be willing to pay for it (even if you’re giving it away for free!).

Then dress it up with amazing layout and design, and you’re off to the races!



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Danny Iny

Danny Iny(@DannyIny) skyrocketed his industry-leading marketing blog to success by writing 80+ guest posts on major blogs in less than a year (earning him the nickname “The Freddy Krueger of Blogging”). Now he teaches others how to do the same in his Write Like Freddy blog writing training program.


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  1. Tal Gur says:
    April 29, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Very helpful, Thanks. Just published my eBook and I actually never thought about the “landscape” option… Thanks again

  2. Chris says:
    February 28, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    On layout:
    I think design choices should be limited to headings, title pages, how end/footnotes work, and ensuring correct typographical entities are used.

    Body text should as neutrally styled as possible to allow readers to determine their own text size, line height, margins, and font. On a reader that allows these changes (my Kobo, for one), anything stronger actually limits the functionality of the device.

    • Danny @ Firepole Marketing says:
      February 29, 2012 at 8:43 am

      That’s a great point, Chris. Really, I think it comes down to how you expect most of your readers to consume the content. If it’s mostly going to be on a PC, then people can go nuts with style if they want to, but yeah, if they want it to be easily readable on other devices, they have to design with that in mind.

  3. Rachel Thompson says:
    February 27, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    Hi Danny! I enjoyed how succinctly you put the points together in this post. I work with primarily authors and cover design trips many of them up. They want a visually stunning cover and it always goes back to, as you said, thumbnail. Even with the lettering and title– as few words as possible are the best choice.

    Finally, the content is the thing — poor content will be slammed. Editors, proofreaders — all critical, yet so many feel it’s okay to cut corners there and it shows in the reviews.

    I’ll forward this to my clients and followers. Great post!

    • Danny @ Firepole Marketing says:
      February 27, 2012 at 8:37 pm

      Awesome, Rachel, I’m so glad the post was helpful! Yeah, people forget about the thumbnail thing all too often, but that’s how the e-book is going to be seen the vast majority of the time. Oh, well… 🙂

      And yeah, the quality of the content is critical, and often when you’re reading something self-published, it just feels like it hasn’t been properly cleaned up yet; typos, lack of proofreading and editing, that sort of thing. It always drives me nuts, and I do my level best to avoid it with my own work. Actually, as self-published authors, we probably have to work even harder to show that it’s a professional work…

  4. Danny @ Firepole Marketing says:
    February 27, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Hey guys, thanks for publishing my post!

    I’ll be hanging around the comments, so if anyone has questions, feel free to ask. 🙂

    • Russ Henneberry says:
      February 27, 2012 at 9:38 am

      @Danny Iny — Thanks for writing this one Danny! It has been a pleasure to watch you execute the very strategy you talk about in this post with “Engagement From Scratch.”

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