How to Avoid the Self-Published Look
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, LouisvilleKY.com, 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.
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.
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:
• 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.)
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.
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.
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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.