My Beautiful Book or: How Formatting Unleashed My Inner Control Freak

Anyone who knows me as a writer knows that I am… picky. I write slowly because I like to finesse my language and edit as I go. (I know, not the way you’re supposed to do things, but whatever.) The words must be evocative. The sentences must have flow and rhythm. It means that despite all my writer friends being NaNoers, I’m always coming in last in the word wars—a perpetual loser’s fate that I’ve just learned to accept over time.

So because I’m a self-aware picky person, I knew that when it came to actually crafting my Word document into a final, physical product that that attitude would prevail. The purpose of this post isn’t to change my ways or confess some self-discovery. Really, I just want to set down in writing all the things I’ve done recently to make my manuscript into a PDF ready for print, both to give other indie authors a sense of a good order to do things and honestly to also remind myself what to do when I have to do this again a year or so down the line. FYI that there is a lot of typography and formatting mumbo jumbo in this post—too much for me to stop and define it all, but it is all very Google-able. Heads-up also that this is a very lengthy post.

Step 1: Look At Books

I read a lot. A lot a lot. Not as much as some of those Goodreads gods and goddesses who stack up hundreds of books in one year, perhaps, but definitely way more than the average person. You would think, therefore, that I know what books look like.

Wrong! There are so many little formatting details that take a manuscript from book-ish to actual book, and we readers often gloss over them. The very first thing I did at this stage of the game was to look at books that I wanted my book to look like (YA, paperback, paranormal/mystery/thriller). I paid attention to font choice, whether the text was justified, the layout of the front and back matter, the page number placement, the margin size (literally downloaded a ruler app so I could get to measuring in Starbucks), headers and footers, the use of imprint logos, etc.

Then I made myself a wish list:

  • 5.25″ x 8″ cover
  • Author logo on spine (99% of traditionally published books have an imprint logo on the spine, so I wanted a logo too)
  • First few words of each chapter in small caps in a different font
  • Cool chapter heading font
  • Line break ornament
  • Justified text
  • Hyphenation
  • Chapter starts don’t need to be on the right
  • Page numbers on outside bottom, starting on proper first page of book
  • Half title and full title graphic to echo the cover in the front matter
  • Appropriate-looking copyright page with necessary credits
  • Blurb or excerpt on back cover
  • Author website listed directly above barcode on the back cover
  • Author photo in back matter
  • Font changes where appropriate for style (text messages, articles)
  • Gray bubble text boxes to indicate text messages

Quite a lot, right? I’m sure there was more on my wish list, but this is just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Step 2: List Out Things to Buy

After some initial fumbling attempts at making my own cover and logo, I decided I’d rather pay some professionals to do this for me. PLEASE NOTE: I am not saying you need to spend oodles of money to have a great-looking book, but understand that this is my primary hobby and my money to spend.

Here was what I bought:

  • Logo, purchased on Fiverr for about $35
  • Professional author photo, $185
  • Cover, purchased on 99designs, $367. Understand that I knew I needed to buy a cover, but I didn’t buy it yet, due to needing to tell the designer the final page count.

There are typesetting services you can pay for, but I’m proficient enough at Word that I decided I could do all that myself. (Yes, Word. Some people use fancier programs, but I wanted to just make do with the beast that is Microsoft Office, since I know it well and didn’t want to buy a new program.) Which brings us on to the next step…

Step 3: Format and Typeset the Manuscript

I used many of the KDP guides to format the Word document, essentially following this webinar exactly to get the dimensions set properly. In terms of margins, I measured YA paperbacks that I felt looked good and modeled my margins after them. Then I put in placeholder pages for the front and back matter, adding in the content over time.

Here was my front matter order. I mirrored the content and order off of paperback YA books.

  1. Half title graphic without author name
  2. “Also by Author” page
  3. Full title graphic with author name and logo
  4. Copyright page with logo
  5. Dedication
  6. Blank page

And my back matter:

  1. Author’s Note
  2. Acknowledgments
  3. Ad for The Gold in the Dark, which I made myself in Canva. My wonderful author friend totally saved me here by telling me to not only have a black and white version of this, but also a color version to place at the back of the ebook.
  4. “About the Author” page

My one real disappointment in terms of the front and back matter is that KDP does not allow you to have anything printed on the inside cover, which many YA paperbacks do. If this were an option, I would absolutely have had something on the inside cover, likely a blurb in the front and the “About the Author” in the back. Oh well. 😦

Once I had my front matter in the document, this meant I could add in page numbers (starting on Chapter One first page). I used this function in Word to get them formatted properly.

Next I adjusted the paragraph and line formatting, making sure that there weren’t too few or too many lines of text on a full page. Given my margins and dimensions, twenty-nine lines per page seemed about right. I adjusted the paragraph indents (NOT using spaces or tabs!!!!) until they looked good visually. While I was doing all this, I made sure to zoom out from the document frequently to get a proper view.

Things were now looking pretty decent as far as I could tell. I began the long and thankless task of searching for fonts to use for my chapter headings, small caps chapter introductory words, text messages, etc. Some were already installed on Word, while others I found on Dafont and 1001 Fonts. I made sure that these fonts were able to be used in a commercial project, then marked down their designers in the copyright page. One thing to note here is that after a long and arduous search for a line break ornament, I found a stunning dingbats font that worked perfectly, so no need for messing around with vector files or anything like that. Hurrah!

At this point, text messages became the bane of my existence. There are many text message conversations in my book, and I had a lot of minute design goals for how I wanted them to look. Here was my vision:

  • Texts in a bubble (I used the rounded rectangle shape in Word)
  • A sans-serif font that looks like a text message (I used Arial Nova Light)
  • Text bubbles aligned either on the right or the left so that they looked like a conversation, flush with the margins
  • Two shades of gray to indicate both people in the conversation
  • The text margin inside the bubble aligned with the main text paragraph indent (man, what a mouthful)
  • Small, natural-looking line breaks in between paragraph and text messages
  • No hyphenation
  • No justification

If you have ever done any sort of precise work on Word, you’ll know that it’s not always easy to get pictures positioned exactly where you want them, especially when text is involved. In my experience, images sometimes jump around a little bit, and the anchor “feature” can just as easily become a nuisance. I did my best with the text messages at this point, with the understanding that, because I still had some other formatting to do, there would be a cascading effect with the text messages, so the text messages would have to be one of the very last things to fix. If necessary, I knew that I could make PDFs of the specific chapters with text messages once they were perfect, then smush everything together into one big Frankenstein PDF.

Next I decided to get super nitty-gritty. (As if we weren’t there already.) I went through the entire manuscript fixing widow and orphan words. It seems that there’s some difference of opinion about what constitutes a widow and orphan; my vague, personal definition was any lone word on a line ending a paragraph and any small line of text alone on a page ending a chapter. To fix these, I experimented with the font spacing in each instance, condensing or expanding the spacing by up to .2 points. This was laborious to the extreme; I think my husband watched four hours of The Punisher in the time it took me to go through the whole book. Oh well, such is the life of a control freak.

This is when it started to feel like things were drawing to a close typesetting-wise, so I decided to export the PDF and do a visual check. Oh joy, look at all the cascading text messages as a consequence of the widow and orphan fixes, exactly where I didn’t want them. I did some minor tweaking to get them in the right places again, then made some other minor changes: a few more widow/orphan fixes, adding in some missing italicization (for some reason, a lot of text in the document became de-italicized a little while back), etc. I also realized that the bottom text on some pages was lower than others, due to the various texts/font changes/ornaments/chapter headings present throughout the book. The difference was very slight, and I doubt many people would notice, but it was still present. Since this seemed like a difficult issue to fix, I opted to place my page numbers lower down on the page, so that the distance between the text and page number was larger. My hope was that doing so would make this issue less apparent, and I do think this fix worked pretty well.

Then it was time to export to PDF again for another visual check. (Lesson learned: it’s never not time for another visual check!) I found a few more minuscule issues, fixed those, visual check, and… we’re… DONE!

Step 4: Read the Book and Correct Errors

As I mentioned above, for whatever reason a little while ago some italicized words in my text became de-italicized—whole paragraphs of them, in some cases. So I wanted to do a final read through to check that I’d caught all the missing italics and look for anything else that needed fixing that my quick visual checks kept missing.

This was a good thing to do anyway, since it had been a couple months since I last read the book, so I was able to spot some other errors easier. (A couple missing words, two small continuity errors, etc.) Since I had already done the bulk of the formatting, I was very careful when correcting errors at this stage that I wasn’t causing any formatting issues by adding in text that was too short or too lengthy, etc.

Step 5: Order a Proof Copy

This was the point when everything fell apart. I ordered a proof copy from Amazon and held my breath for a day waiting for it to arrive. (Paid for rush shipping, of course—how could I not??) As soon as I cracked the book open, I knew things had to change. The font was too big, and the inner margin was a tad too close to the spine of the book. The book was readable, but I wanted to provide a reading experience that would be comfortable and not make anyone think about the formatting. I mean, that’s the whole point of this formatting journey, right? You want all your hard work to fade into the background, so that the physical layout of your book isn’t distracting from the reading experience.

So I brought the font size down, then brought in the inner margins by .25 inches. And because surely you’re aware by now, this had an enormous cascading effect on everything else I’d done thus far. The text messages were completely out of whack, and all the work I’d put in for the widows and orphans went down the drain in a second. I hunkered down and spent three days in formatting hell to fix everything, until I’d forgotten what the outside world looked like.

Then bought another proof. Then moped around the house on a Saturday for my package to arrive, having heart palpitations. (Kidding.) Then realized at 6:45 when I checked the app that the proof had been delivered an hour ago, but at the front of our apartment, not at our doorstep like usual.

Get the package. Rip it open. Open the book.

We good. Looks perfect. Final page count: 369.

You should have seen how happy I was when I went to go get a celebratory bottle of wine, blasting eighties music in my car all the way.

Step 6: Buy a Cover

Now I not only had a finished, glowing, beautiful PDF, but also the crucial page count. That meant I could at long last buy a cover, since knowing the page count enabled me to tell the cover designer how wide the spine of the book should be. I’d already been having a back and forth conversation with some artists about design details and expectations, so I went ahead and plunked down my money. I’m not going to go into huge details about the cover process, but will probably save that for a future post, since I think I learned some good things there that could be useful to other independent authors.


I could see some people reading this post and thinking I’m a crazy person. This is the point where I could say and maybe I am! for a cheap laugh. But honestly, I don’t think any of this is crazy. It took forever, but my honest belief is that these tiny details make an enormous difference in the way readers view your book. This may be just a hobby for me (I’ve definitely spent money and not made a dime thus far!) but I care about looking professional and putting out the absolute best book I can—and design is a big part of that.

So no apologies from me. Specter looks the best I can make it (cover reveal coming very, very soon!) and I’m glad I went through this grueling process. Thankfully, now that I’ve done it once, the next book won’t be as difficult. And hopefully this guide will be helpful to someone out there who is also looking to whip their manuscript into shape formatting-wise! ❤

6 thoughts on “My Beautiful Book or: How Formatting Unleashed My Inner Control Freak

  1. This was interesting. I hope it’s not in my future, but perhaps it will be. I am familiar with formatting in Word, as I used to use it to do several newsletters a year. Hope Word will not be completely obsolete by the time I’m indie publishing, if I indie publish. My laptop is already obsolete, so there’s that …

    And no, I definitely don’t think you’re crazy to want to get your book looking like other books in the genre, with no jarring or distracting differences. This is exactly the kind of thing that publishers use their vast resources to do, right? It is the kind of thing that makes a book look professional.

    Just curious, I see this post was written about a year ago, and you call indie publishing a hobby. Would you still call it a hobby, and why or why not?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good question–at this point in time I do treat indie publishing as a teeny-tiny business instead of a hobby. I get royalties, have a PO box, do promotions, network, etc. But the amount that I sell is so low currently that it’s a business in its infancy; I think of publishing as a very long-term thing, where hopefully I’m making okay money in 5-10 years to then hopefully snowball throughout the rest of my life. That’s to be expected, since the current wisdom in the indie community is that you need to have published 20 books to be making about $50k a year. I’m at one… so… yeah. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, that’s helpful.

        I definitely realize it’s long-term. But I like “teeny-tiny business” better than “hobby.” A writing career takes so long to get off the ground that calling it a hobby unless and until it’s turning a profit doesn’t seem accurate. Usually by the time a novelist is making money, he or she has been operating in a professional manner for many years.

        Liked by 1 person

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