30 Telltale Signs of a Self-Published Book

Many people believe that they can spot a self-published book by merely observing its cover. However, there are far more things on the inside of a book that may earmark it as self-published. Some of these oversights have to do with editing issues while others have to do with interior design issues. With respect to a book’s interior, how can you almost always tell that a book is self-published?

1. Inconsistency with regard to dashes

Many self-published authors commingle hyphens and dashes. Never use a hyphen when what is called for is a dash. Hyphens look like this (-) while dashes look like this (–) or, more commonly, like this (—). The shorter dash is called an en dash (the width of the capital letter N in any given font) and the longer dash is called an em dash (the width of the capital letter M in any given font). Also, with respect to book publishing, never use double hyphens (–) when what is called for is a dash.

2. Use of too many boldface words and/or too many italicized words

The overuse of these stylistic devices not only makes the text look busy but will also serve to patronize the reader.

3. Spelling and punctuation inconsistencies

An edit style sheet can ensure consistency with respect to spelling and punctuation (e.g., Web site vs. website, toward vs. towards, thank you vs. thank-you)

4. Failing to include standard information on the book’s title page

There are five pieces of information that appear on a book’s title page: the book’s title, its subtitle (if applicable), publisher’s name, author’s name, and company logo—and in that order. It is not acceptable, for example, to include only the book’s title on the title page.

Contrast this with a half-title page, which when used, comes before the title page and it should only contain the title of the book.

5. Overuse of exclamation points (!) and/or overuse of ellipsis (…)

With respect to exclamation marks, while it is common practice nowadays to liberally use exclamation marks when texting, tweeting, or emailing, it is not considered acceptable to “sprinkle” them throughout your text in formal publishing. With respect to ellipses, many self-published authors appear to use ellipses to give their writing a sense of informality. In formal writing, it is not acceptable to use ellipses to string written thoughts together; a better practice is to say what you have to say and err on the side of using standard punctuation.

6. Not controlling for orphans or widows

Orphans and widows usually refer to words and phrases that are left dangling at the bottom and tops of pages. Without getting distracted by the definitions of orphans and widows, here is a brief summary of things to avoid: 1) Do not let a paragraph end with a single word left on a separate line. That is, don’t let a single word sit at the bottom of a paragraph on a single line by itself; 2) Do not let a paragraph begin or end with a single sentence that appears on a separate page. That is, for paragraphs that continue from one page to the next page, there should be at least two sentences at the bottom of the first page and/or at least two sentences at the top of the following page.

7. Problems with hyphenation

Words that form compound adjectives are hyphenated. However, when these same words are not used as compound adjectives, they are not hyphenated. So we would write “step-by-step approach,” but would write “approach the problem step by step” (not “approach the problem step-by-step”).

8. Not writing out numbers from one to nine

Numbers from one to nine are written out and are not written as numerals (notwithstanding some subtle exceptions). Do not write “There are 2 or 3 reasons…” but rather write “There are two or three reasons…”

9. Inconsistent use of periods for information contained in lists

When bullet points are used for information contained in lists, if the information set off by a bullet point is a complete sentence, it will be followed by a period. If the information set off by a bullet point is not a complete sentence, it will not be followed by a period.

10. Use of too many different font styles and/or too many different font sizes

11. Mixing of single and double quotation marks

Use single quotation marks in some places and double quotation marks in other places. With few exceptions, double quotation marks are required in American English (or books published according to The Chicago Manual of Style).

12. Inconsistent capitalization of words in a title and putting periods at the end of titles or at the end of headers within the body of the text

13. Putting page numbers (and/or page headings or footers) on “blank” even-numbered pages

14. Use of overly large paragraph indents

15. Use of Times New Roman (serif) and/or Ariel (sans serif) as the main font in your book

These two fonts are default fonts in Microsoft Word®. It is not the case that these are “bad” fonts, technically speaking, but rather they are so overused that they are not considered acceptable for use in book publishing.

16. Inconsistent punctuation with regard to the abbreviations e.g., i.e., e.g. and i.e.

In American English, a comma follows the second period in these abbreviations. In British English, a comma is not used.

17. Use of hyphens when an en dash is called for. In other words, write “pages 15–17,” not “pages 15-17.”

Note that an en dash, when as used in this manner, takes the place of the word “to.” In other words, the en dash translates as “to” and we can read this as “pages 15 to 17.”

18. Indexes—avoid “strings of unanalyzed allocators”

If an entry appearing in an index contains, say, fifteen or more page references, the entry in all likelihood needs to be broken up into sub topics.

19. Using asterisks for section breaks

With the exception of ebooks, the use of asterisks (that is, ***) is best avoided in print publishing as it suggests a lazy publisher. It is best to choose among a myriad of alternative stylistic symbols that can take the place of asterisks.

20. Combining bolds, caps, and underlining

There is an unwritten rule in publishing that we should never bold text, place it in capitals, and underline it. In other words, any two of these three treatments is acceptable but not all three.

21. Placing the copyright page on an odd-numbered or right-hand page

The copyright page is placed right behind the title page. It is always a “left-hand” page and never a “right-hand” page.

22. Starting chapters on even-numbered pages (also known as left-hand pages)

With respect to nonfiction books, we typically begin chapters on odd-numbered pages (right-hand pages). With respect to fiction books, particularly commercial fiction released as mass market paperbacks, new chapters may start on either even-numbered pages or odd-numbered pages.

23. Tables: cramming text in tables and not leaving enough space around words in a table

24. Using only rounded black bullets—not varying the type of bullets in bulleted lists

25. Using straight quotations marks when curly quotation marks are called for

There are two different styles of quotation marks: straight quotes and curly quotes. Straight quotes are also known as computer quotes or typewriter quotes. Curly quotes are commonly referred to as smart quotes or typographer’s quotes. For the purpose of publishing (printed) documents, we want to make sure we always use curly quotes and avoid straight quotes. Correct: “I’m happy.” (curly quotes) Incorrect: “I’m happy.” (straight quotes)

26. Failing to use a larger inside gutter as opposed to an outside gutter

The inside gutter of a book (that is, the border that faces the spine) should be larger than the outside gutter (page margin).

27. Leaving two spaces after periods rather than one space

28. Indenting the opening paragraph that begins a chapter or a new section

29. Putting the word “by” before the author’s name

On the book’s title page, the name of the author or authors is not preceded by the word “by.”

30. Using the wrong apostrophe to represent missing letters: rock ’n’ roll vs. rock ‘n’ roll

Note that when apostrophes are used to represent omitted letters, they are always “nines” not “sixes.” This means they curl backwards not forwards.

— Brandon Royal, www.brandonroyal.com

Self-Publishing Bloopers by Brandon Royal ©2016

2 thoughts on “30 Telltale Signs of a Self-Published Book

  1. Though I concur with most of your list (with the exception of Numbers 26 and 29, as described below), the items could really be organized more logically into six or seven categories similar to those in the CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE or other typical grammar/usage books. For instance, hyphens/dashes are the subject of three entries and punctuation comprises seven entries. And technically, hyphens could be included with punctuation. But that’s not critical—it just seems that the article bounces around from one category to the other.

    As for Number 26 and 29, I’m sure that these entries would be relevant in specific instances, as would Number 7. But it’s not accurate to say that they apply under all circumstances.

    Generally speaking, the inside gutter should be narrower than the outside margins, and the bottom margin should be taller than the top margin. This is because a print book should allow sufficient room for the reader’s hands to hold the book without obscuring the main text. And from an esthetic standpoint, the opened two-up spread should look like a single spread, not two completely separated pages. This may not apply to nonfiction, where centering is an esthetic and spreads are less embedded in the expected reader experience than they are with fiction.

    Number 29 may be more a throwback to an earlier time than it is a contemporary consideration. Most adult fiction today does not use “by” on the cover or the title page. Meanwhile, the majority of children’s books include “by” on the cover and the title page. This includes recent Caldecott and Newbery winners. And for what it’s worth, I dug out some old first editions by traditional houses and found a variety of attributions on the covers and title pages, including using “by” on both. Anyway, my points with this one are that this item varies considerably by genre. In fact, NOT putting “by” and “illustrated by,” or similar text, is considered an error in children’s publishing in most cases. And not having your text match for library catalogs may hinder creation of a catalog record.

    As for Number 7, this varies not only by genre (most adult fiction spells out most numbers, especially in dialogue, whereas some STEM titles use numerals for every number regardless of size. It varies more by the publisher’s style sheet (or the the project manager’s pet peeves) than it does by any consistent standard in the trade.


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