Thursday, December 09, 2010

Thoughts on Making a Book Look Like a Book -- c.anne.gardner

Warning: Sarcasm level is high in this post...

Note: This post is relevant only to works of Fiction, which is what we primarily review here on this blog. Non-fiction -- specifically textbooks and reference books -- has it's own set of guidelines.

In the three plus years I have been working as a reviewer for the Pod People Blog, I have seen my share of self-published books where it appears to me that the author has never once sat down and actually looked at a book. In other words, their covers and interior layouts just scream: I am a novice, and I have absolutely no clue what I am doing and probably shouldn't be doing my own covers and interior layout, but for some odd reason, I do them anyway without consulting the numerous experts out there who offer advice on their blogs for free. Don't believe me, take a walk around Smashwords and Lulu and look at some of the covers and interior layouts. I know: someone fucking shine a light already.

I also know you are going to ask: who am I to call the kettle black? Oh wait, I've been there, and while my covers aren't all foofoo fancy designer like, they aren't too shabby either. Now, admittedly, the covers on my first edition ARCs were lacking and rather pitiful to my eye now, but that was due to grainy print quality direct from my publishing company. At the time, Lulu made you upload jpegs if you didn't do your own one-piece cover, and we all know that jpegs suck on covers unless you absolutely know what you are doing. I, of course, didn't then. My covers got a lot better once I left Lulu and was able to use my artwork as intended. I found a better printer and then took an active interest in honing my design skills much like one should take an active interest in honing one's writing skills. So I am going to go off on a ranty rant right now, because some of the stuff I have seen lately in review books and on various sales sites, well, there is no excuse for it really with the wealth of information out there at your disposal. Not to mention that there are scads of experts who offer their services for reasonable rates and some who will even trade for services, which means you could pay nothing at all. I have seen many Indie authors redesigning their original covers over the course of this past year and coming out with spectacular results simply because they know where to get what they need and they know how to use it. Admittedly, there is a learning curve here, but you have to show some initiative and be willing to do the research. To get higher on the curve, you gotta learn a thing or two.

Anyway, here are some of my pet peeves when it comes to book presentation, and yes, when I write a review, how your book looks weighs heavily on the score. Sloppy presentation will only rob you of review points, and that's not the worst of it. Sloppy presentation does a heinous injustice to your work. You might have the greatest story ever told, but if your book looks like a grade school art project and not a real book, no one is going to want to take a chance on it because you've just told everyone you are an amateur who couldn't be bothered learning the proper way to do things. If your cover and formatting are this bad, they don't want to imagine how bad your writing is. Don't learn this the hard way.

This is my top ten in no particular order, and primarily, I am focusing on print books and ebook covers:

  1. Do not use crap low-res jpegs for your cover art unless you are a savant in Photoshop. If you don't know what savant or Photoshop or low-res mean, you are not up to the task.

  2. Do not use typefaces like Times New Roman or other standard fonts for your cover copy and title. Be Brave, Be Bold. Please people, you don't have to pay for fancy calligraphy; there are a lot of really nice free and/or shareware fonts out there to use. Your cover is your first impression, so why fuck it all up with a shitty blurry jpeg image and a crap font that has no personality whatsoever. Your cover should be a figurative representation of your story. We are not using a paper bag to wrap your high school text books here.

  3. Don't center EVERYTHING on the cover. It's Boring! Reserve the right to bore your reader later in the story with your unedited/unproofed words instead. Minor issues and the occasional typo do not bother me.

  4. Do not use sideways titles on the cover. You expect the buyer to turn their head halfway upside down so they can read the title of your book. I don't think so. Sideways titles are for spine text, nothing else. And yes, I hate when mainstream publishers do this as well, which is why you don't see mainstream publishers do it that often.

  5. Your book should not open to the copyright page. Come on people. Open a book for shit's sake. The copyright page always goes on the verso, or for those who don't understand that term, it goes on the back of the title page. If nothing else, your book should start when opened with a soft or hard title page. The copyright page goes on the back of that. Even if you have a fly-leaf with blurbs on it at the start, the copyright page will still go on the back of the title page, which should be the next page after the flyleaf.

  6. The front matter of your book is normally not part of the pagination of a book, and you certainly do not put headers and footers and page numbers on the matter pages. Matter pages include the title pages, copyright pages, dedication pages etc. Don't know what they are, look them up: you spend enough time on the internet, so why not search for useful information.

  7. Chapter starts and blank pages, or pages of verse within a narrative and/or image pages, do not get headers or footers or page numbers either.

  8. Do not double space between paragraphs. Use a proper paragraph indent and proper leading. Single space works fine for most people. Double spacing between paragraphs makes your book look like a child's primer and it also makes it seem as if you were deliberately trying to increase page count. eBooks are the only books that can get away with double spacing between paragraphs. In print books, we use a double space between paragraphs to indicate a time shift or POV shift, nothing else.

  9. Don't overdo your margins for that same reason. White space is good, but too much can give the wrong impression. Poetry is different and falls in line with a different set of rules.

  10. And don't set the interior typeface of your book to a san-serif or some other crazy non-standard font unless you have a specific artistic reason for doing so, and if so, be sparing with it. Choose a proper functional typeface and choose the right size for the trim size of your book. There are fonts optimized for printing and fonts for the web. They are not really interchangeable. So try a couple of fonts and sizes; print out test pages and show them to your beta readers or whomever. They will help you decide what looks best. Compare them to other books in your trim size and genre. Compare, compare, compare your book to other books. Look at every page and every detail.

So there they are: my top ten self-published book nitpicks. I had to learn all this shit too, of course, but basically what I am saying here is that if you can't work your way around your word processing program or other typesetting program, and you have no idea what sort of "pages" belong in your book and how to place and paginate them properly, and you are lacking the skill set needed to understand even the basic fundamentals of cover design [wicked ninja skills don’t count] then you need help and should not do it yourself. However, if you still feel compelled to do so without educating yourself, please do not submit the book to me for review if you can't take a rather stern critique about it. Self-published authors scream often enough about not being treated like professionals. Well, if that's what you want -- to be treated like a professional -- then why not put out a reasonably professional product. The readers expect nothing less and will notice your craptapulance. DIY has its limitations, sure, but it doesn’t have to be embarrassing.

Cheryl Anne Gardner

And yes, that is a real cover from a real book, and yes again, it is quite astoundingly bad in a very hilarious sort of way. Look at it for a minute and you’ll see what I mean.


Michael N. Marcus said...

>>Chapter starts . . . do not get headers or footers or page numbers either.<<

This may be OK for a novel, but with nonfiction, having page numbers on chapter starts will make it much easier for readers to find the chapter after looking at the table of contents.

With your recommended system, readers consult the table and then flip through the book to find a page number that doesn't exist.

What's the point? Why make it more difficult to navigate through a book.

Michael N. Marcus
-- Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
-- "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults),"

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Yes, Michael, agreed. I was speaking about Fiction, which is what we primarily review here.

Non fictionis a whole other ballgame and I defer to you on that.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I added a notation to the post for those who are unfamiliar with our review blog and don't know we review primarily fiction.