You know that feeling when you finish writing a story? It’s something incredible. That last line, final punctuation. The end. Of course, finishing the manuscript is just the beginning for self-publishers. Next, you have to figure out how to create and print a book to sell and share with your readers.
I’ve talked about this in the past—just writing a great book isn’t enough. You have to present your book to readers. Think about the way the perfect frame emphasizes a work of art; your book’s design is like a frame.
What Is Book Formatting?
Turning your words (and images) into a book ready for readers is the essence of book formatting. Authors who want to self-publish need to know how to format a book for publishing.
Luckily, that’s why we’re here.
Over the years, the entire team at Lulu has contributed to hundreds of blog posts, videos, emails, guides, and more to help you overcome any problems you might run into while formatting your book.
Today, I want to bring together all the resources you need to get started printing and publishing your first book. If you’re new to publishing or you just want to create a book as a gift, this is exactly what you need!
Step #1 – Finish The Book
I am notorious for wanting to format before I finish writing. I’ll spend hours deciding on a drop cap font or getting just the right line break graphic. I’ve wasted entire writing sessions just picking a font to use for the first draft.
Which is all to say; the first step is to finish your book. If you’re writing a novel, memoir, or another text-based book, you’ve got to get it all written and edited before you do any formatting.
If you’re making a book with a lot of graphic elements—like a photo book, cookbook, children’s book, or journal—you’ll still need text! A lot of your story design will be in the page layout. You might want to storyboard your idea so you can think about where the text will go; however you do it, you’ll want to write all the words for your book before you start creating.
Step #2 – Page Layout Basics
Book printing uses a PDF file for the book’s interior pages. Here’s what a typical page might look like for a novel:
If you held the book open, that’s what you’d see. Now here’s that same spread with notes about some of the page layout elements:
Understanding how to format a book has a few pieces of important vocabulary:
Page Layout Vocabulary
- Header – The Header is a space at the top of the page, between the main content and the upper edge of the page. You’ll often see page numbering, the author’s name, and the book or chapter title in the Header.
- Footer – Just like the Header, only at the bottom of the page. The Footer is most often where you’ll put your page numbering.
- Styles: Heading – The Heading text is used for chapter or section titles. This text is often typeset with stylized or genre-specific fonts.
- Styles: Body – The Body style is the basic design for your book’s text.
- Margin – The gap between your book’s contents and the edge of the page is called a Margin. It’s important to stay within the Margins to create consistent printing with no cutoff text or images.
- Gutter – The Gutter is an extra margin added to the point where the left-side and right-side pages meet. Giving a little more space here ensures none of your text or images are lost in the fold when the book is held open.
Understanding Page Layout
Okay, just some definitions probably aren’t enough to really help you get started laying out your pages. To simplify page design, I like to think about it in two phases:
- Page Design
- Content Design
This is the layout of your page, including the space your text/images will occupy, the header/footer, margins, gutter, and bleed marks. Here’s an example of what a page might look like with all the page design elements marked:
Note that this single page does NOT have a Gutter added. When you view your pages as spreads (two pages side-by-side), you want to verify the Gutter is present.
You’re also in luck—you don’t need to create your own book design! Self-publishers will provide templates that show the standard margins and bleed (at least) for their printers. You can get Lulu’s templates (including guides on how to use them) on our Products page. Find the page size you need and get your templates in no time!
Okay, now it’s time to geek out about fonts! Really though, you’ll need to think about the different kinds of text you’ll use. Chapter or section titles will want to stand out from the rest of the text.
When you’re making your book file, you’ll want to create some text styles. If you’re not familiar with using styles, they’re simply some preset text formatting.
This is Heading 2 style
This is Body style
This is Body style (modified)
The benefit of style-based design is that your text will stay consistent. Whatever you define for Body style will stay the same across the entire document. When you’re creating a book, you want it to look good! Keeping the text styles consistent helps your book look professionally designed.
Here are some of the things you’ll set in your text styles:
- Text Size – The size of the text. Most books use between 10 and 14-point font.
- Text Weight – Weight refers to the width of the lines forming each word. Bold is a quick way to add weight to a word.
- Color – The text color. For most books, you’ll stick to standard black. But if you’re making a full-color book, you might want to apply some fun colors to your Heading styles.
- Font – The text font. Your Body style should use something easy to read.
- Spacing – The white space before, after, and between words or letters. Tinkering with spacing can impact how easy your book is to read.
- Justification – Most books use ‘Justified’ text that ensures the lines are the same across the page. If you use Justified text, be sure to look for lines with extra spacing and hyphenate a word to break the line.
There’s certainly more but these are the most important elements for getting your book made. I recommend creating your font styles before you format your text. It’s helpful to know what the styles will look like as you begin adding your book to your page template.
Step #2.5 – Book Design For Photo Books
I’m sneaking a bonus step in here for anyone making a book with a lot of images. That includes photo books, lookbooks, comics, and cookbooks. These kinds of books make amazing gifts or products to supplement your other products—but they’re also more challenging to design.
Since these kinds of books are maybe a little beyond ‘basic’ book design, I’m not going to go too deep on the subject. But I know a lot of people love to make a one-off or an occasional book like cookbooks or family photo albums.
Before you start designing your photo book, gather all the images you want to use. Make copies and put the originals on your Google Drive or save it locally (or both). Take your copies and verify that all your images are high-resolution. That means at least 300 Dots Per Inch (DPI).
This is important.
Lower resolution images (as low as 72 DPI) will look great on your phone or computer screen. An image with 72 DPI resolution will print pixelated and grainy.
For photo books, you really need an advanced layout tool. I’ll go into detail in the next section, but I strongly recommend Affinity Designer or Adobe InDesign. If you’re looking for a lower-cost (free) option, Canva is also a great way to create your photo book.
The reason being; you need to be able to control the placement of your images and text. Word processors might allow you to add images in-line or on top of the text. But to get the layout you want, you have to be able to manipulate both the text and image spaces.
Step #3 – Book Creation Software
I’ve used a lot of different programs to layout book pages. On the whole, they all seek to do the same things:
- Give you control over the page design
- Let you standardize content design
- Make it easy to add content
- Create a PDF file for you
Some do one of these better than the others. All of the software you’ll use to create a book has a learning curve. Once you decide on how you’ll create your book, you’ll want to take some time to really familiarize yourself with the software.
Not sure where to start? Would I leave you hanging this far into a post?
These are my top four picks for laying out your book:
Built by Serif, the Affinity line of design software is an affordable alternative to Adobe’s suite of tools.
Right now, Affinity Publisher is my go-to for page design. It offers most of the features Adobe InDesign does, at a small fraction of the cost. The Serif team keeps it updated regularly too, so there’s no concern about learning a tool that won’t be around for a while.
What I like best about Publisher is the simple approach to page design. They offer the same power to create as other tools, but with tools and options that are easier to find and understand how to use.
Are you a graphic designer? Will you be creating a lot of books? Do you have a small pile of cash you don’t want anymore?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these, Adobe InDesign is for you. Adobe’s page layout tool is, hands down, the most advanced and robust tool for designing. If you intend to learn the intricacies of page design, InDesign is the tool you need to learn.
But if you intend to design one or even a few books, you don’t need InDesign. Other software like Affinity Publisher or Scribus can match most of the functionality.
The only free option I’m going to present today is Scribus, an open-source desktop publisher. You’ll get the same basic features as Affinity Publisher and Adobe InDesign but with a much clunkier interface.
In fact, most of what you pay for is the interface; Scribus certainly provides the same tools and options. Only many of the features are complicated to use or require really deep knowledge of Scribus to adjust your contents to fit your needs.
That said, you absolutely can use Scribus to lay out your book. If your design is really simple or you’re just a hardcore DIY’er, consider giving Scribus a try.
If you can avoid it, don’t use Word to layout your book. When it comes to writing and editing text, Word is just fine. But that’s where the usefulness ends.
I’ve included Word in this list simply because it’s so prevalent. If you’re reading this and thinking “I use Word, I don’t want to buy and learn a new software” I sympathize. So rest easy, because you absolutely can make a book using Word.
Many of the formatting needs like headers and page numbering are overcomplicated in Word. So you’ll need to be extra careful when using Word to create your book files. You also need to note that Word is the only tool I’ve mentioned here that is not at all suited to cover design.
Step #4 – Make Your Book’s Front And Back Matter
You’ve got the basic page layout set up with one of our templates. You’ve pushed buttons in your design software and you know what to do with it. It’s time to build your book.
The first thing you should do is prepare your styles and page design (like we discussed earlier). Got it?
Now, before you start pasting in your text, you need to set up the front and back matter. These are the pages like the title, copyright, and table of contents in the front and author bio pages in the back. I concede that you could design the front matter after you build your book’s pages.
I advocate for setting up at least the front matter before you add your book’s contents. You’ll have a better sense of your total page count and you can make decisions about design for the front matter (like different styles or using a graphic) early in the process.
If you’re making a book as a gift or if you don’t intend to publish and want to skip that content, I still encourage you to add a title page and a copyright page. Both are simple and take only a few minutes to add.
Step #5 – Bringing It Together To Create Your Book
You’ve got page designs and you’ve added your content; now you need to format that content to look good. In my experience, this is the most time-consuming part of the process. Each software has its own quirks and features. You’ll need to understand how to achieve the layout you’re after using your software.
The most important thing to remember is to avoid what I call ‘manual’ formatting. Basically, if you want space between some text, you could 1) mash the ‘return’ button or 2) adjust the spacing between lines. Avoid #1 at all costs.
You should aim to include page breaks, line breaks, and any other formatting in the way your design software suggests. Avoid ‘cheating’ or anything that just looks good on the screen. You’re not writing a book to be read on a screen, in a page layout program. What you are doing is creating a file to print—keep that in mind as you prepare your file.
The Final Step: A Print-Ready PDF
The book is done. It’s written. You’ve adapted the basic page template to suit your needs and you’re satisfied with the design. Everything is inside the margins. The graphics are all high-resolution. The story is amazing.
It’s time to make your print-ready PDF.
For most software, that means exporting your file to PDF (save it in the software’s format too!) and ensuring the PDF settings are correct for printing. There are a few things to look for as you’re preparing to export:
- Is your PDF exporting at the right resolution? It would suck to carefully build your book file with high-resolution images, only to have them compressed when you make the PDF!
- Is your PDF flattened? When you create a book file, you’re adding content in layers. Text boxes, graphics, etc are all ‘stacked’ on the blank page. When you export, you need to be sure the entire file is flattened to a single layer.
- Are Your Fonts Embedded? If you used a fun font for your chapter titles, you need to be sure that font is embedded in the file. Otherwise, you’ll be relying on the printer also having that font available to print it!
- Is Your File A Reasonable Size? Is your file 37.9 gigabytes? If so, you need to compress it. (For reference, 37.9 gigs is HUGE). This usually only impacts creators making an image-heavy book. Extremely large files take a long time to upload and download; potentially timing out the process and preventing your file from printing!
That’s How To Publish Your Book
This guide is long and I only touch on a lot of the details. But we’ve covered the most basic elements of book design to help you get started. If you need specifics, you’ll want to check out our Book Creation Guide—there you’ll find details about spine sizing, PDF specifications, and more.
Whether you’re creating the first book in your epic fiction series or making a one-off memoir to share with the family this holiday season, book-making has never been more accessible. It’s not easy to make a beautiful, professional-looking book. But it is something you can do with a little time, Lulu’s amazing resources, and (of course) your awesome story.
Paul is the Content Marketing Manager at Lulu. When he's not entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.