Why Self-Published Books Look Self-Published

by | Aug 15, 2012

If you’ve looked at a lot of self-published books, you already know that authors sometimes go to press before they have really absorbed all the conventions of book making and the advice of publishing professionals.

In fact it surprises authors—who haven’t noticed the mistakes that creep into their books—that these same mistakes are quite obvious to people in the book business. Since they didn’t notice the errors, they’re surprised when other people point them out.

Judging Books Reveals Problems

Recently I had the opportunity to act as a judge for the annual BAIPA Book Awards.

Many of the books in the competition were produced by independent pressses who have professional book people on staff or hire them for specific projects and, of course, those books look just the way they are supposed to look.

There were also quite a few self-published books, and among those there was a lot of variation in how well they were put together.

One thing that distinguishes the BAIPA awards is that the participants receive the actual judging forms that we filled out, with all the comments included.

One of the authors whose book I judged wrote to me recently. She asked me to explain the remarks on her judging form.

I wondered whether she knew that I was the author of the comments, which were submitted without identification. I don’t know, but I’d bet that she made an educated guess before she wrote to me. Authors are a pretty clever bunch, aren’t they?

I told her I would be happy to explain, and that it would help more authors if she would allow me to do this on my blog. With her agreement, here is her query and my responses.

The Point of the Criticism

Here’s a section from the author’s note to me:

“The criticism I received for the layout of my novel … included the following:
‘No category or price, no Bookland/EAN barcode, although there is, oddly, a UPC on the book.’
I don’t know what these words mean. Also, objections were made to widows/orphans (which I had thought acceptable) and ‘no running heads, hyphenation is nonexistent, leading to the suspicion this book was produced on a word processor’ What is a running head? Do words have to be hyphenated at margins? What’s wrong with word processing production?”

That’s fair enough: if you don’t know the terminonlogy being used, you can’t be expected to understand the criticism, no matter how well-intentioned.

Let’s disassemble this inquiry and look at the parts:

  • No category or price.”
    It’s considered standard practice to print a category on the back cover of your book, and if you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. Book retailers, book buyers and bookstore staff need to know where your book belongs, and the more information you give them, the easier it will be for them to put it in the place where it’s most likely to be found by the right people. Putting a category on the book is the lowest level of metadata and should be done for all books. Likewise, a print book that a prospective buyer can pick up to examine ought to have a “human readable” retail price on it.
  • No Bookland/EAN barcode although there is, oddly a UPC on the book.”
    Throughout the book industry we identify books by their International Standard Book Number (ISBN) and this is the most basic identifier for the specific retail product. Since we live in an age of electronic scanners, the way the ISBN is usually displayed on the back cover of a book is with a scannable form: a barcode. And the standard format for book ISBNs is the Bookland/EAN barcode. It’s the one you usually see on books. This book did not have one but, instead had the UPC barcode that you typically find on clothing, food and other retail items.
  • Widows, orphans.”
    Widows and orphans are typographers terms for short bits of sentences that appear by themselves at the top of a page, or a single line that starts a paragraph that appears by itself at the bottom of a page. In some styles of book design these are left in the book, but in others we try to eliminate them. You can tell which style is being used, and in this book the widows and orphans were particularly bad-looking, and sometimes you would see just a word or two at the top of the page, which I think is unsightly.
  • No running heads.”
    This refers to the title, author’s name, chapter title or other information that appears at the top (usually) of standard text pages. Although there have always been books that didn’t use running heads (or running feet if they are at the bottom of the page), they are so common that we only notice them when they are missing. Running heads are a basic navigation tool supplied to readers so they can tell where they are in the book. Without them, your pages may look “undressed.
  • Hyphenation is nonexistent.”
    You can produce a book with hyphenation or without it. Since lines are justified by adding space between words, books that don’t use hyphenation have much worse inter-word spacing, usually leading to “rivers” of white space on the page. This is distracting to the reader and can make it more difficult to take in what the author is saying. In fact, it’s the ability to produce sophisticated hyphenation and justification that gives books produced with professional-grade tools by a competent designer the “look and feel” of real books.
  • “…leading to the suspicion this book was produced on a word processor.”
    Okay, well, I’m not going to pretend that no book should be produced with Word or another word processor, because plenty of them are being done that way. But in this competition we were asked to judge the books against a professional standard, and books created with word processors face serious handicaps in meeting that standard. Poor font handling, lack of hyphenation, crude justification are the results. Word processors that are designed for letters, memos, business reports and the like are simply not up to the task of creating beautiful and pro-level book typography.

Expectations and Goals in Self-Publishing

As I’ve often said, how you produce and market your books depends entirely on the goals you’ve set for the book. A large part of my Self-Publishing Roadmap training course is devoted to exploring how your production and publication strategies play out depending on the aims you have for your book.

For books you’re experimenting with, for early drafts, books for peer review, or for private circulation or as an expression of a hobby, a book like this one is perfectly fine.

But if you want more, if you expect buyers, reviewers, readers and awards judges to respond favorably to your book when comparing it to books that may have come from traditional publishers or from authors who have put together a team of professionals to create their books, it’s simply not good enough.

So what’s the message for authors? Be clear about what you expect, and create the book that will fulfill your goals. Both you and your readers will be happier for it.

Photo by spilltojill

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Kevin Bond

    Excellent. Just about to start a book and haven’t designed one for a while thought I’d check up on standards. I suppose some people DIY as it saves money. Indesign for books, well, everything :)

  2. Tal

    The “category or price” is just not true. I just checked, and out of all the big biz published books in my bookstand, maybe 1 out of 20 have anything other than a UPC and ISBN on the back. I do agree, though, that that information is useful.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Tal, maybe not a representative sample. I just did the same experiment, and found 14 of the 20 books I sampled had a category on the back, and virtually all the ones without a category were general fiction. All were from major publishers, who really want bookstores to accurately place their books on the right shelf.

  3. Doug S

    What is the difference between a Bookland/EAN barcode v. UPC barcode?
    I am considering a self-publisher who states in the package I am considering: A unique ISBN and UPC code are assigned to the book so booksellers can find and order your book.

  4. ann

    I realize this is old, but…

    What about Pressbooks? This seems like an awesome, easy solution for authors who don’t want the expensive programs like InDesign and their associated learning curve.

    I just found Pressbooks, and I am loving it :) Not sure how easy InDesign is to navigate, but I have a hard time believing it’s as easy as Pressbooks’ WordPress format.

  5. Choperro

    There are examples of books edited with Scribus easily found on the Internet.

  6. Mauricio Vargas

    How about using Latex? Springer and Wiley and Sons have latex templates for all of those who want to be published by them.
    Latex has hypenation, a lot of highly customizations, ligatures control and even you can use paid fonts which result in a document with printed cut lines ready for press

    • Will Gibson

      Mauricio, I was fortunate enough to have my son transfer my Word manuscript into a LaTeX document early on in my editing process. I found it to be a very beneficial, professional typesetting program that allowed me to easily edit, build a PDF, and then immediately accept or revert those changes. One needs to be able to write the code for interior formatting but the justification, kerning, and layout is amazing.

      • Mauricio Vargas

        I was asking because I’ve been using latex for my calculus lectures and course material. For mathematics it’s really simple and fast

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