Avoid the 3 “Tell-Tale” Signs of Self-Published Books

You’ve self-published a book, and it’s amazing that you’ve dedicated so much time and energy into writing and creating you own masterpiece. While there’s nothing wrong with self publishing, and it’s actually a great opportunity for many authors, you don’t necessarily want your book to “look self published”. That could mean inability of your audience to take your book seriously, receiving horrible reviews, suffering from poor sales performance, or worse.

Here are a few of the 3 “deadly sins” not to commit when publishing your book:

  • Use of cover templates – Templates are often rather dull, at best. Invest your money into really making your cover stand out.
  • Unedited manuscript – Run on sentences, sentence fragments, etc. are all things that can leave a bad taste in the mouth of a reader. We always recommend that you hire a professional editor for your manuscript. No, your sister-in-law doesn’t count as a professional editor. You need more than a fresh set of eyes when it comes to choosing an editor. You need someone who is professionally trained in editing.
  • Non-traditional interior
    • Double-Spaced – A book should NEVER be double spaced. Just because something works great for reports and other forms of communication doesn’t mean it will work the same for a printed book.
    • Strange and/or difficult to read typestyles – You like typing in Script MT Bold. It looks beautiful on screen, but will not look as good in a printed book.
    • Missing headers/footers – Have you ever read a book (other than a children’s book) without a header or footer? Why leave them out on your book?
    • Non-standard page numbering – Make sure your page numbers are in the same position on each opposite page. Also make sure font is consistent across all numbering.
When you hire a self-publishing company, all of these things can be taken care of under one umbrella. However, if you are “going it alone”, it’s important to remember the tips above to make sure you avoid showcasing an unprofessional appearance.
What other “self publishing” don’ts have you seen?

Wendy Stetina is a sales and marketing professional with over 30 years experience in the printing and publishing industry. Wendy works as the Director of Author Services for Outskirts Press. The Author Services Department is composed of knowledgeable customer service reps and publishing consultants; and together, they all focus on educating authors on the self-publishing process in order to help them publish the book of their dreams. Whether you are a professional looking to take your career to the next level with platform-driven non-fiction, or a novelist seeking fame, fortune, and/or personal fulfillment, Wendy Stetina can put you on the right path.

17 thoughts on “Avoid the 3 “Tell-Tale” Signs of Self-Published Books

  1. “Run on sentences, sentence fragments, etc.…”

    Part of the BIG problem with the people who do those things, and then publish, is that they don’t recognize them as mistakes. They truly think that their manuscript is fine, or (and this kills me) “good enough,” as though *what* they have written is SO good that readers will not care about *how* it’s written. If it’s imperfect, well, that’s o.k. People will still read it, right? And you know what? SOMETIMES THEY’RE RIGHT! I have read reviews—and not just a couple, like from friends and cousins, but we’re talking sometimes a couple of hundred—I have read reviews of books that extolled at length about the plot and the characters and everything, and so I have tried a sample or even bought the whole e-book, and then couldn’t finish it because it was SO BAD! Then I wondered: what book did I get and what different book were all those glowing reviews about?

    The one good thing about all of this is that it gives me undying hope that ANYthing that I eventually publish has a chance of being at least a modest success with a little marketing.

    1. Hi, Peter:

      Thanks for your comment!

      Those are all good points. I’ve spoken with many authors who don’t understand the true importance of having a professional look over their book. There are a handful who never see any downside to not consulting with an editor before publishing (or they just don’t want to admit their mistakes). However, many of those authors who didn’t initially see the value usually end up editing their books later on because they’ve received some sort of negative feedback.

      I’m glad that you are confident in your work, and I definitely suggest working with an editor.

  2. Re “unedited manuscript,” please note that you are referring to a copyeditor here. And that’s very important. But before you get to the copyedit stage, the book should go through a substantive edit (sometimes called a macro edit or a developmental edit), also with a professional editor. This is when you discuss plot, structure, characterization…and what specific issues your book has in those areas and others (continuity, motivation, POV, and on and on and on). Every book published by traditional publishers goes through this phase (and the publishers pay for it), but much of what is being self-published right now has not been edited and it shows, sadly. Authors don’t want to pay for this step, but if they are going to function as their own publisher, they should.

    1. Hi, Jamie:

      That is excellent advice. Making sure your book is grammatically sound is one thing, but making sure that the story makes sense is another. I hope many self-publishing authors consider your advice before they even begin the publishing process.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Good proofing and production is invisible. You don’t notice it’s there, but when something’s off it makes a book look amateur. It’s more than just grammar and spelling, of course – as you say there are many formatting issues too. To your list I’d add em dashes, quotes (straight instead of curly) and orphans (lone words at the top of a column). Also, cross-headings at the bottom of a page. The list is endless and it takes several years of training to develop an eye for what looks right and what doesn’t. You’ve listed some good pointers here (although I’d dispute that all books need headers and footers – fiction doesn’t, for instance).

    1. Hey there, I agree with all of your comments, and you make a good point about using headers in fiction. Personally, I prefer books with headers/footers, though it’s not a deal breaker for me. My primary genre of interest is also non-fiction books written on business topics, so that may be why. Many people don’t notice those subtle differences that you pointed out, so that’s definitely good information to keep in the memory banks.

  4. I remember about a half of century ago, when I was going to school, a novel, after it was rejected by 50 or more publishers, was finally published and was so popular it was made into a movie. Now you are telling me that the publishers etc know so much more today that they can tell what the public will or will not buy.
    Your advice and opinions are really great and at the same time laughable. The problem is, as I see it, which one is great and which one is laughable.
    As you know Kindle has a Text-to-Speech feature which reads aloud the text. If one would use a text to speech program on their manuscript do you think it would find grammar errors in their manuscript? What is your opinion?

    1. Hi, Gold:

      That’s not to say that the public won’t buy books that don’t meet certain “criteria”, but making sure that your book follows certain protocol can increase your level of success. For example, you can sell books without marketing — authors do it everyday, but can you imagine what your sales would be like had you marketed the book appropriately?

      For the text-to-speech program, I don’t think that it will find errors, but a computer will read the words just as written — pausing where appropriate and using punctuation. Overall, I think it’s always better to enlist the services of a professional editor.

  5. The big thing with covers for ebooks versus traditional publishing is making them stand-out in thumbnail. Many traditional publishers use template type covers and we see the same images used over and over again.

    Cover is one of your most valuable marketing tools. Name and title need to be readable and whatever the image is needs to stand out in when you shrink the the image down to 1.5 inches x 1 inch (or there about).

    1. Hi, Jen:

      That’s exactly right. Those cover templates, while cost-effective, ultimately end up hurting the author in the long run…

  6. Hi Elise. I agree with most of what you have said and I have tried to avoid these errors myself. I did have an editor for The Prairie Companions and it was useful, however it was also expensive and that is a factor one must take into account.
    I have been given numbers for fees that I simply could not pay. I have ten novels being edited now and all are due out as eBooks. The issues of cover design, copyright on images and copy editing are taking up huge amounts of time, but always I have to operate within severe cost restraints.
    Not ideal I know but I must choose: Do the very best I can alone and learn from people like you or go back to the gatekeepers and the slush pile.
    Regards David Rory O’Neill

    1. Hi, David:

      You’re absolutely right. The cost of professional copyediting can definitely get expensive — especially if you have a longer manuscript. Unfortunately, that’s one of the necessary evils. Nothing says unprofessional like misspellings, bad grammar, poor word choice, etc.

      If you don’t mind me asking, where are you looking for your editing services and what are they quoting you? Maybe I can make some other recommendations…

  7. Your list is excellent, and I would add a couple:
    1. Book is bound with paper’s grain running the wrong direction, producing a book that snaps shut and won’t open properly.
    2. Paper color is too white.
    3. Cover stock is too heavy… looks like it was printed at a local copy shop.
    4. Paper stock is too heavy.

    The overall look seems odd. I’m having a tough time finding book manufacturers who produce a professional looking product.

  8. I couldn’t agree more with Peter Hart. As an editor, I see books all the time that need serious editing. But the authors simply don’t know the book isn’t perfect when it comes off their printer.

    Re: formatting – Self-publishing authors should not leave a space between paragraphs. Just check any traditionally published book and you’ll see the paragraphs follow one another with only an indent at the beginning to signal that it’s a new paragraph.

    Very useful post.

  9. Hi all, I’m back here after a delay. Much has changed since I gave the opinion above. I now have and editor and all my original work was withdrawn, re-edited and re-issued as both e-books and as trade paperbacks with Createspace. The improvements have been huge and I see very clearly how valuable my investment in editorial oversight has been. I am now one who says: “Get professional editing or don’t publish.”
    I use a template from Lulu.com for my 6X9 paperback on Word for my novels. (I do not use cover templates but design my covers using Quark express and Photoshop.) The books have different spacing than I used before and it’s not as tightly spaced as in many standard paperbacks – but it is easy to read, consistent and looks great to my eye.

    I started my own indi publishing company and no longer use a subsidy publisher to produce the work. It’s been a steep learning curve but the results are a vast improvement on my first efforts. I feel I can hold my head up and say with pride – yes “I’m indi and am proud of it.”
    I see no need to hide that or try to make my work a clone of mass-market work. The novels have been well reviewed and I am building readership slowly. I am waiting until I get everything in place, including professional video for Amazon and You-Tube before I launch a major push.
    We should learn from our mistakes quickly and before too much damage is done. Seek out good editing and proofing. If the result is worthy work, then I see no need to hide the fact of being indi. No need to pretend to be mainstream.
    We should be proud of what we can do as indi publishers and stop being apologetic and comparing ourselves unfavorably with the mainstream.
    The world of literature is richer for being more inclusive and democratic than ever before – even though we must suffer the poorly produced pool of dross we must struggle to rise above. The same has been true on a different scale of all publishing; there has always been dross.
    Regards, DavidRory.

  10. I found the advice very useful. The fact is that all authors have to start somewhere and as with most things in life, its trial and error or you end up just being a dreamer. There is a quagmire of advice on the net on the dos and donts of good writing with conflicting views on fonts, spacing etc.and you just have to go and read a couple of popular books to see the differences. As an example one can look at the views on starting chapters with a certain amount of spacing. Some authors do this and others start at the top of the page.When it comes to spelling there are differences between UK and US English for instance. I am from South Africa where a number of words are spelt differently-we use an ‘s’ instead of a ‘z’ in words such as emphasise. What are the acceptable norms in these circumstances or is it just a question of style? Does it make a difference to the readers?

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