Self-Publishing Tools: Adobe InDesign CS4

by | Dec 2, 2009

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The most popular program for preparing materials for print is Adobe’s InDesign, part of the Adobe Creative Suite (CS) version 4. Since building InDesign to compete with Quark Xpress, Adobe has integrated the program tightly with its CS teammates, Photoshop, Illustrator, and Acrobat Pro. It’s generally referred to as a page layout program.

The Old Way

The layout artist of old would gather the necessary elements for his project from their originators, before sitting down to prepare his artwork. This might include:

  • Photographs and photostats sized to the final reproduction size,
  • Galleys of type from the typesetter,
  • Artwork and photostats sized to the final reproduction size, from the stat house as well as the client’s art department,
  • rodvanuchelen

  • Standard layout elements like company logos, taglines, typographic ornaments or company branding.

Then, armed with light tables, t-squares, glue pots and razor blades, the mechanical artwork would be painstakingly assembled and sent to the printer or litho house to be photographed for reproduction.

Now We Have Software

Although some people use InDesign as a place to create artwork, its most common function mirrors that of the layout artist. Here I gather the various pieces of the publication on which I’m working:

  • The text files, cleaned and prepped for import,
  • Graphics files, sized and prepped in Photoshop or Illustrator,
  • Standard layout elements like image files of company logos, stock photography, patterns, frames, backgrounds and so on.

InDesign excels at handling all these kinds of files, and at giving the layout artist tremendous precision and control. In the old days, we struggled to align little bits of paper so they would look straight. Now InDesign increments spacing at ten-thousandths of an inch, can use thousands of fonts, and can just as easily be used for a fine-art book as for a catalog or magazine.

As InDesign has matured, it has kept adding features and capabilities literally unknown just a short time ago. We can now export in the ePub format, send layout pages to clients as JPG files, or create numerous different PDF formats.

Vast Array of Features and Capabilities, with Automation

Adobe keeps putting more and more automation into InDesign as well. Recently they added the capability to automatically format repetitive copy, assigning styles to subsequent pieces of copy based on conditions you establish. When designing catalogs and listings, this is an incredible time saver.

I have to admit that I have no idea how wide the scope of this program is, because I will likely never use many of its features—maybe no one person could. To the novice, it can be overwhelming due to the sheer number of control palettes, options, refinements, features, and settings that are available.

Almost all I use it for is book and cover design, and the amount to learn in just this one application of InDesign is formidable. It’s truly a jack-of-all trades and the software on which my business runs.

Learning Curve Ahead

When I hear authors who are contemplating self-publishing talk about InDesign, it makes me uneasy. Not that you can’t learn the program, anyone can. But if you start off with no experience with design, or with fonts, file formats, scanning, color correction, reproduction requirements of various printers, you have to understand that you have set yourself a gigantic task.

And it often seems counter-productive to learn all you would need to know about the program to just do one book. Self-publishing has a strong do-it-yourself tradition, but sometimes it’s quite a bit smarter to get somebody else to do-it-themselves.

I guess you can tell I’m a big fan of InDesign, but that’s because I started out with the t-square and the glue pot. I progressed through Ventura Design, Page Maker, and QuarkXPress to get to this point. Each was radical and amazing in its time, and now is the time for InDesign.

If you use this software or one of its competitors, I’d love to hear from you. Leave me a comment.

[Book cover from Rob Giampietro’s Lined & Unlined]

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Shubha

    Hi, i am DTP operator and i am intrusting in graphic designing and i want to design book cover page, banners for web site etc. so i need the guidance in this work. i.e., which software should i used in cover designing? what is the page layout, sizes, measurements etc.

  2. Jaime Buckley

    I’m glad you mentioned the learning curve Joel. People don’t realize how frustrating it can be, especially when you’re “ready to go” and find yourself faced with doing it all solo.

    Pace yourself. Allow yourself some time and test the products you export first. Don’t be afraid to play with the program…you won’t break it. That would be my biggest plug. I’ve been at InDesign for years and I feel I hardly scratch the top rung of the “novice” ladder, even now.

    As for creating eBooks–I didn’t know you could export into .epub format. One of those features I rely on Scrivener for.

  3. Yury

    There is another InDesign-like cheaper software that may be worth trying, though I don’t know if it can really substitute Adobe. E.g.:
    – ‘PagePlus X7’ is cheaper, even compared to MS Publisher;
    – ‘Scribus’ is free.
    But used InDesign from CS2 can sometimes be found on eBay or Amazon for affordable price, so maybe it is still better to go for this option.
    I’ve just set up PagePlus X7 demo, Scribus and InDesign CS2 from eBay and don’t yet understand which is better, because the book printing and all of the software are new to me and there are lots of functions and settings over there..
    Great thing is that Joel has published useful guides for InDesign here, especially about setting up cover and contents for LSI POD. I’ll have to publish around 20 books so far, so the investigation of the best software is of great importance.


  4. dianne

    Your site is a wealth of helpful information! Thank you so much. I recently decided to take the plunge and learn InDesign. Thanks for the heads up that it is a bear – I’m getting that same sense but with time and helpful sites like this, I’m sure it is doable.

  5. Bill Giovannetti

    You are completely correct about the learning curve. Have worked in old time print shops for 2 years (hot lead type and all), I have some familiarity with text on a page. InDesign is a bear to learn. I have learned it, though not mastered it. I will be self-pubbing my first book (I am already traditionally published) this fall. I decided to tackle InDesign so I could be master of my own book destiny. Done. It’s worth it, but VERY frustrating along the way, and NOT intuitive at all. I love your blog and am devouring as many articles as I can. Thanks.

  6. admin

    @Bookwhirl, that’s an interesting point. Sometimes the people who create the art are different than the people who reproduce the art, or use the art with other elements to create a product or some form of communication.

    With graphics software these two jobs are frequently combined into one, making the artist a production worker, and giving the production worker the tools to create their own art.

    Thanks for your comment!


    Technology provides us with new means to conveniently package our products. However, this makes a lot of difference when it comes to art. Traditional artists strive hard to adapt to new designing software. On the other hand, individuals who are technologically inclined are trying out on art using different kinds of designing software. Designing tools can be learned through practice and hard work. But nothing beats eye for design. It’s something innate.



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