Decorating the Tree: A Professional Finish for Your Self-Pub

Image courtesy SKDunning: From Christmas 2012

Image courtesy SKDunning: From Christmas 2012



My dad fusses with the ornament placement on the tree for the ninth time while the twentieth rendition of O Holy Night – this time from Manheim Steamroller – shuffles through the Christmas-music mix. Waiting for my hot chocolate to cool, I admire our handiwork. All the lights twinkle merrily, the red and gold bulbs are dispersed evenly among the blue and silver and an angel tops the gussied-up evergreen. These are the moments I cherish most: the tweaking and finagling until perfect.

The process of writing is a lot like decorating the tree. (Okay, so even if you think the correlation is weak, go with me here.) You have a tree: your novel. It’s comprised of branches of prose, some plot holes maybe, but there’s a sturdy trunk of a foundation that carries the weight of your words in the way that only a Noble Fir can.  Your family and friends have all gathered around and helped you address troublesome spots, and a few branches were removed for the sake of a cohesive package. Now what?

If you submit a picture of the tree as it stands to a “Decorated Tree Contest” site – like self-pubbing your novel right after NaNoWriMo –you’ll notice instantly that your evergreen Noble doesn’t look right among the 52 professionally decorated Christmas trees currently on display at the White House. Without the garland or bulbs or icicles, your tree not only looks “amateur” but people may walk right by it without a second glance.

What are the “trimmings” that traditionally-published books have that most self-pub books miss?

Take a look at your nearest, dead-tree paper-back and think how your project, when finished, will compare to it visually. The most obvious trait is perhaps the cover art that represents what the pages of the book are all about. What may not be so immediately obvious are the little details. See if you can locate the category listed somewhere on the cover, probably on the back or the spine. It’s good form to let the retail store know what shelf the book belongs on so that associates don’t have to guess by the title. There’s also a  price listed, in U.S. and sometimes Canadian dollars. The Bookland/EAN barcode which is the standard format to show the ISBN, is probably right underneath the price, or at least in the same region.

Next, check out the formatting on the inside. Do “running heads” exist at the top of the page? What information is there? The author’s name or chapter title? Note the structure of the paragraphs, how everything is justified. The text should be word-wrapped so there are no “white rivers” running through it, especially in the right margins   Widows and orphans will be next to or completely non-existent. (A lonely word on an otherwise blank page or a sentence beginning a paragraph stuck on its own at the bottom of a page) These things will stand out and scream “the author used a word processor”.

Now, you don’t have to decorate your tree with tinsel and an angel-topper. But, if you want a professional polish, imitation is the best form of flattery. Pick a book you like the best and adopt the layout. Your audience may not notice the extra work, but they’ll stop to admire your tree.


What plans do you have for your copy layout? Do you have cover art in mind? How close are you to this stage of your project?

4 Responses to Decorating the Tree: A Professional Finish for Your Self-Pub
  1. Brianna
    December 26, 2012 | 11:35 am

    I have projects in various states of completion, but cover art is the aspect I struggle with the most. I’m not any artist, by any stretch, and I have a hard time using stock photos. It feels too cheap and slapped together.

    • shelton keys dunning
      December 27, 2012 | 9:35 pm

      Cover art is certainly a key factor to the “polish”. It’s something I think even trad-pubs can suffer or succeed from. The biggest cover art shock I’ve seen this year was “The Casual Vacancy”. After such beautiful work on the Harry Potter books, seeing Rowling’s cover for “Vacancy” left me with a feeling of “meh”, something I’m assuming is giving a disservice to the work.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

  2. Jennifer Barricklow
    December 27, 2012 | 7:40 am

    Don’t forget the editing! Every traditionally published book goes through three editorial phases (pre-production editing, copy editing, proofreading) with a minimum of two passes in each phase. Even the smallest publishers involve a half-dozen people in the production of any title. The best way to give your book a professional look is to team with one or more professionals — editors, designers, proofreaders, or illustrators.

    • shelton keys dunning
      December 27, 2012 | 9:45 pm

      Yes! You are of course “on the money” correct. Editing is possibly the most critical aspect of the writing process. I have seen so many articles over the last year about “edit edit edit” but it can never be said too often I think. It’s not just about catching misspelled words and errors in grammar, there’s also continuity and flow to think of as well. And I think the WoE community is truly supportive of the editing process, so I know that if I feel I’m too close to my work to self-edit, I know I can ask one of my WoE buddies to take a peek.

      Thanks for stopping by and joining the conversation!