There's Something Odd About Self-Publishing Books

POSTED ON Oct 12, 2011

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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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 I unpublished the article, one of only 2 I’ve ever taken down, and stopped reviewing the design of the books I was covering.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

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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