A Brief Guide to Preparing Your Book for Self-Publishing

A lot of writers who self-publish take the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach. Often, this is not so much a choice as it is a necessity: putting together a book can be very expensive—potentially thousands of dollars. Doing as much yourself as possible can go a long way toward keeping costs down.

The downsides to the DIY approach are lack of expertise, and lack of feedback. Most writers are not also designers or editors, which means that you may not have all the tools or skills that designers and editors bring with them. This, combined with insufficient feedback to alert you when your normal good sense has led you astray, increases the risk of your book ending up on a “lousy book covers” website, the bookshelves of your local thrift store, or both.

I am one of those people who does it all myself. Fortunately, I am a freelance copy editor, and I have graphic design training—but I still have to be careful. Although the nature of self-publishing means that they are relatively simple to correct, I have made mistakes while preparing my own books that I might have avoided with even one extra set of eyes to look everything over, or had I taken extra time to thoroughly review my work one last time.

Note that this guide is not intended to be comprehensive. Entire books are available covering the finer details of writing, editing, typography, and book design. Rather, this is a simple review of the basics.


One: Write Your Book

Your first priority should always be to write your book. The length and content of your manuscript will dictate the basic aspects of your book: size, length, interior layout, and cover design.

Two: Edit Your Book

I think it is safe to say that most writers recognize the importance of editing. It is so important, in fact, that a common piece of advice for cash-strapped authors is that editing is where you should spend most of whatever budget you have. A good editor can be invaluable; even if you don’t approve all their edits, their advice can help you see things that you may have missed, and craft a better book.

If you don’t hire an editor, give yourself extra time to edit.

Three: Design Your Book

This part of the process consists of two basic parts: cover design and interior layout.

The cover design is important because the cover creates a potential reader’s first impression of your book. This is where a lot of self-published books fail. Clichéd type choices, low-resolution images, and/or inappropriate (or just plain bad) layouts are commonly found on self-published books. They also disprove the notion that you can’t judge a book by its cover; sometimes you can—at least, in terms of design and layout.

The interior of your book is important because it determines the reading experience. When your page margins, paragraph alignment, line spacing (called leading), and typefaces work together properly, your readers won’t even notice them. Instead, they’ll be focused on the story you are telling. If any of these elements are off, your readers will know. Even if they can’t quite put their finger on what the problem is, they will have problems getting through the book. (In my case, I won’t even consider reading a book printed in a typeface I hate, because I know that it will distract me from the story.)

Four: Submit Your Book for Review

When you have completed your design and layout, and have your PDFs ready (one for the cover, one for the interior pages), it is time to upload your files for review. This is where your chosen service (e.g., CreateSpace, Blurb, Lulu) checks your files to make sure they meet the technical requirements for printing, and flags any potential problems for you to fix. (Unless you run afoul of their terms of service, they are not otherwise going to flag anything in the actual contents of your book.)

Five: Proof Your Book

Once your files have passed the technical review, you will be prompted to proof your book. You cannot skip this step—nor should you. This is your last chance to look for problems before you publish.

You do have options, though. You can review a digital proof, either through your service’s online reader, or by downloading the PDF proof they have created; or you can order printed proofs, where they send you printed copies that are identical to the ones people will purchase, except that they will have an extra page (usually in the back) with the designation Proof on it. Digital proofs are usually free; for the printed proofs, you will pay the cost of printing, sales tax, and shipping.

I recommend doing both digital and physical proofs, even if everything looks okay with the digital proof. Not only is it a good way to ensure that what you are seeing on the screen looks the way you want it to on the printed page, but it also provides you with your own copy of the book without having to take one out of inventory you intend to sell.

One caveat: Check the proofing policy of the service you use ahead of time. You should be able to make changes to your book for free—but some will charge a fee if you make more than one round of changes at this stage.

Six: Publish Your Book

Once you are happy with the results, approve the proof. This gives the service you are using the go-ahead to make your book available for sale through the designated channels.


One: Perfection Is Not Possible

Know before you start that your book is not going to be perfect. You may miss small things here and there, or start to doubt some of your choices. There will be some variations from copy to copy because of the nature of the printing process. This is normal. Books published by major publishing houses have errors in them. You actually have an advantage here, because you do not have to spend money on printing thousands of copies at a time; where Hachette or Random House have to wait for the next printing to correct problems they find, you just have to upload a corrected file. So don’t spend time obsessing over making everything perfect; you already have enough to worry about.

Two: Allow Extra Time

For every step you decide to handle yourself, allow extra time—and plenty of it. This is because we have a tendency to miss things when we are so familiar with the material; after a while, our eyes and brains work together to fill in the missing bits, so we don’t notice when that one word is missing from a sentence, or when that apostrophe shouldn’t be there. Instead, we see it as we want it to be.

First, you will want to give yourself time to take more passes reading through the material, so that what you miss one time you will catch the next.

Then you will want to give yourself time to take breaks, to step away from the book long enough so that you can return to it with fresh eyes.

The longer the book, the more time you should give yourself. This applies to all steps of the process.

Three: Follow the Specifications

Whichever service you use, they will have specifications and guidelines that you must follow when preparing your book for publication. Following them as closely as possible will help ensure that you run into fewer technical problems later on.

Four: Get to Know Your Software

Whether you are using a word-processing program (e.g., Microsoft Word), a writer-oriented program (e.g., Scrivener), or a page-layout program (e.g., Adobe InDesign, QuarkXPress), get to know your software. The instructions for setting up your documents and generating the files needed for printing will depend on which program you use.

Regardless of the software you use, an important feature to familiarize yourself with is paragraph styles. Simply put, a paragraph style sets the features (typeface, size, leading, etc.) for a particular component of your text. Often overlooked (most folks don’t realize the feature exists), paragraph styles can save you a lot of time, because they eliminate the need to go through the book to manually highlight and make changes to the text. Once paragraph styles have been applied, those changes can be made very quickly.

For example, if you decide to make a change to sub-headings, all you would have to do is to modify the paragraph style you created for them; all occurrences of the text to which that style is applied will update automatically.

Five: Choose a Design and Layout Appropriate for Your Book

The design and layout for your book should make sense for your book. A mystery novel will have different requirements than a physics textbook, for example. For your cover, the typefaces, artwork, and amount of information present on the front and back will all depend on what your book is about. Inside, the contents will determine typefaces, line length, paragraph alignment, whether or not to use columns, and so on.

Remember: your book is not a Word document, even if you are using one to prepare your book. The considerations are different. Whenever possible, look at several different books of the type you have written; this will give you a better idea of what you should be aiming for.

Six: Cover Design—Less Is More

In most cases, less is more when it comes to the cover—especially the front. The title, your name, and perhaps an image on the front are all you really need. You can have more stuff on the back—but don’t overdo it. At the very least, you will need the obligatory ISBN barcode; if you want to include more information, add a synopsis or teaser, a brief bio with small headshot, the name and logo of your imprint, and perhaps a blurb or two. Try to keep these things short, though; the more stuff you add, the less space you have to work with. A cluttered design looks bad. You can always add an extra page or two to the interior to accommodate any extra information—a longer synopsis or author bio, review excerpts, and so on.

Seven: Interior Layout

Your choices for the interior layout will depend even more heavily on the type of book you have written, but, in most cases, you will probably want to use a serif typeface with fully justified paragraphs. Sans-serif typefaces are best limited to headings (where applicable) or other short segments of text (e.g., sidebars).

Whether or not you fully justify your text, don’t be afraid of hyphenation; though it is true that you should avoid too many consecutive lines being hyphenated (more than two is frowned upon), allowing hyphenation can prevent awkward variations in word spacing from line to line of fully justified text, or wildly uneven line lengths with left-justified/ragged-right text.

Eight: Avoid Default Typefaces (Fonts)

Avoiding your software’s default typeface is usually a wise move—especially if you are using a word-processing program. This is not just because default typefaces are overused, but also because it will make your book look more like a word-processing document. Your readers will notice this, even if they don’t make the connection right away.

This is another good reason to check out books that are similar to yours. Often, the typefaces used are indicated in the front or back of the book. Or you can do a visual comparison between a book you like and your document, trying different fonts until you find a good match.

Nine: Some Commonly Used Typefaces to Avoid

An online search of “overused fonts” will bring up plenty of results that cover typefaces you should avoid—the ones that scream “amateur!” the loudest. Common entries on such lists include:

  • Apple Chancery
  • Arial
  • Bradley Hand ITC
  • Brush Script
  • Calibri
  • Cambria
  • Candara
  • Comic Sans
  • Copperplate
  • Courier
  • Curlz MT
  • Impact
  • Mistral
  • Papyrus
  • Times New Roman
  • Zapfino

A few others are sometimes listed as well; though not bad typefaces per se, they are either overused, or associated with specific uses:

  • Garamond
  • Helvetica
  • Palatino
  • Trajan (“the movie poster font”)

Ten: Have Someone Else Look at Your Book Before You Publish

Whether or not you have had anybody else working on your book as you were getting it ready for publishing, and whether or not you expect to be making changes, it is still a good idea to ask someone you trust to take a look at your formatted book before you upload it. They can help you spot any remaining errors you have missed, call your attention to things in the book that may benefit from clarification, and give you a better idea of how your readers are likely to respond.

A good way to go about this is to upload your PDF to a cloud storage service (e.g., Dropbox, Box, iCloud), then send a link to the file to the folks you ask for help. This way—especially for those using mobile devices—they have access to the file, but without a huge PDF eating up part of their monthly data allotment without their consent.

Eleven: Have Fun!

Remember, you are doing something that you have always wanted to do: you’re making a book. Enjoy the process as much as possible. Chances are that you’ll want to do it again—but if this is the only book you do, don’t you want to remember having had fun working on it?

(19 September 2016)