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Can I typeset my own book instead of hiring a professional?

Typesetting a book is the stuff of writer’s dreams. Turning your Word or Pages manuscript into a elegant paperback book, the words leaping out at the reader, your text neatly aligned and looking as they should, your words turned into ink on a page, making up real physical pages in a beautifully designed book.

So can you typeset your own book or do you need special knowledge, tools or templates?

Here’s my advice. Do what works for you.

However, after typesetting dozens of manuscripts I have learned some important lessons and found some common mistakes and problems that hold true across a wide variety of authors and you should avoid these.

The software you use to typeset your book really matters with one application meeting all the requirements for book typesetting.

My second important lesson to keep in mind. Templates create more problems then they solve and you don’t need to use them.

When it comes to self-publishing, Authors often use book templates because they think templates will reliably produce clean and consistent layout and typography. 

This is not true. If your book uses a template it’s likely it will be plagued by design flaws and formatting mistakes, and you will end up spending more time correcting those mistakes than if you had just manually designed the book from scratch.

Templates can also restrict creativity by restricting the way text looks on the page.  Limiting how you can change the fonts, styling, margins, colors, running headers and every other part of a book that make a book a book. 

If you use nontraditional formatting for a poetry book for example, some template can restrict how the text displays on the page.

If you want to add images such as photos, illustrations, charts or drawings you can be limited by the templates formatting restrictions .

What is a Book Template?

Templates can be split into two categories – manuscript template and book layout template. Before you typeset a book you should know the difference.

A manuscript template: These usually come before a book layout template and they are designed to help you format your written work so it looks more professional before you send it to an editor. The emphasis is on clarity and readability, rather than a nice visual design.

It is not meant to be visually appealing, and often comes with basic styling. The purpose is to make the text look readable, clear and consistent so that it can be edited if necessary and then formatted by a book designer. A manuscript template can be found in a Microsoft Word document or Pages, for Mac.

A book layout template: A book layout template involves book design elements like the typeface, the design and placement of chapter headings, sub-headings, running headers, page numbers, graphics and the size of images.

The purpose is to make the text take on the structure of a book and to make it more visually appealing to the readers. While a manuscript can be done with Microsoft Word, the layout of a book should be designed with an application such as Adobe Indesign .

Should you use a book template service?

I once experimented with a template service. I added the text and images into a basic design. While the book was simple it came out okay. What I didn’t realize is that I didn’t own the book. If I wanted to send the book to a different printer, that wasn’t possible. A few years later, they updated the software, and my book couldn’t even be opened. If I wanted to update it I would have to start from scratch.

I think it’s important to retain control of your book and control over the content it contains. Using cheap software or services can limit the very words of your book’s pages and control over it’s contents.

Manuscript formatting is very different to interior layout formatting and each have their own purpose.

Complete the Manuscript Formatting First

Before anyone can typeset a book you need to first complete the manuscript formatting.

A manuscript is your finished literary work and comes before the typesetting of the book and is usually in the form of a Microsoft Word or Google Docs file. It is often the file given to a graphic designer to format and typeset and turn it into a print ready book.

The purpose of a manuscript is to give editors and designers a clear and consistent document that’s easy to read and edit.

When you create your manuscript here are some tips to save time and money.

You want your manuscript to look basic but with consistent formatting for the headings, sub-headings and body text. You should use a standard font with the basic styling that comes with Word or Pages.

When editors or designers receive a poorly formatted manuscripts, they will spend their time fixing the formatting instead of focusing on the writing or designing. You don’t want to be paying an editor or designer extra for fixing problems that don’t really improve your book. Also it just looks unprofessional.

I have imported a Word document into Indesign many times only to find multiple fonts being used for the body text, inconsistently sized headings and subheadings or tabs and spaces that shouldn’t be there. Try to make the text as clean, clear and consistent as possible so there is less work to do later on.

Use Paragraph Styles

The key to any book interior is consistency.  This means using consistent styling for the body text, headings typeface, blockquotes etc.

In Word, paragraph styles are placed in a bar at the top with different fonts and headings. You can create your own style or use one of the default styles.

For example once you’ve perfected the font and placement of a chapter heading in Word, highlight it and then right click on the text and select “Create a Style”  to save it as a style.

The reason you should use styles in Word is because when it comes to all future Headings you can use the same style  or one of the default styles to maintain consistently throughout your manuscript. The wrong way is to do it manually every time. If every time you come across a heading or sub-heading, you manually set the size and style, it is easy to be inconsistent.

Book Layout Formatting

This provides a more granular level of control over the formatting of your manuscript and involves not just creating paragraph and character styles for the headings and sub-headings, but styles for the various elements that make up the design of your book. These can include the  different fonts and the font styling and placement for Chapter headings, page numbers, running headers etc.

It enables you to more precisely control every element of the book and can involve  the styling of drop-caps, sidebars, section dividers, text wraps and custom frames around images. It can also include more complicated features such as indexes, nested table of contents, layered artwork and fined tuned hyphenation and justification.

Think of an application like Indesign — the industry standard for book design, compared to an application like Microsoft Word for basic styling. 

While Microsoft Word is fine for manuscript templates, book layout templates require an understanding of an application like Adobe Indesign, particularly if you want to include complicated design elements like sidebars, graphics, and callouts.

What software should you use to Typeset a Book?

When it comes to designing a book, the two software applications used most often are Word and Indesign. Each come with pros and cons.

There are pros and cons to both Word or Indesign. One of the advantages of Word is just how common it is. Just about everyone is familiar with Word and it is very intuitive when it comes to editing and formatting text, however it is pretty limited when it comes to page layout. While Word is a word processing program, Indesign is specifically designed for page layout.

Word Pros

  • It is ubiquitous and often pre-installed
  • More widely used and understood which makes collaboration easier
  • Has some limited design and layout options
  • Is fairly intuitive and easier for beginners to understand
  • Ideal for documents that need constant editing

Word Cons

  • Difficult to control the position of text and images
  • Limited font options
  • Limited paragraph and character styling
  • Color and print output options extremely limited in Word with little control over RGB and CMYK colours and spot colours not supported
  • It’s not set up for professional printing as there is no bleeds,  control over spreads and no options for packaging files
  • No hierarchal control over the text and graphics

Indesign Pros

  • Industry standard for book layout and typesetting
  • A high level of control over the output for print
  • Paragraph and character styles provide fine level control of the text
  • Images stay put and do not get thrown off
  • Very fine tuning of the type such as line and letter spacing
  • Greater control over the colour mode and support for spot colours.

Indesign Cons

  • Steep learning curve due to the many options and features available
  • Fewer people with expert knowledge of the software making it less shareable for multiple editors
  • Is more expensive than Microsoft Word

For Interior Layout Design and Typography

For almost every step in the book publishing process, you have two options: do it yourself or hire a professional to do it for you. If you’re planning on typesetting your own book, you may be wondering whether it can be done in Word. I recommend proper typesetting software, which will offer more flexibility and design options for your layouts. Microsoft templates just don’t look good on the printed page.

If you want to create professionally designed books and eBooks, I recommend you learn Adobe Indesign, along with the basics of typography and design. If you don’t have the patience for that, you could try vellum which has a less steep learning curve and allows users to easily design print and eBook layouts. Unfortunate it’s only available on Mac and it still costs money and work but it’s more intuitive than InDesign.

If you can afford it, your best option is hiring a professional designer.

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