Indie authors must go way beyond writing the book. There is also editing, formatting, cover design, and marketing.
But self-publishers don’t need to invent the wheel. When it comes to formatting and cover design, there are many effective models available to help serve as guides.
Look at books as models for what can be done.
It’s important to realize that different books serve different purposes. Don’t take your favorite book and use it as a model for everything.
- Paperback formatting: Look at books similar to yours by the big publishers. Money-saver: Visit your local library.
- Cover design: Browse through top-selling indie books in your genre. (Note: Big publishers and popular authors can get away with lesser covers. When you see a popular book with a blah cover, it doesn’t mean that covers aren’t important.)
- E-book formatting: Try to find professional e-book conversion services with a strong reputation or e-book formatters who appear very knowledgeable. Browse through books they’ve formatted. For example, KDP has a list of conversion services: https://kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=A3RRQXI478DDG7. One of these is Book Nook Biz, which has a gallery of books: http://www.booknook.biz/bk_books.
- Blurb: Best-selling indie books often have great blurbs. Look for popular indie books in your genre. (Note: Big publishers and popular authors don’t need the best blurbs to sell books.)
- Price: Look for books that are very similar to yours to see what price range is common.
- Categories: Search for popular books similar to your book on Amazon. See which categories they are listed under.
- Marketing: Find successful indie authors in your genre and see what kinds of marketing strategies they are employing. Their social media pages may give you some clues. Many top indie authors have Author Central pages at Amazon, and very often their blogs or tweets feed into Author Central. Click on a blog post or tweet to find these authors online.
For any single aspect, such as formatting, don’t limit yourself to just one book. Look at a variety of books in your genre.
Your goal isn’t to copy what someone else has done, but to sample a variety of quality books that show you what some of your options are. You can also develop a feel for design by studying well-designed books. The more you study, the better (provided that they were designed well).
What to Look for
Here is a sample of specific things to look for when studying models.
- Are the books justified or ragged right? Are all the pages like this, or are there exceptions in the front or back matter?
- What size font is used? What style font is used? Research suitable fonts for your genre that are available for free for commercial use. Print out a sample paragraph in a few different font sizes and compare your sample paragraph to what you see printed by the big publishers. You can learn a lot about book design by trying to recreate a page that you see. (Recreate the page only as a test. You don’t want to copy the design of any book, but want to develop your own style from studying these models.)
- Measure the linespacing. Chances are it’s close to single spacing, but not quite. Google how to measure font leading. You can set the linespacing to Exactly a pt measure (font sizes being measured in terms of pts).
- Measure the page margins. Also measure the distance between any headers and footers to the body text.
- Do the lines of text line up at the top and bottom of all the pages? Are there exceptions, like the first or last page of each chapter?
- Which pages have page numbers? Which pages have Roman numerals?
- Which pages have page headers at the top? Study the style of the page headers. What text appears on different page headers? Note that the publisher name or author name are less relevant for indie books.
- Study the chapter heading and subheading styles, including the font size, font style (e.g. bold), numbering, and space before and after the headings. Do the first-page chapter headings drop down from the top of the page?
- Does the book use hyphenation? How frequent are the hyphens? If the book is justified, are the gaps between words ever noticeable?
- Do you find any widows (a single line of a paragraph that appears on a page by itself)? Do you see orphans (a word or short phrase all by itself on the last line of a paragraph)?
- Is there a single space after a period and before the next sentence starts instead of two spaces? Look closely.
- Look for bullet points, footnotes, citations, and any other kinds of formatting that you plan to use in your book and study the formatting.
- Does the book have a drop cap at the beginning of each chapter? Is the first paragraph of each chapter non-indented?
- How are the front and back matter organized? Which sections are included?
- Examine the copyright page closely. Formatting is important. You need to prepare a professional copyright statement and, if you write fiction, a fictional works disclaimer. Your print-on-demand book won’t have a Library of Congress number or printing numbers like traditionally published books do.
- Study the formatting of other front and back matter sections, like the table of contents, references, index, glossary, and about the author section.
- Look for little design marks that improve the feel of the book. Are they small? How do they look? Where are they used?
- Most of the bullet points listed above for paperback formatting apply here, too, except that you may prefer to look at indie e-books converted by professional e-book formatters. If so, it’s also worth comparing these to traditionally published e-books.
- Look for differences between e-book and paperback formatting.
- Do e-books tend to give you the freedom of font size, font style, linespacing, and other user options?
- Do the images fill the width of the screen when reading on a pc? Would you be able to make out the detail in the images on a cell phone? How do they look on a black or sephia background? Are there some images, like glyphs, that don’t appear full-width? Do the images look nice? If they are in color, how do they look in black and white? (Obviously, if you have the chance to sample some of these things on a few different devices, that will help.)
- Does it seem like some front matter sections are missing? Is the table of contents in the front or back?
- Study the way the e-book begins, especially the formatting and order of the title page, copyright page, contents, introduction, and how the book starts.
- Does the end of the book include a short sample from one of the author’s other books?
- Examine the chapter headings closely. Study the formatting. Do they appear as text or as images? Do they come with images, or are they text only?
- Is the first paragraph of each chapter non-indented? Are there any lines from the table of contents or copyright page that appear indented?
- How large is the indent? Does the indent look the same size if you change the font size or view the book on a different device? (You can save a Word document as a filtered webpage, open the e-book in Notepad, and change the size of the indent to something like 2 em instead of a value in inches. That way, the size of the indent depends on the font size.)
- Is the book justified or ragged right? Which text is centered (copyright page, chapter headings, etc.)? If the book is justified, do you see any large gaps between words?
- Does any of the text appear in color?
- Is the e-book reflowable, fixed layout, or comic book format?
- Are there any or many long paragraphs? Or does it seem like the e-book has mostly short paragraphs to prevent a single paragraph from easily filling up a screen?
- Does the Look Inside get into the action quickly or build slowly?
- It’s worth skimming all the way through a well-designed e-book shortly before viewing your own e-book on the previewer. That will help you notice possible issues.
- See how everything (i.e. the central image, background, and text) seems to fit together on the best book covers. You don’t want your cover to look like separate pieces slapped together.
- Can you immediately guess what the book is about by glancing at the cover? Compare the thumbnail image to the full cover.
- What are readers in your genre accustomed to seeing on covers?
- How many images do you see on the best covers?
- Do the people on the covers have blank stares, bored looks, or appropriate expressions? Do you see the same stock images on many of the top sellers?
- How many main colors are there? What kinds of colors are common in your genre? Which color combinations seem to work well together?
- Do the fonts fit the genre? Are the fonts plain, fancy, or somewhere in between? Are the fonts easy to read? Is the title easily read on the thumbnail? Is the text horizontal? Do you recognize popular fonts like Times New Roman, Arial, and Comic Sans, or did the designer spend time browsing font sites like Font Squirrel (http://www.fontsquirrel.com) and FontSpace (http://www.fontspace.com) to find the one that works best?
- Although you should study top-selling indie book covers, traditionally published books reveal an important point: They don’t mention the cover designer on the front cover, but instead mention the designer in small print on the back cover and on the copyright page.
- Is it short or long? If it’s long, is there space between paragraphs? Does it have bullet points? Does it use italics or boldface? (You can do these things from Author Central: https://authorcentral.amazon.com.)
- Does it grab your attention right away? Does it hold your attention throughout?
- Can you tell right away what the book is about?
- How does the text flow? Is it easy to read? Does sentence structure and length vary? Is the writing simple or complex? How strong or plain is the vocabulary?
- Is it written in the third person or something else? What tense is used?
- Are there review quotes in the description? If so, what are the sources?
- Also study author pages, including biographies and author photos.
Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers