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

by Joel Friedlander on November 8, 2010 · 128 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.

Recommendations

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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    { 114 comments… read them below or add one }

    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.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 10, 2014 at 10:09 pm

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

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    archeage hack November 6, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    Hi to all, the contents present at this web page are truly remarkable for people
    knowledge, well, keep up the nice work fellows.

    Reply

    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

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    TAWNYA October 7, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    THANK YOU SO MUCH! I WILL CHECK THOSE OUT :)

    Reply

    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

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    Roger October 1, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    Joel,

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

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    Pedro Busto October 7, 2014 at 7:22 pm

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

    Reply

    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….

    Reply

    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!

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

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