If you’ve self-published a book, you’re familiar with the many challenges of book design. Looking at a book off a bookstore shelf, it’s easy to miss the amount of work and time that goes into designing those pages. Let me tell you—it’s a lot of work. A lot. Let’s review the best practice to format and layout your book.
Elements of a Book
A book and a manuscript are two different things. Even though both are comprised of your content—the story you have to tell, a guide or manual, a textbook for the class you’re teaching—the manuscript is just content.
The book is a vehicle for the delivery of this content.
Your book is your content, plus front and back matter, plus a cover. You’ll need to format and layout the work to make reading easy.
This is the meat of your book. The manuscript. The story you tell. The manual or guide you wrote to share your expertise. Whatever you’re writing about, it’s the content of your book. Remember the content includes text and images, as well as anything else like tables or charts. All of that is content.
When you open a book, the first page is not the beginning of your story. No book opens directly to ‘Chapter 1’. You see a half-title and full title, a copyright page, a table of contents, acknowledgments, an introduction, and any other information you need to provide a reader before they dive into the main content. All of this is collectively called Front Matter.
Just like the Front Matter, Back Matter is everything after the main content of your book. Usually, this includes the About the Author, any sort of index or bibliography, and often a few blank pages.
Learn more about Front and Back Matter.
The layout is tough to define. Think of it like the way your content appears on the page. Including the font, size, spacing, and justification of your text. Your image placement. The margins. The Header and Footer. Page numbers. There’s a lot going on with the layout. Don’t worry, we’ll get into it more below.
Your cover is going to be a huge piece of how you sell your book. For this post, we’re not going to focus on the cover. But we’ve got some great content about creating a cover.
The book format and layout puzzle
Today, I want to break this down in the simplest terms possible – don’t create your own interior files.
It’s that easy. Don’t do it. The many steps to format and layout your book are best handled with templates.
Take your manuscript and decide what size book you’ll be creating. Then download the Design Guide bundle for the size you selected and unzip it. You’ll find a file with a template for MS Word sized and prepared for all of our popular formats. This will save you a lot of upfront format and layout hassle.
These templates include standard margins, gutter, and line spacing. Take your Manuscript and copy/paste it entirely into the template.
My advice here brings up a point I’ve made, as have many others, over the years. Don’t format while you’re writing. Don’t do it. It never works out.
Order of Operations
You’ve finished your content. You’ve downloaded the templates, picked a size, and just pasted all that content in. Now what?
Pro Tip: Before you paste your content into the Template, select all and Clear All Formatting. This removes any formatting you might have applied—styling and otherwise. This won’t remove elements like breaks, but since you didn’t format while you were writing, this shouldn’t be a concern.
- Images – Depending on your word processing software, you may not see images in your template. While this might create additional work, it’s generally a blessing. If you set your images in the original file, but that file wasn’t sized for your book size, the images wouldn’t actually be placed correctly anyway.
Now is the time to add those images, set them in line or tight to the text as you see fit. Carefully review how the images impact the text layout and adjust accordingly.
Pro Tip: Make note of the pages with images. Once your content is complete and you create a PDF, pay extra attention to reviewing those pages. Images can do some tricky things with your content when converted from one file type to another.
- Front Matter/Back Matter – I suggest writing the front and back matter directly into the template. If you’ve already created it elsewhere, go ahead and paste it in. We’ll use Page Breaks and Section Breaks to control the layout.
Pro Tip: For your Table of Contents in the front matter, add a placeholder page (just type “Table of Contents” and add a Page Break). You’ll want to come back and add the Table last.
- Page Breaks – If you have chapters or sections in your book, you’ll end each with a page break. This is going to force all content after the break to the following page. Control the layout of content on the pages with breaks.
Be conscious of the position a page has in the actual book. Odd pages will be on the right, even pages on the left. This is the opposite of the way your manuscript would appear in a two-page view in MS Word or Adobe Reader.
- Section Breaks – There are a few instances where a Section Break is necessary, but for most of us, we’ll only use these for one reason: to start page numbering after the front matter. If you look at any professionally published book, you’ll see that the front matter is either unnumbered or uses a different number scheme (like Roman Numerals). Use a section break to define where those numbers should begin. Just add the Section Break like you would a page break, at the end of the page before numbering should begin.
Even using Section Breaks for something relatively simple like this can be a pain. MS Word makes using sections far more difficult than it needs to be. I suggest reviewing their help pages for more info on how Section Breaks work and how to use them.
- Header/Footer – With contents entirely added and breaks inserted to position all the content correctly, now you need to design the Header and Footer. If you thought dealing with MS Word’s section breaks was a pain, you’re going to love working with the Header and Footer.
I cannot stress enough how worthwhile it is to go to MS Word’s support pages for Headers and Footers. Don’t just glance at this page either. Scroll down and review the linked pages too. There are so many ins and outs of Headers and Footers.
So what are we doing with the Header and Footer? Primarily, you’re adding page numbers. Be sure you add them to the Section that actually gets numbered (so not your Front Matter).
Pro Tip: Save your file before you start working on the Header and Footer, then save a second version so you have a file you can tinker on without having the Header and Footer cause any problems you can’t fix.
- Table of Content – Alright, last step. MS Word has a tool to add a Table of Contents using Heading Styles, so if you set up your chapters/parts that way you can just add it. Otherwise, you can manually create one. We hold off on this until the very last because it can change based on the layout of text or images, and it’s not worth worrying about until the page numbers are in there.
Seems easy, right?
It can be. Using a template simplifies a lot of the prep work. Adding the elements to build your book after you’ve placed the content into the template can save you hours of work format and layout work. Using templates and working through design one step at a time, in the right order so you aren’t backing up and undoing work you’ve already done, all contribute to making the design process less stressful and more exciting. You’re turning your content into a book after all! It should be fun.
Fun, but still challenging.
Follow the basic outline I’ve detailed above and don’t be afraid to use MS Word’s help site to look for solutions. Let’s finish up today with a couple of final pieces of advice:
- Save often. And don’t just save, but create drafts. If you’re about to dive into page numbering, save a new version of the file so it will be easy to go back and start fresh if need be.
- Go look at a published book (or a few even). Get a sense of where blank pages are inserted. Look at the way a copyright page and table of contents are formatted. It’s easy to overlook the details of how a book is laid out when you’re just reading. You need to look at books with a designer’s eye.
- Get unqualified opinions. Ask your friends, fellow authors, or coworkers to weigh in. This is especially helpful if you designed your book and ordered a proof. A professional designer will give you very specific advice, but it will all be steeped in their knowledge. Your average reader is a much better representation of your audience.
I hope this has made the format and layout process of your book a little less daunting. I won’t say the process is simple, but you can do it. And after you’ve done it once, each subsequent book gets easier.