The Dangers of Self-Publishing with Zero Research

One of the topics that drives me a bit nuts is the utter lack of preparedness of the typical self-publisher.  Not all, of course--but many. 

It's not just me--if you ask the owner of almost any layout house or conversion company, they'll tell you the same thing--that the typical writer comes to you with a manuscript, and pretty much nothing else.  Many don't even own an eReader and don't even really understand what eReaders do, how they work, or what "line wrapping" or reflowable means.  This makes the job of the formatter and layout person ten times as difficult--and more importantly, time-consuming--than it should be.

The "why" of this is obvious. These folks are writers, who are self-publishing not because it's a grand adventure, but because, for whatever reason, they aren't going to be trade-published.  It's self-publishing through desperation.  That's fine--I know that I for one don't care what someone's motivation is, it's none of my business--but the downside to that is, they want you to take ownership of their Knowledge Fail.  They expect you to answer all their questions, tell them whether or not they need an ISBN, whether they should register their copyright, and so on.  From our standpoint, here at, the real problem is, they aren't interested in learning more, either.  They won't read the Guides and other handouts that we've created, that help them understand what an eReader does, or how it will render their book--and that means that we waste a lot of time, answering questions or dealing with purported "conversion errors" that we shouldn't have to, because those things aren't mistakes or errors--they're how eBooks work. (Like, "why didn't you make the chapter title the running head?"--when eBook readers, by and large, don't have running heads, and those that do don't allow the bookmaker to dictate what that says; or "why did you stupidly put a caption on a different 'page' from the image?" without knowing to resize the font, play with it, to see how the image and caption flow--or don't.)

An Object Lesson--in Thousands of Dollars:

But a recent event was an object lesson in the "why" of why a publisher should do the research that any publisher should do, before embarking on their self-publishing journey. Why it's not enough to just assume that some formatter, some layout person is going to make sure that everything will happen the way it should.  

A year ago, a woman began emailing me, asking me for the various and sundry specifications needed to create a fixed-layout children's eBook in ePUB and MOBI formats.  (If you're curious about Fixed Layout, what it is and how it works, see this article on our website: Fixed-Format eBooks)  I was impressed with her efforts and diligence. She'd had an idea for a children's book and she wanted to be sure that she had everything right, before she came to me.  Wow!  This was a rare treat for me, so I responded enthusiastically, and sent her all kinds of information about aspect ratios and the like.  I even sent her information about print, as most kids' books end up in print, one way or the other.

She emailed me any number of times, and even though she wasn't yet a paying customer, I took the time needed to answer everything she asked.  (n.b.:  at this time, Createspace was still in business and going strong.)

Anyway, after about a year, she arrived at my office (by email) with her completed file, the one she wanted to be made into an eBook for kids.  I freely admit that I was a bit surprised at the size and shape of the file, for an eBook--I had discussed aspect ratios with her, and emphasized how difficult it is to make an eBook (which by definition is read on a small device) from a physically-large file and still have it be viable. The file she sent was a PDF, in which the spreads were 20" x 9".  Frankly, quite a bit larger than I'd expected, given our discussions.  

In other words, the individual pages were 10" wide, and 9" tall.  Each page had the narrative in gold-toned boxes containing the text, found along the bottom of each page.  These dialogue boxes were .09" from the bottom of the page.

The Book file, blurred
This blurred image is of the actual book in question.
The red box shows where the dialogue boxes sat.
This is a spread view--basically, two pages.

We were going to be hired to make the eBooks only, so I sat down to make out the quote.  Suddenly, something bugged me, and I went back and read her most-recent email to me.  In it, she said, 

 "I was unsure if you needed to format anymore [sic] of what the illustrator has done (layout-wise) to prep for Createspace printing of the soft cover [sic] book."

I sat there for a moment.  I sent her an email, asking her "you're planning on printing this at Createspace? Is that what you're saying?" and to my horror, she responded that yes, that's exactly what she was planning to do.

I literally didn't even know what to say.  Createspace most certainly did not have any trim size remotely close to 10" wide by 9" tall, and of equal-if-not-greater importance, Createspace did not (and does not) have side-binding, for landscape books.  You could only print top-bound (like a calendar) for landscape books, at Createspace. Didn't she notice that, when she read the print guidelines I'd sent her?

I asked her "what trim size were you planning on using, at Createspace?"  And she responded with an answer that nearly left me gasping. She said:

"If we used an 8.25x8.25 trim size on do we know if the file size of our current pdf can accommodate that? This is where it gets fuzzy for me."

What?  Now she was suggesting a square trim size, a square book, for a book that was clearly and obviously a rectangle.  This was almost literally the ubiquitous "square peg in a round hole" scenario.  What the hell?

Her next email was, to my mind, even worse:

"I think I'm feeling stuck. Is it the illustators [sic] responsibility to somehow 'set' the trim size to be a certain trim size on their end?"

To which I replied, as politely as I could, "No. I'm not saying that. I'm saying it's the publisher's responsibility to get this all set, and it's the publisher's job to tell the illustrator what trim size to draw the illos (illustrations) to, what bleed, what interior margins, if any, etc.  It's not her job to know the layout specifications  of a particular print shop or distributor--it's yours." 

She then proceeded to tell me  that the Illustrator was going to "fix it."  I told her that I didn't see how it could be done.  If you've read my previous article on full-bleed, not only were these images completely and utterly the wrong size, the wrong aspect ratio, (and certainly not square!), but they didn't have bleed, which they required, and they didn't have the interior Live Element Margin that full-bleed pages (and covers) require, either.  In short, the dialogue boxes would have to be MOVED, from where they were, further into the page.  Both upward, into the page, and away from the side-margins, too.  

The pages would have to be redrawn or cropped, somehow, to fit the Createspace trim sizes, (the closest being 8" x10"); the narrative boxes would all have to be moved, and, of course, she'd have to be happy with top-binding.

In short...none of the 50 pages of illustrations for which she'd already paid, could be used. NONE.  For all intents and purposes, she might as well have taken the thousand dollars she'd paid, for illustrations, crumpled up the bills, tossed them into her fireplace and set them on fire.  

Burning money
Unlike this image, the client's money wasn't 
"for motion picture use only," sadly.
Her mistakes cost her four digits of real money, and more.

Oh, sure...she could have asked them for a custom print size, which would take the book out of all normal distribution channels--but that wouldn't solve the top-binding issue. She could have gone to Ingram, which would solve the top-bind issue, and request a custom size--but that wouldn't solve the lack of bleed or the the interior margin issues.

Quite simply--you can't get there from here. The pages couldn't be reused.  

Yeah, I know--nobody who wants to self-publish wants to read or hear this story. They're not interested. After all--it won't happen to them, right?  That stuff only happens to other people!

But this is exactly the type of thing that we deal with here, every single day.  Fixing covers made without bleed, without adequate interior margins, fixing kids' books made without either.  Trying to fix a cover that some Fiverr made--without knowing the final page count, so it won't fit the actual print book.  Why does this happen?  Because nobody wants to take the time to actually read instructions or research what they need before they jump headfirst into publishing.  

For your own sake, not ours, try not to crack your skull open on your dive into the pool of self-publishing, You don't want to burn up a thousand bucks, in your fireplace, right?  Then remember this story--it's true, and it really happened.  

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