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Indie Excellence via Publishing Industry Standards

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PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2021

Stephanie Carter, Founder & Publisher, Teleion Books–


Stephanie Carter

“Unprofessional … amateur-level work … below standards.”

These are harsh words that no one wants to hear directed toward the quality of their work, yet many independent publishers risk inviting similar labels by failing to produce books that meet basic industry standards. I am the publisher of a new indie press, and I want to integrate standards of excellence into every catalog, starting with my first publication (expected 2022/2023). I have been on a journey to answer three questions about industry standards:

  1. What are book publishing standards?
  2. Who is evaluating our books?
  3. Why should independent publishers adopt their best practices?

Below are some of my findings.


What Are Publishing Industry Standards?

Book publishing standards represent the set of norms practiced by industry professionals. They reflect a common understanding of the elements comprising a professionally published book. They also represent the gauge against which our books are judged by members of the trade.

The IBPA Advocacy Committee consolidated these publishing standards in the IBPA Industry Standards Checklist for a Professionally Published Book. The checklist presents essential information in two sections: the Content section addresses standards for a book’s components, and the Production section lists standards for design. The list includes standards for external book elements, such as cover design quality, title readability, and the presentation of vital information on the spine and back cover. Standards for interior elements include professionally edited content, genre-appropriate writing style, and complete information on the title page.

The checklist helps publishers recognize aspects of book production that are easily missed or misunderstood. Top Reads Publishing’s Teri Rider co-moderated a presentation on the checklist at IBPA Publishing University. In a recent email, Rider said, “The section that always gets the most interest [at IBPA Publishing University] is the copyright page. There are more essential elements to this page than most new publishers know.”

Another production component with numerous elements that can be easily overlooked is interior design. Industry standard layouts involve more than adjusting margin sizes and adding chapter titles. Professional interior design creates readability and a pleasant visual presentation by employing multiple design techniques, such as adjusting the space between letters (kerning) and a the space between lines of text (leading), eliminating bad breaks, and removing ragged right margins.

Just as there are more aspects of book production than new indie publishers may realize, there are also more trade partners evaluating our books than publishers may recognize.


Who Is Evaluating Our Books

Multiple industry partners can assist a publisher with moving books from a warehouse to a retailer or library, and then to readers. Each partner curates books for their customers with the goal of presenting only the content their customers will accept. Each evaluates our books using industry standards during their curation process.

Trade Review Journals—Trade publications are recognized in the industry as trusted sources of book reviews. Booksellers, librarians, and other industry professionals often refer to these publications when evaluating books for acquisition. “Trade reviews can make a huge difference in pre-publication orders and sales,” says Foreword Reviews Publisher Victoria Sutherland.

Michelle Schingler, editor in chief of Foreword Reviews, regularly receives submissions that fail to meet basic publishing standards. Unacceptable cover design, insufficiently developed writing, and “terrible” illustrations in children’s picture books are common quality gaps. Submission structure can also fall below standards. “Quite often, such submissions are accompanied by subpar query letters that display a lack of familiarity with our standards or requirements,” Schingler says.

These quality issues often disqualify books from being selected for free trade reviews (fee-based review services do not reject books for quality). Sutherland cautions: “Because they get so many submissions, editors are looking for reasons to dismiss your books from their piles … don’t make it easy for them to choose someone else’s.”

Distributors—Distributors serve as a publishing house’s representative to the trade (e.g., retail stores, wholesalers, and libraries). They provide services such as sales representation to professional buyers, warehousing and order fulfillment activities, collections, and sales reporting. Distributors, and the professional buyers they contact, frequently decline books due to insufficient quality. Small Press United (SPU), a subsidiary of Independent Publishers Group, is a distributor that specializes in working with small publishers and startups. SPU created a summary of common quality gaps, “Reasons for Declining Publishers.” SPU’s summary presents insights on their buyers’ consistent application of industry standards and the speed with which they decline books that cannot compete at the required level of professionalism. Though distributors are not the only path to market, publishers forgo opportunities to work with distributors by producing below-standard books.

Booksellers—Booksellers of all sizes curate the books placed on their shelves. Whether large corporations operating brick and mortar and online outlets or independent neighborhood bookstores, they all apply certain standards when selecting books. James Daunt, CEO of Barnes & Noble and Waterstones, noted in his keynote address at this year’s IBPA Publishing University that booksellers spend most of their time in curation, and the booksellers in his organizations only accept books that meet high standards of quality. He acknowledged that a lot of self-published books do not meet required standards. Independent bookstores also decline substandard books (see the article “Reducing Bookseller Bias” from the March/April issue of this magazine). Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, co-developed the IBPA Industry Standards Checklist for a Professionally Published Book with other members of the IBPA Advocacy Committee in 2017. During a recent phone interview, Warner confirmed the link between meeting standards and a publisher’s acceptance by the industry. “Even though we’re indie, this is still a legacy business, and we must publish under the paradigm of a legacy business,” she says. “We’re still being judged against our traditional counterparts. The value of adopting standards is imperative for being taken seriously by the traditional industry.”

But what if you are an indie publisher who only plans to sell books on your personal website, at speaking engagements, or on a dominant online retailer’s website that has relatively low hurdles for acceptance? Do you still need to adopt industry standards? Should Indies Adopt Industry Standards? Yes!

A publisher can keep doors open to current and future opportunities within the industry by reaching for established levels of professionalism. Adopting industry standards also benefits a publisher beyond relationships within the trade. If you are an independent publisher, producing books according to professional standards honors your authors and their readers with the highest level of quality. If you are an author-publisher, the application of professional standards creates the best presentation of your hard work.

Personally, I want my books to meet professional industry standards for multiple reasons:

  • To honor the work of my authors and present their writing well
  • To give my authors access to the most readers via the most industry outlets
  • To avoid losing sales opportunities
  • To serve readers well
  • To enable my brand and my books to be taken seriously in the marketplace To associate my brand with excellence in publishing

I am adopting these standards as I build my press, so when someone holds one of my books, I can hear, “Excellent … a professional publication … well-done!” I hope you do the same.


Stephanie Carter is the founder and publisher of Teleion Books and a member of the IBPA Advocacy Committee.

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