Updated: Jul 8, 2022
The biggest shake-up the publishing industry has experienced in the last 20 years isn’t ebooks or audio—it’s the rise in self-publishing.
And it’s great, isn't it? For years the only options available were to try to get a traditional publishing deal or pay thousands of pounds to a vanity publisher. Now, anyone can successfully self-publish with next to no investment and few technical skills.
Or can they?
To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, we’ve been so preoccupied with whether we could self-publish that we didn’t stop to think if we should. The freedom self-publishing has given us comes at a cost: the market is now flooded with poorly produced books that aren’t doing their subjects or their authors any favours, simply because they don’t look professional.
So how do you make sure your self-published book doesn't look... self-published? Here are five mistakes that can give you away as a self-published author, and how to make sure they don’t trip you up.
1 COVER DESIGN
I cannot stress how much this matters. In house, cover designs go back and forth between designers, editors and sales & marketing teams for a reason: covers sell books. However fascinating your book is inside, if your cover is bad then your reader won’t even pick it up. It's your very first marketing tool.
And it’s easy to get it wrong:
You'll agree this is a pretty extreme example. But it does show how wrong things can go when you try to design a cover yourself. At the very least, this author should have used a template from a design website, but ideally they would have paid for a professional cover designer. Try the publishing platform Reedsy (www.reedsy.com), where you can search for professional designers with in-house experience. Just make sure you view samples of previous designs so you know they have a style you like. A professional cover designer should cost a few hundred pounds, but the value they will give your book is immeasurable.
Your title is your first message to your reader. Most non-fiction books have a main title and a subtitle, and they do different things. A main title should be catchy and memorable—it should draw your reader in and make them want to know more. Try to use positive words, preferably ones that speak to your reader’s main fear or desire.
If the purpose of your main title is to catch your reader's attention, your subtitle should show what the book is about. Use it to explain what your reader is going to get from your book and how it's going to help them. If your book has a clear structure, e.g. a 10-step plan or system, it's a good idea to include that in your subtitle, as it will show your reader there's a process they can follow.
Above all, use common sense. Here’s someone who didn’t:
The main problem here is that the title is ambiguous—is this a book for beginners or a book about websites for beginners? It's simply not clear.
Here’s someone else who didn’t think much about their title:
The problem here is grammar. As a reader, I find the -ing verb in the main title ('being') at odds with the infinitive verb in the subtitle ('be'). It feels clumsy and unprofessional, and that’s because it’s inconsistent.
And then there’s just the plain crazy:
This is an example of the author failing to think about what their reader is going to get out of their book and simply using their subtitle to make a statement. At best this is unhelpful; at worst it makes you sound odd.
Instead, make your title clear, catchy and informative. Here’s a great example:
The title is catchy, uses a keyword people are likely to search for (mindfulness) and inspires the reader by offering them something they’d like (mindful kids). Then the subtitle shows how the book is structured (50 activities) and what the benefit of reading it will be (kind, focused and calm kids). If I were the target market for this book, I'd be in.
A blurb is a brief description of the book, and it’s usually found on the back page of a paperback or the inside flap of a hardback. On Amazon it appears to the right of the cover image and below the purchasing details. It’s the first piece of proper writing your reader will read and because of this you need to think of it as the sales pitch for your book.
If your blurb is over the top ('Dive inside to discover the secrets of success!'), poorly written or the wrong length, you'll never get a second chance to make that first impression.
Remember: a good blurb doesn’t just describe the book. It hooks the reader in so they want to know more. I like to structure blurbs using my 4H method: the Hell, the Heaven, the How and the Hook. Here’s what they mean:
The Hell is the problem your reader is experiencing—their ‘pain point’. They might not have articulated it (no one says “My children aren’t mindful enough”) but it’s there all the same. Your blurb should tap into whatever it is that’s driving your reader. That’s the problem your book will solve.
The Heaven is of course the opposite. It’s the solution to the Hell in the first part of your blurb. It might be kind, focused, calm kids, or a more productive leadership team. Ask yourself what will happen if your reader reads your book. What does their solution look like? Describing this briefly in your blurb will encourage them to find out more.
The How speaks for itself. It’s the method by which you’re going to solve your reader’s problem. You don’t have to go into detail—that’s what the book is for—but you should outline it so your reader knows you offer practical information. “In ten practical steps…” “This foolproof method will…” By revealing what’s in your book you’ll build trust and credibility.
The Hook is how you should finish your blurb. What can you say to your reader that will make them think they can’t live without your book? If you’re stuck on this, think of a promise you can make them. What can you offer if they’ll just turn to the first chapter?
Contrary to popular belief, typesetting is nothing to do with typing. It’s simply the way a book is designed inside. Good typesetting should be almost invisible—it should never distract from the reading experience. It includes everything from chapter headings, page numbers and margins to paragraphs, boxed-out sections and lists. A typesetter will also take care of strange hyphenation and the positioning of images. Needless to say, poor typesetting will make your book look self-published.
Simple mistakes like margins that are too narrow so you have to crack the spine of the book to read it or inconsistently positioned page numbers all contribute to the subtle feeling that a book wasn’t published professionally. The choice of font can also be a problem. Wacky fonts or a poor choice of serif/sans serif will make your book look amateurish.
If possible, invest in a professional typesetter (I have some recommendations), but if you really can’t afford this then at least use a formatting tool to get the best possible finish. The Reedsy Book Editor is a good one, and you can see what your book will look like as you go along.
It sometimes surprises people when I talk about book structure. Do books have to have a structure? Well—yes. The truth is that, a bit like typesetting, a good structure is almost invisible, but a bad structure stands out a mile. The way your contents page looks can reveal a lack of structure, and even if it doesn’t it will soon become apparent when the reader starts the book.
Aim for a one-page contents page that has a consistent layout. Use consistent parts of speech in your chapter titles too (all verbs or all nouns) and avoid rambling headings. The structure of your book should be logical and transparent (think of it as a progression from A to B, and show the reader this in the contents page), and as simple as possible. Even professional writers get the structure wrong sometimes, so if you need help with this ask me about my Book Planning Days.
Publishing a book yourself might be easy these days—but that doesn't mean it's simple. Knowing where to invest your budget and taking care of the details will make sure your book sits alongside its traditionally published counterparts with confidence.
If you need more advice just book one of my publishing consultation calls, and, for reference, here are a couple of successful authors who self-publish well. Remember: it can be done, and it can be done well.
Dan Norris – The 7-Day Startup; Content Machine; Create or Hate
Stephen Pressfield – The War of Art; The Artist’s Journey; Do the Work