The Conflict Between Style and Content

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: being an indie author means being more than just an author. You’re your own gatekeeper, editor, and publicist. A lot of responsibility lies in your hands: you’re accountable not only for the content, but also the style.

I had a lovely conversation yesterday with John Rakestraw (listen to my interview here), in which we discussed the challenges and joys of being indie. One of the subjects we covered was how difficult it is to get design elements right — cover images, formatting, etc.

Our conversation got me thinking about an age-old publishing debate: style versus content.

What makes a bestseller?

Obviously, writing interesting content is a key factor to success. A bestseller becomes a bestseller partially because it’s aimed at the right audience, it fills a gap in the market, and it has creative, compelling content.

But even if you had all the above, you could easily ruin your chances of success with a poorly-planned style. You also need a great cover, legible and consistent formatting, and (in the case of ebooks) accessibility in the right formats.

So what’s more important in a book – style or content?

The short answer is that style and content are equally important. A book needs to have high-quality, creative content in order to sell, but it needs a well thought out style in order to sell well. In short: what distinguishes a successful indie author from the crowd is that they offer both professional content and style.

The standards of style are pretty much set in stone for print books, to the point that readers do not even notice them. Flyleafs, copyright notices, page numbers, headers and even the way chapters always begin on the right-hand page — the placement of all of these are design choices.

Yet it’s an entirely different ballgame when it comes to electronic publishing. Page numbers on ebooks are pointless. Why choose a particular font when a reader could change it in their ereader? Why worry about keeping the sacred 400px width, when readers may be accessing our content on their tiny phones or their iPads or their widescreen desktops?

Some could argue that there’s no point worrying about style, because with e-publishing, the reader can tweak things to suit their personal preferences. But I would argue that it is our job to make sure that readers don’t need to tweak our book — whether online or in ebook format, we should make sure our content looks good.

Authors as publishers

In traditional publishing, it is the author’s job to worry about content, and the publisher’s to worry about style. But in the case of indie publishing, the author is the publisher.

Our job is not only to produce that creative, commercially-viable content, but also to make sure the design matches the quality of our work. Yet while certain platforms (eg, Feedbooks, WordPress, Pandamian, and others) aim to simply the task somewhat for those of us publishing online who lack coder knowledge, there is still a plethora of nigh-illegible webfiction sites and ebooks out there.

Yes – e-publishing means that independent authors no longer need the publishing behemoths — but that is because we have taken their jobs upon ourselves. Independent authors are more than just authors.

As MCM once told me: “I like to draw a line between [online] authors and other writers. We’re not writers, we’re PERFORMERS. We do our writing without a safety net, so when we shine, it’s because we’re that much better.”

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