7 Signs Your Book is “Professionally Published”

by | Nov 14, 2016

As the movement to self-publishing has grown, more authors are producing books that land on the bestseller lists, grab honors in book awards, and receive critical acclaim.

But to do that, publishing industry insiders urge authors to take the time and trouble to make sure their books are “professionally published.”

But what exactly does that mean? How does an author new to book publishing know whether the books they are creating really are professional grade?

To answer this question, I encourage you to take a trip through your own bookshelves, but with an analytical eye.

This makes sense for a few reasons.

  • most writers are avid readers, with a large collection of books
  • virtually all of these books were published by traditional publishers employing teams of book professionals
  • therefore, the best resource for “professional” books is your own bookshelf, where you’ve got a big supply of “professionally published” books

7 Signs of a Professionally Published Book

Think of all the book professionals you may encounter when you try to market your book: book reviewers, bookstore buyers, chain store buyers, book awards judges, book bloggers, bookers for radio and television shows, librarians, book wholesalers or distributors, the list goes on and on.

These are all people who handle books all day, and know exactly what they are looking at. If your book is not professionally published, what impression will it give?

Answer: that it’s an amateur production, and that won’t speak well about the care you’ve taken with your book.

Despite the amazing creativity at work in book publishing, professionally published books do have some characteristics in common.

Keep in mind that although this might seem like a list of rules that must be obeyed, they are really more conventions that readers may unconsciously expect when they pick up your book.

  1. Proper editing—Without a doubt, this is the first and best sign that a book has been published well. I picked up a book by a client this week, and knew within 30 seconds that the book had never been properly edited. I noticed a typo, then I noticed that the subheads were not consistent, then I noticed that there were stray characters in a chapter opening that didn’t belong there, then I stopped looking. These may sound like small errors, but they indicate that the author didn’t want to take the time or spend the money to have the book properly edited, and believe me, every book professional who looks at this book will come to the same conclusion.
  2. A cover that works—If your book is your product then your cover is its packaging. In retail sales, packaging is critical. A book cover that doesn’t let a browser know what kind of book it is doesn’t help you. Or a cover that’s confusing, illegible, boring, or inappropriate is likely to have a major impact on your sales. A professionally published book has a cover that suits its content, “brands” the book, entices readers, and is aimed squarely at the intended target market. Your spine should contain a publisher logo of some kind, a barcode with the price encoded in it, and a “human readable” price and category on the back cover.
  3. Text that’s readable—The interior of your book ought to follow standard industry conventions and be designed and laid out with consistency, adequate margins, in a size appropriate for the use to which your book will be put. A readable book also has user-friendly navigation, the pages are numbered in a standard scheme, and customary elements like a copyright page, title page, contents page, are included. The use of a standard font and black ink are also highly recommended.
  4. Market positioning—Your book shows some thought into the other books on the same subject and where it will fit within that specific market. Does it offer more, newer, or different information? Is it a story that readers of book “X” will love? Is it produced and priced to compete with other titles in its market? These are all questions a professional publisher—no matter their size—will answer before designing and producing their books.
  5. Distribution that’s appropriate—How we get our books to the readers who will buy them—distribution—is key for your book to reach its potential. Self-publishers rarely have very good choices at achieving wide distribution for their books, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to match the buying habits of our intended readers with the kind of distribution that will put your book in front of them. You might focus on a specific retailer, or look for a variety of wholesalers and distributors to give you greater coverage. Self-publishers looking for national exposure will need to find a distributor to represent them, and create a book that will allow them a profit even when deeply discounted for this type of distribution.
  6. A marketing plan—Book publishing is a business, and for that reason the books professionals publish need to make a profit, or to have a pretty good chance at success. Although all publishing projects involve some risk, asking the questions that need to be answered to create a marketing plan for your book helps to focus attention on how your book will match the needs of its intended audience, and how you are going to present it to that audience. A marketing plan also assures a profit-oriented publisher that the project can be a success.
  7. Metadata—Your book will need a proper ISBN to be sold in a retail environment, and not one you borrowed from a friend or got for free from a POD vendor. You’ll also need a category, rich descriptions of various lengths, and accurate descriptions of the books physical properties for print books. Metadata is the data “wrapper” your book travels within, and reliable and up to date metadata assures that your partners in the book distribution and retailing world will get all the information they need about your title as well as an indication of the markets for which it’s intended.

Does your book have to meet all these goals to be “professionally published”? I’m not here to make rules, but I think taking your responsibilities as a publisher seriously would mean we’d have more authors having successful book launches.

And that sounds like a good thing to me.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Yu Zhai

    I’ve learnt a lot from this… I used to think the self-publishing is some easy things but now I realize that it’s true that everything need to be studied carefully.

  2. Anja Skrba

    I like how you said that book publishing is a business, and for that reason the books professionals publish need to make a profit! So good marketing plan of your own or at least good choice of a marketer that will work on that plan for you is a must!

  3. K. R. Willis

    Hi Joel, I’ve done almost all of the things you placed in this list, but can you explain to me why purchasing my own ISBNs is better than accepting the free ones given when I self-publish? I’ve found so many contradicting things on the internet it’s hard to know which ones are right, and which ones are just personal preference. Thank you.

    • Sharon Goldinger

      K.R., the ISBN belongs to and identifies the publisher of the book. Unless publishing is a hobby, it’s best to buy your own ISBNs, so it identifies you as the publisher. This article should be helpful: https://www.thebookdesigner.com/2016/03/monday-mailbag/.

  4. David Bergsland

    Good list, for large niche books. But you forgot the most obvious. You need a print version.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good point David, although I might have thought that “Text that’s readable” would have given me away.

      • Iola

        I once had a compulsory university textbook that used a blue font. No, it was not readable and I didn’t read it. Ironic that it was a marketing course.

        • Joel Friedlander

          Iola, that was a really bad decision on the publisher’s part. Second only to “sepia” text!

  5. Michael W. Perry

    Great advice. I’d add a suggestion that’s implied by your remarks. To look professional, sell-publishing authors need to study and copy—yes unabashedly copy—the work of professionals.

    For the cover, visit an online retailer and search for the bestselling books in your genre or field. Ponder what you can learn from their covers, done by the best in the field. And never forget that your cover has to scale well. It has to look good on the book itself. It also needs to look good as a thumbnail at an online store. In general, that means you need to keep the design simple.

    For the interior, visit the largest bookstore in your community and look at books on themes similar to yours. Notice the ones that are attractive and figure out why. Notice too the ones that are ugly and understand the reason. Copy what is good and avoid what is bad.

    In short, keep in mind that the distinction between a world-class professional and a successful amateur lies mostly in assurance and speed. The pro can create a design quickly and unerringly. The amateur may have to try and try again. But by studying the pros and cultivating a critical eye, even an amateur can achieve impressive results.

    Do not be afraid to think out of the box. My latest is an example. It’s a first-of-its-kind book for hospital staff, describing how to ease the embarrassment concerns of patients and aptly named Embarrass Less. At first, I took my theme literally and tried to find a stock photo for the cover that echoed the books content. But every picture of hospital staff standing alongside a patient’s bedside look dull as dust. Then I had a bit of luck. Why not, I asked myself, make the cover theme the one group of patients who’re not embarassed. You can see the result here.


    And that brings up my last suggestion. Don’t wait until the book is done to fret over the title, the cover, and the interior layout. Good ideas take time to percolate out of our subconscious. Explore those ideas from the very beginning. When you first begin to write, also begin to ask yourself what would be a good title and cover design. Keep at that until you find one that leaves you content. There’s few frustrations as great as publishing a book you’ve labored hard over, only to realize too late that you hate its title.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

    • Joel Friedlander

      Some great advice, Michael, especially the part about starting as soon as you can. Because of the time it takes to complete some steps in the publishing process, there’s no reason you can’t be working on marketing, cover designs and interior layouts while your book is being edited.

  6. Ernie Zelinski

    Great article. All important points.

    Of course, to be really successful, one must have great content, better than at least 95 percent of the competition.

    I like what Mark Coker (owner of Smashwords) not so long ago said about being successful at the game of self-publishing:

    “Good isn’t good enough.”

    In other words, your book must be much, much better than “good.” It must be a “great” book, one that creates a lot of worth-of-mouth advertising for many years, even decades.

    In the same vein, your marketing must be better than good. Your marketing should be extremely creative, such that your competition is saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

    • Florence Osmund

      Great article, Joel. And I agree with you too, Ernie. The competition is so fierce that unless we’re significantly better than “good,” we won’t get very far when it comes to sales. In order to make a profit, we need to spend as much time creatively promoting and marketing our books as we did writing them.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Ernie, I think you’re right on the money. Of course many mediocre books are professionally published, but to achieve success, your book really does have to stand out in some way, just the way your retirement books do.



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