With advent of services such as Lulu, CreateSpace, XLibris, and more, writers all over the world have been able to take control of the fate of their work, sidestep lengthy and often opaque publishing processes, and, perhaps most appealing of all, retain a larger share of already-thin margins.

Or so they think.

Even the most ambitious authors soon come to realize, however, just how expensive, time-consuming, and complex the publishing process can be. In a nutshell, it’s not a solo job—it takes a village to make a book!

There’s even more to it, however, and the old maxim that “You don’t know what you don’t know” is the Achilles’ heel of many first-time authors. You can follow a template or two and upload the files, but what about the hundreds of details you didn’t know about because . . . well, you didn’t know?

Industry veterans can spot a self-published book from a mile away, and chances are good that customers can, too. That’s not always a good thing! If you take the time to self-publish your book, it should be able to compete with the best the industry has to offer.

But how do you do that, and what are some of the things that set expertly published books apart from self-published ones? Here are six ways to spot a self-published book . . . and six mistakes you can easily avoid by either seeking the help of a publishing professional or an independent press.

  1. The cover design doesn’t catch your eye.

Contrary to popular belief, you can absolutely judge a book by its cover. Major publishers don’t bat an eye for cover concepts that cost well into the four figures, and that’s not including licensing fees for artwork and photography. Why? Because they know you never get another chance to make a good first impression! Many self-published books lack this crucial component . . . and many of them don’t ever get a second look.

  1. The cover is made of flimsy stock.

One of the reasons people still gravitate to real printed books now that e-book sales have peaked is that the printed book as an artifact simply cannot be duplicated. People enjoy and appreciate books as physical objects, and good publishers are well aware of this. Digital printing services that generate self-published books by the tens of thousands, however, rely on cheap materials . . . and the result is a cheap product.

  1. The forematter is missing or out of order.

Do you have copyright information for your book? Do you know the difference between a half-title page and a full-title page? Should your book have a table of contents? How about a preface? Acknowledgments? Do they go before or after the introduction? Where is true page one? Does it start on a recto or verso? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, it’s time to hire a professional!

  1. It is typographically unappealing.

Typography is an ancient art, and it’s one that required exceptional skill, patience, and artistry in the earliest days of offset printing. Each individual letter was arranged and spaced by hand, covered with ink, and carefully applied to the page. Fonts were designed and selected to provide an aesthetically pleasing balance between form and function, and good designers know how to apply these same sensibilities to book design today with the aid of professionally designed digital fonts.

  1. The page elements are misplaced.

Similar to the above, book design is also a time-honored art. Today’s style manuals occasionally refer to a “page of type” to describe the various carefully placed elements that come together to form a well-designed printed page. This includes typographical considerations, such as font selection, size, leading, kerning, hyphenation, and so on, but also page margins, the location and content of running heads, page numbering, and more. Many self-published books are laid out without an appreciation of these elements and how they fit together. If you’re not well versed in a professional layout program such as Adobe InDesign, you should find someone who is!

  1. The text is not professionally edited.

Editing is time consuming, mentally exhausting, costly . . . and absolutely necessary! Unfortunately, this is one of the steps that self-published authors often skip in order to save on costs. No one is perfect, however, and remember—you don’t know what you don’t know. Editors are not only linguists but also experts in large style manuals such as The Chicago Manual of Style, the standard for most book publishing. Thousands of small rules and decisions regarding grammar, usage, punctuation, subject-verb agreement, capitalization, citation format, and much more lurk behind every well-edited page, and this is not a step you can afford to skip . . . literally!