Published: April 1, 2014

Part Four in a series on self-publishing vs. professional publishing

Look inside one of your favorite books. Now take a look at a Word document.

You can see the difference right away. A professionally published book has been honed by formatters and production editors who follow the intricate and sometimes obscure rules of their craft to produce a book that is visually comfortable to read. A Word document—along with many self-published books that look like Word documents—has not.

The difference is important. Self-published books often break the rules of book production and ignore best practices of design, typesetting, use of white space, margins, gutters, heading styles, and line breaks. As a result, the pages look inconsistent and even confusing.

You might wonder why any of this matters. To the book business, it does. If your book looks amateurish, you can be sure it will be hard to sell in a bookstore. Worst of all, people might not take you seriously. They might assume your writing is on par with the shoddy appearance. They might be wrong; your text could be brilliant. But your readers may move on without giving what you wrote a chance.

Some Rules for Easy Reading

Let’s start with the font. Most self-publishers use one of the basic fonts available in Word, or they download a font for free, which is frequently too fancy for the task. Professionals, on the other hand, look for fonts that suit the category of book, and the subject, and that are high in readability. Generally most books do not require more than two styles of fonts to be used throughout them.

To format their books, the pros also typically use InDesign, publishing software that gives them fine control over how type sits on the page. For instance, with the publishing software the designer is able to build a design grid that can specify the number of lines on the page, the length of the lines, the depth of the gutter and outer trim margins, and placement of the folios. The designer creates style tags that define each of the text elements found in the manuscript. These style tags are then used when formatting the book to ensure text style consistency throughout the entire book. The publishing software allows the designer control over line spacing and even the letter spacing. This line-by-line and letter-by-letter care makes the book more readable, more visually appealing, and distinguishes a professionally published book from a self-published one.

Some of the the rules of typesetting may seem arcane, until, for example, you think about word breaks. You don’t want to see pe- on one line and -ople on the next. Bad breaks like u-se look terrible, and they’re hard to read.

You should also be able to easily distinguish between a main heading and a subheading. A heading hierarchy should be established by the designer that visually defines all headings used in the manuscript in descending order of importance. Yet in the self-published world, the distinction between different levels of headings is often fuzzy and can make an author’s argument hard to follow.

There are also guidelines on line length. Why does this matter? If the line is too long, part of it will be buried in “the gutter,” which is the inside margin between two pages. In this unhappy case, you have to crack the spine to read the full line!

Proofreading is another key part of the production process. Professional proofreaders pay attention to the details. They seek consistency not only in style and grammar, but also in how the type appears on the page. It’s their job to fix the bad breaks, to police the consistent application of the design and the proper use of headings or text features, including any improper paragraph indentations or bad word and letter spacings.

Fine production makes a long text easier to read. It’s one of the subtle but important differences between a self-published book and a professionally published one.

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