Let’s face it, I look at a lot of books. The fellow at the UPS store who receives packages for me has become my pal. They have a neat system that shoots an email to me whenever there’s a package. That’s the kind of automation that really works, because it saves me from making a trip down there just to stare into an empty mailbox.
People send me books, which is really nice of them. I get stacks of books. I don’t publish many book reviews on the blog, but I get the books anyway.
Self-published books quite easily fall into two categories:
1. Books almost entirely created and produced by the authors
2. Books created by book professionals
And you simply can’t mistake one for the other. It’s extremely rare to run into someone who can learn to produce a professional-looking book without professional experience. I’ve seen a few of those, too.
Do-it-yourself publishing is one form of self-publishing. Seth Godin is self-publishing now. His books are gorgeous, the equivalent or better than most anything coming from a traditional publisher.
And the same is true for many self-publishers although they are not as famous as Godin. They want a book they can be proud of, one that they have confidence in. They know the book will represent them well in the marketplace.
Here’s how I can tell the other ones:
Pagination errors. Blank pages with running heads. Chapter openers with running heads and folios (page numbers). Starting important book parts on verso (left-hand) pages.
Typesetting gaffes. Books set in Times New Roman. Palatino. Rag right composition. Straight quotes mixed with “curly” quotes. Extra space between indented paragraphs. Underline for italics. Entire books set with hyphenation set to “off.”
Gratuitous formatting. Books that look like blogs. Lots of bullets and numbered lists. Callouts, three or four subheads per page. Lots of bold type.
Odd page construction. Leading that doesn’t work. Huge top and bottom margins. Or all very tight, right-up-to-the-blue-line margins and type packed together to save space.
Boxes. Specifically, round-corner, drop-shadow boxes.
Incessant clipart. Stock photos throughout the book. Clipart. Many photos with captions and runarounds, creating “rivers” in text.
It’s also true that I’ve done almost all of these things myself at one time or another. That’s how you learn. But I don’t recall doing most of them in one book, and that’s what I see when I look at self-published DIY books.
The predictability of the errors listed above is assured. It’s almost always the same types of errors, easy to prevent if you know how. After all, it doesn’t take more work to design a good-looking and well-constructed book than it does to design one that looks like an after-school project. In fact, I bet it takes less. The only difference is the difference in skill, knowledge, experience.
And this is no reflection on the content of these books, some of them are quite good. But anyone who knows books will know the moment they pick up a book with these signs what they are looking at, and I guarantee it won’t inspire much confidence.
I admire the authors who do it all themselves, and I’ve seen many who have learned and overcome the beginner mistakes and gone on to publish creditable books. I sometimes feature their books here, and I’m proud to do so. They took the time to learn, and you can too.
Two things that will help:
Look at front-list books from major publishers. Study them. Look at books from academic presses, if you’re writing that kind of book. There are standards and conventions and they are all embodied in the books turned out by publishers.
Get a one year subscription to the online version of the Chicago Manual of Style or buy a print copy. I like the online version. One year will be a very minor expense in your book budget, and you can search its articles to answer many questions about book construction conventions.
Go and make good books.
Joel Friedlander is a self-published author, a book designer and blogs about book design, self-publishing and the indie publishing life at TheBookDesigner.com. He's also the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, where he helps publishers and authors who decide to publish get to market on time and on budget with books that are both properly constructed and beautiful to read.