Going on the Cheap

Don’t do it. There. End of lecture.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that’s all it took?

If you’re a writer and if you’re serious about your work and if you want others to take you seriously, invest in your product (your writing, your cover, your book).

The rest of this post is assuming that you already are investing time and money into learning your craft (writing).

But the actual writing is only the beginning of the finished product. If you slap an amateur cover on your story, very few people will bother even picking it up. And even if it has a great cover, if the writing is replete with errors or the formatting is off— Well, let’s just say you’d be better off fishing than writing.

I’ve never understood this kind of reasoning. By all accounts, some people spend YEARS writing and polishing a novel. Then they have some amateur do the copyedit. They have another amateur do the cover. (Don’t try to convey the story on the cover. That’s amateur mistake number one.) Then they have yet another amateur do the formatting.

Seriously? Is that all your writing is worth to you? If so, what makes you think it’s gonna be work anything to a reader?

But you do have choices.

You certainly CAN do all those things yourself.

But you have to invest the time to educate yourself. There is a learning curve to being able to correctly format an ebook or lay out a print book. There is a learning curve to being able to grasp even the basics of cover design.

And you have to invest the money in professional programs (I recommend Serif’s PagePlus) so you can create your own eformatting and print layout and ebook and print covers.

Or you can invest money in paying other people—professionals, not amateurs—to do those things for you.

So what brought this up?

I recently was privy to see a piece of complete and utter literary garbage that was (from the front matter of the book) “printed with the Espresso Book Machine at The University of Arizona Main Library.” I kid you not.

Now it is not my intention to embarrass the author or the formatter. So if you know who he, she or they are, or if you think you know, please keep it to yourself. My only intention here is to use this excellent example of terrible formatting to provide you with a lesson in professionalism.

I can’t say whether the author believes that particular book has now been “published” by the U of A (it hasn’t) or what. Maybe the author uses the service because it’s free. I don’t know. What the “Espresso Book Machine” turned out was so terrible, I won’t even do the few minutes’ research to find out what it costs, whether it’s free, or anything else about it.

What I will tell you is this: Garbage in, garbage out. As I wrote earlier, even if your writing is excellent, if the formatting of the document you feed into the machine looks like garbage, what you get back will look like garbage.

Here’s my brief review. Remember, this is all formatting stuff, stuff that could EASILY be fixed if the person who formatted it had only cared enough about the final product to take the time.

The Table of Contents — The title of this page (Table of Contents) was in the same font, same size, and same attribute (normal, not bold, etc.) as the chapter heads or story heads listed below it. Capitalization of titles varied within the TOC and from the TOC to each individual actual story. The TOC itself was hokey. First was the title of the story, then a space, then the word “page” (yes, lowercase) and then a span of pages, for example 3-16. So in the table of contents, my fictional listing would look like this:

This Is The title Of my story                page 3-16

Overall Layout of the Book — The inside front cover (apparently) was the only title page. The title was at the top, the author’s name was near the bottom, and a page number was at the center bottom. (The title page should not be numbered.) There was no publishing information on the title page. (Usually the publishing company name and city is displayed there.)

The next page was the copyright page. It stated the year of copyright, but failed to mention in whose name the book is copyrighted. Seriously? Then the formatter skipped a line and inserted a dedication. Skipped another line and inserted permission for teachers to reprint parts for classroom use. (Yeah, that’s gonna happen.) Skipped one more line and added a simple disclaimer. Then skipped a few lines and inserted a brief paragraph blaming the Espresso Book Machine for this travesty, although that isn’t how they put it. Oh, and lest we forget, the copyright page is numbered page 2.

Page 3 is the previously discussed TOC, and the first story began on page 4, a recto. Later in the book, some stories began on the verso (left page of an open book, as they should) and some on the recto (right page of an open book).

Finally, on most pages the text began at the top of the page, but on some it began one or two lines down. The same spacing discrepancy appeared at the bottom of many of the pages.

Titles of the Stories — The titles of the stories were the same font, font size and font attribute as the body of the stories. (Usually the title is bold attribute and/or a larger font size. Sometimes it’s even a different but complementary font face.)

As I mentioned in the section on the TOC above, the titles of the stories varied with regards to capitalization. The fictional title above that read “This Is The title Of my story” in the TOC might have read “This is the title Of my Story” above the story in the book. I’m not kidding.

The position of the titles at the top of the page also varied. Some were left justified and some were centered. I suppose we could say it was a win that none of them was right justified, but was it really?

Apparently no standard was applied. The key for good and efficient formatting is standards. They can be your own, but you have to have them, and you have to apply them evenly throughout the work.

The Body of the Stories — The body of the first story was double-spaced with no extra spacing between paragraphs and with the first line of paragraphs indented. It would have been perfect if it were single-spaced. (Remember, this is for a print book.)

Hyphenation obviously was not turned on. As a result the text is broken irregularly with rivers of wide white space running diagonally through the text.

That formatting lasted from page 4 (the first page of the first story) through the first full paragraph on page 8. After that there was an extra space between that paragraph and the next. Then it returned to no spacing after paragraphs until page 13, where the anomaly happened again.

Then it continued normally again until page 17 where the anomaly occurred twice in a row. Finally the story ended suddenly without any sort of signifier such as “The End” or a series of asterisks or a demand to “Go Away.”

The second story was formatted differently. It was left justified, single spaced, with a space after each paragraph, and without first-line indents. Great for a blog post. Pretty good even for some nonfiction print applications. Not so much for a story in a collection of short fiction.

The third story was formatted the same as the second, except in some places it looked as if there was no space between two paragraphs.

The next several stories were formatted the same as the second and third, with no first-line indent, block paragraphs, left justified, and a space between paragraphs. Except sometimes there were two spaces between paragraphs.

About the only thing that was consistent (except among titles) in the formatting of this book was that it was left justified. And that’s the easiest overall problem to fix. Most books of this type are full justified.

This truly was an ugly, ugly book. You’ve heard the jokes. They all apply. “This book is so ugly it would make a train take a dirt road.” “This book is so ugly when it walked into the library they turned off the cameras.” “This book is so ugly, if the author dropped it off at a school he’d get a ticket for littering.”

Oh yes. It was that ugly. And I make that assessment without having actually read so much as a coherent sentence of the actual writing. I never got anywhere close to actually reading. Would you?

Now again, to be fair, the Expresso Book Machine is ONLY a machine. It was not at fault for this thing. Whoever formatted the Word file for the author was at fault. The author should fire whoever laid out this travesty, immediately and with extreme prejudice.

Even if it was the author himself.

Maybe ESPECIALLY if it was the author himself.

Do you understand? If you put out a piece of garbage like this, it won’t matter how good the writing is because the reader won’t get that far.

So as I wrote at the outset, when it comes to downgrading your own work by going on the cheap, Just Don’t Do It. If nothing else, when you’re ready to get a cover and format or lay out your book, think for a moment about the effort you put into writing it. Then simply respect that effort.

And if you want a great copyeditor and formatter (both ebook and print) and cover designer, check out Arena.

There. End of lecture. Again.

‘Til next time, happy writing.


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4 thoughts on “Going on the Cheap

  1. Of course some of these issues can occur elsewhere. I once read a book by a favourite author, who is a worldwide bestseller, published by one of the big publishing houses, where there were frequent cases of the letter “c” replacing the letter “e” – eg. “Thc boy belicved…”. Even small mistakes can be very distracting for the reader (it jerked me from the story every page or two which was frustrating), and even the big publishers can mess things up.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sean. I wonder whether you were reading an ebook. Especially in the early days of epublishing, the “big five” messed up more than anyone else did. Their process was a simple matter of scanning “real” books into electronic documents, which of course produced many mistakes of the kind you’re talking about. It all boils down to a desire for quality. I’ve known authors who worked for years on a manuscript (ludicrous, but that’s a topic for another time) and then slapped the cheapest, quickest cover on it they could find. Of course, those usually are the ones who then sit back and wait for sales to beging piling up instead of writing the next story. (grin)

      • Not an ebook – it was a big, thick paperback. And it was the writer’s latest book, not some old volume. I know that the writer in question still writes on an electric typewriter. I guess the publisher scanned the manuscript and somewhere along the line after proofing it reverted and never received a final spellcheck. I know that even after numerous proofing runs on my own books, that final spellcheck still finds a few glitches. 🙂

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