How to design a book without special skills or software

bamboo baskets book spread

It is now possible for anyone to print a book fairly inexpensively, using services such as Lulu or Blurb. Of course, printing should be distinguished from publishing, which includes not just the book’s physical production but its promotion and distribution as well. The big problem with any kind of publishing is getting books together with their readers, and self-publishers should be aware of the formidable difficulties this entails.

But that’s a topic for another time. Today I want to explain how to make a book look good if you’re not a designer and the only tool you have available is something like Microsoft Word. Before we begin, please be aware that it is more difficult to design a book in Word than it would be to do so in a program designed for that purpose, such as InDesign or Quark. I would hate doing a whole book in Word. But sometimes you’ve got to go with what you’ve got.

I know, of course, that hardly anyone who could benefit from the advice that follows is likely to accept it. Simplicity in design is one of the hardest concepts to sell, at least to novices. There is always the urge to add one more flourish or embellishment to “dress up” the text and make the book look “special.”

Which is exactly the wrong way to go. Please believe this. The way to make your book stand out is to make it simple. If you do this correctly it will also be beautiful. Besides, what you want is for people to read the words, right? So your goal should be to keep the design out of the way of the words!

There is a principle in Japanese design called “wabi-sabi.” The term is often translated as “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete,” but the gist of it is unadorned simplicity. This will be our model. Specifically, if you observe the following guidelines I promise you people will compliment you on how professional your book looks. (Be sure to check with your print service in case they have particular requirements that override aspects of my advice.)

Align the entire book flush left with a ragged edge on the right. This includes the title and the chapter headings and the subheads and the captions and every other element.

One reason rag right sometimes looks bad is because people tend to combine it with centered heads and an unhappy mélange of other indents and alignments. This is a common mistake. Unless you are a very sophisticated designer, you either have a center-based design or a left-based one. You don’t have a combination of the two things. So align all your elements left.

Some people think that only justified type looks professional. Listen to me: Microsoft Word doesn’t know how to properly justify type, and unless you are an accomplished typesetter, neither do you. Word lacks the typographic controls that you need to make justified columns look good. Your book will look great left-aligned.

Look at the typefaces you have available to you. Notice which ones catch your eye. Now throw those out. Continue this process in order to pick the one that seems to call the least attention to itself. Do not use any typeface that has clever squiggles or unusual letterforms. Do not use any typeface that appears especially dark, fat, tall, light, narrow, squat, broken, modern, antique, classy, elegant, light-hearted, or charming. Do not use Comic Sans.

If you have a typeface that includes old style figures (some of the numbers descend below the baseline) as a default, or at least that you can access somehow, choose that one.

Set every element in your book in the same typeface. I know some people will tell you to use a sans serif head and a serif text face. That will most likely make your book design look naive, unless you really know what you are doing. Stick with one unpretentious typeface for everything and you will make no type selection mistakes — and that alone will put your book among the top 10 percent for design.

Set your main text face around 11 or 11.5 points. Set your line space around 14-15 points, or 1.25 lines. You can play around with these settings to find what looks best for your typeface and page, but grossly deviate from them at your peril.

Do not use any boldface, even in subheads and titles. I know this advice may be hard to accept, but boldface is difficult to use well if you are inexperienced. In addition, the bold forms of many typefaces are homely and poorly spaced.

Use fairly large margins — do not try to save pages by cramming your text against the edge of the page. That will only make your book ugly and hard to read.

If you have the capability to distinguish recto (righthand) and verso (lefthand) pages, do so. In Word, this is done by selecting “mirror margins” from the margins section of page setup under the file menu.

Make the bottom margin the largest, and the outside margin the next largest. The top and inside margins should be the smallest, but don’t let the inside margin go less than about 3/4 of an inch. Remember you may lose a bit on the inside of the page in the binding process.

Use just one column per page. Each line should contain approximately 60-70 characters. The type block (your main text area) is usually best when it is between 125 and 175 percent as tall as it is wide.

Do not block paragraph with a line space, as you might do in a business letter or a memo. Instead, include no extra line space between paragraphs and indent the first line of the paragraph by the size of either your typeface or your leading. In other words, if your text is set in 11.5 points and your line space is 14 points, make your paragraph first-line indent either 11.5 or 14 points.

Do not indent the first paragraph of the book, the first paragraph of chapters, or the first paragraph after subheads. The first line of the paragraph is a form of text break. These elements already constitute text breaks, so you don’t need another one.

If you have block quotes or poems, give them double the amount of indent of your paragraph first-line indent on the left and triple the indent on the right. (In other words, if your first-line paragraph indent is 14 points, indent extracts 28 points on the left and 42 points on the right). The larger indent on the right is needed because the rag makes the indent more difficult to see. You can set the extract text the same size as regular text, or you can make it a point or two smaller. Leave the leading the same. Put a single line break before and after.

Needless to say, you will want to include folios (page numbers). Odd numbers go on righthand pages. Do not number the title page, copyright page, and similar pages (but include them in the count). The folios are best placed midway vertically, or a bit above, in the bottom margin. Set them in a little – maybe double the amount of the first-line paragraph indent — from the outside of the text block. Right folios will need to be right-aligned (this is the one exception to our rule of left aligning). In Word, you must select “different odd and even headers and footers” from the layout section of the page setup option in the file menu.

Combine running heads with the folios, separated by a small amount of space, such as the same amount the folio is indented from the margin; you can also use the top margin for this if you prefer. (Folios should be to the outside of any running foot copy.) To prevent these elements from being confused with body text, they should probably be a little smaller than your text face, maybe 10-10.5 points.

Try to use only one or occasionally two levels of distinction per element. In other words, if a section of a text has a heading, do not make the head a different typeface, a different color, bold, italics, and all caps besides. That’s five levels of distinction; you only need one (if you follow my advice, you will only be using one typeface anyway). Don’t make your head elements too large — just big enough to be recognizable as what they are. Put a line space before subheads.

If you can use a second color, use a spot (premixed) color, and use it very sparingly. Red is traditional, but any color that is not too light will do. This is an excellent way to bring your pages alive.

If you are lucky enough to be able to afford color images, check with your print service about file formats. In conventional printing it is important to convert the RGB (red-green-blue) files that come out of your camera or scanner to CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black). The RGB format looks great on a computer monitor, but you need the black for the image to look good in print. (If you don’t know how to convert images to CMYK you will need to do an internet search to find out how or get a friend or your printer to help you.) But I think services such as Lulu may be set up to assume RGB.

In general, big images are better than small ones, and one big image is better than a group of small ones. Halftone and color images are best at about 300 dpi, while line art may need to be as much as 1200 dpi.

That’s all there is to it! (Below is a sample spread that I created entirely in Word.) If you follow these guidelines you can produce, with a minimum of agony, a perfectly readable book using nothing but Microsoft Word. If you try it, please share your experience by leaving a comment here or sending me an e-mail.

(If you have a more complicated project that contains many elements, I am occasionally available for free advice. I always answer e-mail, although it can take me a while to get to it.)

sample pages typeset in word

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  1. I stumbled across this post while browsing one of your other web pages (I was reading the Jade page). Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge and tips on how to design a book. Fascinating stuff!!!

    I shall visit this blog again.

  2. Thanks for the useful tips. I’m not going to be publishing anything right now, but some of the advice seems applicable to anything readable. I’m going to see if any of these tips might help my blog be more visually appealing.

  3. Thanks, Jeana, Terry. I hope you can get something useful from it, and I look forward to hearing from you again.

  4. Thank God for your blog. I need to know this stuff for my new job!