by Vinnie Kinsella, Publication Consultant, Indigo

Authors considering independent publishing will know what this sentence means: “I don’t want my book to look self-published.” This doesn’t have to be your book’s fate. By avoiding the two biggest reasons why a book’s design fails (self-published or otherwise), your book will not fall victim to the self-published look.

Reason Number One: The Interior Lacks Readability

Want to know if a book is self-published? Look at the hyphens along the right-hand margin. If you don’t see any, you’re likely holding a self-published book. This is because most self-publishing services plug the text into a quick-and-dirty template instead of handing it over to a trained typesetter. A typesetter would care about hyphenation because hyphens go a long way to increase readability.

There is a lot of text in a book. The less readable the text, the more likely it is that readers will experience eyestrain and abandon the book. To avoid this, a typesetter must consider several factors: font choice and size, leading (space between lines), kerning (space between letters and characters), hyphenation and justification (how lines are broken along the margin), line length, and the number of lines per page. If any of these factors aren’t considered, readability is compromised and readers suffer the ill effects (usually in the form of headaches).

Reason Number Two: The Cover Isn’t Marketable

A book’s cover is a marketing tool. It’s not intended to be a work of art (though some are worthy of being called such). Book buyers are drawn to covers with strong messages and repelled by covers with weak messages. (Notice I didn’t say “beautiful covers” and “ugly covers.”) You can have a beautiful cover and still have it send a weak message to readers. Book buyers look for covers that say, “I’m just the type of book you want to read.”

Genre publishers know this well. If a romance novel’s cover looks like a poetry anthology cover, romance readers will walk right past it in the bookstore. They are looking for visual clues that say, “I’m a romance novel. Buy me!” When those clues aren’t there, the book will be ignored by its target audience. This is why books within a genre tend to have similar covers.

It doesn’t take much to send the right message to readers. Take for example Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Road. When it was released, the cover was all black with the author’s name in gray and the title in red. There was no image, just a black background with some gray and red letters. That’s all that was needed to send the message to readers that this is a dark and desolate tale. (And yes, McCarthy’s name on the cover also sent the right message to readers.)

There are other issues to consider when building a book, such as the format and trim size of the book, but a focus on marketability and readability will set you on the right path. Talk to a few professional designers who will offer their time and expertise to give your book a professional look. Before you commit to a design, educate yourself on the basics (you can start by reading The Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst) so you can effectively communicate with your book’s designer. Take it from me; designers love it when authors can speak their language.

For more tips on effective book design and other tactics for successful self-publishing, sign up for Vinnie’s August 18 class, Being Your Own Publisher, at Indigo.

Publication Consultant Vinnie Kinsella’s varied career as a publishing professional includes work as a writer, editor, document designer, journal publisher, and college instructor. He has used his broad knowledge of the publishing industry to help numerous book publishers, independent authors, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations produce high quality print and online publications.