I’ve had a chance to read a bunch of self-published books lately, and not e-books but actual paper books made possible by the magic of print-on-demand (POD). This technology is helping to fuel the new indie, self-pub, and micro-press “boom” and it’s a powerful tool even for major, established publishing houses. Services like CreateSpace and Lulu make it almost as fast, easy, and cheap as publishing an e-book.

But there is something you need to keep in mind before you release that indie POD edition. E-books tend to be pretty format-agnostic. The e-book resellers have a strict set of guidelines and since your readers will have the ability to zoom in and out, etc., the formatting rarely makes any difference. E-books are all about the text (or almost all, anyway), but when you go the POD route you really have to understand how to format text that looks professional and is readable and inviting for your potential audience.

Why look professional? I hope I don’t really have to answer that. Authors, by now should know that once you make the decision to self-publish you’re adding “publisher” to your list of job duties and you owe it to yourself, your book, and your readers to put out as professional a product as humanly possible. Tough love here, people: Crappy formatting does not lend your indie book “charm” it just says, “I have no idea what I’m doing here,” and that’s not charming it’s actually disrespectful to your audience, much less to centuries of the art and craft of making books.

That having been said, my best advice is to hire a typesetter. There are freelancers out there, good ones, who can do it for you. This makes your POD book a bit more of an investment, but you should also be paying an editor, a proofreader, and a cover designer, too, so anyone who thinks that self-publishing is “free” is just self-publishing badly.

There is much less patience these days for badly-produced indie books. You’re now competing with “the big dogs” and the bar is set high.

Now, I get it. I don’t have unlimited resources myself, so there are some things you’re going to have to figure out how to do on your own, but that means you have to figure out how to do it on your own, not just not do it. No one ever said this was going to be easy (except maybe Amazon, Lulu, B&N . . .).

Yes, you can “typeset” your POD book in Word. I would recommend learning InDesign, but even buying that software is a real investment, so okay, go ahead and use Word, but if you’re going to do that, for the love of all that’s holy, at least follow these few simple tips:

No spaces between paragraphs.

Find any book by any major publisher—any novel that is—and look at the paragraphs. There are no spaces between the paragraphs in that novel. You shouldn’t even have those spaces in your manuscript. Your paragraphs should end with a paragraph mark, not a manual line break (turn on your invisibles to see the difference), and should begin with an . . .

Indent of reasonable proportions.

Your basic formatting will want to set your indents at 0.5”, which is fine for a manuscript, but way, way too deep for a book. I think 0.2” is pretty good. Again, compare what you have to what professionals are doing and fiddle with it until they look the same.

Headers and footers are HARD.

There are ways to suppress headers and footers (including page numbers) so please, please, please figure out how to do that. There should never be a header, footer, or page number on a blank page, or a header on a chapter opening page, ever. There should never be page numbers in your front matter. For the record, front matter is everything that comes before the actual story starts: a title page, a legal/copyright page, maybe a dedication, etc. You can set the page numbers to start at 1 on the first text page, or go Old School and let the story start on, say, page 7. I don’t really care either way, just no page numbers in the front matter, ever. Likewise, no page numbers on any blank pages or extra stuff in the back, except excerpts, which can either start renumbering at the start of the excerpt or not, up to you, but anyway at least change the header to identify the new book. No header, footer, or page number with stuff like the author bio, acknowledgements, etc. in the back.

No script, no sans serif.

Nothing moves me to angry, almost violent temper fits like an entire 90,000 word novel set in Arial or Helvetica. If I wanted to read this on the web, I would, but sans serif fonts are hard to read in large blocks of text and nothing, but nothing, screams “rank amateur in the hizzy” louder than sans serif text. If you have passages you want to set apart that come from diary entries, etc., you may be tempted to set that in some fancy script font like Lucinda Calligraphy. For the love of God, you must do everything in your power to resist that temptation. Leave that, and other script fonts, for your wedding invitations. The people you send those to will know how to contact you to confirm all that information they can’t read.

Back to front matter.

If you try to sell me your next book in the front of the book I’m reading now I will hate you forever. Ads in the back, only in the back, and never anywhere else but the back. That says, “Hey, thanks for reading all the way through, here’s the next one!” Putting it up front says, “You are holding in your hands a catalog.” I don’t read catalogs cover to cover. Do you? A series list is fine, by the way, just keep it as stripped down as possible.

Before I tell you a story, Mr. Bond.

How much background do you really want on a novel before you start reading it? Answer: None. A lot of people put short acknowledgements up front and that’s fine—thank a few key people and get on with it. If you’re certain you need a detailed introduction to describe your setting, your writing process, your career as a whatever-it-is-the-protagonist-does-for-a-living, or anything other than “Thanks Mom, editor, and cover designer, and this book is dedicated to my spouse,” then you need to seriously consider whether or not your novel actually stands on its own.

A Tale of Two Punctuation Marks.

This is an em-dash—and this is not – nor is this – -. Notice that the em-dash (which comes from old-school typesetting—a dash as wide as the lowercase m in that font) has no spaces before or after it.

Straight quotes are bad. Set your smart quotes so that opening quotes “look like that and closing quotes look like this.” For the rare instance of single quotes, this is an apostrophe’ and ‘that was an opening single quote. See the difference?

And wow, there are more. Stay tuned . . .


—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. abuzzinid says:

    Thank you!!! Yes, yes, yes.

    I just finished formatting a book for a client fro CreateSpace. While she had already formatted the ebook versions, she was burned out and couldn’t face the POD. I formatted the POD according to the standards you mentioned (I might have screwed up on the first line indents!) plus more–starting chapters on the odd page, etc. She was thrilled with the “professionalism” when she saw the final product.

    I was discussing with a writing friend the joy of knowing it would look “like a real book” when someone buys it. She said she rarely buys self-pubbed books for that reason. She likes the feel of a physical book but can’t stand reading a badly formatted one.

    How many authors are suffering from this reputation of POD in general?

  2. Jevon says:

    I’ve been considering self-publishing, ebook or print, if I can’t find an agent for my novel, so this is really good to know. I heard that I should hire an editor and a cover designer, but didn’t know I also needed a typesetter and a proofreader. Damn. Do you have an estimate or an example of how much all four services will cost? It would be nice to know what kind of budget I should be working with.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Those fees can vary and I’ve seen editors charge as little as a couple hundred bucks up to mid-four-figures. There are various organizations that can help you find an editor/proofreader. I belong to the Northwest Independent Editors Guild. You can find them at: http://www.edsguild.org

      Some editors can do the typesetting for you, too, or at least the e-book formatting, so inquire about that service at the same time. Be prepared to pay by the word, page, or hour, so very very long epic fantasies, for instance, can run you $1000 or so, easily.

    • abuzzinid says:

      Heh, heh, heh! Anywhere from a few hundred to your left arm.

      Each printer has services for hire and those figures can give you a ballpark. Freelancers may be more or less but you may get more personalized service and better, more timely communication–I would expect both. It varies by project, too. Some are by length, some are by project. Realisticaly, the whole thing will run from $500 (a real bargain) on up.

      I paid $225 for a general edit for story, voice, etc. but didn’t know the editor really preferred non-fiction. A very expensive workshop (about $2K) was worth ten times the price and they only looked at the first fifty pages. The difference in info I received was staggering. Yes, the workshop taught a lot of principles and wasn’t directed at my work specifically, but the feedback I received from the 5 staff members was priceless.

  3. I’m going to be self-publishing soon myself.
    My question refers to the Mr. Bond part of this post. I’ve been hearing some people say recently that ‘MOST’ people do not read prologues. Is this what you mean in that statement?
    I’ve questioned a lot of readers and over 90% of them (at least 40 people) say they read everything the author has to say, prologue, story and epilogue, even prefaces.
    Some people argue what’s the point if it’s not in the main story. What is your take on this?
    For me, prologues are something that not describe a world, but more of a warming the reader up kind of thing. For instance in one story I was working on I started the book with the main character’s dying breaths, and then it jumps back in time to tell the story from the beginning.
    A professor highly criticized me for doing this.

    • Philip Athans says:

      I absolutely DID NOT mean you should cut your prologue. People who say that no one reads the prologue are nuts, that’s a part of your story–a part of your text. What you’re describing is a terrific set-up/prologue. Leave that, just don’t step out of the story and describe how you wrote the book, the research you did, etc.

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