You may not realize it, but a lot of work goes into the inside of a book. And I don’t even mean the writing, I’m talking about the style and formatting that goes into every single page. It might not sound like a major ordeal… until you realize that can mean hundreds of pages that need to be inspected and corrected by human eyes and hands.
Self-publishing venues like Lulu and Createspace offer premade templates for authors to download and use with their books, but it’s not as easy as copy-pasting the whole of a Word document into the template and calling it a day.
Professionals use software like Adobe InDesign to create sleek and attractive pages for their books. If you hire this step out, it’s quite possible the person you hire is using such a program to give you a good-looking end result. But InDesign is expensive and can be difficult to learn to use. It’s possible to make a book look fine using only a word processor, but it will take a lot of work. After all, every line and paragraph will have to be formatted by hand.
When using a word processor to do your formatting, it can be easy to forget everything you need to do. But there are some standards to keep in mind that will help your self-published book not look so self-published. So what should you make sure to include?
A copyright page and a table of contents.
Proclaiming ownership of your work might seem obvious, but the table of contents often isn’t. If your book contains chapters or breaks writing into sections that address different subjects, a table of contents is vital. If you’re going from e-book to paper, you may not have one yet, since not every e-book platform requires a table of contents, so make sure you put one together… and make sure the page numbers listed are correct. Because formatting can cause text to shift considerably, it’s actually best to leave the table of contents for last.
Running headers and page numbers.
If you’ve got a book handy, open it up and take a look at the top of the page. The author’s name or the name of the book can be found at the top of every page, in alternating order. Running headers like these are a nice bit of polish for any work.
Where the page numbers go is a stylistic choice. Top corner, bottom corner, bottom center, it doesn’t really matter – just make sure you have them!
You’ll also want to address any stylistic differences there might be between your normal pages and the pages that begin a chapter. These usually omit the running headers and occasionally omit page numbers, as well. You’ll want to review your stylistic choices carefully and make sure each of these chapter header pages is formatted appropriately, and also make sure that the page number stays correct if you decide to exclude page numbers from pages that begin new chapters. Speaking of new chapters…
Properly styled chapter headers and pages.
There are a few things that are considered stylistic rules that need to be kept in mind for these pages.
The chapter title should be approximately one third of the way down the page.
The first paragraph of a new chapter should not be indented.
If you’ve decided to use drop caps (big fancy capital letters that descend into lower lines) it’s also important to make sure the chapter is starting with a letter – which means removing the opening quotation mark from the first line of chapters that begin with dialogue.
Justified text and hyphenation.
While text with a ragged right edge is attractive for poetry, most books would look terrible if they left it that way. The text in most books is justified, instead, meaning each line fills the page uniformly from side to side. This gives the text a sleek and attractive look, leading the eye smoothly from one line to the next.
It introduces its own set of problems, though. From time to time, justification means only a few large words can fill a line and not leave room for attractive spacing. This can lead to unsightly and distracting gaps between words and create “rivers” of white space, which is the term used to describe a series of spaces that create a distinct visual path on the page, be it vertical, diagonal or meandering. If you glance at a page without trying to read it and you happen to see a clear trail of white threading through several lines, that’s a river. Even professionally formatted books occasionally contain these, since they are sometimes unavoidable.
To prevent unsightly justification and frequent rivers in your text, you must include hyphenation of words that are too long to squeeze onto the previous line. The typical rules of hyphenation apply, rules like a minimum of two letters plus the hyphen on the first line and three letters on the second, only hyphenating between syllables, and never hyphenating proper names or single-syllable words. When adding hyphenation, it’s best to brush up on your understanding of the rules first, and when in doubt, double-check a dictionary to see where the syllables break up to make sure you’ve got it right.
Images that are high enough resolution to print.
Some books, especially fantasy fiction, use decorative chapter breaks or chapter headers. These can really make the pages of your book shine, but they can also be a source of bitter disappointment if they aren’t well-suited to print. This was a problem I encountered, myself.
While my 600 DPI images look superb in the e-book and PDF versions of Death of the Sun, the printed copy left a lot to be desired. If you’re including graphics of any sort, you must order a print copy of your proof to make sure you don’t encounter the same issues I did. Despite my image being high enough resolution to look great on a regular printer, they didn’t fare so well when being turned out by a printer optimized for text. Don’t get too attached to your graphics, just in case they come out grainy and need to be cut.
There’s plenty of other things to be said about formatting for a physical copy of a book, but these are a few that seem to plague self-published authors the most. Of course, if you feel I’ve overlooked any other important issues, feel free to tell me!