Here’s my (ahem, draft) checklist for things that I look for when an indie publisher hands me a POD.  Please let me know if you can think of anything else; I’m putting this together for a class.  I think I may need to break things down into subcategories at some point…

Cover

  • Does the front cover look professional (a kind of gestalt assessment).  Yes?  Then stop looking at the cover to critique and start looking at it to learn.
  • What’s the genre of the book
  • Does the general design match the genre?  Are the images (content and media) appropriate for the genre?  And is the design current for the industry?
  • Does the cover design lead me to turn the page or at least does it not fight me to keep me from turning the page?  (Does the overall design lead me from the upper left to the lower right?  A centered design does this just because of the direction we read in.)
  • Are the images on the cover of professional quality, good resolution?
  • Does the cover strain the eyes?  (If so and it fits the genre, okay, but it’s risky.)
  • Does the text stand out from the images?
  • Is the text font cheesy or is it appropriate for the genre?
  • Is the text aligned well, and kerned/tracked well?
  • Are the appropriate elements included–title, author, series, title tag (one liner), author tag (#1 NYT author, etc.), publisher info?
  • Are the tags well written and catchy?  Or are they wooden and dull and full of “be” and “have” verbs?
  • Does the cover show a sense of heirarchy–is it clear that some elements are more important than others, and that the correct elements are grouped together (title with title tag, etc.)?
  • Is the spine legible and designed in accordance with the front cover?  If the book is laid with the front cover facing up, does the spine read from left to right?
  • Are the elements on the spine present and organized heirarchically?
  • The picture of an amateur back cover:  huge, poorly-written back cover text centered in a cheesy or illegible font, no alignment done, no additional elements.
  • Is back cover text legible and in an appropriate font?  Is all matter kerned/tracked appropriately?
  • Are the back cover elements all present (blurb, bar code, price, publisher, and genre)?
  • Are the back cover elements organized heirarchically, so that it’s clear which elements are most important?
  • If there is an author photo on the back, is it appealing, professional, and clear?  Is the photo credit provided?
  • Is the opportunity to sell additional material taken on the back cover where possible–publisher website, previous books in the series, etc.?
  • Is the back cover blurb catchy or does it contain a lot of useless setup information?  Have all “be” and “have” verb forms been removed?
  • Is the print job appropriate–cover on straight, no blank areas, colors within reason (flesh isn’t green on a romance cover, etc.)?

Interior

  • Do the pages look like book pages (another gestalt assessment).   If so, study rather than critique 🙂
  • Does the layout, fonts, or formatting call excessive attention to itself (e.g., bold text, six different fonts, chapter headers that are like fine works of modernist art, etc.)?
  • Does the overall interior design coordinate with the cover design?
  • Does the cover page use the publisher name and location where able?
  • Does the cover page help set reader expectations for genre?
  • Are all required elements of the copyright page present (author, artist/image, and cover and interior copyrights given)?
  • Are any blocks of text on the copyright page justified appropriately?
  • Do major sections start on right-hand pages (all title pages, dedication/acknoledgment/forward/prolog/about the author/first chapter, etc.)?  (Subsequent chapters can start on either right- or left-hand pages, depending on what length you want on the book and whether you want the readers to pause more after a chapter, as in a non-fiction book.)
  • Does the main body text layout look in line with the genre (e.g., a kids’ book has larger type with fewer lines on the page; a literary novel looks dense with paragraphson the page)?
  • Are indents about an em-character wide (wide indents indicate that the ms was ripped out of a typical ms-format document and not reformatted properly).
  • Are widows and oprhans prevented where possible?  If not possible, are the lines adjusted so the single line falls at the bottom of the page rather than the top?
  • Does the chapter header page start on a new page?
  • Is the tracking between letters/words of a moderate size, with neither huge gaps nor overpacking of words?
  • Is hyphenation limited so that it never breaks up names, spans pages, or occurs more than twice in a row?  So that it never splits up words to be technically permissable but illegible (e.g., ra-dio or read-y), and so that there are always at least three letters on both sides of the hyphen?
  • Are lines tracked and/or hyphenated so that there are no stubby mini-lines at the ends of paragraphs where possible (e.g., ending a paragraph so the last line reads in–that stuff should be scooted up unless it causes major tracking issues).
  • Are lines tracked and/or hyphenated so there are no weird little patterns in the paragraphs, like six thes starting each row of a paragraph?
  • Are the headers and footers non-distracting and out of the way of a reader’s flow (i.e., not in the upper left or lower right corners of the pages)?
  • Are the headers and footers visually separated from the main body (e.g., with white space)?
  • Are the headers removed from chapter pages?
  • Are scene breaks presented in a clear but non-distracting fashion?
  • Are scene breaks presented in a classy fashion (i.e., not using pound signs, asterisks, or distracting dingbats–this last one is a particular sin of mine)?  A nice way to do this is to just leave a blank row unless the break falls at the top/bottom of the page, in which case add something subtle, like an em-dash, to indicate the break (in ebooks, where you can’t control this, always use your chosen break character).
  • Are the first paragraphs of scene breaks non-indented?  A little sign of class.
  • Are the last pages of chapters more than 2-3 lines long?
  • Are the last lines of scenes on a page more than 2-3 lines long?
  • Does the chapter end short of the last line of a page (giving the reader a visual heads’ up that a chapter break is coming)?
  • Are the em-dashes actual em-dashes or two hyphens stuck together?
  • Are spaces around em-dashes appropriate for the genre and look non-distracting?
  • Are quotation marks generally pointed the right way (scan for things like “I got ’em,” which should have a right single quote, and em-dashes followed by double quotes, which tend to point the wrong way if you use MSWord).
  • If using drop caps, is the text appropriately spaced around the cap, or is it overlapping/showing huge gaps?
  • Are the initial quotation marks from a drop cap removed?
  • Is the drop cap used

When in doubt, err on the side of the genre.  For example, take up more space rather than less in paragraphs in a kids’ book, and ignore widows in favor of rescuing orphans (and reduce the hyphenation for younger kids, so they have fewer issues trying to sound out broken words).  Thrillers should end up with more white space on the page, so the little orphans at the ends of paragraphs are more acceptable there–but literary novels should end up with thicker paragraphs, so adjust the tracking for denser text.  The chapter headers of romance novels should be a bit swirly and attention-grabbing.  (Just a bit.)

If you’re not sure what a cover or interior should look like for that genre, go pull some comps!

Update:

Some additions from Juliet Nordeen:

  • One thought from my tech writing days: Do the fonts/placement/sizes of intra-chapter headings line up appropriately in size and location for headings, sub-headings and sub-sub headings.
  • Also, would it be appropriate to include any nods to AP style for source information? I know nothing about it, but I know the requirements are intense and specific.
  • What about checking that photos, figures, and graphs are all properly positioned and labeled and correlate to the appropriate text in the immediate area? And insuring that the correct fonts are used.

I knew I’d miss something on the nonfiction side.  It’s been a while.  Personally, I would go with CMS for the style guide rather than AP, because CMS is the standard for books (as far as I know).  But otherwise I agree.