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Book Designer & Self Publishing coach

The Fact-finding Mission

Book Basics

September 1, 2020

Learn your options, and make informed decisions.

A note about COVID 19: When I first developed this tool, the bookstore activity was intended to be immersive. On your Fact-finding Mission, you would look for books in your genre as a potential buyer would. While there, you could see how the books that called to you were displayed and if there is a genre size standard. You would be able to thumb through the books to assess their features, interior, and exterior, and figure out what you like, or don’t like, about them.  Unfortunately, this simple exercise is much more complicated today.

Nothing really beats going to a bookstore to see how your genre presents itself on the shelf.  But with that said, it may not be either safe or realistic to do so.  At this time, the only way to avoid immersing yourself in the bookstore is to purchase books and do the workbook exercises at home.  But how do you know what you like before you buy?

3 options to do your bookstore activity without spending much time in the store 

Virtual Bookstore Trip: You can try Amazon’s  “Look Inside” feature. 

Whirlwind Bookstore Trip: If bookstores are open where you live, you may be able to do a quick, less immersive, trip to see the space where your genre meets the buyer.  There you can purchase a few of the books you like in your genre, and do the workbook activities in the comfort of your home.

Hybrid Trip: With the hybrid approach you first scope out books you like on Amazon. Once you have a list, you can call ahead to your local bookstore. If they have the books in stock, I bet they would be willing to set them aside and let you look at them to see if they are suitable, before you buy them. I know many small local booksellers in my area are trying alternative approaches from curbside delivery to on-line ordering. If you call and tell them your dilemma I am sure they would be happy to accommodate you.

This mission…if you choose to take it, can save you loads of time and false starts. 

If you are new to publishing, the best way to make informed decisions and understand your options is to research what other authors and publishers are doing.  This mission is best done in a bookstore rather than a library.   This way, you can see how books in your genre are displayed and shelved in the venue where people will be buying your book.  Take note of your genre’s typical dimensions, cover design, type layout, internal structure, and price. Not only can this give you ideas, but if you choose to break from norms, you will have a better understanding of how your book will stand up alongside your competition.

Having a basic understanding of what you like, what you don’t like, and what is possible, can ensure you get what you want as well as save time when communicating your preferences to a designer.

Why a Fact-finding Mission?

A Fact-finding Mission is probably the most important thing you can do when self-publishing your book. 

The information you gather will help you to:

  • Assess your competition
  • See what design and printing options you like
  • Understand text characteristics
  • Get ideas on structure and design
  • Get information to calculate a page count before design
  • Understand different trim-sizes
  • Communicate clearly with a designer

Learn your options. Look at what others do and take note of what you like.

Come prepared. Bring a ruler, a pencil, and a notepad, and if you can, a type ruler (there is one in the workbook) to determine the type size of the books you like. Look at books in the same genre. Learn your options. Look for qualities you like and dislike and take notes. Does your genre have a standard dimension? If so, you may want to stay in that size. Take notes on the margins, type size, and text characteristics you prefer. Imagine how your text may fit on the pages of the books that attract you. 

If you find one or two books to your liking, then now would be an excellent time to determine the average words per page count. To do this, pick four standard text-only pages and count the number words on each page, total the number of words and divide by 4. This number is the average number of words per page in a book of that size with the same type size and margin size. This information will be useful later to determine a page count for printing estimates.

If you are not sure what size book you want to go with, you may want to collect information on the sizes you are considering. This way, you can compare printing prices at different sizes. If your book is on the shorter side, and you are concerned your book’s spine will not stand out on the shelf, then also collect information on a book or two with a smaller page dimension.  If your book is long, then you may want to collect information on books with larger page dimensions to lower your page count and save money.

Understanding what you like helps you to avoid costly false starts in design and production. This exercise will also help you to make decisions about your book. Use the Fact-finding Mission Workbook to organize your observations.

Learn your options. Consider your manuscript as you look at what others do.

Does your manuscript have unique features that you want to take into consideration when looking at other people’s books? Do you prefer features such as designed reader spreads, timelines, sidebars, photos, and section breaks? While looking at the books you like, think about what features may work well with your book’s content. Are there features other authors use that you may want to adopt in your manuscript?

  • Look at books in your genre that appeal to you
  • Look at books in the same genre where you wish your book to be displayed. 
  • Consider book dimensions compatible with other books in the same genre as your book. If your book breaks from a standard size, will it be difficult to display? Or will it stand out more? 
  • Look for qualities you like and dislike and take notes. 
  • Look at the books that stand out that you like. What do you like about them? Is it the ample margins? The typeface? The cover treatment? The internal page structure? 
  • Try to visualize how your book’s content would fit on the page using the different layouts you see.

Learn your options. Take note of the book’s size and page design.

  • Dimensions 
  • Margins 
  • Paragraph indents and spacing
  • Hyphenation
  • White space
  • Calculate the average words per page (see formula)
  • Type size and line spacing (also called leading)
  • Text alignment
  • Image usage and color 
  • If your book is going to be more graphic like a cookbook, what design aspects appeal to you?

Take note of the book’s physical characteristics and its shelf appeal

  • Paper weight and finish
  • Cover material (hard or soft)
  • Other cover features, dust cover, French folds, laminate, spiral
  • Spine width

Take note of how the content fits on the page

  • Is the document organized in reader’s spreads where facing pages deliver a single point or topic?
  • Do the chapters start on the right or both left and right-hand pages?
  • What is in the front matter, body matter, end matter? After seeing what others do, do you want to add more to your manuscript?

The Fact-finding Mission is an efficient way to organize your options and gather information to make informed decisions. The Fact-finding Mission helps to gain clarity on your project as well as to collect information that will serve you in your book’s production. I have created a free Fact-finding Mission workbook that can guide you through the process. You can download it here.

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