How to Make Your Self-Published Novel Reader-Friendly

How to Make Your Self-Published Novel Reader-Friendly

The twin revolutions in digital book distribution and self-publishing have forever changed how we obtain, market, read, and produce books of all kinds. Today I'm going to explain a bit about the production end, focusing on novels.

Technology, largely driven by Amazon, has overthrown the old publishing model that had gone largely unchanged for centuries. Not even the book layout familiar to most readers has been spared. Every indie author should know how to make a self-published novel reader-friendly, because the advent of ePub, mobi, etc. formats and the devices that read them has placed a powerful set of tools in authors' hands.

Grab a dead tree novel off the shelf and take a look at the first few pages. Odds are you'll see a title page, followed by a copyright notice no one reads, a dedication everybody skips, and possibly another title page.

Old Books
Old school book design favors publishers; not readers.
Compared to paper codices, eBooks are a whole other beast with their own set of dynamics. Indie authors would be wise to arrange their books' contents according to these guidelines:

Cover Image
One major difference between print books and eBooks is that the latter don't have physical covers. Since its cover is among a book's most powerful marketing assets, compensate by placing your professionally commissioned cover image on the first page of the eBook version.

Space Opera Book Cover
This is the first thing readers see when they open my eBook.
Solid covers convey the genre, mood, and tone of their books at a glance. They must also be intelligible in black and white and in thumbnail size. An effective cover will incentivize your audience to turn the page. Therefore, the next page should feature...

The Book's Description, aka the "About" Page
If you expected the copyright notice to come next, you're mired in analog thinking. Yes, protecting your authorial rights is important, but giving your audience a pleasurable reading experience is vital. Most readers load up their Kindles, tablets, and phones with eBooks, so placing the description right after the cover helps them remember which book yours is and why they bought it.

The book's description should be the same as its Amazon product description and the print version's back jacket copy. I won't rehash all of Book Marketing 101 here, but a novel's product description should introduce the main protagonist and antagonist, their goals, and the main conflict. You can also sprinkle in mentions of central themes and important secondary characters to taste.

Sci-fi Novel Description
Nethreal's "About" Page

Just as the cover should direct readers to the "About" page, the description they find there should entice them to start reading. Ebooks have an advantage over print books here, because readers don't have to flip the book over. They can just forge straight ahead.

We've got a couple more elements to introduce before getting to the story's first page, so let's make them as short and sweet as possible.

Title Page
Unlike a print book, an eBook should have one title page. It should directly follow the description and should include the book's title and the author's name. That's it.

Sci-fi Book Title Page
Here's what mine looks like.

Table of Contents
Next, make sure to include a table of contents with each item linked to the page it starts on. The table should include:

  • the body of the novel
  • a glossary if you have one
  • a preview of your next book if you have it
  • the Acknowledgements page
  • your "About the Author" page
  • and finally, the copyright notice

Sci-fi Novel Contents
Nethreal's Table of Contents. Note the hyperlinks.

I also recommend adding a separate table of contents that links to each individual chapter and section.

The Body of the Novel
Now that the cover has intrigued the reader sufficiently to check out the "About" page, the description has enticed him to start reading, and the table of contents has facilitated the process, it's time to get into the meat of the story.

I've covered my actual writing process before, so no need to reiterate here. At this stage it's critical to bear in mind that your book's opening paragraph is your third and final chance to hook readers. If they've made it this far, then the cover has piqued their curiosity, the description has caught their attention, and it's time to seal the deal.

Your first paragraph should open with action, dialogue, or character; not setting description. The main protagonist should be introduced, and the main conflict should at least be hinted at.

The first chapter of Nethereal is freely available here. Imperceptive critics might skim the first paragraph and accuse me of breaking my own rules. In fact, I'm actually using a somewhat more advanced technique where the main character is having an inner dialogue with herself about the setting in the context of her goals, so the paragraph pulls triple duty.

Not every book needs one of these. Really, only sci-fi and fantasy novels with a lot of fantastical Proper Nouns should provide a mini-dictionary for the reader's convenience.

Sci-fi Glossary
My book has a lot of fantastical Proper Nouns.

Next Book Preview
If you're planning to follow up with another book (and you should be), it's a good idea to give readers a foretaste of what's to come. This step is nonnegotiable if you're writing a series.

Sci-fi Book Preview
The preview should have its own cover page, with the addition of a note stating that it's a preview and a subtitle giving the upcoming book's place in the series.
Sci-fi Book Preview 1st Page
Format a preview as you would a new chapter.

Yeah, it may seem crass to relegate your outpouring of gratitude for the people who stuck with you through thick and thin to the back of the book, but let's be honest. The only people who read acknowledgements are the people being thanked, and if they really support your writing they won't mind you moving the acknowledgements out of the readers' way--especially since they can skip right to them with one click.

Sci-fi Book Acknowledgements
I'm deeply grateful for all the support I've received. So much so that I'm publicly posting Nethereal's acknowledgements again.

Author's "About" Page
A major mistake that I see legacy publishers making is cramming all sorts of pointless information into author bios. An author bio should inform readers of the author's qualifications to write about the book's subject matter and reinforce his solidarity/credibility with the target audience. Readers don't care where you're from or what your day job is unless it's relevant to your writing.

Your author bio should contain the same information as all of your social media and forum profiles. My "About" page mentions my history and theology studies--which are highly relevant to my books--and reinforces my geek cred (I've been playing and running pen and paper RPGs for over twenty years).

Copyright Notice
Last, and in my considered opinion least, we come to the copyright page. I suspect that legacy publishers' habit of prominently placing notices of their IP rights at the beginning of their books says something about their mindset.

Being paranoid about copyright is considered a newbie tell among pro authors. If you go the traditional route, your publisher will register your copyright for you. If you go indie, it's easy to do it yourself.

I'm not a lawyer, and this isn't meant as legal advice, but I do know that you own all the rights to a work as soon as you create it. The copyright page is a notice stating that you reserve these rights. There is no reason I know of not to stick it in the back of the book, because once again, it's something that nobody reads.

Sci-fi Book Copyright Notice
Hey look! I own Nethereal. Did anyone here not know that yet?

So that's how you organize an eBook. This guide is far from comprehensive, and there are plenty of special circumstances that will necessitate changes. If you can think of anything that's missing/could improve upon, let us know.

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