Page Layout Tips for Self-Published Authors

The biggest challenge for self-published authors is not looking like an amateur. When a reader picks up your book, they shouldn’t find anything that makes them think you did it yourself. Your book must look and feel as if it came from one of the big publishing houses, which means you need more than a great cover, your book needs an interior that’s well designed. For this you’ll need a good page layout program and a little know-how.

Sure, you can do the page layout in a word processor like Microsoft Word, but I wouldn’t suggest it. While word processors are great for writing, they don’t have the tools needed to lay your document out and will make the process cumbersome. My favorite page layout program is Adobe InDesign, but there are other layout programs to choose from, such as Page Plus X9, Scribus, and Quark Xpress.

I like InDesign because I use Photoshop to design cover images, but lay the covers out in InDesign. Both programs are made by Adobe and play well with each other. If you design your images in Gimp, you might want to consider Scribus for similar reasons. Do your homework and find the program that works best for you.

Physical books come in a variety of sizes, so choose one that fits your needs and budget. I prefer 5.5” X 8.5”, but check with your printer for pricing and options. You’ll need to have an idea of the page count to get an estimate on the print cost.

Margins, Bleeds and the Gutter

Once you know the trim size of your book, you’ll want to add the bleed to the top, bottom and right sides only. The bleed is generally 0.125″, but your printer might suggest a different size. That means the actual document size for a book that will be 5.5″ X 8.5″ is 5.625″ X 8.75″.

The left side is called the gutter, which is where the book will be bound, and does not get a bleed.

The bleed is basically extra paper that will later be trimmed off for the final product. This is why the gutter does not have a bleed associated with it.

You’ll need to set the margins on all four sides to 0.5” or higher. Having a margin of at least 0.5″ ensures that text will not be too close to the gutter, which will be where the pages fold out. Open a physical book and check out the left margin of an odd numbered page to get a better idea of what I’m talking about.

Front Matter and Text

Once you have the margins and bleeds set, you’ll need to think about the front matter. The front matter is anything that comes before the actual story. Grab a physical book and follow along. Some books have reviews in front, so flip by those if your book has them.

  • The first page of the front matter is the half title page. The half title page consists of the title of the book, and possibly if it’s part of a series. (i.e. The Dark Sky, Book Two of Heaven Help Us)
  • The next page will be blank.
  • After the blank page is the full title page. The full title page consists of the title of the book and the author’s name. Bottom center is the name of the publishing company.
  • Sometimes there’s a blank page between the copyright page and the full title page.
    • The very first page of your book (chapter one or the prologue) will start on an odd number page, which will ensure that it’s on the right side of the book. A lot of publishers want the page opposite the start of the book to be blank, so if there isn’t a dedication page or acknowledgement page, they’ll add a blank page between the full title page and the copyright page. Doing this ensures the desired blank page opposite the prologue or first chapter.
  • The next page is the copyright page. This is where you have the copyright listed. Make sure you put “all rights reserved” on this page.
  • Then you have the dedication page (if you have one).
  • Blank Page.
  • The acknowledgements (if you have one).
  • Blank page.
  • Table of contents (if you have one).
  • Blank page.
  • Your story starts here.

Insert your book text into the layout document, it will be on an odd numbered page (i.e. 1, 5, 7, 9, 11). Some programs allow you to to paste it in while others have you use File > Insert. You can find out the best way to do this in your program by using the Help menu or doing a Google Search. Once you have everything in your document, you’ll need to make it look good using style sheets.

Using Style Sheets

A style sheet will allow you to keep a consistent look to all the elements of your book. How you get to the style sheet portion of your file will depend on the program you use, so go to the help section of your program to find out where it is. Most will have a pallet off to the side with your styles listed.

There are two types of styles, paragraph styles and character styles. A character style will set the style of a character, word, or highlighted section; a paragraph style will set the style for a paragraph.

Paragraph Styles are the most commonly used styles and will set the font, size, space before and after, alignments, drop caps, etc… Use them for all aspects of your book and name them appropriately.

Character Styles are best used for italics, bold, underlined, strike through, or any style that will not encompass an entire paragraph.

To begin using styles, click on the title on the half title page, then set a paragraph style and then the desired font, font size, and the alignment. You can also designate the space before and after to set it exactly where you want on the page. Call this style “title” and use it again for the full title page. And since the author’s name will be on another line, you can use a different style for it. Do the same with the chapter title, call the style “chapter”. When you have a new chapter title, click on it and assign the “chapter” style to it. Do this for all the elements of your book.

Once you have a style set to a specific element of your book, such as the chapter titles, you only have to alter the designated style sheet to change them all.

Although I suggest keeping the styles for your first layout simple, you can use style sheets to make drop caps, nested characters and other advanced formatting choices once you get comfortable with page layout and the program you’re using.

How Not to Look Like an Amateur

There are a few extra design aspects to pay extra attention to so that your book doesn’t appear self-published.

  • Avoid orphan lines.
    • Orphan lines are one or two words dangling at the end of a paragraph or on a single page.
    • You can avoid orphan lines by adjusting the tracking (the space between the letters) in paragraphs. You’ll need to click in the paragraph you want changed, then set a new paragraph style to make this adjustment. The tracking should be in the same section as the alignment.
    • Some programs have an option to keep lines together. Go to the help section of your program and search “keep lines together” to find out if your program has this feature.
  • Avoid using sans serif fonts for the actual text of your book. A safe font to use for the story text is Times New Roman or Garamond.
    • A serif is a small line attached to the end of a stroke in a letter or symbol.
    • Physical books are easier to read when you use a font with a serif.
  • Do not use a running header on a page with a new chapter, blank page or front matter.
  • Do not number blank, full title, or half title pages.

The Finished File

The file you send off to the printer will be a PDF file, not the one you’ve been diligently working on.  You’ll want to either use the Save As… or Export function in your your program. These options should be under the File menu. You’ll want to save your file as  PDF/X-1a:2001 or PDF/X-3:2002. Check with your printer to see if they have a preference.

In Conclusion

Take your time choosing a layout program that will work for you and learn it. Use styles to help speed up the process, and be thoughtful in your design choices. You never want to look like an amateur.

Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions in the comments section below.

4 thoughts on “Page Layout Tips for Self-Published Authors

Add yours

  1. One of these days, I keep telling myself, I’ll put together a book of blog posts….or just a good photography book. Even with Blurb making things easier, I’m sure there’s plenty of very helpful information here. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for dropping by! Feel free to ask any questions when you decide to do the photo book. I know Lightroom has capabilities to format a book of photos, although I tend to think it’s not as good as InDesign.


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