There's Something Odd About Self-Publishing Books

by | Oct 12, 2011

Here’s something that’s mystified me for a long time:

Most books about self-publishing look a lot worse than they ought to.

I’ve often said that it doesn’t cost any more to produce a good-looking book than it does to produce a bad-looking one, but people aren’t listening.

When I first started blogging a couple of years ago I thought one good service for readers would be to review books about self-publishing.

Like lots of things, I set out with good intentions, and had barely gotten started before I tripped up on those same intentions, and had to abandon the effort.

The first book I reviewed was such a shambles from a book design point of view, I couldn’t hold back from criticizing the author/publisher.

Afterwards, I felt stupid. What was the point of the criticism? I unpublished the article, one of only 2 I’ve ever taken down, and stopped reviewing the design of the books I was covering.

Lately though, with the onrush of more and more self-publishers, the flood of books about self-publishing has also reached a flood.

Michael N. Marcus Weighs In

A frequent commenter here on the blog, Michael N. Marcus has his own selection of bad books, although his aren’t just about self-publishing. He recently published a book of these under the title Stinkers! America’s Worst Self-Published Books. And boy, he’s found some doozies.

self-publishingThe book is basically posts from Marcus’ BookMaking blog, where he often skewers self-publishers and self-publishing companies for their bad practices, oversights and other errors and omissions. He’s added a number of sections in a Appendix including a glossary and various tips for new self-publishers.

Here’s the kicker: six of the nine books profiled in “Stinkers!” are about self-publishing. Isn’t that sad? And Marcus, who has tried to improve the look of his books, delivers this news in a book that is competent but very obviously the work of an amateur, if an enthusiastic one. Although he is strict about correcting errors in his text, graphically “Stinkers!” is nothing to write home about.

Like a lot of self-publishers, having control of lots of neat things like tinted boxes, type run-arounds, drop caps and automatic bullets apparently makes people think you need to use them all. On almost every page.

Perhaps they think that an unadorned page of type would, by itself, be so boring no one would read the book.

But it seems to me that all the books I remember most brilliantly, the ones I can never forget, are made up of unadorned pages of type. That’s because it’s the words and the story and the ideas that remain, when they are allowed to, not the fancy rules and type ornaments and drop shadows. That stuff just gets in the way.

Cluttering your book pages with stuff is pretty much the opposite of my idea of book design. I think self-publishers would do themselves a favor by creating very simple pages instead of fancy ones. Their readers will thank them.

Not Alone, No Sir

Books sold for the value of the information in them have often looked like they just came off a typewriter or were dashed off in Microsoft Word without any formatting at all.

The best of these books are clean and competent, done by a professional, although typographically uninteresting and generally uninspired. They deliver the information, and that’s about it. The only good looking self-publishing book I’ve seen recently is The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing by Sue Collier and Marilyn Ross, and that’s because it was not self-published, but issued by Writer’s Digest Books.

Left With a Question

So I suppose it’s the rule that books about self-publishing that are self-published themselves look bad because the authors are attempting to follow the DIY (do-it-yourself) route to show just how easy it is to publish a book.

And maybe that’s the problem: it’s dead easy to publish a book, it’s just a bit harder to publish one that looks decent, or one that looks just as good as a book from a traditional publisher.

But does that mean all these books have to use bad clip art, pedestrian typefaces, awkward layouts, three or four fonts per page, and covers that look like they came straight out of the template cover generator?

When I look at a book cover with 6 lines of type on it, and every line is a different font or weight, with type that’s been digitally distorted, with big chunky drop shadows, I have to take a few deep breaths.

And that leaves me with a question: Why are the self-published authors of books about self-publishing so unconcerned with how their books look? Why are they convinced they don’t need a book designer? Why don’t they want to create a book that looks great?

Photo by SubZeroConsciousness

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Dave D

    This reminds me of when I was setting out to learn HTML well enough to make a decent (but unfortunately VERY plain by today’s standards) website.

    This was back when Usenet newsgroups were the go-to resource for discussing various topics instead the web-based forums we have today.

    One of the regulars in one particular HTML-related newsgroup had coined a law stating that any site that purports to teach proper HTML is bound to have errors in its own markup.

    So, no matter what the task at hand is, there are always going to be some DIYers that have the skills of a pro, and then there are those whose catchphrase will be along the lines of, “There, I fixed it!”.

  2. A Critic

    “Why are the self-published authors of books about self-publishing so unconcerned with how their books look?”

    For the same reason vanity publishers don’t care if a book sells. These people are making an easy buck off of suckers, i.e. people who do NaNoWriMo and think they have a bestseller on their hands.

    I haven’t yet finished writing my first novel, and I’ve never published anything in any way, but if I wanted to make a quick buck…I’d type up a vapid rehash of this and a few other blogs to make a superficial introduction to self-publishing, add some crappy graphics and typography, and put it up on Amazon. Then do a diet book and so on and so forth…

  3. Michele DeFilippo

    I agree with you, Joel, that there’s no excuse for the poor quality books from those who purport to teach self-publishing. Astonishingly, some of these books are from very well known self-publishing gurus. I have several on my shelf that were clearly formatted in Word and that contain a typo on every other page!

    I don’t know what the answer is, except to continue to explain what book designers do, as everyone here has done, and trust that the message will be heard by those ready to receive it. There’s nothing we can do about the other folks, in the end.

    I find it particularly distressing that the very companies who should have a stake in good books, like Amazon, are promoting the do-it-yourself approach.

    Michele DeFilippo, owner
    1106 Design
    Book design and self-publishing advice. With hand-holding.

  4. paula hendricks

    OK, another post – don’t usually do this but realize my response wasn’t complete and martin’s post jiggled something in my head.

    for me what typesetters and book designers do (inside the book, not the cover) is communicate information to the reader in the easiest clearest possible way. for me it’s not about decoration or to use martin’s words “how prettily the pages look”… i am not very interested in pretty for pretty’s sake, but i am interested in readability and that communication does occur. in my friend’s book, the lack of design and the heavy handed typography got in the way of my pleasure at reading her poems and may even have hindered understanding. a word document would have been preferable.

    sometimes it’s funny to think that if i do my job well, few will notice. but it will have served the book, the author, and the reader very well. microsoft and the new york times have spent millions on how to make the online reading experience more pleasurable (there are studies that show a significant difference in time spent on printed newspapers and magazines vs time spent reading online)…

    ok, just my 2 cents. and thanks martin for jogging my tired brain.


  5. Martin Baldridge

    A superb blog. It’s 100% the content that gets you to the end of the book – not how prettily the pages look.
    Self-publishing is hard enough without having to decorate each page. I’m lucky that most of my readers have made it to the end of my 1 book – but it’s written in a way that they should do.
    My concern about self-published book’s is how cheap they are – maybe I’m naieve but surely book’s are worth more than $0.99!
    Great post though and keep them coming.

  6. Janet of IndieGo ePublishing

    Well said, Joel…I am naturally a full supporter and believer in self-pub/independent publishing, but I am fast running out of patience with the multitudes of authors out there so excited about the ease of self publishing that they’re convinced they can do it all just fine themselves and don’t need to pay professional editors, formatters, and book designers (internal and external design) to perfect their work.

    They hear so many authors on forums saying, “You don’t need to pay anyone else to do all that for you. Just do it yourself — it’s easy!” And it stokes their already well-entrenched belief that their writing is akin to holy writ handed down from on high; or, they feel that their book is their ‘baby’ that they dare not let anyone else ‘ruin’, and so, armed with self-importance and a smattering of knowledge (and not much else), off they go to Smashwords to publish their book as a bequeathment to a world hungry and waiting for it (they’re certain).

    This is why we see such a glut of shoddy work flooding the market today; self-publishers are too stingy to pay professionals to help them produce quality work. This is why I am constantly brainstorming how to form a new kind of gatekeeping in the publishing industry — one that winnows out the garbage and brings to the fore the quality self-pubbed/indie-pubbed books.

  7. paula

    the other thing that’s sad about this… a friend published a book of poetry at iuniverse (yeah yeah) but they had been pleased with her husband’s novel and they “got a good deal”… the book is readable but everything was off. too many big bold typefaces. in many places the publisher (iuniverse) was the largest block of text on the page. there was no balance, no elegance. i could wade through it, but i don’t want to notice the typography. i want it to disappear.

    as always joel, good one.


  8. Joel Friedlander

    I’d also like to point out that I’m speaking in this article only about books on the subject of self-publishing.

    If you want to write and publish a book on how to write and publish a book, you are setting yourself up as an expert of a kind. You are giving advice, and there’s no way you can divorce your own book from what you are attempting to teach.

    Those are the books that ought to look a lot better, in my opinion. And the fact is, they usually look pedestrian or worse.

    I have a lot more compassion for authors than some commenters, I know how hard it is to come at this publishing with no expertise whatsoever, and still have the drive to get your book out into the world. So I cut the casual self-publishers a lot of slack. It’s the ones giving advice that this article is aimed at.

  9. Milt Simpson


    A truer statement has never been made. Thanks Joel.

  10. Leah Raeder

    Respectfully, David B., good design is not a matter of taste. Something is either well-designed or not. Martha Stewart’s interior decorating style may not be to your personal taste, but few would argue that her design sense is bad.

    On the contrary, book covers like Joel describes ARE bad design. Six different fronts, cheesy text effects, clashing colors–these are bad design choices, not matters of taste.

    Most people–people who don’t have any design training–have difficulty distinguishing between good and bad design. They tend to “know it when they see it.” A trained, experienced designer knows color theory, composition, typography, etc. Design is both an art and a science. Google “elements of design” and you’ll find just how much technical knowledge goes into it.

    Don’t make the mistake of devaluing design by writing it off as a matter of taste. Just as you can admire the technique of a master painter without actually liking the work, so too can you separate design into good and bad technique without getting into matters of taste.

    • James

      Most people–people who don’t have any design training–have difficulty distinguishing between good and bad design.

      I strongly disagree with that. It’s a common fallacy that only people with “training” have the ability to recognize “good” design. This was one of Steve Jobs’ main points, in fact–that good human design is instantly recognizable, or else it’s not good design. It fails.

      An “untrained” designer might not have the vocabulary to describe why they think the design’s good, and they might not even consciously be thinking “this design is good”, but that doesn’t matter.

      Is there an objective way to define a “well-designed” book? No. But we can draw some fuzzy boundaries, make some statements, eliminate some things that are known to break the clearer guidelines we know of. In other words, we can constrain the playing field, but we can’t define the rules. And even if we could, somebody would break them tomorrow, thank god.

      • David Bergsland

        Excellent points, James! I don’t devalue design by writing it off as a matter of taste. I am simply dealing with reality. Good design cannot be legislated any more than morality. Taste and style can be learned and they have little to do with good design. In my formative typographic years, huge x-heights and very tight letterspacing were the style. Were they carried too far? Of course, but value of using relatively large x-heights and careful yet close letterspacing to produce comfortably readable type is still true.

        Minimalist design has many virtues, but its flaws include boredom, lack of emphasis, and a refusal to deal with the need to help direct the readers’ eyes through the content. To quote an old pastor friend of mine, “You need to chew up the meat and spit out the bones.”

        The reasons why some Victorian designs, even with the often excessive ornamentation, are still comfortable and pleasant to read need to be addressed. For every book designer (whether trained or not, experienced or not, gifted or not), a personal style that works is required. This can fit within a huge variety of possibilities. The judge is the reader.

        Many designs I consider appalling are very effective in communicating content to the reader.

        • James

          Taste and style can be learned and they have little to do with good design.

          I disagree with that, too. Taste has *everything* to do with good design, because it’s one of the guiding principles of it. Taste is a lot more than “preferences”.

          Not to overuse Steve Jobs as an example, but there’s a famous video online where he criticizes Microsoft for having “no taste”. He’s not being simplistic or talking about fads–he’s saying that culture (taste) is an important part of design.

          Really, this is an old discussion with no succinct answer. Everything matters in good design, but the human that’s experiencing the design matters most–not the designer or the language or the medium.

        • Joel Friedlander

          I agree that it’s a matter of personal taste just how “minimalist” you like your book design. My suggestion in the article was aimed squarely at authors who just keep throwing stuff at their pages, “tarting them up” so they look interesting or different or unique on screen, unaware that they’ve created a nightmare for their own readers. My opinion is that a spare, lean page of type would be far preferable. It’s a suggestion solely for people who are confused about what their book should look like: take it from me, you’ll do better if you keep it simple.

          • David Bergsland

            I agree with this entirely.

  11. Tanya

    People underestimate the importance of good design. Good design, like good manners, is supposed to make life easier and more pleasant. A well-designed book lets you focus on the content; throwing in all kind of “tricks” (shadow boxes, multiple type faces, etc.) simply distracts the reader from what you’re trying to tell them. I think people don’t understand that good design can help readers engage better in the material; bad design can drive them away.

  12. Arlene Miller

    Whew! I am now prouder and more glad than ever that Mr. Marcus gave a really good review to my book (The Best Little Grammar Book Ever!)

  13. Wayne Groner

    I think too many self-published authors are more interested in declaring themselves to be authors than in caring how their published works look. When asked at gatherings, “What do you do?” it’s ego-boosting to say, “I’m an author,” as though being an author is a magnet for attention. As well, some self-published authors simply are not paying attention to well-made books that have attractive covers and interior designs. The advice to children when crossing a street applies to book design: stop, look, listen.

    • James

      I’d gathered my thoughts, then read Wayne’s comment–so I’ll just second his. Self publishing is a big basket that includes professionals and amateurs, so quality’s going to vary widely. It’s the key gap flaw in the self publishing ethos–that many writers forget (or don’t know) that “publishing” involves much more than ” writing”. I’ve heard numerous writers say “I’m going to self publish”, but what they meant is “I’m going to send my document to Amazon”.

      In the end, much of current self-publishing is just cheaper vanity publishing–done for personal gratification. That’s fine, but some of those are expecting the books to then. sell like hotcakes. Whoops.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Yes, sometimes I think I’ve said this so often people will run screaming if I say it again, but then I go to an event like the Book’toberfest I wrote about the other day, and the book buyers for indie bookstores are telling all the aspiring self-publishers in the room that the number one thing they want to see—besides a good book—is one that looks like it came from a traditional publisher. So I guess we have to keep saying it.

  14. David Bergsland

    There’s several things going on here, I believe.

    First of all, book design is a matter of personal taste. I personally do not like minimalist books. I think that the design of Bringhurst’s “The Elements of Typographic Style” is so dry that it is tasteless and so austere that readability is compromised (though most consider it one of the minimalist standards to be followed). Robert’s content drags that book, dead and lifeless, into my mind in spite of its supposed book design merits, even though it is the premier book about typography and book design. I would imagine minimalists find my books as bad on the other side as I find theirs.

    Second, book design takes a lot of work and experience. It has taken me forty years of design experience, coupled with sixty years of intensive reading experience, to develop my sense of book design. Thankfully, I’m now in a position where I do not have to sell the designs—except to the readers (who usually love them because they are so readable).

    Third, the key is excellent typography and typography has nothing to do with the more common definitions. I define typography this way:
    “Typography is the art of communicating clearly and easily with type”
    Everything in book design is subservient to the practicalities of readability and clear communication. Because so few books on typography even talk about these things, most typographers only learn them experientially in the process of trying to figure out why their designs do not seem to be producing the results they seek.

    So, why are books on self-publishing commonly so bad? IMHO, they are usually written by sales people, marketers, and speakers who have no concept of typography and no experience in book design. This is commonly coupled with a refusal to accept the typographic wisdom of any designer they hire to help.

    On the other hand, when I was writing my first books (for traditional publishers who sought me out), the only real disaster (as far as my students/readers were concerned) was the one book designed by the largest, most sought after, publisher. They actually produced a book about learning the latest version of InDesign in Ventura Publisher. I couldn’t even use it to teach my own classes. For a while I tried using it as a bad example, but that was so confusing to my students that I finally just went to books by other authors and delivered my content with self-published booklet handouts and downloadable PDFs. Many of the worst books I have seen, typographically speaking, have been published by traditional publishers.
    I can’t tell you how many books I read that simply cry out for a little ornament, a small illustration, a stylish bulleted list, and reading tools like that. And finally, I love discretionary ligatures even though my copyeditors and clients always reject them (because they are so far outside the box).

    ***trying not to stumble as I crawl down off the rickety soap box***

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey, keep that soap box handy, I may need it again later. And I do think that you are right about most of these books being published by people who don’t know about design, typography or book construction. It’s common for self-publishers to have another job or career, and they may well be experts in their field. There’s no reason why they should know or appreciate typography. I have more to say about this farther down the comment stream, but I appreciate your input, David.

  15. Mark Neumayer

    Joel, this boils down to the basic fact that not everyone cares about good design. I speak from experience, having been a graphic designer and art director for over 20 years. Everyone thinks they know what looks good because they know what they like.

    Part of the problem is that really good design, especially for book interiors, looks effortless. It fades into the background. People think they can do that themselves because it looks so simple and easy. They might have a niggling sense of unease, an unconscious realization that something is out of balance, but it is all too easy for that unease to be drowned out by the excitement of seeing their own work completed.

    I’d also like to point out that self-pubbers don’t have a monopoly on bad design. Check out blogs like for examples of drek from mainstream publishing companies.

    There are people who care and people who try to improve their work and do their best. Focus your attention and efforts on them and let the others do what they’d like. You get less grey hairs that way.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Mark, I came to the same conclusion some time ago: most people don’t know or care what book interiors look like, they just want to read the book. And I think your analysis is correct also, good book design does tend to “disappear” for the reader. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  16. carol brill

    Hi Joel, I can’t anser your question. I can tell you, I’ve learned more from reading your blogs about self-publishing, the resources and pit-falls than from most other sources combined. thanks for helping newbies like me to learn the ropes



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