Your Field Guide to Formatting Your Book

Okay. On one hand, you don’t have to know any of this. One of the great things about self-publishing is you can make your book look like you want it to look. You’re in charge, and nobody is the boss of you. Get as creative and experimental as you like. Nobody’s going to send the formatting cops to your door. 

On the other hand, readers have expectations. So does Amazon. If your book doesn’t fall within certain broad limitations, KDP won’t carry it. You won’t even be able to enter it into their system. Worse, readers will be turned off if your book deviates far from expected norms and conventions of your genre. To help you meet those expectations, here’s your high-speed, low-drag, super-simple field guide to formatting a book the right way, every time. 

Why Is Book Formatting Important?

I don’t want to say people are lazy…but, people are lazy.

It’s fairer to say they’re busy, and pulled in many directions at once, all the time. They’re not interested in doing extra work just to read a book. 

People are used to books looking, feeling, and flowing in a specific way. If you present your book in a way other than they expect, they have to do extra work to understand and interact with your book. They’re not interested in doing that extra work.

You don’t have to conform to reader expectations when formatting your book, but if you don’t you do risk alienating some readers who otherwise would have enjoyed it. It’s your decision how much that matters, but you should make that decision fully informed. 

Top-Level Guidelines

Besides reader expectations, your publisher (ebook or print book) will have a set of parameters they’re willing to work with if they want to publish your book. Those parameters will cover things like:

  • File types they’re willing to accept the manuscript in
  • File types needed for the cover
  • If you can insert graphics, and how to do so
  • Minimum margins on the page
  • Minimum and maximum font sizes
  • Hyperlink protocols
  • How to indicate line, page, and paragraph breaks. 

Most Apex Authors use KDP, so here’s a link to their guidelines page. Other publishers will have their own guidelines, which you can usually find by searching their help for “formatting guidelines” or asking your sales contact. 

Trim Sizes

Look at your bookshelf. Notice how the books are many different sizes, with a few specific sizes more common than others? The size of the page is called the “trim size.”

If you’re just publishing ebooks, this part isn’t relevant. Page size on most ereaders is determined by the size of the screen it’s on. For print books, you need to choose a trim size. Most publishers will offer you a range of available sizes.

Unless you have a specific reason for doing otherwise, it’s best to stick with some of the standard trim sizes used by major publishers:

  • Mass Market Paperback — 4.25” x 6.87” — best for genre fiction
  • Trade Paperback — 6” x 9” — best for nonfiction and literary fiction
  • Textbook — 6”x9” or 8.5” x 11” — best for graphics-heavy nonfiction
  • Comic Book — 6.625” x 10.25” — nearly all graphic novels are this size
  • Children’s Picture Book — 8”x8” or 8”x10” — for illustrated kids’ books

Square trims often work well for joke books, journals, quote books, and similar publications that have limited information per page. Anything between eight and twelve inches is fine if you go that route. 

Front and Back Matter

These are the parts of the book that come before and after the main content. Why front and back matter is important is a little outside of the scope of this article, but hhere’s a list of the kinds of things you might wish to include:

  • Title page
  • Table of contents
  • List of your other books
  • Copyright page
  • Praise or reviews
  • Maps or other illustrations
  • Dedication
  • Foreword
  • Epigraph
  • Preface
  • Prologue
  • Acknowledgments
  • About the Author
  • Discussion questions
  • Appendices
  • Request for reviews
  • Index
  • Preview of other books
  • Bibliography
  • Copyright permissions for anything you didn’t create yourself

Formatting these is a little tricky, especially when it comes to page numbers. Set aside extra time to format these individually, apart from formatting your main body of content. 

The Ten Commandments of Formatting

1. Thou Shalt Understand Margins

Margins are the blank spaces at the edge of your page. They’re there to leave room for things like page numbers, and to create whitespace to make reading more pleasant (more on that in a bit). 

The default margin is 1”, but you can get away with ½” or ¾” depending on the conventions of your genre. Another term to remember is Gutter. That refers to the margins at the center of the open book: the right-hand margin of the page on the left, and the left-hand margin of the page on the right. If those get too narrow, the words disappear into the crack. 

Your publisher’s margin guidelines are the best source of information about what needs to happen here. Find them, understand them, and follow them exactly.

2. Thou Shalt Not Get Too Fancy With Your Fonts

With millions of fonts available, it can be tempting to overthink this decision, or to get super-fancy and create a beautiful but unreadable book. In all cases, simpler is better. Choose two fonts: one for the main text, and one for your titles and chapter heads. 

Good fonts for the book’s body include:

  • Times New Roman
  • Caslon
  • Garamond
  • Minion
  • Palatino
  • Calibri
  • Jenson
  • Joanna MT
  • Arial
  • Georgia
  • Verdana

Good fonts for a book’s chapter heads are more flexible. Stay away from cliched fonts like Papyrus and Comic Sans, and keep the basic look on point for your content. A fun, whimsical font might work for a children’s adventure book, but would be inappropriate for a book on coping with suicide. A few of the most popular and effective chapter head fonts include:

  • Cinzel
  • Times New Roman
  • Arial
  • Aaargh
  • Steelfish
  • Amor Sans

In most cases, you’ll want 11 or 12 point for your main body (unless you’re writing for children, in which case 14 to 16 can work). For chapter heads, experiment with how each looks on the page until you reach a pleasing look overall. 

Some type of books have further requirements for fonts, such as large print books.

3. Thou Shalt Make Your Indents Unnoticeable

You get to choose whether you indent first lines in a paragraph, or put an extra space between paragraphs and don’t indent. You also get to choose whether you justify your lines to put an uneven “rag” across the right hand side, or to create even lines on both sides of the page. 

The key here is to make your choices so smooth as to be invisible. People get annoyed with formatting they notice. Keep it clean, keep it consistent. Keep it out of mind. 

4. Thou Shalt Protect Against Widows and Orphans

A widow is a single word all alone on its own line at the end of a paragraph. An orphan is a single word all alone at the top of a page. 

Both look weird, waste space, and are frequently perceived as errors by the reader. Scan through your manuscript and find them, then do what’s necessary to make them gone. Some formatting software will do this automatically. If yours doesn’t, consider rewording the preceding paragraph until the widow or orphan comes back to join the family.

This only applies to print books or ebooks you distribute solely as PDFs. Anything else will adjust word placement for a wide range of reasons. Nothing you can do will predict or eliminate widows and orphans. 

5. Thou Shalt Not Double-Space Sentences

Back when we wrote on typewriters, it was standard practice to put two spaces after each period. Font design now adds that whitespace automatically as part of the period’s design. You only need to put in one space after each period.

With each passing year, more and more writers who were never trained with the double-space method enter the workforce, so this issue is becoming less common over time. If you were trained to double-space, use the find function to search for a period and two spaces (“.  “), then replace with a period and just one space. 

6. Thou Shalt Honor Thy Whitespace

Whitespace is important. Too many words on a page make the whole page crowded and actively stressful to read. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it asks the reader to do extra work. 

Start this by observing the guidelines for margins, then double-space your text. Take a look at it on a printed page and make adjustments. Sometimes you can narrow down to 1.5 spacing. Sometimes you need to widen the margins.

This is more an art than a science, but eyeball your printed pages and make them easy to read through good use of whitespace. 

7. Thou Shalt Use Bleeds

If you have images that extend to the edge of the page, you need to know this part. If not, go ahead and skip down to number eight. 

When publishers print your book, they print large sheets, each of which has multiple pages on it. They then cut those pages down to the trim size. If you want your illustration to go out to the edge, you protect against small cut errors by including a “bleed”.

The bleed is a portion of the illustration that goes beyond the dimensions of the page. It gets printed on the large sheet, then trimmed off at the cut stage. Make sure your illustration (a) goes out to the “bleed line” as specified by your printer, and (b) the portion in the bleed contains no vital elements. 

8. Thou Shalt Check With Other Authors

Every genre has its own quirks, preferences, conventions, and expectations. Before you begin the work of formatting your book, look closely at a dozen or so of the bestselling books in your field. Start with the ones you identified while doing your keyword research. 

Note the fonts they used, and their sizes. Measure the margins. Check whether they’re double-spaced or something else. Pay attention to how they start chapters, and handle their indentations. 

The closer you can make your book to those standards, the more successful your formatting is likely to be. 

9. Thou Shalt Take Care With Illustrations

The right illustrations in the right place, inserted well, can make a book really stand out. The wrong illustration in the wrong place, inserted poorly can also make your book stand out — in all the ways you don’t want it to. A full treatment of how to manage illustrations in a book would fill a whole article (or even a full training!). For now, here’s a list of things to keep in mind:

  • Positioning of the illustration
  • How your formatting software deals with illustration
  • Resolution of the image
  • If the style is appropriate for the book you’ve written
  • Copyright issues if you didn’t produce it yourself
  • How a color photo looks printed in black and white
  • Whitespace surrounding the illustration
  • Font, spacing, and positioning of captions
  • Sizing of the illustration relative to nearby text

It’s a complex topic, but often worth the effort for what it can do for your book. If you do it right. 

Do it right. 

10. Thou Shalt Remain Consistent

Even within these commandments, the expectations of your readers, and the guidelines of your printer or publisher, you have a lot of leeway for how you want your book to look. Whatever you choose, you must be consistent. 

If chapter one is in Arial font at 12 point size, chapter 91 must be the same. If one line is aligned on the right, all the lines must be aligned on the right. If one image has certain spacing and caption conventions, they all have to be spaced and captioned like that. 

You can even cover for mistakes with consistency. If you do it every time throughout your book, readers will assume it’s an intentional style decision. 

Okay, So Now What?

Now that you know the basics of book formatting, you have an important question to consider. This is a lot of work, and for most writers it’s not work that’s on your list of expert skills. Do you do this yourself, or do you hire a designer? I can’t answer for you, but I can provide a handful of questions that can help you work out the answer for yourself:

Do I Have More Time, or More Money?

At its essence, this is the question about everything you might outsource for producing your books. If you have more money than time, you should probably hire the formatting done or at least purchase some software you can use to do it for you. If you have more time than money, you should probably do it yourself. If you lack both, ask yourself which would be easiest to make more of.

How Much Do I Know About Formatting Books?

If you’re not already knowledgeable about book formatting and reasonably good at it, you have to add the learning curve to your time estimates for getting it done. That might skew your decision towards hiring out for the job. If you’re already quick, good, and informed, that gives you plenty of reasons to keep the task in-house. 

How Much Do I Enjoy Detail-Oriented Work?

Even if you are knowledgable about how to format your books, do you enjoy doing it? If not, it may make more sense to hire somebody or buy some software that can do it for you automatically.

What Could I Do With That Extra Time?

Formatting a book can take hours. What will you likely do with that extra time if you hire it out? If the answer is to write another book, or spend quality time with your family, then it might be worth the extra money you’ll spend to hire it out. If you don’t have anything in particular going on, then it’s probably worth the savings to do it yourself. 

What Could I Do With That Extra Money?

Conversely, look at the money you would spend to have your book formatted. Could you leverage that money toward book success in more effective ways, like a better cover artist or effective marketing? Do you need it for quality of life reasons outside your publishing career? If not, then the investment is probably sound. If so, you may be better off putting in the work instead of spending the money. 

Like I said, I don’t know the answers to these questions for everybody, but once you’ve answered you’ll probably have a good handle on which way you should jump. 

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