The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Print Design: Three Book Formatting Flaws and How Indie Authors Can Avoid Them

My Sunday long runs often take me past the local Little Free Library (LFL), and I can never resist a peek inside the charming hutch. Two new additions the other weekend immediately caught my eye. Once was a phased-out library hardcover of Douglas Adams’ sci-fi classic The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which I immediately snatched up. (It wouldn’t be the first time I ran a few miles home while clutching a book.) The other, a paperback of prodigious dimensions, made my Indie Instincts tingle.

I pulled out the book and examined it. Yep, definitely self-published, likely placed by an entrepreneurial local author. I can’t fault the tactic—I’ve slipped copies of my books into LFLs all over the area—but this particular novel exhibited three fatal formatting flaws that made me shove it right back into the box. I won’t give the title, because the following critique isn’t about shaming, merely a case study, an accidental hitchhikers’ guide to poor print design. So what made me abscond with Douglas Adams and leave this other book behind?

1. Convoluted Cover 

Think back to the last time you scanned a row of books. Do you stop to decipher ornate, ambiguous script? Unless you’re seeking a specific title, probably not: our eyes seem to absorb words almost unconsciously and skim past interruptions in the flow. The spine might be the first and only angle of your book people see. Given that one chance to pique their interest, it makes sense to choose a clear, unambiguous font. This book’s spine was nearly impossible to read. Normally I’d have overlooked it amid the other, more readily accessible titles.

On this occasion, I picked it up in the name of research. Alas, the front cover used the same illegible font as the spine, and its color blended into the artwork, making it even more difficult to parse. A solid block of minuscule text filled the back cover. The first paragraph was a single run-on sentence. Writing a good “blurb” can be harder than writing a 600-page book, I know, but it a critical element of a compelling cover. Dull or dense copy normally makes me set the book back where I found it. This time, however, it just made me dread what questionable formatting lay inside.

Two paperback books, "Blue Karma" and "Syzygy"
Did I follow my own advice? Would these covers catch your eye on a book display?

2. Funky Fonts

With some trepidation, I turned to the first page. My eyeballs shriveled behind my Oakleys. I don’t think I’d ever seen a book printed in Courier New. And I don’t think I want to ever again. Self-publishing affords wonderful creative control; it’s one of the reasons I chose that path. But that power demands restraint. Just as readers have certain expectations for genre, we’re used to a limited range of physical formatting, too. A common Times New Roman melts easily in front of the eyes. Courier New looks like a declassified government UFO report from the 1950s. It might be a valid style choice for certain stories, like an epistolary mystery comprised of police documents. But this was a fantasy novel. I found the unconventional font both visually unpleasant and thematically dissonant. Readers may prize originality in fiction, but not so much in font usage. Choose something unobtrusive so people can focus on your story.

3. Proofread, Please!

If that harsh script contained a brilliant narrative, I never reached it through the minefield of text errors on the first pages. Occasional typos are nearly unavoidable, even in the most vaunted books (I found one earlier this year in a Pulitzer-prize-winning history tome). But this one ignored basic formatting conventions, such as rendering small numbers as words. Any competent copy editor would have corrected that. I suspect this author skipped proofreading entirely.

“I can’t afford an editor!” impecunious writers may cry. Can you afford to lose readers (and sales)? Because that’s the risk you run with a messy manuscript. The most common complaint I see in reviews of indie books is “full of errors”. In a publishing environment where reader ratings can make or break an indie author’s success, editing costs avoided up front may cost in the long run. Not all pro editors are prohibitively expensive. If nothing else, barter with a well-read friend or fellow writer. Respect your audience, and your own story, enough to present a clean copy.

Conclusion: Keep it Clean

Indie authors can’t just indulge their own whims. We also must think of our readers, and give them the best possible experience if we want to earn their loyalty for future books. Don’t panic! Print formatting doesn’t have to be complicated, just clean. My pocket-sized hitchhiker’s guide to self-publishing in print has just four cardinal compass points:

  • Get the manuscript proofread
  • Ensure both exterior and interior fonts are easy to read
  • Choose a cover design that pops (especially the spine)
  • Write a pithy, enticing blurb (250 words, max)

Whatever type of book you write, good formatting improves its chance at staying in a reader’s hands. Perhaps my local compatriot discovered as much, since a handwritten note inside the cover indicated a forthcoming revised edition. That made me smile. There’s no map for an indie author’s journey, but if you take a wrong turn, it’s always in your power to change direction.

What formatting elements in books make you cringe? Are there any design choices that prompt you to pick up a book, or set it aside? Let’s discuss it in the comments.

2 thoughts on “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Print Design: Three Book Formatting Flaws and How Indie Authors Can Avoid Them

  1. When I wrote the first attempt on the blurb for my WIP, it was at 210 words and, when asking for feedback, told it was too long. I was recommended to keep it around 100, worst case 150.
    And you’re right, undecipherable fonts and far too ‘busy’ cover are bad – just as bad as far too simple cover.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Valid point on blurb length; the back cover copy on both my books is under 200 words. Shorter is almost always better. It should be just enough to get the reader to page one!


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