How to Avoid the Self-Published Look

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

The following is an excerpt from Guy Kawasaki’s new book APE: How to Publish a Book.

Don’t self-publish. That’s as good as admitting you’re too lazy to do the hard work.
Sue Grafton,, August 7, 2012

Appearance Is Everything
This chapter helps you avoid publishing a book that looks cheesy, vain, and amateurish. Steve Jobs taught me that little details separate the mediocre from the excellent. The way to avoid the “self-published” look is simple, and it increases the attractiveness, professionalism, and marketability of your book.

The first outward sign that your book is self-published is a crappy cover design. This topic merits a long discussion, so we’ll address it in the next chapter.

The first internal sign that your book is self-published is crappy writing, but our writing and editing tips will help you avoid this. Sue Grafton notwithstanding (she did retract her statement in the epigraph above, but S for Self-Publishing is out of the question), the stigma of self-publishing has diminished. But it still exists, and there’s no reason why you can’t make your book look like it’s professionally published; remember, the goal is artisanal books.

Front Matter
Beyond the cover, the first sign of a self-published printed book is the lack of traditional front matter on the first few pages of your book. We recommend referring to The Chicago Manual of Style to ensure that your front matter is correct. This thousand-page tome also covers what you need to know about grammar, punctuation, and the mechanics of publishing.

Power tip: You should buy a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style because having one around makes you feel like a real writer, and it impresses people when they see it on your shelf. And you should not hire a copyeditor who doesn’t own one.

Here is a summary of the front matter of a (nonfiction) book according to The Chicago Manual of Style:

Ebook Front Matter
When it comes to ebooks, there is a tradeoff between the credibility of traditional front matter and the marketing benefits of facilitating people’s ability to “look inside” books on Amazon.

Figure 09.01. How Amazon displays a book that people can “look inside.”

People can see approximately 10 percent of a book this way. Let’s say your book is two hundred pages long; people will be able to read the first twenty pages. Do you want to use up your twenty pages on typical front matter? Even if you don’t care about the wasted pages, there is no reason to force customers to click five to ten times to get to the good stuff.

This is like a pharmaceutical company running pages of FDA-required warnings and disclaimers (“In the event of an erection lasting more than four hours, seek immediate medical help to avoid long-term injury”) before advertising the drug itself. For marketing purposes, a better order for ebook front matter, tradition be damned, is:

• Cover
• Blurbs (more on blurbs below)
• Table of contents
• Foreword or preface (but not both, and neither for fiction)
• Chapter 1 . . .

You can stick everything else in the back because most of it doesn’t matter to most people. This structure means that prospective readers can garner more information in less time to make a buying decision—which is the goal, after all. Remember: with a physical book, people can skip ahead pages at a time, so you can stick with The Chicago Manual of Style’s recommendations. On a website, too many clicks spoil the preview.
(Hat-tip: I got this idea from Michael Alvear in his book Make a Killing on Kindle.)

Organization Name
The second sign of self-publishing is that you’ve named the publishing company after yourself. One hundred years after their start—long after the founders died—names like Alfred A. Knopf, John Wiley, and G. P. Putnam sound prestigious and cool, but the name of your organization needs to sound prestigious and cool before you die.

For example, The Schmoe Way by Joe Schmoe from Schmoe Press doesn’t cut it. Using your last name as the publisher’s name screams “self-published” and, even worse, “I lack imagination.” Pick a street name, a pet’s name, a geographical landmark, or your favorite Pokémon character. Then Google your idea to ensure that no one else already uses it. Anything is better than your last name for your company’s name. Nononina Press, the publisher of APE, is the first two letters of my four kids’ names.

Blurb Overload
The third sign of self-publishing is an excessive number of testimonial quotes (known as blurbs in the publishing business). Good blurbs are short, sweet, and limited to six. They answer the question “Why should I buy this book?”

A book with more than six blurbs means that the author doth promote too much. This is like PowerPoint slides that try to overwhelm you with text. A better goal is to establish a reputation that is so well known and a topic that is so timely that no blurbs are necessary at all.

We recommend including blurbs in the front matter of your book for two reasons: first, they reinforce the wisdom of purchasing your book. You can never reduce cognitive dissonance too much—even for a $0.99 purchase.

Second, bloggers will often grab blurbs and use them in their review. We recommend putting blurbs on page i or ii to ensure that people see them. This requires pushing everything else back a page, but page count in ebooks is irrelevant, so it isn’t a problem.

Blurbs on the thumbnail of the cover are too small to read, and there is no back cover. However, if you publish your book with Kindle Direct Publishing, you can include your blurbs in the online listing of your book.

The fourth sign of self-publishing is gaffes—unintentional mistakes that cause embarrassment. It’s easy for self-publishers to make these gaffes because editing, particularly copyediting, is a different skill from writing. Here are the most common gaffes:

• Improperly capitalizing the title and subtitle. Use headline-style capitalization for titles and subtitles. This means capitalizing the first word, last word, and every noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, and adverb. Start articles, prepositions shorter than five letters, and conjunctions with lowercase letters. Contrary to popular belief, headline style does not mean lowercasing all “small” words. Some small words are verbs (“Is,” “Are,” and “Be” are prime examples) or other parts of speech aside from prepositions.

Follow these rules for your title page, book listing, and cover. During the production of What the Plus!—Google+ for the Rest of Us, we didn’t realize that the cover said “Google+ for the rest of us” (sentence caps, not title caps). We had to change this and re-export all of our ebook files with a new cover.

• Omitting the serial comma. A serial comma (or Oxford comma, as they say across the pond) prevents confusion when you are listing several items. For example, the probably apocryphal book dedication “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God” implies that the person’s parents were Ayn Rand and God (that’s quite the couple!).

Then there is the TV listing of The Times: “…highlights of his [Peter Ustinov’s] global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” (There must be more than one Nelson Mandela!)

The addition of a serial comma makes the meaning of the phrases clear. The dedication is to three parties: parents, Ayn Rand, and God. Peter Ustinov met with three people in the episode of his television show. I search for every instance of “and” and “or” to ensure that I have not left out any serial commas.

• Improper hyphenation. Hyphenation and compounding words is constantly changing, but violating some rules marks you as a self-publisher. Here are the three main ones: hyphenate two or more words used as an adjective—“social-media sites”; hyphenate compound numbers—“forty-seven”; and hyphenate only between syllables as specified in the dictionary for end-of-line breaks—“enchant-ment.”

• Using two spaces between sentences. In the old days of typewriters, characters were the same width, so two spaces were necessary to separate sentences for visual effect. With computers, characters are proportional, so they fit closer to each other, and one space is sufficient. Before you submit your manuscript, search for all double spaces and replace them with single spaces.

Figure 09.02. Customizing how Word checks grammar.

You can customize the grammar checker in Word to help you avoid simple issues such as two spaces between sentences. Select “Preferences” from the Word menu and click on the “Spelling and Grammar” icon.

• Dumb apostrophes and quotation marks. There’s a world of difference between dumb apostrophes and quotation marks and their “smart” versions.

There are two ways to ensure the correct usage of smart quotes and apostrophes. First, you can turn on a preference in Word to add them automatically. Second, you can type them in:

• Dumb dashes. Here’s a guide to the proper use of hyphens and dashes.

Figure 09.03. The difference between smart and dumb quotation marks, apostrophes, and dashes.

• Using quotation marks for emphasis. There are three correct ways to use quotation marks. First, they indicate a direct quotation, such as “This is one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Second, they act as “scare quotes” to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard sense, usually irony or sarcasm. Third, they replace the words “so-called.”

One of the most common misuses of quotation marks is to add emphasis. For example, does it make sense for a sign to say All employees must “wash hands” before returning to work?

• Lack of indentation. The first paragraph of a style should be flush left. However, you should indent every subsequent paragraph. For example, note how we indented the paragraph above this one.

• Underlining. There’s bold text and there’s italic text, but there’s never underline, except as a hyperlink. If you format text with an underline that’s not a hyperlink, readers will think your book has a dead link.

• Widows. Three main types of widows exist. (1) Widowed text is when the last line of a paragraph appears on the following page or in the next column. (2) A widowed heading occurs when a heading is on one page and the following text is on the next page or in the next column. (3) A widowed bullet occurs when one bullet is on a page and the subsequent bullets are on the next page or in the next column.

Figure 09.04. An example of a widow.

• Orphans. There are three kinds of orphans: (1) The first line of text in a paragraph is separated from the rest of the paragraph on the following page or next column; (2) A word or part of a word that is not long enough to clear the indent of the following paragraph is by itself on the last line of a paragraph (usually any word less than four characters); (3) Your book after your traditional publisher has given up on it, but I digress.

Widows and orphans are unavoidable in ebooks because people can adjust the font size and this changes the page layout. Don’t focus on these issues for your ebooks, but if you print your book on paper or a static PDF, you must pay attention to them.

Figure 09.05. Example of an orphaned line and an orphaned word.

• Passive voice. The passive voice is weak, vague, and wordy. “New York publishers are being attacked by self-publishers” is not as powerful as “Self-publishers are attacking New York publishers.” I search for every instance of “be” and “being” to eliminate as many instances of the passive voice as I can. Word’s grammar checker can also help you spot passive sentences.

• Lack of consistency. Ensure that the voice and design elements of your book are consistent. Here are three examples. First, as we mentioned earlier, in this book “I” always refers to me, Guy. Shawn is always mentioned in the third person. “We” refers to our combined opinion and expertise.

Second, bulleted lists should maintain a parallel structure. If one starts with a noun, they should all start with a noun. If one starts with a verb, they should all start with a verb.

Third, consistency also applies to design. For example, in the print version of APE, when a new section starts, the section title is always on the next right-hand page, even if this creates a blank page to the left. Similarly, the first chapter after a new section always starts on the next right-hand page, always leaving the page on the back of the section title blank.

• Excessive adjectives and adverbs. These forms of speech are often overrated, overused, and vague. How dark was the night? So dark that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face? How slowly did he walk? Perhaps a toddler could move faster? How much did you really miss your mother? Maybe enough to make you cry at night? Find more concrete ways to describe things.

Metaphors and similes beat the crap out of adjectives and adverbs, so use them when you can. For example, rather than saying, “Hockey is very violent,” you could say, “Hockey is war on ice.”

• Lack of guideposts. This recommendation and the next one are for nonfiction writers. Use subheads to help your readers navigate sections of a chapter. The name of the chapter is not enough in nonfiction books because so much material is in each chapter. Real authors use subheads.

• Long passages of text. A bulleted list (like this one) is a sign of an organized mind. Rather than making your reader dig through long passages of text, use bulleted lists to highlight what is most important. Lists also make great back cover copy for your printed versions.

A great book that explains these kinds of gaffes and more is The Mac Is Not a Typewriter by my lovely friend Robin Williams. Also, you can’t go wrong with The Chicago Manual of Style, and the Purdue Online Writing Lab works well as an online resource.

Crappy Interior Design
The fifth sign of self-publishing is a crude and simplistic interior design. This primarily applies to the print version of your book because readers can override the interior design of ebooks. Here’s how to avoid interior-design signs of self-publishing:

• Fonts. Use a font besides Times New Roman, Arial, or Helvetica. Don’t go crazy with a fancy font, but show a little style.

• Blank pages. Remove headings and page numbers on blank pages.

• Line breaks. Ensure that line breaks do not cause hyphenated words in headings and chapter titles.

• Chapter-title pages. Provide ample space on chapter-title pages. Reserve the top half of a page for the title and start the first paragraph about halfway down the first page. Page numbers are either omitted or in a different location on these special pages.

• Page numbers. List page numbers in the top 0.25 inch of your pages, aligned away from the spine, plus the correct running head (see below).

• Running heads. Show the book title in the left-hand page header and the current chapter title in the right-hand page header. For fiction writers, it’s customary to show your name in the left-hand page header and the book title in the right-hand page header.

If you’ve come this far, you’ve invested many hours in your book. Don’t blow it now. The whole point of self-publishing is to produce a book faster, better, and cheaper than a traditional publisher. These ways of avoiding the “self-published” look are simple and easy, and they increase the attractiveness, professionalism, and marketability of your book.

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Expert Publishing Blog
Guy Kawasaki

About Guy Kawasaki

Guy Kawasaki is the author of APE, What the Plus!, Enchantment, and nine other books. He is also the co-founder of, an “online magazine rack” of popular topics on the web. Previously, he was the chief evangelist of Apple. Kawasaki has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.

31 thoughts on “How to Avoid the Self-Published Look

  1. Aka

    I was lead to believe that if you chose a name for your publishing company that is not your own name, you have to register that name with the state in which you live. That also requires opening a business entity and a bunch of other paperwork. Since I live abroad, I don’t know what else to do except publish under my own name. Any thoughts?

    1. Linton Robinson

      I don’t think that’s true. You’re not “doing business as”–it’s your own tax number on file, right?
      It’s more like a nom du plume.
      You could run into trouble if somebody else owns that name somewhere, but filing a DBA won’t protect you from that.
      I don’t think this is something to worry about.

  2. Bill Peschel

    This was one of the few chapters in APE that had useable content, with one caveat. Buying the Chicago Manual of Style is not needed. It can be useful, but it is exceptionally detailed. Instead, take a look at professionally published books similar to yours and copy what you see there.

    1. CharDell Self

      Bill, I’m a book coach by profession. I can’t imagine trying to write or work with my clients without a manual of style along with other reference books. Just going by what you might see in a book store is risky.

      Guy, thank you for your insight. I plan to purchase your book.

  3. Heather

    What an amazing article. I am new to self-publishing and for some inexplicable reason, finding support that is specific and detailed such as this seems like searching for the holy grail. Instead of answers, I get caveated answers that malign the self-publishing industry as a whole or offers to “help” me publish at an exorbitant fee.
    In short, THANK YOU for posting this. It is a godsend. It will help in my next publishing foray 🙂

  4. Ginger Marks

    You have really pulled it all together into one long but well-written package. Every self-published author needs to read and abide by the information you have so generously shared. Thank you!

  5. Marsha

    And don’t underestimate the importance of a professional-looking cover. If the cover looks amateurish and crap, most readers will assume the contents follow suit. Many cover designers offer great covers for an affordable price, or if you have access to Photoshop, it’s fairly straightforward to make one yourself. Some useful guidelines: limit the number of different fonts used to two or three at most, use a single, strong graphic for the image, and make sure the title, author name, and image are all clearly visible when the cover is shrunk down to thumbnail-size.

  6. Andrew Chapman

    Great article. I know it was not intended to be comprehensive, so here are a few more:

    1. Don’t put \by\ in front of your name on the cover, spine, or inside title pages. This is not the standard in book publishing (though there are a few exceptions).

    2. Don’t set up your page margins the same on the inside and outside of the pages; the inside (gutter) margins should be larger to accommodate the binding of the book. How much larger depends on your page count and binding, but it will typically be an additional quarter to half inch.

    3. Don’t use the default half-inch indent for the first line of your paragraphs. This is another vestige of typewriters and looks excessive in modern typesetting. Instead, set it for a spacing that’s roughly equal to five to seven body-text characters.

    4. Though it can vary somewhat depending on the specific typeface chosen, it’s rare that your body-text size should be greater than 12 points, and 10 or 11 is most typical. (This is, of course, not the case with books specifically set in large type for readers with vision problems.)

    These are from \The 53 Biggest Self-Publishing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them,\ which is available for free for signing up at The site is new and the first to feature ratings and reviews of self-publishing services by the authors who have used them.

  7. Karen

    Guy, these are great tips. It would be nice to identify which items apply to print, eBooks, or both. For example, choosing a font is pretty irrelevant in an eBook because most eReaders allow the user to select from a limited list of fonts and the user can change font size.

  8. Michael W. Perry

    Quote; \I was lead to believe that if you chose a name for your publishing company that is not your own name, you have to register that name with the state in which you live. That also requires opening a business entity and a bunch of other paperwork. Since I live abroad, I don’t know what else to do except publish under my own name. Any thoughts?\

    You can always DBA, meaning Doing Business As, that name. But banks and the like tend to look askew at that sort of ad hoc practice. Mine was getting antsy about cashing checks made out to Inkling Books until I went down and showed them my state business license in that name. Now Inkling Books is a part of my account. I can cash checks in that name without hassle. And my business is so small, Washington state has told me that I don’t even need to make annual filings. There are advantages to being poor.

    Registering as a small business depends on the state you’re in, but most make it relatively easy as long as you stay small, particularly if small means one. The messiness only comes when you have employees and, in particular, when you grow past a certain size, typically around fifty.

    Living overseas is no doubt fun, but if you are a U.S. citizen, you can spare yourself a lot of trouble if you establish some sort of legal presence in the U.S., including a state business license, a bank account, and a mailing address, even if the last is that of a friend.

    As self-publishing becomes common, more needs to be done to make it easier for authors to publish in other countries. In the past a publisher, typically in the country where the book is being sold, took on that responsibility. Self-publishing puts those responsibilities on authors, but gives no clear legal path to handle the resulting issues. Some sort of accord between nations similar to the Berne Convention for copyright would be handy.

    Unfortunately, the politics of that is dominated by the demands of big media, particularly Hollywood, for ever-expanding protections for them, so much so that the issues that impact mere authors aren’t of concern to legislators who can’t see past lobbyists. I suspect that’s why the Obama administration was being so vicious in their prosecution of Aaron Swartz that he committed suicide. It’s not what Swartz did that merited the threat of a 30-year prison sentence. It’s that the entertainment industry wants all IP law to be driven by the fear of vicious federal prosecution. Swartz was to have been an example of that.

    In more general terms, Guy’s book is excellent. I would, however, disagree on one minor point. Lightning Source/Ingram, the biggest name in print on demand, is encouraging publishers to treat the country of publication as the country of origin and the printing (in the UK, Australia or wherever) as a mere incidental. Having that information in small print on the last page should be sufficient to satisfy any legalities. So go ahead and claim the U.S as the publication location if that’s where you are.

    Also unmentioned is a Library of Congress Control Number which you can get in advance from:

    Libraries like to see that on the copyright page, because that means they can get cataloging information from the LOC. Registering is easy. The only cost is sending the LOC a copy of the book after publication. Just keep in mind that, as self-publishing grows, the LOC is cutting back on what it wants to see, concentrating on longer books that have print versions. They don’t want to see your ebook novelette.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien (a LOTR chronology)

  9. Karol Kallas

    The Chicago Manual of Style is freely downloadable, first edition as fascimile. Yes, extremely detailed, but good to know anyway.

  10. Jonnie Comet

    I have always been a fan, Guy; and this is terrific advice coming from one who must know. Though I cannot say I have always taken all of this advice (you must reserve us the right to our own style!), it’s all good advice; and it’s true that blatant ignorance of these matters shows a certain undesirable amateurishness. I’ll be sharing this with my writers’ circle forthwith.

  11. Kari Ayasha

    Great article! I’m a cover designer specializing in covers for self-published authors. My prices are very affordable and I’m very easy to work with with professional results. If anyone is interested, I would love to work with you!

  12. Kelly Martin

    This is such a good article and very insightful. One comment though, please change your font on your articles. Is this not the font of a book? On screen use arial or something else, it was pretty challenging to read even though the info is great.

    1. Katherine G Levine

      So grateful to have found this. Am a cranky old lady struggling to publish years of collected wisdom as part of Emotional Fitness Training, Inc. Felt like I had won the lottery of the day.

  13. Jean Gill

    Am just about to edit my latest book (fiction) and this is a great checklist – thank you! One of my bugbears is the inclusion of those long lists of chapter links at the beginning of fiction ebooks. Nobody wants them but I worry that not putting them in looks ‘self-published’. I’d like a campaign to get rid of them across the board!



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