Self-Publishing Rules

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

Years ago I kept the fact that I self-published a secret.  I published my first book in 2003, my second in 2007, and my third in 2010. Right around the time I was doing the second book all on my own, I read somewhere that you were supposed to try to make your book look like a traditionally published book as much as possible.  I guess it needed to blend in with the other books or no one would want to read it.  Otherwise, my book would be forced to sit on the back bookshelf or something.  Being new to all this, I followed protocol.

Three years later when I was ready to publish my third book, I still followed protocol but for different reasons. It was more about making my book look aesthetically pleasing to myself and to the readers, but I really wasn’t trying to cover up the self-publishing taboo.


Because I had accepted the fact that by now, readers didn’t really care about who published a book. They just wanted to read a good book. No one rushes out to see what great book Random House has coming out this week, but they do search to see what one of their favorite authors is doing this year.

When you are self-publishing, you should still follow the rules despite what technological age we are in these days. Here’s why…it’s not that your book should “blend in,” but your book should look and feel like the rest in your genre at least. There’s no reason to try to reinvent what’s worked for years and what society is accustomed to. Many will argue that self-publishing has changed those rules and that certain elements of a book don’t matter anymore. I do not agree, and I think that if you don’t follow the rules then your book ends up looking like a novice published it.

So, I’m going to tell you what the rules are.  I’ve discussed these before in numerous posts I’ve written about self-publishing, but it never hurts to recap since I’m sure those posts are buried out there on the blogosphere.  So here they are in no particular order…

  • Right margin justification!  This is my biggest pet peeve and I don’t mind calling authors out on it.  The jagged right margin is fine for your draft or for your writing class, but when it comes to physical publication, you better justify that right margin. Again, authors have tried to tell me it makes it easier to read.  I tell them to show me a traditionally published book with a unjustified right margin and I’ll shut up about it.  It doesn’t matter if you do this for Ebooks because guess what?  Ereaders justify that right margin automatically!
  • Page numbers!  Not needed for E-editions, but you better have them in your paperback edition.  More about these in a bit.
  • A decent cover!  Just google bad cook covers or lousy book covers if you need examples of what NOT to do. I’m not saying you have to invest money in something professional. Lots of self-publishing companies like CreateSpace even offer free book cover help that works just fine, so take advantage of this opportunities.
  • Get an ISBN.  Unless you are just publishing your book for friends and family, like maybe a small family cookbook or something, you need an ISBN for distribution and to get your book into the proper channels online. Again, most self-publishing companies will provide you an ISBN for free.
  • Headers and Footers. This is a gray area as to what the header should be for a fictional piece. Most of the time you can get away with just your title as the header, and the page numbers as the footer. I like to alternate the header between my name and the title of the book, and my footer is always the page numbers. No reason to get fancy. It’s tough sometimes to get the alternation right.  But guess what? You don’t need either for Ebook formats. Page numbers don’t exist in Ereaders since the size of the font can be adjusted, and Ereaders like Kindle will just use the title of your book as a header automatically.
  • Editing.  There was a time when I tried to do all my editing myself. I don’t anymore. And you shouldn’t either. Get help. No one likes to read a book full of mistakes, and these days reviewers will call you out for it. So take the time to get some help.
  • Proper front matter. Your paperback book should at least have a title page and copyright page.  You can also include a table of contents and dedication page if you want.  Need help formatting this?  Grab 10 traditionally published books from your shelf or from the library, and study the set up of their front matter pages.  You’ll definitely see a pattern.  And yes, Ebooks are different here too.  Less front matter is needed as most Ebooks start right on the first page of text.  I have seen some even put the copyright information in the back.

So there ya have it! Some simple rules that all self-published authors should follow. Like I said, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Traditional published books follow these guidelines, and its what readers are accustomed to.  So follow the rules if you want your work to at least look professional.

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