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Publetariat Dispatch: There’s Something Odd About Self-Publishing Books

Publetariat: For People Who Publish!

In today’s Publetariat Dispatch, book designer Joel Friedlander discusses design weaknesses he’s found in books about self-publishing.

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 I  unpublished the article, one of only 2 I’ve ever taken down, and stopped  reviewing the design of the books I was covering.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


This is a reprint from Joel Friedlander‘s The Book Designer.

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