How to Cook the Look of Your Book

Total IndieChoosing Your Book’s Style

Consider a few things you know about style and perception:

  • A suit makes a more professional impression, right? Yet many consumers are more apt to trust a t.v. model in blue jeans and a t-shirt.
  • Worn clothes with holes reflect poor quality, yes? But have you ever seen anyone pay extra money for designer jeans that look worn and feature holes? And there is a famous tale where Ed McMahon sat down during a sales pitch, when the clients spotted a hole in the sole of his shoe and things began turn around favorably for him.
  • Would anyone be caught dead wearing outdated fashions? Yes! It happens all the time. Not everyone thinks the same way.

Now think about some things you may have heard regarding self-publishing:

  • Don’t include the word ‘by’ on the cover or the words THE END on the last page.
  • Justify full. Don’t use ragged right.
  • Times New Roman looks amateurish.
  • Show more, tell less.
  • We could make a really long list. Some designers are very picky.

There are reasons for these perceptions:

  • There are beautifully designed books that are recognized as top brands, like a Mercedes of books.
  • Some of the perceptions reflect what is typical of many traditionally published books.
  • Book designers want to sell their services, so they want authors to believe that they can’t design books well enough on their own.
  • Publishers, agents, and traditionally published authors want consumers to prefer traditionally published books, so they want to market the perception that their books are better.

Is It Really Better, or Is It a Matter of Style?

Here’s the funny thing.

Many readers may actually prefer to buy books that look a little self-published.

Who is your target audience?

  • If you expect to receive a lot of support from the millions of indie supporters—which include indie authors and their friends, family, acquaintances, coworkers, fan base— then you should design your book around people who will support self-publishing. They expect your book to look a little self-published. They expect your book to list CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform as the publisher; heck, many indie supporters specifically search for CreateSpace on Amazon, since they know they are supporting indie authors when they buy CreateSpace books (or when they buy Kindle e-books for which the paperback is a CreateSpace book).
  • Most readers who prefer model books buy traditionally published books. Starting your own imprint that nobody’s ever heard of isn’t likely to drive those readers away from the Big 5 publishers. (Though it is possible to come out with dozens of professional looking books and establish a significant small publisher label. If that’s your long-term goal, keep that in mind as you read this article, as things may be somewhat different for you.)
  • If your book is an apple, maybe you’ll have more success by making it look like a delicious apple, instead of trying to make it look like an orange. Even if you do persuade people to buy your orange, as soon as it tastes like an apple, your marketing will backfire. That is, dress your indie book up as an indie book and play the indie card; trying to make it look like something it’s not may actually backfire.

There are several reasons that indie supporters might prefer their books to look a little self-published.

  • If it reads a little self-published, it might be easier for indie supporters to read. Much of this audience isn’t looking for Pulitzer-Prize-winning fiction. Rather, they’re looking for easy reading, easy comprehension, vocabulary they can make sense of, and grammar that makes sense to them. Sometimes, the rules of grammar seem like they’re wrong when they’re right. For example, it’s correct to say, “It is I,” and incorrect to say, “It is me,” because conjugations of the verb “to be” take a subject instead of an object. But if you know and follow this rule, it might upset much of the indie support system.
  • Not everyone has the same style. People who favor the style of traditionally published books are more likely to favor those books. People hoping for something different are more likely to support indie books.
  • If your Look Inside appears too professional, it might seem that you’re already successful. Some readers are hoping to find a diamond in the rough—i.e. one that doesn’t look like a diamond, but turns out to be. They’d like to support someone who could use a boost.
  • If your Look Inside appears too good, it might be confused for a published book. Not by people looking for published books; they know the real thing when they see it. But by people looking to support books that appear to be self-published; they might get confused by the difference. (Naturally, there will be some exceptions.)
  • If your book has a bunch of five-star reviews early on, it may deter indie support. Traditionally published books are expected to have a lot of five-star reviews, and they send out hundreds of advance review copies to get them; their customers expect it. Indie supporters expect to see some criticism, and know that reviews are hard to come by (and that’s OK). While many readers will support indie authors, many change their attitude where they suspect abuse of the review system (keep in mind they are suspicious of critical reviews, too). Many stellar reviews, with no bad ones, without a sales rank (relative to the publication date) to suggest many sales, arouses customer suspicion.
  • If your book has a bunch of review quotes, you’re playing the same game as traditionally published authors. Readers of traditionally published books know those quotes will be there, but tolerate it. A great thing about indie books is that you often don’t have to put up with that. Talk about hand-picking just the best reviews, this common game among traditional publishers takes that to an extreme.

Notice what I didn’t say. I didn’t say that you could make your book very self-published. I didn’t say that editing, cover design, formatting, and such aren’t important.

I’m saying it’s okay to be different in some ways, but there are some ways where being different can really kill your sales. It’s important to learn the difference.

Don’t Take This the Wrong Way

There are, of course, very important exceptions:

  • The cover is vital. When I say it’s okay to look a little self-published, I mean in every way except for the actual ‘look.’ The cover absolutely has to please your target audience. It doesn’t need to be a cover cliché—like a hunk on a romance cover—but it does need to appeal to the style of your potential readers. Cover appeal is critical. Not everyone wears the same kind of clothing, but everyone has a sense of style and wears clothes that appeal to them. Design a cover that appeals to nobody and you’ll sell books to… nobody. (But you can get away with more in nonfiction. For example, it’s very important for the keywords of nonfiction books to stand out well, and this can make up for otherwise looking a little self-published. For fiction, visual appeal can be everything.)
  • Consistency is key. The most important factor in the design and writing of your book is consistency. Whether you use justified or ragged right isn’t as important as consistent formatting. If some paragraphs are justified, while others are ragged right, that book won’t appeal to anyone. Your book needs to have a definite style.
  • Editing does matter. It’s not so much about having perfect grammar, as it is about (A) having consistency, (B) knowing which rules you can or can’t break, and (C) not having many obvious mistakes. If you’re a writer, everyone who knows the difference between “your” and “you’re,” for example, will expect you to know such basic rules, too. The subtle rules you can get away with to some extent. Occasional mistakes are okay; frequent mistakes can be a disaster. And often the mistakes are far more frequent than the author realizes.
  • Bookstores are different. If getting bookstores to stock your book is important to you, then it’s very important to bring a highly professional looking book with you.
  • Image is everything. You’re trying to gain publicity, so you must be careful not to get negative publicity. For example, one of the big no-no’s is commenting on reviews. Reacting emotionally in the comments section can destroy your reputation even among indie supporters. You don’t have a free license to do whatever you want, if you wish to sell books successfully.

There are some highly popular self-published books (I won’t name names, but I bet you can think of a few) that gained their success while looking a bit self-published. There are some highly professional looking self-published books that are struggling to get by. Just making the book look professional isn’t, by itself, a sales magnet. Just like a salesman with a hole on the sole of his shoe, sometimes it might be best to look a little self-published. Not a lot. Just a little. In the right places.

Be Proud of Who You Are

  • I’m an indie, and I know it.
  • I’m proud to be an indie.
  • I wear the indie badge.
  • See my name. It’s right there.
  • I wear the name proudly, but I wear it well, too.
  • I work hard at it. I’m not lazy.
  • I strive to do my best. I learn more each day.
  • But I have my own style. And that’s okay.
  • I don’t go overboard.
  • I don’t try to be what I’m not.
  • I simply carry out my own style as best I can.
  • It’s not a solo act.
  • We indies are a team.
  • We support one another. Scrupulously, of course.
  • We hear your criticism. It motivates us to do even better.
  • Go, indies!


Chris McMullen

Copyright © 2014 Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

  • Volume 1 on formatting and publishing
  • Volume 2 on marketability and marketing

Follow me at WordPress, find my author page on Facebook, or connect with me through Twitter.


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10 comments on “How to Cook the Look of Your Book

  1. I never thought that someone might actually look for things to look a little amateurish when choosing what to read – tolerate it, yes; look for it, no.

    My mother taught us that we could have the best possible manners – perfect manners are not more expensive than ordinary ones, so why not have the best? I don’t mean snobbery – that’s not manners – but the kind of courtesy great people extend to everyone by their own generous nature.

    I always thought the same is true of independent publishing – that you are aiming for the highest quality product you can produce with reasonable effort. That you should learn the difference between homonyms – and make the effort to keep them straight. That you should make an effort to spell correctly; or, if creatively, consistently.

    That you should compare the ‘look’ of your interior print formatting to that of books from the big publishers, because those standards make the formatting transparent.

    I’ll have to mull this post over – it is quite original. I haven’t seen anyone express it in the same way you just did.


    • I like your analogy with good manners. Every book (and author, too) is unique, so the same approach doesn’t quite work for all. If, for example, you’re frequently stressing quality and describing what steps you’re taking toward building high quality for months as you prepare your book and create buzz, then you want a book that delivers on that promise.

      I see some authors investing over $1000 on book design, and I see some authors following one of the so-called recipes for success, saying to develop your own imprint, start a website (but not a blog), add FB and Twitter interaction to the blog but don’t use Likes and Follows, and many other things to try to look more like a traditionally published author. On the other side, I see some indie authors having success with the CreateSpace label, the personal interaction of a blog with Likes and Follows (in addition to FB & Twitter), spending under $100 on book design (but more, perhaps, on the cover), etc. Part of the motivation for my perspective in this article stems from this dichotomy.

  2. So, can’t publish big time because I’m an amateur, and I can’t publish as an amateur because I look too published – tough world we writers live in. Nice post once again. Some words and thoughts to think on.

  3. Interesting. I do think we should make our books look as good as we can – but I agree that might not mean making them look just like all the glossy mass-market stuff. As for reviews … I think that good reviews are always a good thing, though too many short, overly-hyperbolic ones can look suspicious.

    • Thank you for sharing your perspective. With paperbacks, it’s probably easier for indie authors to compete with trade paperback designs, rather than mass market, simply because it’s hard for p-o-d books to compete with mass market pricing; they also tend to have more of a niche audience that can command trade paperback pricing. That’s a good point about the nature of the reviews, too.

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