Book Designer Confesses: The Truth About Word Processors

by | Feb 18, 2013

It must have started even before the era of print on demand. It probably had its roots in the fabled past called the “Desktop Publishing Revolution.”

Authors, sensing the freedom that would be theirs in just a few years, started to gravitate to the joys of electronic editing. Word processors controlled the market for consumer software.

As Microsoft Word became richer with the tools of digital design, the documents you could produce became richer, too.

And when print on demand arrived, all those authors were ready to start formatting their books with the software they already owned and used: Word.

For designers like me, it seemed bizarre, like trying to hammer nails with a piece of pipe. Sure, you could do it but the results might not be what you were looking for.

In blog articles and guest posts, I wrote about how Word is not a layout program. It’s simply unsuited for producing books. As a designer, I wouldn’t try to create books in Word, not when there are tools like Adobe InDesign at hand. Lots of other people wrote these articles, too.

Here Comes the Confession Part

Of course, we were right that you can’t create a truly professional quality book in Word, since it doesn’t have the typographic chops to produce great type, and it’s pretty hopeless at layouts that demand precision.

But the plain truth is that thousands of authors ignored all the advice and stuck with the program they already own and use: Microsoft Word.

I’ve seen the books, with the page numbers in the wrong places, the chapter opening pages that have running heads because the author couldn’t figure out how to turn them off, the tiny margins, inconsistent use of type, awkward font choices.

Truly, many of these books look dreadful. And that’s where I made my mistake.

If you look at the masthead of this blog, it says:

“Practical Advice to Help Build Better Books”

Wouldn’t it be better to help those poor authors struggling to turn a word processor into a layout program? Isn’t there some way I could help them create books more easily, ones that didn’t make people cringe, that didn’t shout “self-published” quite so loudly?

So instead of whining about Word, I decided to find a way to make it better. I asked myself:

  • What would authors need to get their books formatted properly, even if they could’t afford to hire someone knowledgeable to do it for them?
  • And how about the fonts, would authors have to be stuck with the arbitrary selection you find on your computer after you boot it up?
  • And what about formatting help, so even if an author doesn’t know her word processor so well, she would have instruction at hand to help her use these tools?

Yes, yes, and yes. That could all be done. There was only one problem with the whole, grand scheme: I may be a decent book designer, but I’ve never done a book in Word. I’m not a Word “ninja” by any stretch of the imagination.

Recently the last piece fell into place, and what I had only dreamed about became a reality. That’s the part of this story I’ll get to next time. And I’ll also tell you exactly why—if you’re a DIY author who is determined to take on the formatting of your own book—this could be very good news indeed.

Next time: The Truth About Word Processors

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Carol Buchanan

    The problem with Word is the lack of user documentation to show and tell us how to do anything. Word is written by engineers who have no idea of how to build task-oriented software and very little knowledge of how writers do our jobs. (I learned that as a tech writer for a major Seattle-based aerospace company). I have written a task-oriented manual on how to design & format books with Word which I give to my community college class on “Successful Self-Publishing.” If writers want to format and publish on KDP, Word is required.


  2. Jeffrey

    Joel, it looks like you’re using a Mac up there. Why not compose in Pages? It’s core functionality is nearly identical to Microsoft Word; it’s design chops aren’t bad at all; and it can export to or import from Word for compatibility with PCs. Most importantly, it has a native ePub export functionality (arguably, it’s Apple’s preferred tool for creating reflowable ebooks).

  3. Alan White

    Respectfully, Mister Friedlander …. Might I suggest the right path is to: write in Word, deal with your images in GIMP (freeware), add text to your images using Inkscape (freeware), convert the doc file to HTML in Mobi Pocket Creator (freeware), add a table of contents in SIGIL (freeware), and then convert the SIGIL EPUB file to the MOBI format using Calibre (freeware).

  4. david Kudler

    You and I have talked about this — I think you’re onto something!

    I had the dubious pleasure of laying out a book in Word a few years ago (at the academic publisher’s insistence) and would have loved some expert guidance in making it look less like a Word doc, and more like a book.

  5. Thomas Furmato

    What’s wrong with MS Publisher? Most people that have Word have that as well, so the cost should be minimal. It allows a good mid point of visual layout and textual editing. I know it lacks some of the power of InDesign, but it is far easier to use, especially for someone familiar with Word, and it plays nice with all the other MS Office programs.

  6. J Gordon Smith

    Be sure to comment on (hopefully you tested too!) LibreOffice and OpenOffice in addition to MSWord. More and more indie writers are using LibreOffice instead of the $450 MSWord, Gimp instead of the $700 (or $360/yr subscription) Photoshop, and Scribus instead of the $400 InDesign. Often the writers are getting into new software anyway so they have the same learning curve whether they use Photoshop or Gimp. I know at least one NYT best selling author self made all her own covers on Gimp.

    • Joel Friedlander

      At this stage we’re only working with Word, since it’s far and away the most widely used program for this purpose. But I suspect programs that can open Word files will probably work to some extent also.

  7. D J Mills

    Donavon, why pay for InDesign when you can use Scribus (free software) that does everything InDesign does, even if the program hangs sometimes on my laptop while altering tracking and kerning. Also good for cover creation.

  8. Donavon

    Hmmm… Just about to get to grips with producing a book from my wife’s writings. Word I don’t like, In-design I cannot afford therefore I have opted for the cheaper end of the spectrum with budget software and the freebie, ‘Open Office’. Has anyone tried to produce a book using Serif PagePlus X6? It does seem to have all the tools for the task, but I might be fooling myself! I would be interested in your views on the program.

  9. John Cavnar-Johnson

    All narrative books begin as digital creations. Nobody uses a quill pen or typewriter anymore. A physical book is a vestigial structure, once the primary incarnation of the story, now an expensive and soon-to-be unnecessary leftover from a bygone era. Tools designed to produce print output suffer a significant handicap in the digital era.

    Microsoft Word is an excellent tool for writing stories and, even though its ability to produce digital output is improving, its primary output target is the office printer. Adobe InDesign, on the other hand, is a horrible travesty in a digital-first workflow. And all narrative books SHOULD be produced by a digital-first workflow.

    It makes no sense to go directly from a digital manuscript to a physical book when we all know that an ebook is essential. The structure of an ebook is a superset of the structure of a digital manuscript. The structure of a physical book is a superset of the structure of an ebook.

    Unfortunately, the tools available today haven’t caught up with this reality. The workflow is fairly simple. Write manuscript (Word et. al. do this fine), design ebook, and then design physical book. This frustrates me so much that I quit my job to build a tool that works properly.

    • Leslie

      Um…excuse me, but I still use pen and paper. And until I had to get rid of my typewriter I used that too. I like Word for composing my books and haven’t tried any of the other programs so I can’t attest to which is better or worse, but I think that comes down to the person using the program and how well they can manipulate it to give them what they want.

    • Eden Mabee

      Pen and paper user here as well…

      Not to mention, I have to disagree that Word (or even WordPerfect or Open Office, etc.) are excellent tools for writing stories. They are generally lousy tools, but people use them because that’s what is available. There are better programs out there (yWriter is a free PC one, Scrivener is for Macs and PCs, Liquid Story Binder, etc.). A word processor is really what its name implies, something to process the words already in it. It does not help much with the creative writing.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Hi Eden, thanks for your comment. I’m a big fan of “low distraction” writing environments, and usually do all my drafts in iA Writer before moving them to a heftier program for editing. These days Scrivener is my favorite, it’s a terrific tool for writers.

    • Joel Friedlander

      John, I don’t think the “print era” has quite passed yet. There are still far more print books sold each year than ebooks, and that looks like it will continue for some time.

      And keep in mind that many books are not suitable material to be made into ebooks, so it’s difficult to make blanket statements about “all” books.

      But please proceed with your rant, it’s good to get it out once in a while.

      • John Cavnar-Johnson


        I agree that the current ebook formats aren’t suitable for all books. However, for NARRATIVE books, the ebook format is far superior. Narrative books are books that tell a story, primarily with words rather than with images. This includes all fiction (save graphic novels, kids picture books, and a few others) and a substantial portion of the non-fiction (popular biographies, memoirs, and popular histories). Effectively, any book designed to be read from start to finish.

        That is a huge chunk of the book market and the source of essentially all of the profit in the industry. If you think of the total profit as the combination of the publishing companies’ profit plus the authors’ income after expenses and a reasonable salary, the narrative part of the industry is hugely profitable. The rest, not so much.

        The right way to think of the printed book is as a container for ideas. Take away the ideas (expressed in words and images) and you have something with a negative value. You would have been better off either by leaving that tree standing or producing a cardboard box with those resources.

        Once you think of it that way, it becomes easier to see that “books” aren’t a consumer product category in the same way that cardboard boxes aren’t a consumer product category. Sure you can buy empty books for recording your ideas (journals and diaries) and you can buy empty cardboard boxes for moving from one residence to another). But, it’s the type of ideas in the book that matter just like the most important thing about a cardboard box is what’s inside.

        The other thing to realize is that the contest isn’t between ebooks (as currently implemented) and printed books. When was the last time you used a printed telephone book? I haven’t used one at home in more than 15 years. I haven’t used one on the road in over 10. My 13 year old twins don’t know what they are, other than trash that shows up on our doorstep once a year. Telephone books and other books that were merely expressions of a relational database have moved to the web or expensive computer applications. Some “book” categories have already essentially disappeared.

        Narrative books are fundamentally about being rather than doing. The other big category of “books” is learning. Textbooks, how-to’s, a lot of pre-reading kids books and other books that are about doing are more likely to be replaced by apps than the current container-oriented ebook formats. These apps will necessarily integrate much more than words and static images.

        The digital transition in learning is only starting. It will be slow in areas dominated by large organizations (public education, for one) and it is already well under way in my field (software development) which is dominated by people who are people obsessed with the latest technology. The biggest threat to O’Reilly’s dominance of geek learning is not some other publisher. It’s companies like Pluralsight that offer a wide variety of online video training.

        To say that more printed books are sold every year than ebooks is to be confused about reality. The statement is true, but irrelevant to what’s really going on. The next blockbuster book series (i.e. the next Harry Potter/Hunger Games/50 Shades of Grey) will be the end of the era for printed narrative books. When it comes, it will be cheaper to buy a device + the ebooks than buy the printed books. Practically every book buyer in the developed world will end up with a dedicated ereader device and the rest of the world will have mobile phones with reading apps. Like it or not, that seems fairly inevitable to me.

  10. Denise Gaskins

    I formatted my daughter’s novel in Word (avoiding all the amateur mistakes I’ve learned about on your blog!), and it turned out well enough, as you can see on the “Look Inside” feature here.

    The worst problem I had was that Word insisted on degrading the quality of her author photo — apparently, it has a maximum resolution of 220ppi. Still, as free formatting goes (since I already had the program), it worked for a book that we figured would mostly sell to friends and family.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Nice job, Denise, your book looks good. I think you’re getting most of what Word can do, although next time you might think about using hyphenation. You really took those lessons and used them well! Good luck with the book.

      • Denise

        I did allow hyphenation, but then I went through and manually changed the letter spacing (well, as much as Word would let me) to eliminate any odd breaks and any places where only two letters were left on a line. I figured that for younger readers, hyphenated words are a bit of a struggle, so I thought that would make for easier reading.

    • Maggie Dana

      Denise, your daughter is an amazing writer. It’s hard to believe she’s only 13. What a great future she has as an aithor if she decides to pursue it as a career or even a hobby.

      I am blown away.

      Oh, and your book design is lovely. I’m an author (horse books for kids) and also a print book designer and typesetter and I’m not easily impressed, but your work is very professional looking..

      • Denise

        Thank you, Maggie! I learned a lot from reading Joel’s blog and doing his workshop series.

        My daughter has finished the first draft of the second book in her series, and she spent this morning rewriting a couple of the scenes. She said her goal in the sequel was to “be more mean to my characters” — to increase the level of conflict and suspense. Sounds like a good plan to me.

  11. Jo Michaels

    Since I’ve written a how-to book on this exact topic (formatting a print book in Word for digital and traditional publishing), I’m eager to see what you’ll be adding to the table here. Word is clunky at best, and ID continues to be my program of choice for its amazing layers feature and master pages (who doesn’t love THOSE?), but I’m always looking for great articles on formatting to recommend to indie authors that are still using Word. Intriguing post. WRITE ON!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yep, Jo, I share your love of master pages and all the other incredible tools Adobe keeps packing into InDesign. But honesely, I was pretty surprised at what it’s possible to do in Word, and that’s what has gotten me excited.

  12. Michael N. Marcus

    Joel, you’ll probably be attacked with many slings and arrows, but you’ll have lots of company here on the dark side to give you shelter from the storm. (Hmm, that’s a lot of cliches in one sentence.)

    I quoted you in my book about formatting with Word: “. . . the books we see that look bad, only look that way because the author couldn’t work out how to make it look the way it ought to. . . . It isn’t because of the tool that was used to create them.”

    Also, as ebooks become more important, “adult” software like InDesign may become less important.

    • Colin

      “Also, as ebooks become more important, “adult” software like InDesign may become less important.”

      THAT is an interesting comment you made, Michael.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey, that’s a great quote Michael, thanks for reminding me.

      As far as ebooks are concerned, I’m not so sure about your conclusion because we are only seeing very rudimentary formatting and typography in the ebooks of the present. But that’s not going to last very long, as ebooks and readers become more sophisticated. What I find interesting is the variety of tools available now with which you can make a book. Should be interesting.

      • Michael N. Marcus

        It would be wonderful if ebooks evolve to the point where we have formatting options that would take advantage of advanced software — or even simple things like typeface control and wrapping text around illustrations with MS Word. We can do it for a PDF and maybe fixed-layout ebooks — but they are not mainstream.

        With websites, HTML5, CSS and Java give designers great control and flexibility — yet people, browsers, monitors and operating systems can defeat what the designers tried to create.

        Years ago I was in a Circuit City store and saw one of my sites displayed on an ordinary television using WebTV. It was so ugly that I turned off the TV. At that time, web designers were told to design for the lowest common denominator, meaning WebTV. I refused.

        Today, websites have to work with 65-inch TVs, 27-inch monitors, tablets and phones. Fortunately, the worst of them look better than WebTV.

        The ebook of the year 2020 may be very different from what we have today, and will likely require new versions of formatting software.

  13. Colin

    Hello Joel
    I’m going to be watching even closer :o)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Colin. The story continues on Wednesday.



  1. Book Marketing Blog Carnival – March 13, 2013 | Selling Books - [...] Friedlander presents Book Designer Confesses: The Truth About Word Processors — The Book Designer posted at Joel [...]
  2. AME Blog Carnival - Tips and Tricks for Writers and Authors - March 11, 2013 | Author Marketing Experts, Inc. - [...] Friedman presents Book Designer Confesses: The Truth About Word Processors posted at The Book Designer, saying, “Can books be…
  3. Book Designer Plays the Template Game - Soicalpost - [...] Where we left off: [...]
  4. Which Start-ups Will Succeed? | Digital Book World - [...] The Scourge of Microsoft Word (The Book Designer) Does anyone hate anything as much as ebook designers hate Microsoft…
  5. Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 16-18, 2013 « cochisewriters - [...] him cringe. So he railed against using Word. But now he’s seen the light and announces today in Book…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *