Half a Dozen Regrettable Choices That Mark a Self-Published Book “Amateur”

August 5th, 2013

  1. Using one of the typefaces that come resident on most every computer … like Times New Roman. It’s intellectually lazy to not explore what typefaces are out there for best taking an author’s words to his or her readers.
  2. Using type at a size that’s more conducive to squeezing more words on the printed page than making for comfortable reading.
  3. Margins and/or leading that is stingy, leading to less than optimal white space and too many characters per line, something that can tax readers’ eyes and their ability to stay focused on what they are reading.
  4. Tables of Contents for novel whose chapters do not have titles, only numbers. The word “Chapter,” a number, and then a page number are unnecessary and rather silly looking. Present such a table of contents in a two-column format (when everything else in the book, aside, perhaps for an Index, which a novel wouldn’t have, is single-column) and we have a book that, right at the start, looks ridiculous. The Table of Contents appears to be squeezed in to use the least amount of space. If it’s necessary, it deserves the proper amount of room.
  5. Opening paragraphs of a chapter that have the first line indented. They should be flush left and, while we’re at it, a conservative initial drop cap (or even a raised initial cap) often presents very nicely.
  6. Sending art embedded in Microsoft Word—or worse PowerPoint—files. And for the best chance at successful placing of photos, they should be in TIFF format, a lossless filetype (unlike JPEG, which is lossy).

Bonus Choice: Not checking spelling. You don’t have to be a design or editorial pro to get this right. And one that always stands out and drives me crazy is “loose” when an author means “lose.” If I spot one of those in a book when I’m considering it, I will set it down in a New York second.

Note: Although it is tempting to say that readers are responsible for whether they remain focused on what they are reading, those of us involved in making books—publishing companies, self-publishing authors, and book designers alike—should do all we can to help readers stay involved with the books they read.

Entry Filed under: book design

19 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Arlene Prunkl  |  August 9th, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    All good points, Stephen. I was going to say that you forgot to include professional editing, but then I realized these are regrettable design choices, not editorial choices. I still find the #1 criticism on Amazon reviews of self-published books to be the lack of professional editing.

  • 2. admin  |  August 9th, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    I absolutely agree with you about professional, objective editing being right up there with the most important investments a self-publisher can make. The only thing I place above editing is the two-punch combination of writing about something readers are interested in reading about and writing it well.

  • 3. Charisse Howard  |  August 11th, 2013 at 11:00 am

    Some good points here, & some not. You’re right that what most often makes a self-published book look amateurish is spacing — your #2 – 3. Too much space is as bad as too little. But are you sure you meant “Opening paragraphs…should be flush right”? The convention is flush left…& personally I prefer indentation. Some design traditions are like the secret handshake, more precious to publishers than useful to readers.

  • 4. admin  |  August 11th, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Oy, sloppy me. I didn’t say flush left? Good catch. Thank you!

    You may be correct about traditions being like secret handshakes, but an indented first paragraph–for me–is such an unwelcome sight, and so unusual, it genuinely feels wrong to me.

  • 5. Jack  |  August 11th, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    I am not sure you can use an initial drop cap on Kindle versions or for epub. Have you

  • 6. admin  |  August 11th, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    I do believe you’re right, Jack. Then again, as terrific as ebooks are, I don’t really tend to think of them as books, but, rather, containers for what normally goes in a book. I was speaking of print books In the piece here. However, I also believe you could prob’ly do a drop cap in a fixed-page layout, such as you could design for an iPad.

  • 7. PD Singer  |  August 12th, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    A random check of my shelves my shelves revealed a 50/50 split. Baen Books, Del Rey Books, W.W. Norton (all titles by Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard professor and decades-long contributor to Smithsonian Magazine), Ecco (belongs to Harper Collins), and Scholastic (title was “The Hunger Games”) have no problems with first paragraph indent.

  • 8. admin  |  August 12th, 2013 at 10:43 pm

    I believe you have that many books with first paragraphs indented. But I also think it looks bad and that the trend is, in fact, with flush left.

  • 9. Richard  |  July 1st, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    Late to the party, but allow me to comment on the first line flush in an opening paragraph. I never indent that line. As it was explained to me by a letterpress printer, the first line of a new paragraph is indented to mark the change in subject, but the opening paragraph has no change to mark. It is the beginning and all subsequent paragraphs in that chapter needs must be indented. Does that make sense to you?

  • 10. admin  |  July 1st, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    No, Richard, it does not make sense to me. There’s no mistaking that the very first paragraph of a chapter is the beginning of something new. There is no need to indent that first paragraph. Then again, as a typesetter, it looks BAD to me.

  • 11. Daniel Vian  |  September 23rd, 2014 at 7:19 am

    Sorry. What you say is irrelevant for ebooks. Ereaders set their own font, margins, etc. The user has full control of type size. Chapter opening flush left is a fetish and serves no real purpose. In general, playing ariound with typeface attributes is no substitute for qaulity of content.

  • 12. In  |  September 23rd, 2014 at 8:39 am

    Point 4 is just plain wrong. I hate it, when a book has not TOC, and would rather have a simple chapters / page TOC, when no TOC. It serves as a guideline wether chapters are long or short.
    And while I can understand Point 1, I find it more disturbing when a book is locked in a certain font, I often change the font. Size would be even worse, but that was not locked in any of the eBooks I encountered (may it is not lockable). It might play a role that I have installed additional fonts.

  • 13. Tymber Dalton  |  September 23rd, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Not removing page headers on the new chapter pages. And setting type alignment to left instead of justified, making for ragged right edges.

  • 14. admin  |  September 23rd, 2014 at 9:34 am

    Oops, Charisse, you’re correct. Of course, I meant flush left.

  • 15. admin  |  September 23rd, 2014 at 9:47 am

    In, I should have made it clear I was speaking of print in this piece. I have written on and off, in other pieces on this blog, already saying pretty much the things you correct me with. In fact, as a book designer, those are reasons why I don’t care for anything but fixed-page–i.e., NOT mobi (Kindle) ebooks.

  • 16. John Stackhouse  |  September 24th, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    Been a bit preoccupied of late and might have mixed up this string with an earlier one where a supercilious contributor dismissed the concept of chapter/page-number/contents in eBooks. Contents are nice to have in all books when you want to freshen a recollection and locate it. Often with find/search you can’t remember the precise word so that makes the search difficult.
    I use Kindle for intellectual/scientific texts with footnotes as the mainstay of my research. It’s annoying when you chase a couple of footnotes to the end and – trying to return – you can’t find the place (“last page read” is the default).
    I find it easy to keep track of chapters and where I am in them so I can go to the appropriate chapter and advance to find an early page – or the next chapter and back scan to where I left off.
    Agreed chapter contents aren’t used much in leisure fiction – except where a nearest and dearest invades the same text and leaves it at some utterly strange point which Kindle always wants to take you.
    Incidentally, as I age, chapters (like policemen?) get shorter every year.
    May I raise a second point:: the remark about convention being dearer than content. Two style details piss me off. In English editing, the use of a single quote for speech and double quotes of interpolation. Also the custom of not inserting a letter space before – and after a dash. You can get a line break amid long words that leads to a cleaner layout both in ragged right and justified.


  • 17. Tamian  |  November 1st, 2014 at 4:43 pm

    My personal pet peeves are widow, orphans and double spaces between sentences.

  • 18. admin  |  November 1st, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    Absolutely, Tamian.

  • 19. admin  |  November 1st, 2014 at 11:12 pm

    If you’ve read much of my albeit now very sporadic musings here, Daniel, you’ll see that’s precisely why I’m not that interested in ebooks. I’m fine with folks reading them; hell, I’ve read one or two on my iPad. I just don’t want to work on them. To call flush left opening “a fetish,” however, ignores the aesthetics of print. Ebooks have no aesthetic value. That’s perfectly fine. They’re containers in which book content gets delivered. I’d’ve killed for one in college, rather than carry around four or five textbooks every day. But my interest in all this is as a professional book designer, not an author or a reader. And as pretentious as it may sound, I regard making print books an art. There’s none of that in ebooks, but for the occasional fixed layout ebook, mostly iBooks.

    “In general, playing ariound with typeface attributes is no substitute for quality of content.” Agreed. But good content deserves good typography and page design. At least in print.

Leave a Comment


Required, hidden


Some HTML allowed:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


Latest Posts


June 2018
« May    

Posts by Month

Most Recent Posts

Posts by Category


Small Press Exchange Top Sites List