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Book Designer & Self Publishing coach

Can I Save Money Designing My Own Book?

Book Basics

September 1, 2020

Is formatting my own book right for me?

Many writers ask, “Do I have to spend all that money to have my book’s interior pages professionally designed?”  “There aren’t even any photos.” “There can’t be much to formatting a book with only text. Can there?” Well, you may be surprised by how much goes into formatting a text-only book. I see many online publishing gurus and services extol the virtues of a professionally designed book cover. And they are not wrong; an engaging cover design is crucial in catching the eye of a potential buyer, but I would also pose that a professionally designed interior is equally as important, if not more so. The interior is where the reader spends their time, and sound design plays an integral part in the reader experience. Besides, a poorly designed book screams mediocrity even when your content is top-notch. 

Your book’s design is likely the most significant expense writers incur when self-publishing. The expense leads many to consider formatting their interior pages themselves.  And who can blame them, especially when the book is just text? As readers, we are so familiar with the written word that we usually don’t consider the skills and decisions that go into creating a typeset page. And as with many things that are done well, the goal is that those decisions go unnoticed. Because of this, people are not aware that the text of a simple chapter book is also designed. 

But that doesn’t mean you can’t format your text-only book yourself. Just be aware, text-only books are also designed and is no small undertaking. I would also like to note here that I would Never (with a capital N) recommend that a non-designer format an illustrated or graphically dependent book like a cookbook or a manual that has multiple columns, images, and ink that runs to the edge of the page. This is a surefire formula for pain and misery.

Most designers will tell you that formatting a text-only, chapter book is relatively easy, but I’ve rarely found that to be the case. This is mainly because not all text-only documents are equal, and many can be a supreme pain for a variety of reasons. The leading cause for earning the lofty title of “Supreme Pain” is that the manuscript wasn’t clean, edited, and written in a consistent style. Whether you decide to format your book yourself or send it to a designer, be sure to do the upfront work of making your manuscript squeaky clean. The biggest challenge when formatting a book is when you don’t have a clean document, and you start making edits after your book is formatted. Making edits late in design exposes you to a vast range of potential problems, from layout issues to editorial oversights that can all be avoided with a clean manuscript. (See The Squeaky Clean Manuscript for more on manuscript best practices.

Now getting back to the original question. “Can I format my own book for print?” The short answer is, yes, you can. But as an experienced book designer, I see the value of hiring a professional. I know what goes into formatting a book and where things get hairy. I also know a poorly designed book, and yes, poor design shows. But if done with knowledge and care, non-designers can format simple chapter books that stand up well next to professionally designed books.

Formatting your own text-only chapter book may work for you if:

    1. You plan on publishing more than one book. It may be worth the initial time learning this craft. Although it may be a struggle the first time, you can save money and have better insight and control over the design of your future books.

    2. You expect to reprint the book with revisions. If you plan to update the content later and make revisions, then you may benefit by having it all in-house rather than going back to your designer over and over for a word change here and there.

    3. You don’t have money for design.  I would certainly not make this the only reason, because a poorly designed book will most likely not sell anyway. But money is usually why people consider formatting their own books in the first place.

    4. You don’t intend to sell your book. Many people self-publish without the intention of selling their books, and if that is the case for you, then maybe formatting it yourself is a good option.

    5. You have and are familiar with the software. Even if you have the software, book design is a strange animal because all the pages are connected, and you typically have different margins on right and left-hand pages. But if you have a strong understanding of the software, it goes a long way. InDesign or QuarkXpress are the industry standards, but it is possible to format a book in Word. That is if you are willing to fight through Word’s frustrating idiosyncrasies.

    6. You have lots of free time. Perfect! You will need it.

    7. You love detail. Book formatting is detailed work, and if you like fussing, you may even love doing it.

Maybe it’s not such a good idea for you to format your own book if:

    1. You are not tech-savvy. I would discourage you from designing your own book if you’re not tech-savvy. Period. Book design files are flowing documents. You can make a change at the beginning that will affect the entire book—a recipe for disaster for the technical novice. This fluidity is technically frustrating even for experienced designers. 

    2. You are not detail-oriented. It’s ok. So you are more of a big picture person. But it requires acute attention to detail to format a book. If you are not detail-oriented, it will show.

    3. Don’t have or are not familiar with the software. If you do not already know the software, there is a steep learning curve to using design software properly. You can format a simple chapter book in Microsoft Word, but like all things in Word, it can get pretty infuriating. There are some lovely free and paid templates in Word, but to adapt them to your book can be tricky, even for the uninitiated.

If you do decide to format your own book, I highly recommend doing some legwork upfront to avoid having to redo all your hard work. An excellent place to start is to check out my free Fact-finding Mission Workbook. It will help you to determine the best dimensions for your book and discover what layout characteristics you prefer. With this tool, you can begin building a roadmap to having the best book you can produce. Also, I highly recommend you check out The Squeaky Clean Manuscript: Save Time, Money, and Hassle in all steps of your Publishing Project.

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