Adventures in Self-Publishing, Chap. 8: Designing the Interior of your Book

And indeed, I’ve been amazed at how terrible some self-published books look. One of the guides I bought, which is something of a bible on self-publishing and has gone through many editions over the past 20 years, truly looks like hell. Another, which includes hundreds of helpful – and long – Web links wasn’t coded with live links. Since you can’t cut and paste from most eBooks, that meant that I had to retype those long links, or come up with a Google search that would allow me to navigate to the same page.  Sigh.

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This is all pretty silly, because there’s no reason why you should be anything other than proud of your work once it reaches the market.  Here’s how to make sure that happens.

But first, we need to lob a few grenades at the publishing industry for its refusal to adopt a common format standard for publishing.  Remember standards?  This is, after all, the Standards Blog.

In a perfect world, when you finished writing and formatting your book to look just the way you’d like a reader to see it, you would simply open the “file/save as” option on your word processor, choose the appropriate file type, and then hit “enter.”  That file could then be uploaded to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google, any of the many flavors of POD publishers, or even a printer.  Minutes later, their site would automatically send page proofs back for your review.  All right, maybe it wouldn’t be quite that seamless, but close.

Unfortunately, as usual, the world we actually inhabit isn’t perfect.  In this case, the only reason it isn’t is because vendors like Amazon have insisted on using proprietary file types that help to lock you into their products.  This isn’t for lack of an appropriate standard, because since 2007 the ePub format has been available.  OpenOffice, among other software, already allows you to save a book manuscript as an ePub file.

Ironically, Amazon will even take delivery of a book in ePub form.  But then it converts it into its own proprietary format (called MOBI), which renders it inoperable on readers other than Kindle.  This not only locks you in (you couldn’t read the eBook you bought, for example, on a Barnes & Noble Nook), but it may screw up your carefully devised formatting as well.

Several years ago I described Amazon’s format gambit, and asked whether Amazon would be able to pull it off.  So far, unfortunately, the answer is trending towards “yes.”  As of February 2011, the Amazon/format MOBI commanded 58 percent of all eBook sales, while the ePub format, used by Barnes & Noble, Sony and many less well known eReader manufacturers, was used to create just c. 33% of all eBooks.  Apple’s own proprietary format trailed way behind, at 9%.  Sadly, books delivered in all-purpose formats (e.g., Adobe and ASCII) that could be read on any device often look pretty lousy on an eReader.

If you’re curious what the future may hold, here’s a good article.   The author, Bill Rosenblatt, asks whether Amazon will win, leading to a single (but closed and controlled standard), or lose (ideally leaving to a dominant open standard – ePub – and hopefully greater diversity and competition).  Spoiler alert: his conclusion is that the chance of the industry adopting a common format in the foreseeable future is, “Not bloody likely.”  Sigh.

If all this is ringing a dim historical bell, it should, because it wasn’t so long ago that the music industry was in the same groove.  In fact, the music industry still hasn’t settled in on a common format (MP3 and MPEG both coexist), but because of the dominance of Apple hardware, the lack of a common standard is less apparent to most users.

So for now, the bottom line is this:  you can’t simply save once and then send everywhere. That means that it’s a lot harder to act as your own publisher, and therefore more dependent on whatever intermediary site or service provider you use to help you get your book to market.

What you can do depends, as usual, on which route to self-publishing you choose.  If you decide to go the CreateSpace/Amazon route, you’ll format your book using the style directions at the CreateSpace site, and if you’re lucky, your file will convert into a pretty faithful layout.  If you’re not, you’ll have to keep working at it until you get it right.  So also at Google, Smashwords or any of the other sites where you can’t get formatting and layout assistance.

If you go this route, you won’t have a lot of choices about what your interior design will look like.  If you’re only interested in selling eBooks, where the reader itself tends to de-emphasize whether the display design is indifferent, this may not matter.  But if you want to also produce print books, not only may your design options be limited, but you may not be able to have your book printed on better-quality paper, either.

If you go to one of the full service POD publishers, you should be able to have your interior design come out pretty much how you want, through one of two routes: you can hire a free lance designer to work with, and then deliver printer-ready files to the POD Publisher, or work through the POD Publisher’s design team to design your interior layout and then process your final edits and formatting changes.

As I pointed out last week, I went the latter route, and have been extremely disappointed in how difficult it was to end up with what I wanted.  I had delivered a completely formatted file, and when I received the first draft back of the eBook, all of my formatting instructions had been ignored.  It took a while to get that sorted out, because I wasn’t allowed to communicate directly with the actual designers.  When that was all finally sorted out and the book appeared at Amazon, it turned out that all of the links were dead.  So new files had to be prepared and delivered to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.  Sigh.

When we moved on to the proofs for the print editions, once again, all of my instructions were ignored.  Worse, it turned out that the POD publisher uses a different design team for eBook and print books, and a different service person as well.  You can guess what happened next – the first pass proofs once again not only ignored all of my original instructions, but even the decisions I’d made on the eBook proofs.  Remarkably, the new intermediary was even annoyed that I assumed that the print team would bother to take a look at the eBook, or my comments on the eBook, before they did their layout work.  So I had to make all the same comments all over again, and wait through the delay of another design cycle.  Absolutely incredible.  If we ran our law firm the way this business runs theirs, we’d be out of business.  Sigh.

Given how difficult the design process can be, I would strongly advise going one of the following routes.

-> If you want to have one stop shopping and do everything through the POD Publisher, go to a library, and find a book with a layout you really like.  Check out the title page (pay attention to fonts, any graphic elements, like borders), copyright page (mostly text), first chapter page (pay attention to layout, fonts, font sizes, dividers or other graphic elements, initial drop caps, etc.) and standard text page (look at the headers and page number placement, paragraph indents, spacing between lines and paragraphs, and so on), and then photocopy the layout you like.

It doesn’t have to all come from the same book, either – you can pick a title page from one book, a first chapter page from a second, and a standard page from a third, although you’ll need to pick one font, or set of fonts, to use across all pages so your book doesn’t end up looking like a grab bag.  Turn these copies into PDFs, send them to the POD publisher, and voilà – you’ve avoided the whole communication morass.  All the designer will have to do is replicate the look and feel of what they see in the PDFs.  I would never work with a POD designer in any other way again.

->If you don’t mind doing a bit of extra shopping, find a free-lance book designer whose work you like, and work directly with her.  You’ll be able to talk and email directly.  This can be particularly useful if you really don’t know what you like, but do care about ending up with something you’ll be proud of.  Ideally you’ll be able to do the cover designs with the same person.

So there you have it.  Ending up with a clean, professional interior design doesn’t have to be hard at all if you know what you’re doing.  But if you don’t, it can be a pretty frustrating and miserable experience.

I sure wish I’d read this blog entry first.  Sigh.

Read the next chapter of Adventures in Self-Publishing here

Read the first chapter of this series here

Read Chapter 1 of The Lafayette Deception (the sequel to The Alexandria Project) here