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Cataloging Pet Peeves for Self-Published Works

by Robeena Barton —

I am a librarian, and as a librarian I love self-published authors. More than that, I am married to one and hope one day to join the club myself. I want those facts clear up front, because I am here to tell you that self-published authors have an overwhelming tendency to do something very wrong that makes me groan every time a new work crosses my desk.

It isn’t your writing that I have a problem with, or your grammar, or your plots or subjects. I can’t hold you to higher standards than traditional publishing, and plenty of titles fail my personal taste test on all of those, from every corner. Traditional publishing has most of you beat on one key area, though. Your books look terrible.

 I know you spent months, maybe years, crafting your book until you finally have a product you are happy to slap a cover on and put into the world. Unfortunately, your book is going to sit on the shelf, unread and unloved, no matter how breathtaking the prose or engaging the subject might be, because you failed the design test.

Design, or a lack thereof, hurts you, hurts your readers who will never give your work of passion and creativity the chance it deserves, and frankly, hurts the cataloger who has to figure out how to create a record with no basic information to draw from.

It isn’t a long list of things that set your work apart from a traditionally published title; they aren’t hard or expensive to do, and they will give your title the same professionalism and attention to detail as anything on the bestseller lists. At least in the eyes of your readers. You just have to remember that readers love you too, they just don’t know it yet.

So, what are the keys to a thoughtfully designed, reader-centric book? For me, I look for basic information, a summary, and good front matter when I am cataloging a title, and the lack of these tells me right away that not only is this title self-published, but that the author skimped out on the design. Why is that important? After all, you can’t judge a book by its cover, right? I think you know the answer to that. Let’s start with basic information.

The details of your book give your readers information that you might not consider important, but they really care about. Including things like your city or state lets them know if you are a local author, or an author from some place they dream of going. Both of which will help you, I promise. Is this the first of a planned series, or the latest of several other books you have written? Including a series title or other works you have written will draw in more readers who are excited to have a new, favorite author, especially if it isn’t somebody famous that everyone else is reading.

That brings me to the most important bit of basic information which staggers me that more people don’t include or think about. Who are you? Of course, I mean that figuratively and can’t recommend an author bio strongly enough if you want to attract more readers. Telling readers a little something about yourself and why this book is important will only help you.

I also mean, literally, make sure you include your name. It is truly astounding how many titles I see that don’t. If “Steve,” no last name, wrote a book, what am I, the cataloger, supposed to do with that? Which Steve? Who are you? This is where professional books have you at a disadvantage. If HarperCollins wants to publish a book by “M” they can get away with it and it will sell like hotcakes. You, however, need an actual name.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be your real name. I’m not opposed to pseudonyms, or even several if you are writing in different genres, but make sure you think through what you are calling yourself. I can’t count how many times a series author changed their name halfway through. Now, maybe Ebony Thistlewight just doesn’t suit you anymore. It might have been a cool name for the first two books, but now, it is a drunken tattoo of a name you want to leave behind forever. Fine, but finish the series’ first. Most bookstores and libraries shelve books by the last name of the author as it appears on the work. Don’t expect your readers to be mind readers or wander the shelves forever trying to hunt down your books when you released them under completely different names. Also, if you are writing under different names, include them when you include the other titles you have written.

The second thing that is missing from self-published works, which really hurts your chances of finding new readers, is a summary.

You might think the cover says it all, but trust me, it doesn’t. Even if it does, that doesn’t tell me what you think your book is about, and again, that matters. Your opinion of your own book really does matter to the reader, and when you don’t include a summary, it tells the reader on a subconscious level that either you don’t know what it’s about, or you don’t care to tell us, which is bad for you. Add a summary to the back, even if the front of the cover is the most descriptive image ever created. Even a badly written summary is better than no summary at all, as long as you are enthusiastic and really seem to want to sell us on what you have written.

Finally, and this one is really just for me, front matter is an oft neglected and highly underrated element of design that more authors should include. You don’t technically need a copyright statement to be protected by copyright, it’s true, but it sure looks nice. Even better, there is no copyright on a copyright statement unless explicitly stated or it’s very creative. It’s considered standard language. Find one you like, change the dates, and just plug it in. The area around your copyright statement is also where you can include things like a place of publication (which is where you live) and credits to people who helped you. That helps me tell your readers if you are local and includes the names of illustrators or local editors that they might also know. Help me help you.

Chapter titles and, even better, a table of contents that includes your chapters, is especially helpful with non-fiction titles to tell the reader what areas you cover. It is also helpful to set the tone with fiction titles. Are your chapter titles ominous or funny? That tells the reader a lot about what to expect.

Page numbers don’t have to be fancy. You don’t have to have Roman numerals at the beginning, or change the numbering for the excerpt at the end. A rough estimate is nice, though. There is a big difference between a 150-page book and a 400 page one, but one thing that isn’t different is that I’m not counting them out to include the number of pages in the record if you don’t do it for me.

You may say that all of this is too hard, that you don’t know how to do any of it. Well, I say, did you know how to write a book before you did that? Probably not, and I know there were a ton of things you had to learn along the way. You don’t need an editor or a design team to do any of this. You just have to put yourself in the shoes of a reader and include the same things that help you decide on a book. Even if you never thought about noticing them before.

I hope that I have convinced you why all of this is important, but if I haven’t, let me state it out plainly. These things, these little details, these bits of information, show the reader that you care. That this book is important to you and that their interest is important to you. Because if they aren’t, then why did you write it? Last, that same logic applies to the librarians who are selecting, cataloging, displaying, and talking up your books to their patrons. The people who are running programs and author talks and book clubs. Show us how much you care about this thing that you have crafted. Then, send it to us. It amazes me that authors don’t think libraries want a local author’s books. We do, especially if it looks like something readers will be interested in, which these design tips will let them know. We want to love you and we want all of your readers to love you too.

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