Book Design & Page Layout Software: A Guide for DIY Authors

by Joel Friedlander on November 8, 2010 · 152 comments

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You’re an author, and you want to self-publish. After all, the juice seems to be flowing toward self-publishers, more authors are rethinking their approach to publishing, and new opportunities seem to be opening up to self-publishers every day.

The indie spirit in self-publishing leads lots of authors to want to take ownership of the entire process of book making, not just the writing. For most people trying to create a truly professional-looking book, the best solution will be to simply hire a professional.

But there’s no reason you can’t produce a reasonable-looking book if you’re willing to put in the time and educate yourself about books, and about the software you’ll use to create your book.

Here’s a guide to help you get oriented to this task if you decide to do it yourself.

Guide to Book Design & Page Layout Software

There are three levels of software generally available to you if you decide to go the do-it-yourself (DIY) route:

  1. Word processorsMicrosoft Word has long had a chokehold on the word processing market due to its complete domination of the corporate environment. And don’t forget all those PCs that came with MS Office pre-installed on them.

    Most people use Word, and we also have the useful open source Open Office that reads and writes Word files, too. Other choices in this range include Apple’s Pages; Storyist and Scrivener, word processors that are also story development tools; Word Perfect, the old PC warhorse still in production, and a host of others. These are the programs writers are most familiar with, and in which you’ve probably spent the last couple of years writing your book.
  2. Layout programs—Since the advent of “desktop publishing” programs have been available that perform the functions usually taken care of by a layout artist.

    Now we have programs like Adobe InDesign and Quark Xpress to perform these functions. They allow you to bring together all the parts of a publication and manipulate them, then output the resulting job to a variety of devices for reproduction.
  3. Hybrids—There is also a midrange type of software that attempts to combine the word processing functions with layout functions. For instance, Microsoft Publisher is popular for flyers, business brochures and similar projects, and there are a lot of templates available to make creating jobs easier.

    Likewise, Apple’s Pages is really a hybrid and can be used either as a word processor or as a layout engine, depending on the type of document you create. This category is showing the most growth in recent months, with more programs coming onto the market that attempt to be “all things to all people.”

    Now Pages offers EPUB output, as does Storyist. Any program that provides a clean word processing environment as well as the ability to combine text, graphics and output to reproduction devices might fall into this category.

Which Option is Right For You?

It’s pretty seductive to use your word processor for putting your book together. After all, you’re already familiar with the program and that should save you a ton of time. But a word processor is a poor choice for some kinds of books:

  • Illustrated books—It can be very frustrating to try to position graphics with any precision in a word processor. These programs usually lack sophisticated color-handling also, limiting their use for illustrated books.
  • Heavily formatted books—The more formatting involved, like sidebars, pull quotes, tables, charts, illustrations and anchored graphics, the less appropriate a word processor is as a layout solution.
  • Typographically sophisticated books—Word processors do not have the very fine typographic controls you find in sophisticated layout programs. And hyphenation and justification of text simply will not look as polished as it would in dedicated software.

Pros and Cons for Each Type of Software

No matter what you choose to use as a vehicle to publish your book, there are tradeoffs. They are not always apparent, and might not affect you from day one of your project, but before you lock yourself into one solution or another, consider these:

  • Word processors, Pro and Con
    • Pro: You already know how to use it
    • Pro: The least expensive of the three alternatives, particularly if you already own it.
    • Pro: The shortest learning curve of the three types of programs
    • Con: You may not know how to use the functions you’ll need to do your book.
    • Con: Get ready to be frustrated if you’re trying to do exact placement of images on your pages
    • Con: Your options to output your pages may be severely limited, and you’ll have no support for color corrections, color calibration or many other advanced functions needed for some kinds of books.

  • Hybrids, Pro and Con
    • Pro: Less expensive than dedicated layout programs.
    • Pro: Easier to learn than dedicated layout programs.
    • Pro: Pre-built templates are available to get you started.
    • Con: Compromised functions of both word processors and layout programs may fail to satisfy or give the range of options of either type of program separately.
    • Con: Idiosyncratic. These programs may use “dumbed down” functions and language to describe the processes in an attempt to appeal to the widest variety of users.
    • Con: You may be frustrated by the availability of some, but not all, the functions of a higher-level layout program.

  • Layout programs, Pro and Con
    • Pro: You get complete control of your pages, with precise placement of all elements.
    • Pro: Robust support for output to all kinds of reproduction devices from low-end to high-end reproduction
    • Pro: Huge market of add-on and supplemental programs that supply even more functionality to these programs, and integrate with image editing functions as well.
    • Con: These babies are expensive to buy, and if you will only do one book, it may be hard to justify the expense.
    • Con: If you haven’t used this type of software before, get ready for some intensive training. And you can start by trying to figure out what a “pica” is.
    • Con: The variety and precision of commands and functions can be overwhelming for new users.


What kind of software you end up using to do your book will rely on lots of factors. But generally speaking, I would recommend:

  • Word processors if you’re on a budget, if your book is basically running text without much formatting, or if you only want to print up a few books for private use. You can dedicate yourself to learning how to manipulate these programs into producing a decent-looking book, but it may not be the best use of your time. Microsoft Word remains my choice here.
  • Hybrid programs if you’re willing to pay a few dollars for software that will give you a lot more flexibility with page layout, effects, placement of non-text elements. And if you are only a casual user, these programs will be easier to learn. I’m impressed with Apple’s Pages for layout and output to EPUB.
  • Page layout programs if you foresee doing more than one book a year, you like the idea of learning printing terms and procedures, or if you want to have complete control of an illustrated or heavily-formatted book. Keep in mind that the first books you produce will still look like first efforts. Plan to devote time to learning the software with some kind of training before diving into your project. Standards here include Adobe InDesign and Quark Xpress.

And if you do decide to design and produce your own book, check out the Understanding Fonts & Typography page on this blog. It will give you a leg up in getting your book to press.

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    { 138 comments… read them below or add one }

    Steve August 19, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    Hi Joel,

    Thanks for the article.
    I am writing an ESL textbook for adults, and after a few book proposals to the ‘big’ publishers, I feel that self-publishing will in the end be more lucrative and rewarding. In terms of the programs you’ve mentioned, I guess the high-end ones are the better option; however, can you suggest any specific software for (interactive)textbooks? Thanks


    Lamont August 10, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    I am writing a kids journal workbook which software you recomnd. I wanted it to be image intense.


    Joel Friedlander August 11, 2015 at 11:20 am


    Steep learning curve, best results = Adobe InDesign
    Less expensive, less capable = Microsoft Publisher
    Free, you’re on your own = Scribus
    Quicker, less expensive = One of our Microsoft Word templates


    connie April 24, 2015 at 6:52 pm

    I need serious assistance I am trying to upload a short story book online and every time I try to download it through amazon it tells me its not supported it allowed me to download my cover but not my word document I thought it was because it had harsh wording so I revised it and to no avail I am so stressed out I worked so hard writing my book its under 10,000 words its 14 short horror stories long can someone please help me with this issue? : (


    Joel Friedlander April 26, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    You need to report the actual error message you’re getting because Amazon KDP accepts uploaded Microsoft Word documents all day every day. Not enough info in your comment to give you a helpful reply, sorry.


    Stephen Tiano April 20, 2015 at 10:18 am


    I got an email with your comment in it, but for the life of me, I can’t find it here. Anyway …

    I’m presuming that you’re speaking of print versions of your books. First off, Word is not a viable tool for professional book design and layout. For one thing, it’s a word processor, not a page layout program. So it’s tools on not designed to optimize all the elements that go into a book. When you use Quark or InDesign there are Book options that allow you to do each chapter separately, keeping files sizes more manageable, and then joining them in a Book folder. Then, too, when exporting (or distilling) a PDF for the printer–we don’t generally send InDy orvQuark files out to printers anymore–there are some options for optimizing graphic files for the purpose of bringing their sizes down. But perhaps most important of all is to optimize them in Photoshop before importing them into your page layout doc.

    If you want to discuss this further, feel freelance to contact me.


    Bill April 20, 2015 at 9:35 am

    Joel, Stephen, or anyone who can help me,
    I have written/published three books on golf and golf courses.
    I used Word exclusively.
    I was able to accept the layout compromises and the limitations of image manipulation, and I am satisfied with the products.
    There are pictures on every page which leads to very large files and the reason for my question.
    Several times as the files got over 300 KB, the program crashed, and I split the book into sections based on the size of the file.
    When I combined the sections, the manuscript had to be compressed.
    Now I am getting to create a second edition of one of the books, and I need to be mindful of the size of the section files.
    How should I handle the large files?
    I like th Word product, for obvious reasons which you identify, but the size of my files is a problem.
    Thanks, Bill


    Roger April 20, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    I also agree with Stephen, Word is not a good tool to use in designing a book. Word does crash when the file is too big and you can lose all you work.

    When designing a book I use Scribus and find it great. Some books I have produced have a many images which makes the file very large. So when I export the PDF file to be printed it can be over 1GB. I just divide it into a couple of PDF files to send to the printing company.

    Designing a book will be so much easier using another program, I will never use Word again, its a battle.


    Stephen Tiano April 20, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    In those cases, Roger, I’ve broken the book into a few chapters at a time. Or if worse came to worst, individual chapters.


    Roger April 20, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    Stephen, when I am designing the book, its one working file but do break it up into sections/chapters, just makes it easier to work with.

    Sometimes the book is mostly text so its one PDF file to send off to the printing company. A book with many images does increase the file size, so I just make 2 or 3 PDF files to send off to the company. I find sending the files using Onedrive seems to be better than Dropbox.

    We all have our own way of doing it. The main thing off course is the finished book.


    Stephen Tiano April 20, 2015 at 5:35 pm

    Yes, indeed. I’m actually going back to QuarkXPress for my next upgrade–leaving behind InDesign because of this hideous subscription deal Adobe’s insisting on so that users pay perpetually to use it. I’ve also been playing with Scribus and have begun to write a book about the process of using it for book design. It’s not to be just a how-to for step-by-stepping thru the design and layout process using Scribus, but a rumination on developing an aesthetic for book design and using Scribus’ tools to make books that are more than just containers for words and pictures.

    Michael March 22, 2015 at 8:27 am

    Good article. Scribus and Jutoh are absent, though. Both are decent options and quite a bit less expensive than InDesign. Scribus has kind of a stiff learning curve, and Jutoh, in the $40 price range, seems a viable option for many people.


    Roger March 22, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    I started with Microsoft Word but have moved onto Scribus. Its a good program, yes there is a learning curve but it does all I want for text and images. I can even show the bleed area on the page, something I could never do in Word. Of course the best part its free and they are always updating the program. InDesign is costly and probably harder to learn. I am completed 8 books now and even my first couple in Word I have redesign them in Scribus. Its good for layout of images, resizing, etc. Last 2 books have been hardcover with a dust jacket, Scribus does it perfectly for me. Forget Word its a battle to do want you want in book design, go for Scribus.


    Stephen Tiano April 20, 2015 at 4:25 pm


    Over 1 Gig? Are there hundreds of photos? Are their resolutions above 300 dpi? I can’t imagine what would make such a large file.


    Roger April 20, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    Thats how it goes, say a 200 page book, many coloured images on nearly every page, at 300dpi, many at full page. Its not a novel with word only. Its not a problem exporting a couple of PDF files.


    Jim March 1, 2015 at 8:26 am

    Nice review of software options, though I have a question concerning the end result. What is your feeling about the use of block paragraphs, especially in informational, non-fiction book interiors? Acceptable in specific situations (for the entire book, obviously) or avoid like the plague?


    Stephen Tiano March 1, 2015 at 11:31 am

    Block paragraphs are fine for indented material for the purpose of highlighting from main text. But if used throughout a book–in other words, no first line indent for new paragraphs, I think it looks like the writer didn’t go to far in school and never learned the fundamentals of writing. In which case, I, as a reader, would wonder whether I should waste my time seeing whether the substance of that person’s writing is as wanting as his or her structure.

    I mean, you did ask (tho’ not necessarily me, but in a public place nonetheless).


    Joel Friedlander March 2, 2015 at 11:07 am

    Jim, you might want to check out this article:

    Book Design: Choosing Your Paragraphing Style


    Mike February 17, 2015 at 11:31 am

    Joel. I used Wiley & Sons for my first book, but am interested in self-publishing through Amazon for my next book. What application do you suggest for writing, editing a book with many charts (images) that can interface nicely with Amazon’s publishing system? Thanks in advance.


    Stephen Tiano February 17, 2015 at 11:49 am

    Mike, doesn’t really matter what program you use, as long as you produce a printer-ready PDF at the end according to Amazon’s (CreateSpace’s) specs. That said, a typical workflow that is the start of professional results would be Microsoft Word for writing, vector drawing art done in Illustrator, photos worked in Photoshop, and page design and layout in InDesign or QuarkXPress.


    Joel Friedlander February 17, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    Mike, in addition to Stephen’s wise advice, please consider concentrating on writing and marketing your books, and leave the design, formatting, and production to a trusted professional. I think that would give you the best outcome from self-publishing.


    Stephen Tiano February 17, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    Mike, I do have to agree with Joel’s last bit of advice. I’ll admit to a vested interest, as a book designer, but I’m seeing a disturbing trend of DIYers who, after busting their guts writing a book, don’t grasp or don’t care that the book their writing becomes is more than just a container of their words.

    I say it all the time to self-publishers: the idea is to make a book that is at least as good as books published by traditional publishers, if not better. There are more books than ever being published. You have to give readers a sense that yours is one they want to part with their hard-earned money for the privilege of reading. So give them something that shows real care was taken in its creation. A professional book designer/layout artist gives you your best chance at that.


    Sandra December 18, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    Joel, I need some help. My husband and I are editors for our local genealogical society and we publish a quarterly journal, which has about 48-52 pages plus front and back covers. It is really difficult using Word for the layout with all the elements we have to incorporate. We bought Publisher thinking this would be easier, but lo and behold, it doesn’t let you create an index, and we must have an Index at the back of each Journal!! Do you have any suggestions for us?? Thanks for your help.
    –sandra s.


    Joel Friedlander December 18, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    Sandra, you can still use Publisher if you have the index done by an indexer, you’ll just add it to the book like any other text. That’s the way the vast majority of indexes are handled, and the way I do them with my clients. For complex books, I recommend Adobe InDesign


    Tom Piercy December 18, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    Serif Pageplus will let you index as well as generating ToC. Well worth looking at and excellent value for money – a fraction of the price of InDesign and, I understand, almost all of its features.

    I’ve used it more for family history than genealogy and I can’t understand why it is not better known.

    Usual disclaimers other than a contented user for over a decade now.


    Barbara November 10, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    Hi All,

    I noticed some books interior include indents for new paragraphs, etc. However, others do not. My book include stories, which are followed by bullets. Is it industry standard for a non-fiction book to be indented or not indented.


    Joel Friedlander November 10, 2014 at 10:09 pm

    Barbara, you might want to have a look at this article on Paragraphing Styles.


    Barbara November 11, 2014 at 6:32 am

    Thank you Joel, this is awesome. I appreciate all the information you provide on this site and how quickly you respond to questions. I want to ensure I have everything in place prior to hiring someone to do the interior design for me. Again, thanks.


    TAWNYA October 7, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Hi….I’m looking for software to design my next book but there are so many out there….what would you suggest for an Apple? Thank you, Tawnya


    Joel Friedlander October 7, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Tawnya, I think the programs that are used the most are Adobe InDesign and Microsoft Word. Depends on the results you want to get and what your budget is. A way to get an industry standard book done quickly is using templates, and you can find a selection of them here: Book Templates.


    TAWNYA October 7, 2014 at 5:03 pm



    Pedro Busto October 2, 2014 at 5:30 am

    Hi, I see in section Layout programs none mention Scribus. What about it? is it good? bad? any opinion?Greeting from Argentina


    Roger October 2, 2014 at 7:04 am

    I use Scribus, its great and free. I am onto my 10th book now and have used Scribus for the last 8 books. I started with Word would never go back to it.

    Scribus it good for text and images, formatting, etc. Does take a little to learn the various parts. I learnt by using to make a book. Word has a problem with size, when you have lots of images, it crashes. Scribus once you have finished your book, the file can be exported as a PDF, which I send onto the printer. I would totally recommend Scribus.


    Roger October 1, 2014 at 4:21 pm


    Can you recommend a Index Generator program? I have seen a few programs out there.


    Joel Friedlander October 2, 2014 at 11:51 am

    Roger, you can create an index in MS Word but you’ll need to closely coordinate with whoever is doing the layout to make sure the page references are correct.

    The software many indexers use is Cindex but it’s a professional-level program.


    Roger October 4, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    Thanks for the information.

    I see the Cindex program costs around $500. Maybe too professional for me. I will try out using Word to Index the book. Looks like its more work to complete but more simple to use.


    Pedro Busto October 7, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    if the index is titles and page number you can do it with scribus


    Roger October 26, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    I have made the Index pages using Word. I just went through the book pages and marked and words that I felt the reader would find useful. Once I had the list, copied and past it into a word document and edited it. Checking against every page number. It did take more time but the result came out well. I had more control and ended up with a 6 page index.

    aamir November 14, 2014 at 1:42 am

    you can generate index using Adobe Indesign CC quite easily….


    Alberto August 3, 2014 at 3:17 am

    Thank you so much Joel for a great article that enlighted a neophyte like me!

    Greeting from Miilan!


    Graphic Dig July 10, 2014 at 9:27 am

    Great article with a important discussion. Thanks for sharing the info and the recommendation for the page layout software as Microsoft Word, Adobe InDesign and Quark Xpress. I am using these tools and got my job done successfully. Thanks for your suggestion.


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