Amateur-Hour Books: Do You Know the Warning Signs?

by Joel Friedlander on June 9, 2011 · 44 comments

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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 predicability 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.

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    { 42 comments… read them below or add one }

    Leonard Rattini February 13, 2013 at 6:23 am

    If you’ve come this far, why take the chance of doing it yourself. I hired Cathi Stevenson (http://www.BookCoverExpress.com) to do my book cover design and Gwen Gades to do my interior book layout design (gwen@beapurplepenguin.com). Both women know all the ins and outs of producing files needed for both print and e-books. They each give 100% effort to get your book professionally presented to your readers. Even after they were both paid and completed their work, they each did a follow-up contact as to any further help needed. For me, that means they both cared and that I was completely satisfied. You can’t put a price on that.

    Reply

    Christopher Hudson November 21, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Good stuff … a little late for me, but still good. My first book was professionally published and I followed the formatting as best I could for the second, but an amateur can only do so much. All I can say is that it is brutal out there and I suppose an author needs to employ every trick in the … heh, heh … book. The big boys do it so well that they don’t even have to worry about content.

    Reply

    Hughes. November 21, 2011 at 11:23 am

    Here was I thinking “hyphenation? really? none of my favourite books seem to bother with it.” Then I actually checked those books.

    I thought splitting words would look untidy and unproffessional, but apparently it’s so effective that I’ve never even noticed it!

    It’s a shame OpenOffice seems to want to implement it so frequently (3 times on the very first page), and with similar frequency throughout.

    Reply

    Laura Orsini June 27, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    SL Clark –

    Any quality and respectable editor will give you a complimentary five-page sample read so that you can evaluate their work and see how it fits with your style. The first and most important thing any editor should do is make your writing sound like you, only better – they must preserve the writer’s voice.

    I always suggest sending either the first five pages of the draft to be edited OR the pages most representative of the work.

    If you visit my Web site (http://www.writemarketdesign.com), you can opt in to receive a free e-book called “The First-Time Author’s Guide to Hiring the Right Editor for YOU.” It’s full of tips for hiring a good editor, suggestions for who makes a good candidate to work with an editor, and other ideas about creating a good working relationship that will help you publish the most professional book you can.

    Best regards to you –

    Laura

    Reply

    SL Clark June 27, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Exactly my point Laura. Thank you. I can find a cover designer in a few days or so to get a decent fit. Comparing editors is a challenge and takes considerably more time. Which sells more books; cover, story or editing? -Steve

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 27, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    Thanks, Tania, great to see you.

    Tahlia, yes editing has been a frequent subject here. In fact, I recommend to self-publishers to budget for editing first and foremost, so thanks for the contribution.

    Reply

    SL Clark June 27, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    One of the biggest challenges to me is finding an affordable quality editor. It is easy to “see” what a cover designer does, but the same isn’t true for editing.

    The before and after can be subtle, even dramatic; the end result invisible to the viewer. I am finding it a challenge evaluating such qualifications – and almost impossible to do using the web. Given 20 cover designer websites, it is often simple to find the style I’m looking for. Editing ??? -Steve

    Reply

    Tahlia Newland June 26, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    Worse than this, for me, is a book that is poorly edited. Luckily you can usually tell in the first 10 – 50 pages, but you hope that you haven’t bought it before you discover that. I wish the message would get out there to those who think they can just write and publish a book that they need to get it professionally edited before publishing or it will do them and the industry as a whole a diservice. I’m not an editor so this isn’t a plug. I’m just a reader/author who wants to read professionally finished books. I think that the cost of employing a professional editor is worth it for a new author self publishing.

    http://tahlianewland.com/2011/04/02/indie-authors-please-pause-before-you-publish-for-all-our-sakes/

    Reply

    Tania McCartney June 26, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    Brilliant article, as always, Joel. Great to see you are still adding invaluably to the publication of great books. :)

    Reply

    Roger C. Parker June 10, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Dear Joel:
    Another home run–even if everyone doesn’t applaud. What you said has to be said.

    More important, what’s fascinating about your list of self-published giveaways is that most of the problem areas are so easily avoided or fixed.

    Good design is a matter of intention, of respect for the value of your words. Good-looking books can be formatted in Microsoft Word by using the right templates and text styles (and more than a little patience). Stepping up to Microsoft Publisher helps you achieve even better results.

    For those who want a free guide to print design basics, I offer a free 17-page PDF of reader-friendly design tips, White Paper Design that Sells, which is available for free, no registration.

    The report was based on Microsoft’s extensive research into print and online readability.

    You can download, read, share, or print White Paper Design that Sells at http://tinyurl.com/WhitePaperDesign (no registration needed).
    Although it focuses on designing reader-friendly online list-building incentives, most of the ideas included can be applied to books and ebooks.

    Congrat’s, once again, Joel, on identifying and engaging readers on an obviously hot-button topic.
    Roger

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 10, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Thanks for your openhearted generosity, Roger. Readers have so much to gain from your many years of experience at communication design. I’m going to go grab that report right now.

    Reply

    Don Horne June 10, 2011 at 10:37 am

    I was so very proud of that first book. I let a pro editor read it. Big mistake…or maybe not. She almost patted me on the head and said,”You don’t have a clue what you are doing, do you?” Joel, thank you for your patience and your knowledge to help people like me. Every book is getting better thanks to you. I will be “preaching” from your book “A Self Publisher’s Companion” in my self publishing presentation coming up.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 10, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Thanks, Don, I really appreciate it. Hold it nice and high.

    Reply

    Laura Orsini June 10, 2011 at 5:53 am

    Joel –

    Thanks for such an eloquent description of what I ALWAYS try to share with my clients! You speak from a pro’s perspective – mostly with me, these things have simply been an innate aesthetic perception. Now I have actual words to use to describe them.

    I have a few clients who have used my preferred book designer or other pros – but far too many prefer the DIY approach, and it shows. Of course, as an editor, I’ve always got to add that aspect, too!

    I’ve added you to my blogroll.

    Best of luck!

    Laura/Marcie

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 10, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Thanks so much, Laura. I think people who read a lot probably also know these guidelines. If almost all the books you read conform to conventions, you unconsciously internalize the forms you become used to. I’m glad I could add some background to your innate aesthetics. And thanks for reading!

    Reply

    Judith Briles June 10, 2011 at 12:22 am

    Wow, this comes as a surprise to me. I’ve never realized that some of the books I loved and read qualified for amateur hour books. I’ve encountered some that are “guilty” of one or two “sins”. Thought those books are worth all high praises. Of course, I give much credit to very professionals books. It’s a good article to show to many authors to make good books.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 10, 2011 at 9:32 am

    Hi Judith, sorry to shock you. As I tried to point out in the article, none of these “errors” have anything to do with the content of the book, and there are examples of books that violate many of these guidelines that have gone on to be quite successful. I featured one of these books recently, “Mutant Message Down Under” which, although an atrocious example of bookmaking, was much loved by readers when it came out and went on to sell 340,000 copies in the self-published edition before being acquired by Harper Collins.

    Still, I think it’s worthwhile educating new publishers so they can make informed decisions of their own. Thanks for your comment.

    Reply

    SL Clark June 9, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Hi Joel, this is a GREAT article, with one nit to point out: “In fact, I bet it takes less.”
    For most self-published authors, MS Word is their tool of choice, making your nifty list a challenge.

    If someone is going to do a print version themselves, invest in Indesign or even *gasp* Quark and lynda.com classes to learn it. You’ll thank me after you use your perfected interior template on the Nth book in your series. ;-)

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    SL, thanks for that. I know authors who have struggled for weeks formatting a book in Word, which simply isn’t made for the job. And I’m a total Lynda fan, and have started to do my own screencasts. Thanks for stopping by.

    Reply

    Ryan Bradshaw June 10, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Joel & SL Clark –

    I’m thinking about taking the plunge and buying InDesign. I can get the program for $259 with a training DVD (with a college staff discount). I also checked out Lynda.com.

    Should I go for it?

    Reply

    SL Clark June 10, 2011 at 11:22 am

    The price seems okay, but in my opinion, that isn’t the question. Now that you’re “Thinking Like A Publisher”, how many books will you create with this expense and how long will it take to be proficient with this tool? Would you be better served by writing more content?

    If you are writing one novel a year, you’ll likely be MUCH better served with paying for page layout. If your goal is to create 5 novels, 50 short stories plus collections in that same year, then Indesign saves $$ and frustration.

    Whatever you do, don’t *ever* pay a percentage of your book’s future revenues for services rendered. Save up, then pay day labor for the things you require. Or if you are writing fast, bite the bullet and learn how to DIY… -Steve

    Reply

    Ryan Bradshaw June 10, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Steve –

    I can see myself writing 1-2 books per year with this software and I would consider myself to be more than less software savy. I would say it would take me a few months to be competent and then to keep growing from there. I enjoy learning new software though and would probably like this better than paying large sums of money to others each time I want to layout a book. This would be a deterant to me over time, whereas having the ability to DIY would be rewarding (and cheaper over time).

    Thoughts?

    Joel Friedlander June 10, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Ryan,

    If you like learning new things and you have an appreciation of type and typography, it might be a good long-term investment. Keep in mind there’s a lot more than software to learn, though. It can be frustrating to rely on others on a project, but there are many things like that. I usually advise authors to be very careful about taking on other tasks since most of the good results you’ll get over time are due to only 2 things: writing and marketing.

    Hope that helps

    Deb Dorchak June 9, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Yup, Palatino is my guilty pleasure too. As for “important book parts”, does that include the start of a chapter in any given section? I’ve seen some books, like Water for Elephants, that always start a chapter on the right. Then I have other books, Anne Bishop’s come to mind, where the chapters start on either side depending on where the last chapter ended. In my novel, I chose to go with the latter. Your thoughts?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Hey Deb. Starting chapters on recto or verso is an aesthetic decision. Keeping to all right-hand openers will generate blank pages, which some authors don’t like, but I don’t mind them. What I was referring to in the article was part openers or title pages on the left, not chapter openers. For novels, there are three choices: start all chapters on the right, start them on the next new page, left or right, or start them on the same page the previous chapter ends on. Pick the one that suits your book best.

    Reply

    Ralph Alcorn June 9, 2011 at 11:02 am

    A slightly irrelevant note. I just converted one of our books to the Kindle, and it was difficult to give up all the carefully thought out layout considerations. Just about all the rules above have to be thrown out, other than maybe Gratuitous formatting. It is still possible to make a book look quite bad.

    Reply

    Belinda Kroll, Quirky Historical Romance June 9, 2011 at 9:51 am

    I’ve never understood the deal with hyphenation, though. It’s the only one on this list that I’m “guilty” of, and that’s because I do it on purpose. I don’t do the right rag thing, I use left justified in my body text (I write fiction). Why is hyphenation necessary? I find it trips me up when I read.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2011 at 11:06 am

    That’s interesting, Belinda. Hyphenation is so common that I’m surprised it causes a problem for you. You cannot justify lines of text nearly as well without hyphenation, usually resulting in unattractive and disturbingly varied spaces between words. I find that more distracting than hyphenation. But one of the great things about typesetting your own books is that you get to do it the way you like. But do give it a try the other way, too.

    Reply

    Belinda Kroll, Quirky Historical Romance June 9, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    That is a perk of being the interior designer and the writer. I can add a word or take it out in order to make the formatting look proper. But with the next book I might as well hyphenate if people expect it. Glad I passed everything else, though!

    Reply

    Ralph Alcorn June 9, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Failed the test. Used Adobe Palatino for the body text.

    As the “technical consultant” of my wife’s two self-published non-fiction books, I read your list with trepidation, but found we passed all but the font test.

    What is the objection to Palatino?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2011 at 11:03 am

    It’s purely personal, Ralph. Palatino was so overused in the first 10 years of the desktop publishing revolution it became something to avoid. I’ve also been told that Hermann Zapf intended it originally as a display face, not a text face, but I don’t know that for a fact. There are so many lovely text typefaces that it’s pretty easy to find another one. But if you and your wife like it, please ignore me and go for it. You might want to have a look at the Palatino “superfamily” for the most modern rendering of this durable typeface.

    Reply

    Jenn Mattern June 9, 2011 at 7:57 am

    Looks like you’re popular this week. I also just received your book the other day and plan to give it a read next week. :)

    Great article. I hadn’t thought of a few of these issues (plan to let a professional editor, designer, and typesetter sort all of that stuff out for me).

    The issue of gratuitous formatting though I think is more niche-specific. It would be completely inappropriate in fiction for example, but it can be highly effective in some types of nonfiction books — how-tos, business books, and tech-related books for example. As a reader if I pick up an instructional business book and it doesn’t have a fair amount of this formatting to make the process easy to scan and digest, I generally put it down or find that it’s less effective than other books in the niche that do. If you have a nonfiction book where not everything applies to every reader, my opinion is that it should be more like a blog in that it’s well-indexed and easily scannable so they can find exactly what they want whenever they want it. Just my $.02.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Hey, Jenn, I guess I had to have my 15 minutes sometime.

    And while you are quite right that nonfiction and instructional books by their nature contain a lot more formatting, there is a balance between scanability and readability. If a book is intended for random access retrieval of specific information, lots of formatting can be a help. But if it’s designed for reading, the formatting can be an irritating distraction. So you have to judge this book by book. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, worth a lot more than $.02.

    Reply

    Jim Crigler June 9, 2011 at 6:49 am

    (Forgive me Joel, for I have sinned!) I admit I violated the first 2 items in my first self-published book: I used Times and I forgot to delete the running heads from chapter openings. The other items didn’t apply because it was just straight, narrative fiction.

    From the design point of view, is there any major difference between the 15th and 16th editions of the Chicago Manual of Style? Libraries are selling off their copies of the 15th edition for under $20 (with shipping).

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Jim, I don’t follow the CMS that closely and I suspect any changes between the two editions are minor enough that it wouldn’t make all that much difference. Any CMS is better than no CMS in my book.

    Reply

    Christopher Hudson June 9, 2011 at 6:47 am

    These are great tips, but I don’t think it’s ‘amateur-hour’ publishing that kills sales … it’s ‘amateur-hour’ marketing … of which I am a dues-paying member.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Christopher, I would have to agree with you, because I’ve seen some dreadful books that sold well. But if you’re starting from scratch, there’s no reason not to give yourself a leg up by putting out the best product you can. At least you won’t be able to blame your sales on the book!

    Reply

    Ryan Bradshaw June 9, 2011 at 6:05 am

    Joel –

    Great article. Your experience is showing. I’m guilty of a few of these items in my first book, but am learning from people like you how to improve my work in the current book. As a self-publisher, I am operating on a limited budget. A friend of mine recently self-published his second book and spent $3,000 for the interior and cover layout. I just don’t have that kind of cash, but I am learning and believe I can produce a higher quality product with each book I put out.

    I can see first-hand the struggles of a self-publisher. There are some great writers who have a gift for writing, but may be limited in graphic design, typesetting, marketing, and editing. I empathize with the plight of the community. However, I believe through dedicated practice, a desire to learn, and sheer determination, one can learn many of the needed skills to put together a great final product.

    As another writer said in another thread, it does take a village to put out a book and we should seek out others to help us along the way. Writing is more than an art, it’s a process.

    Thanks again, Joel!

    Ryan Bradshaw
    http://www.RYAN101.net

    PS: I bought your latest book (Companion) and will read it over the weekend.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2011 at 10:56 am

    Many thanks, Ryan. And I agree completely that self-publishers can put out good-looking books, but it takes a little education. If money is tight and you need to do the book yourself, at least try to find a cover designer who will do a cover within your budget. It makes a big difference.

    Reply

    Mark Evans June 9, 2011 at 2:06 am

    A nice and quick checklist of things to bear in mind. Good post.
    I just have one question though. If Times New Roman is the wrong font to use, what’s the right one?
    I know I must sound like a right newbie (well, I am), but all the books I read look like they use TNR–or something like it at least–and a quick search in Google seems to bring up similar suggestions.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Hey Mark, I know what you mean. Part of what’s happening is that many self-publishers are doing all these things I listed, and others are looking at their books as examples of what to do. So it compounds. Check out this article:

    5 Favorite Fonts for Interior Book Design

    Reply

    mnm@ablecomm.com June 9, 2011 at 1:57 am

    Sadly, many DIY publishers simply don’t think the appearance of their books is important. Sadly, many who need your advice won’t see it, or don’t think it applies to them.

    I recently criticized a newbie because of bad page formatting.

    He replied: “The ideas are the main focus of the book, not the spacing, hyphens (or lack thereof) . . . . I would have hired a designer, but for someone on a budget and who has no experience I don’t think it turned out too bad.”

    I responded: “I would never say that page formatting should be the main focus of a book — but it should be an important focus. . . . A page with bad word spacing is ugly and uninviting. A do-it-yourself publisher has to compete against the professionals, and has to overcome prejudices against self-publishing. . . . Readers, reviewers and booksellers pay attention to the way a book is constructed, not just to the ideas.”

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    http://www.Self-Pub.info
    http://www.GoodBadAndUglyBooks.com (reviews of books for writers)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

    Reply

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