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

10 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 ring 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.

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