Do Self-Published Authors Need to Follow Publishing Conventions?

Have you ever flipped through a book and sensed there was something odd about it? Though you couldn’t identify what was different, you knew something was off. It felt wrong. This has happened to me.

Perhaps the feeling was so strong that you opted not to read the book. Again, this has happened to me. Because my reaction to something in the layout was so negative, I have decided not to bother reading it.

When this happens it is most likely because the book deviated from some standard publishing practices. Though most readers are unaware of what these principles are, we subconsciously know when they aren’t followed. That’s when we get this unexplained feeling that something is wrong. If the feeling is strong, we might not read the book.

This is why self-published authors should follow all of the time-honored traditions of book design, but there is nothing to say that we must. We can break from tradition. Sometimes we may have a good reason to not follow the rules.

The key is to be aware that the more book publishing practices we break, the greater the likelihood our finished product will produce a visceral reaction in potential readers that pushes some of them away.

As self-published authors, we should follow publishing conventions whenever we can. If we do decide to break a rule, it should be for a good reason and with full knowledge that it could hurt readership.

Yes, rules are made to be broken, but they are also there to guide us. Choose wisely.

Have you ever had a negative subconscious reaction to a book? What publishing rules would you like to break?

The Two Extremes of Self-Publishing: Both Are Wrong

With changes in publishing and advances in technology, it’s never been easier to publish a book. This isn’t to imply publishing a book is easy, just that the barriers are disappearing and the costs are dropping.

This emerging reality leads to two extremes for do-it-yourself authors who want to publish their books.

Full Speed Ahead: Seeing it’s within their power to publish their books, some eager authors take the shortest (or the cheapest) path possible to place their books in print, be it on paper or a reading device. The casualty is quality: they make their own cover, skip peer review, bypass professional editing, don’t consider the need for interior design, and fail to pick the best possible title.

The result is they see their book published quickly – and it’s terrible. It is amateurish, few people will buy it, and even fewer will read it. Those who wade threw it will give it one star and a terrible review.

This makes it harder for others who self-publish to gain respect and sell books; they are guilty by association.

Do Everything Just Right: The other extreme is those authors who desire to produce the best possible book. They survey their followers to find the ideal title, hire a designer for their cover, tap a professional editor to copy-edit and proofread the book, and use someone to do the interior layout. Along the way, they consider every option for distribution and promotion, looking at the pros and cons of each possibility, comparing risks with rewards. They know they will only be able to launch their book once and want to make sure it’s perfect.

The result is the plethora of ever-changing options will paralyze them from taking action. They will never actually publish their book, because there will always be one more opportunity to explore. Then no one will be able to read their book, because they will never get around to publishing it.

Both responses are in error. Authors must resist the urge to race unrestrained towards their goal; they must also fight to not fall victim to the paralysis of perfection. The middle space between these two extremes is the best way to publish books and connect with receptive readers.

Be Smart If You Self-Publish: Don’t Be An Idealist

I recently heard about a group of self-published authors who criticized other self-published authors for having professionally designed covers and hiring editors. They accused them of selling out. They claimed it wasn’t truly self-publishing if you didn’t do it all yourself. Rubbish.

No one can truly self-publish a book all by him or herself. Will you buy a printing press to print copies? Will you cut down a tree to make the paper? Will you hand mix the ink? Will you ship boxes of books to each retail store and personally deliver a copy to each buyer?

Even if you skip printing and go the e-book route, will you only sell the book on your website? Who designed your site anyway? And if you did your own, who wrote the software you used to create it? If you put your book on e-book platforms, how many programs, online resources, and intermediaries will you use to make that happen?

If you look at the theoretical meaning of self-publishing, no one can truly self-publish a book. Every self-published author needs the help of others; much of the work must be outsourced. While prepress, production, and delivery are all obvious areas requiring assistance, other items are likewise worthy of outsourcing to professionals. These include cover design, editing, interior layout, and so forth.

Just as you could design your own cover, you could also make your own paper, mix your own ink, and hand print each page on a printing press you built. All of this would be foolhardy.

Self-publishing isn’t doing everything yourself. Instead, self-publishing is taking control of your book production and distribution, tapping experts along the way to make it happen in the most professional, effective way possible.

What Do Readers Care About?

When readers consider our book, few will bother to look to see who published it. They won’t care if a major publisher, let alone any traditional publisher, produced it. When it comes to publishers, there is little brand loyalty, let alone much brand recognition. The imprint is of no consequence. How the printed book gets into their hands or the e-book gets into their reader doesn’t matter to them.

Here’s what does matter:

Cover: What they will look at is the cover. They will, in fact, judge our book by its cover. First impressions matter a great deal.

Title: The title is critical, too. Depending on how they discovered our book, whether they see the title first or the cover first, the other element will seal the deal – or not. If the cover is great but the title, lame, they will dismiss it. Similarly, if they see the title first, a great cover will move them towards a purchase, while a bad cover will move them to a different book.

Formatting: Next, they will look at the insides, whether thumbing through the actual pages or clicking online. If the layout looks “normal,” they will proceed. If it looks odd – even though they won’t know why – a red flag pops up.

Content: If our book passes these first three screens, they may actually read a section or two. Great writing beckons them; bad writing or editing – even average writing or editing – sends them packing.

Only when they get this far will they consider buying it.

Readers don’t care if our book is traditionally published or self-published; they care if our book is professional looking, well written, and interesting.

What is your experience when buying a book? What do you care about?

Lessons From a Published Author: It’s Never a Sure Thing

A couple years ago I blogged about a young adult (YA) book that I really, really, really liked – and the author honored me by leaving a comment to my post. Since then we’ve shared a few online interactions, with her offering careful communication and me trying hard not to come across as a creepy fan who is cyber-stalking her.

Ever since reading her first book, I’ve clamored for her next YA one.

Since then she published three junior (mid-grade) titles – all are on my Christmas wish list – and a fourth book in the series has a 2015 release date. She also has a children’s picture book scheduled for publication.

The long awaited YA follow-up is written and waiting.

Despite success with her junior titles, her publisher declined the new book, citing too low of sales on her first YA title. Her agent showed the book to other publishers, but none were willing to move forward with it.

To my dismay, the book I long to read is languishing on her computer hard drive. Understandably discouraged, she is considering self-publishing it as an e-book.

I think her publisher is making a huge mistake. In a few years the fans of her junior series will move on to YA books. Though she currently has one title waiting for them, two (or more) would be better.

Aside from my distress over not being able to read this book, I see two lessons in this.

First, low sales on just one book can hurt our chances of another one being published. That’s a sobering thought. Today’s publishing world is increasingly risk adverse, and it doesn’t take much for them to say “no.”

Second, I think every author should pursue a dual track of traditional publishing and self-publishing, that is, to be a hybrid author. If one option doesn’t work, perhaps the other will. If both options bear fruit, all the better.

I encouraged my writer friend to self-publish her YA book. I hope she does.

[Update: Robin Mellom did indeed self-publish her YA book. It’s called Perfect Timing and is now available,]

The Eight Errors of Self-Publishing

For the past two months, I’ve blogged about the eight errors of self-publishing. My list is not comprehensive, but it’s a great starting point.

To recap, these errors are:

  1. Poor Content
  2. A Lousy Cover
  3. A Lackluster Title
  4. Poor Editing
  5. Poor File Conversion
  6. Font Abuse: Getting Carried Away With Fonts
  7. Having a Homemade Look
  8. Failure to Follow Conventions

When you self-publish your next book, be sure to review these items. I know I will.

What would you add to the list?

The Seventh Error of Self-Publishing: Having a Homemade Look

To address the seventh of eight self-publishing errors, let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture, that is, the book as a whole. Some self-published books simply look homemade.

In years past, this may have included photocopied pages, a simplistic cover, spiral binding (or three-hole punched for a binder), 8 1/2 by 11 size, crooked pages, missing pages, or out of order pages. Some books suffered from all these production problems.

With advances in technology, these issues are in the past. However, we must still guard against producing a book that looks homemade. All of the prior six errors can point to a homemade look, but four in particular lead the way: a poor cover, lackluster editing, inadequate file conversion, and getting carried away with fonts. Other issues include simplistic graphics, low-resolution photos, and pixilated or distorted artwork.

Individually, each is bad enough, but when combined, the evidence quickly builds that the book is homemade: a second-rate effort and not worthy of serious attention.

Consider deliberating over a book and the cover looks second rate. Then open it to find a typo on page one, be assaulted with different font types and sizes, and see a random paragraph start in midsentence. In all likelihood, we’ll dismiss the book – as well as the author – and proceed to another title.

Only if we want to support the author or have a deep interest in the topic will we condescend to buy a book that looks homemade.

Next week, I’ll address the eighth and final error of self-publishing: a failure to follow publishing conventions.

The Sixth Error of Self-Publishing: Font Abuse

I call the sixth error of self-publishing, font abuse. Font abuse is using multiple font styles, with varying point sizes throughout a manuscript.

The author may view this as creative formatting, but the only thing it accomplishes is irritating the reader. At best, this barrage of fonts slows readers down; at worst, it causes them to stop reading altogether.

In one self-published book, the first page used four different fonts and even more point sizes for those fonts. There were words in bold, italic, and uppercase. It was a nightmare to read. Hoping it was an anomaly, I turned the page: two fonts, four points sizes, and some more italic formatting.

The variations in font shape and size repelled me. I didn’t want to read further. If I’d have pushed through, I’m sure a headache awaited me.

This was font abuse at its worse – and a telltale sign of a self-published book.

[The first five errors of self-publishing are poor content, cover, title, editing, and file conversion.]

The Fifth Error of Self-Publishing: Poor File Conversion

If we avoid the first four errors of self-publishing (poor content, cover, title, and editing), we can still ruin our hard work with a poor file conversion. Just because a book looks good in Microsoft Word, doesn’t mean it’s going to convert nicely. Even one conversion error will lower a reader’s esteem for our work; numerous ones will cause them to stop reading altogether.

Here are some conversion errors I’ve encountered with books. These mostly relate to e-books, but I’ve also seen some of them in printed books:

  • Missing paragraph indents: A new paragraph is not indented but is flush left.
  • Errant paragraph marks: A new paragraph starts mid-sentence.
  • Inconsistent paragraphs spacing: Some paragraphs have no space between them, while others have a full line – or more – between them.
  • Hyphenation problems: A hyphenated word appears in the middle of the line, instead of at the end. Sometimes there is a space after the hyphen.
  • Random font point variations: A sentence, phrase, word, or even letter is larger or smaller than the rest of the text around it.

Many of these errors are more noticeable as we resize text in a reader. Regardless of how careful the file conversion is, we must read (not scan) the converted file to find mistakes. I’ve also noticed a disproportionate number of errors towards the end of books, suggesting that people stopped checking or got in a rush as they neared the end.

Converting a file is tricky and checking the results is tedious, but these are critical steps if we are to produce a quality product.

The Fourth Error of Self-Publishing: Poor Editing

After poor content, cover, and title, the fourth error is skipping or scrimping on the editing.

I’ve never met anyone who could self-edit with complete success. Yes, some writers are better than others. And, with time, we can all improve our self-editing skills, but we will never catch every error in our own work.

We need others to edit for us – but not just anyone. Your aunt who’s good at English doesn’t count or your friend who likes to read. These folks might serve well as first-readers but not for a final edit.

Also, there are different types of edits – and we need them all. Depending on who you ask, there are at least three; they go by different names. One type looks at the big picture, addressing the overall concept and construction of the work. Another focuses on the book’s flow, from one chapter to the next, one scene to the next, and one sentence to the next. A third type fine-tunes the piece, considering grammar, word choice, typos, and punctuation. And there may be other types of edits, too.

Although we can trade editing services with other writers or perhaps even find someone who is qualified and willing to do it for free, we usually need to pay for editing at each level. This isn’t cheap, but if we want our work to shine – and not pile up critical reviews – we need quality editing.

What types of errors do you usually catch in your own work? Which ones do you tend to overlook?