How to Properly Format and Lay Out My Book

If you saw our recent post, “Why Interior Formatting and Layout is So Important To Reader Satisfication,” you’ll notice we talked a lot about the why of doing things correctly, but not the how. It’s impossible to communicate in a single blog post all the tricks of the trade that go into breathtaking interior book designs, but we’ll hit some of the key notes and offer some actionable tips to separate your book from the pack. In the end, you’ll also get a list of further resources for those who really want to dig in. Of course, this is meant as something of a crash-course. If you really want to ensure that your interior layout is as good as it can be, then invest in working with a professional designer. There’s no replacement for years of experience.


1. Train your eye.

The biggest hurdle indie publishers designing their own interiors face is that they often don’t really know what separates a professional design from an amateur one. Any of us can spot a poorly designed interior, but sometimes it takes some scrutiny to determine why it’s ugly. From now on, when you crack open a new book, note the features of the interior. Don’t simply experience the book as a reader—try to dissect it from the point of view of a fellow designer.

See what other (better) designers are doing. Pick a few particularly beautiful books off of your shelf, then count the lines per page and the characters per line. Measure the margins. Try to determine the leading (line-height) and fonts used, if possible. Develop an eye for the choices other designers are making, and your own creative instincts will develop more sharply. Spend a bit of time doing this, and when you go to lay out your own book, the difference will be remarkable.


2. Use proper layout software if it’s available to you.

Microsoft Word and other word processors don’t afford you the same level of control as layout software like InDesign or Quark, and it can show. Word processors don’t handle word and character spacing as smoothly, have inferior widow and orphan control, and often justify text rather poorly. The difference may not always be apparent on the screen to the untrained eye, but for maximum results, use the software professionals use and use it well. You can download a trial version of InDesign directly from Adobe here.


3. Note your technical requirements.

If you’re using Print on Demand technology, it’s likely that there will be a few basic formatting requirements that you have to adhere to. CreateSpace has a handy page that lays out many of its requirements. For instance, the outside margin will always need to be at least .25″ wide, and the inside margin will have a minimum width based on the number of pages (151-300 pages is .5″, 301-500 is .625″, etc.)

These guidelines are strict minimums. Chances are you’re going to want bigger inside margins than this anyways—we’ll cover margins in more depth in upcoming sections.


If you’ve got images, they’ll need to be at least 300 DPI and preferably 600 DPI.


4. Choose fonts and their leading with care.

Your choice of typeface can make or break a reader’s experience. (We won’t reiterate all of the reasons why here, but you can review our prior post for a better explanation.) Many of the tried and true fonts the best publishing houses and design firms use aren’t available without a hefty price tag, but a few may have shipped with your operating system. Good places to start include Minion, Garamond, Caslon, Janson, Palatino, Chapparal, and Scala. For more options, scour some threads on book fonts over at the Typophile forums. There are free options which aren’t bad either, like The League of Moveable Type’s attractive, classic-looking Fanwood and Linden Hill.

Conventional wisdom is that it’s generally a good idea to use a serif font for body text for most types of books (though nowadays nothing’s really that cut and dry.) For chapter headings, you’ve got more room to experiment. Regardless of the choices you make, pick a combination of styles that create the feeling you want your book to communicate—playful, distinguished, formal, edgy, you name it. Just remember not to cross the line into gaudiness.

Depending on the length of your book and the trim size you’re using (the dimensions of the finished book), you may desire a larger or smaller size. For most books, the body type size is probably going to fall between 10 and 12 points. Aim for something readable, but don’t make it too big unless you want an “enlarged print book” kind of feel. Print paragraphs out in different fonts at different sizes. There’s no replacement for seeing what the lines will actually look like on paper.


Leading refers to the space between lines. Many people are accustomed to leaving everything single-spaced, or perhaps in school they’ve been required to double-space essays. The leading for most books falls somewhere between, however, and is expressed in points. Cramped leading can decrease readability, and characters in sequential lines may actually touch one another. Too much leading leaves too much white space on the page.

In Microsoft Word, if you find the Paragraph tab or menu option (under Format in most editions), you’ll see line spacing options. In most versions, there’s a drop-down box for Line Spacing with an option for Exactly. You can use this to set exact leading, by for instance making your paragraphs 11 point font and then setting line spacing to Exactly 14 points.

You don’t want too few or too many lines on the page, nor do you want too few or too many characters on each individual line. When in absolute doubt, try for the neighborhood of 30 lines per page. Also shoot for between 55-70 characters per individual line. Like so much else in this post, these specific considerations really do deserve much more research on your part—we recommend you use this as a starting point.


4. Set up the margins.

Decide what’s going to go in your headers and footers first. Where will page numbers go? In the center or in the corners? Top of the page or bottom of the page? It’s common for headers to contain things like the the author’s name and the book’s title as well—will you go that route? Again, pick up a few books and look at the styles others are using. Decide how you’re going to approach it, and set your top and bottom margins accordingly, with more space if there’s going to be more there. Between .5″ and 1″ is a reasonable range, depending on what content (if any) is going in that space.

Use mirror margins. When books are bound, the inside edge folds in towards the spine, leaving a bit of the gutter unsuitable for content. As such, we always want the inner margin to be wider than the outer. In InDesign, this is an option you can activate when you start a new project. In most word processors, it’s under Page Setup, Document Setup, or something similar.

Give your text some breathing room from the edges. Don’t be afraid of relatively wide margins. Do try to keep the textblock relatively proportionate to the actual dimensions of the book, however. And most importantly, make sure your inside margin is wide enough that no text is going to spill in towards the gutter. That creates a situation where the reader has to hold the book perfectly, fully, uncomfortably open at all times to read it well. You’ve probably seen books like this before, and they’re an eyesore.


5. Consider a few trends you may be unaware of.

None of these things are rules in the strict sense (one of the great joys of design—there are no real rules), but they are common design choices in a variety of books, so you might try them out and see if they feel right for your book.

  • Start the first chapter on a righthand-facing page.
  • Chapters should begin about a third of the way down the page.
  • Don’t indent the first paragraph of a chapter or of a new section.

You may also consider using a drop-cap for the first letter in the chapter, small-caps for the first few words of the line, or another nested character style, like in the example below. Experiment a little and see what you like.

Drop Cap and Small Caps nested style


6. Avoid widows and orphans.

Widows and orphans occur when a single line of a paragraph is left at the end or beginning of a page. These single lines left all by themselves can be rather unsightly, and although they’re not the worst thing in the world (many books contain the occasional widow out of necessity), too many of them can become an aesthetic problem. Research how best to handle them based on whatever software you’re using. InDesign has Keep Options in its paragraph style options that can help avoid this, for example, and Microsoft Word has Widow/Orphan Control in its Paragraph formatting window.


7. Export to PDF.

Once you’re satisfied with the look and feel of your interior, save it or export it to PDF. This will ensure that your pages look the way they should across devices, and you can upload that file to your Print on Demand service of choice or to an offset printer, if that’s the route you’re taking. Always check a print proof before considering the job done; you’ll often notice little things that you can’t predict until you see the physical book in its final shape.


Additional Resources:

Again, there’s no real replacement for years of experience and true expertise. While every independent author should learn as much about the entire process as they can, it’s always best to work with professionals when the resources are available to you. For those who want to dig in to some meatier fare, however, the following books make for interesting and enlightening reading:

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