How Not to Make Your Book Look Self-Published

Updated on May 21, 2020
heidithorne profile image

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing expert and advocate. Author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. Former trade newspaper editor.

Don't make these mistakes!
Don't make these mistakes! | Source

Part of the reason why many self-published books don't have as much respect as traditionally published works is that they're not very good. Even if the written content is stellar, poor presentation and packaging can turn any self-published book or eBook into trash.

But what makes a self-published book look, well, self-published? As a book editor for many budding authors, I can tell you that the following are telltale signs that the author is inexperienced or incompetent at the self-publishing game.

Keep away from funky fonts!
Keep away from funky fonts! | Source

Funky Fonts

While authors may regularly use regular fonts in their daily writing and correspondence, when they self-publish, they decide to explore the entire range of available fonts on Microsoft Word. Papyrus, Comic Sans . . . I've seen 'em all in manuscripts. Sometimes several in just one manuscript.

Why It Makes You Look Self-Published

Standard fonts such as Times New Roman have been carefully chosen by traditional publishing houses and the media for decades. And because of their ubiquity, readers' eyes have become familiar with them, making them easy on the readers' eyes and allowing readers to focus on the ideas presented, not just the letterforms used.

Secondly, non-standard fonts can be difficult for self-publishing platforms to interpret, causing unpredictable and visually unappealing results when printed or converted to eBooks.

How to Look Professionally Published

Times New Roman is one of the world's most used fonts. It is a serif font, meaning that it has a little tail on each letter. This is not for mere decoration only. Those tails serve to lead readers' eyes along the type with greater ease and eye comfort. (Bet you didn't know that.)

Sans serif fonts (e.g., Helvetica, Arial)—without "tails"—should be reserved for titles, subtitles, headers, etc. For large bodies of text, they can produce reader eye strain since the eye has to stop, however briefly, on each letterform. Also, if the majority of the book's content is in a serif font, carefully consider whether mixing serif and sans serif fonts in the same book produces a visually chaotic presentation.

However, for book covers, there may be some justification for unusual fonts to grab attention. Don't know if the one you're using is right? You may want to enlist the help of a book cover designer.

What's Wrong With This Picture?

I'm not sure whether it's because they grew up reading textbooks with lots of pictures, or it's a result of their picture happy habits on social media. But authors who indiscriminately plop a plethora of pictures in their books or eBooks are showing their publishing inexperience.

Why It Makes You Look Self-Published

Pictures can be difficult to handle in various self-publishing layout programs, as well as Microsoft Word. The pictures may "jump" out of place or have text strangely wrapped around them. This is a nightmare for print, but it is even worse for eBooks where mobile-responsive design is a requirement.

Plus, I can almost guarantee, without even checking in a photo editor, that most of the placed images are low resolution which don't have a prayer of printing correctly.

Aside from the technical aspects of these photos, the subject matter is also problematic. Often, when stock photos are used (especially free ones), they are sometimes not perfectly suited for the use. For example, one author used some "make do" type stock art and then, in the text, said that the photo didn't support the point being made. Then don't use it!

Other authors use so many pictures to illustrate what everyone would recognize anyway. Except for possibly the book cover, you don't need to use overused imagery for such concepts as people shaking hands, typing on a computer, talking on the phone, etc.

Even worse is that often the photos have questionable licensing, meaning that they may not be available for use in a "commercial" (something that makes money) venture such as a book. Further, even if they are properly licensed, images from stock photo sites may limit the number of printed or electronic impressions.

But that's not all! To get around using stock photo sites, some authors want to use their own photos. That's great. But many times they don't get permission to use photos of people, places, and things. Consulting an attorney is recommended for assistance in securing model and property releases for photo subjects.

How to Look Professionally Published

Always use high-resolution photo images licensed from legitimate free or paid stock photo sites and sources. Check the terms of service for each image's source for limitations and requirements for use in commercial applications.

If taking photos for use in a self-published book, obtain model and property releases as necessary. Seek legal assistance for securing these permissions.

And here's the test of whether an illustration, photo, or graphic is needed. Ask, "What purpose does this image serve?" If the answer is purely decorative, and it isn't there to help the reader understand the passage, ditch it!

Formatting Flaws

Formatting flaws are most evident in print works. Each self-publishing platform has its own standards. But there are some formatting snafus that are unacceptable, regardless of platform. For printed books, these include:

  • Ragged right margins.
  • Too many fonts used (as discussed earlier) or using too many font sizes.
  • Inconsistencies with chapter titles and subheadings.
  • Headers and footers where they don't belong, or improperly formatted.
  • Page numbers appearing where they don't belong.
  • Page numbers that are out of sequence.
  • Page numbers that are inappropriate for the material. For example, using Arabic numbers for the book's front matter.
  • No title page or copyright disclaimer page (usually reverse of title page in print; separate page in eBooks).
  • No Table of Contents (optional for many fiction works, a reader godsend for nonfiction!).
  • Page breaks in the wrong place.
  • Too many bulleted lists or improperly formatting bulleted lists.
  • Text that wraps strangely around images.

Why It Makes You Look Self-Published

In addition to being inconsistent with traditional publishing aesthetic standards, the resulting book or eBook can be difficult to read. For example, in traditionally and professionally printed books, large bodies of text are formatted with fully justified margins (as opposed to ragged right-hand margins). This allows readers' eyes to develop a rhythm while reading, causing less eye strain and helping readers to concentrate on what was written. In many self-published books, the author leaves ragged right margins which look messy and cause eye strain. In other words, a total disregard for the reader's experience.

Improperly organized books—such as with inconsistent page numbers or strange page breaks—can cause readers to wonder if something is missing or out of order, decreasing readers' trust in the author.

How to Look Professionally Published

While many self-publishing layout templates can be helpful, they are not foolproof, especially those that use Microsoft Word. I have found that I have had to adjust these templates to meet my particular books' needs.

If formatting is proving difficult, seek the outside help of a virtual assistant or graphic designer familiar with book layout for both the interior and cover. Many self-publishing platforms offer these services on a paid basis.

And always—ALWAYS!—proofread your manuscript BEFORE and AFTER the formatting process to catch both content and formatting errors before publishing.

Mobile-Friendly Foul-Ups for eBooks

Ever try to read a poorly formatted eBook on a mobile phone? There could be lots of blank pages, text that cuts off in the middle of a page, fonts that are unreadable, and images with text strangely surrounding them or that take a long time to load.

Why It Makes You Look Self-Published

Readers who are consuming eBooks on mobile devices are not very patient . . . or forgiving. If an eBook doesn't show properly on their device, they quit reading (and may ask for their money back!). Karma for not caring!

How to Look Professionally Published

Formatting an eBook is different from formatting for print. An eBook is formatted so that it can be read on a multitude of devices from PCs to mobile phones. So it must comply with mobile-responsive design principles. Just some of these principles for eBooks would include:

  • Standard fonts that are easily readable on the web (where eBooks really live!)
  • Images that would be easily viewed on a mobile device without squinting or stretching.
  • Judicious use of images, in other words, if it isn't necessary to explain something, ditch it to avoid e-reading difficulties and long download times.
  • Text without hard page breaks (except at ends of chapters) so that the content flows easily when readers swipe from screen to screen.

As with print books, seek professional formatting help to make sure your eBook provides a good user experience. Self-publishing platforms may offer this formatting help on a paid basis.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2017 Heidi Thorne


Submit a Comment
  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi toknowinfo! Glad it was helpful for you. Appreciate your kind comments and best of luck with your eBook!

  • toknowinfo profile image


    2 years ago

    Very helpful hub especially for me, since I am writing an Ebook. Thanks for sharing your knowledge

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Kathleen! First, congrats on getting your "magnum opus" uploaded to Createspace! That's an accomplishment. True, you might have saved some money, but you're very aware of the work that goes into it.

    I did the "template" thing, too, thinking I had it licked for all future books I published. While it was helpful, each book presents some unique issues that need to be addressed in the formatting stage. So even if you do remember how to do it, every book is a new experience. And I've found that PDF can be quite challenging in the self publishing arena, even more challenging than Word itself!

    Anyway, thanks so much for sharing your personal experience with us! Best of luck with your new book and Happy Weekend!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi AliciaC! Thank you for the kind comments and I'm glad you found it useful. There are so many aspects to the publishing process of which authors are unaware... until they're in the thick of it. So I thought I'd at least share the reality of it all. Truly appreciate your continued support! Have a lovely weekend!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Alancaster, you certainly take your self publishing career and audience seriously! Wish more authors did. And, yes, being human and personal can endear you to your readers. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and insight with us authors here on HP! Cheers!

  • alancaster149 profile image

    Alan R Lancaster 

    2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

    I'd do more on the follow-up if I wasn't cash-strapped (in the same boat as Bill). The only book signings I've been able to secure are at Battle Abbey for the Battle of Hastings weekend near the South Coast. Several other authors besides myself have a couple of talking slots during the day, book signing and a debate before closing time both days, Saturday and Sunday. Keeps the punters happy - and English Heritage, the owners of the site - and the books moving.

    I have links to Amazon UK and US on my books page here on HP that you've seen, Heidi, and an e-mail address to the shop at Battle Abbey. "Follow-up on the follow-up", so to speak.

    I take business cards with me, leave postcards here and there wherever I go and chat to people about the saga series. The personal touch helps. Readers can find particulars about the books and comparative prices on the Book Butler site.

    It's handy for self-publishers to know these things, aside from cover design. That's just the tip of the iceberg, as the lookout on Titanic told Captain Smith.

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 

    2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

    This is an excellent article, Heidi. All of your articles are great, but I think this is one of the most useful. It contains some very important points for a writer to consider if they want to publish an ebook. Thanks for sharing the information.

  • Kathleen Cochran profile image

    Kathleen Cochran 

    2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    Writing your book is infinitely easier than formatting and marketing it!

    For lack of funds, I decided to teach myself to format my first book, thinking once I learned the procedures, I'd save myself serious money doing the next ones myself. Five books and six years later, I just uploaded to CreateSpace my magnum opus - as close to correct as I'm ever going to get the formatting of my three novels.

    The saddest part: I'm not sure I'll remember how I did it. So much was trial and error and I was as surprised as anything when something worked. (PDF does terrible things to page numbers in WORD.) I copied one of my books to use as a template for the one I'm working on now!

    Good luck!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi alancaster! Indeed, book covers are like posters. So glad that you have some folks on your self publishing team that can help you get that unified look for your work. Kudos for reaching out to professionals to make your work look professional! And, you're right about the back cover. Thanks so much for sharing your self publishing experience and knowledge with us! Hope your summer has been delightful. Have a lovely weekend!

  • alancaster149 profile image

    Alan R Lancaster 

    2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

    Heidi, I might've mentioned something like this elsewhere about cover design: they're like posters. Imagine a matchbox in front of you. What you see are the basic elements, brand, maker and maybe a logo. The formula works for book covers because they've got the same 'job' to do. They've got to 'pull' the reader.

    With the help of a good publisher who specialises in self-publishing clients agreement can be reached on the book's outward or shelf image (like Jung's 'self-image', it's a projection of you).

    Recently, between my publisher New Generation's production man Sam and me we've arrived at a new formula on book cover design: the 'wrap-around', where the front overlaps onto the back to create a uniform appearance or 'house style'. If you've seen my last three books you'll understand what I'm talking about.

    Basically don't put any more into your cover than you could absorb by casually taking it in. The 'blurb' on the back is the equivalent of your manufacturer's product information. Your name is your 'brand'.

    I'll shift my soapbox now, thanks for listening. TTFN

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Billybuc, I don't think I've ever been lauded for my "slam-between-the-eyes" writing style. But now I have. And I might just want to use that in my promos someday. :) Thanks, as always, for being such a great cheerleader and friend! Have a great day!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Flourish, glad you enjoyed the post and glad you make a stand when a self published work doesn't meet your expectations! Yes, I love the 5-star reviewed hunks of junk. They should have an "I'm a friend/family of the author" button to click when these people review the book. :) But I do think you're right in that self publishing is coming of age and many authors are up-leveling their game in that arena. Thanks, as always, for chiming in with your real world experience! Have a great evening!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi, sallybea! Glad you enjoy the post. True, craft books can be challenging on multiple levels. Thanks for the inspiration for a future hub and stay tuned! :)

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi, shanmarie! Glad you found it helpful. True, in some situations, different fonts can be aesthetically appealing and add to the overall book's message. But use too many and, ugh, a mash-up mess. And it's so easy to add or delete punctuation and the like during formatting. So, yes, before and after proofing is always recommended. Thanks so much for stopping by and all the best with your future books!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Thanks, Larry, for stopping by! Have a great day!

  • Larry Rankin profile image

    Larry Rankin 

    2 years ago from Oklahoma

    Very helpful!

  • shanmarie profile image

    Shannon Henry 

    2 years ago from Texas

    Interesting and useful information. Definitely going to refer back to these tips. I used different fonts intentionally when I published poetry, but have no intention of doing that with a novel. I have discovered I am not very good at trouble-shooting formatting issues, though. Definitely good advice to proof again after the formatting process. Or even to seek professional help. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  • sallybea profile image

    Sally Gulbrandsen 

    2 years ago from Norfolk

    There is so much useful info in this Hub, this is definitely one to bookmark for the future. I would love to write a craft book but it seems to me that this just might just be one of those books which need a Publisher! However, if you can come up with a hub which addresses some of the issues which I might face when contemplating writing one I would be so delighted:)

  • FlourishAnyway profile image


    2 years ago from USA

    Every self-published author and wanna be needs to read and bookmark this. I've received (and sent back for a refund) a book that was screwy with the page numbers. I also recently returned a book that was advertised as 4 1/2 stars (probably by every person the writer knew) but it was poorly written and had such thick use of British colloquial terms I couldn't take it. I read so many books they don't bat an eye when I rerun the rare one that sucks. Self-published authors are getting better sometimes and also getting better at looking less homemade with the covers and type styles.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    2 years ago from Olympia, WA

    The first sentence was hilarious and true. There are a great many self-published books out there that are just crap.

    The rest of the article was right on, in your own unique, slam-between-the-eyes style, which I love.

    Have a fantastic Thursday!


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