The Trials and Tribulations of DIY Book Formatting

I’m not a Navy SEAL and have never been through BUD/S. But after 24 weeks, you can imagine how those wrapping up their time at Coronado must view the new arrivals.

“You poor f*cks!”

And so it was a few weeks ago, as I was finishing the editing of my book. I mean, wrangling the words is the heavy lift, right? Now for the fun stuff. An easy glide to publication…

Looking back, I shake my head at the naiveté.

Even going in with the mistaken notion that it’s easy, I suppose the first question is why do it oneself? Why subject yourself to the this-is-most-definitely-not-a-fun task of book formatting? When, just like there are cover designers and copy editors and proofreaders who specialize in those things, there are plenty of professional book designers who bring an exacting eye and long experience to the table?

For me, the answer was simply that I was averse to ceding what I anticipated might be a naturally iterative process to the one-and-done (or two – or thrice – and done, for those more flexible designers) dynamic that surely must underlie this work. I had zero expectation that, having shipped off my .docx file and received a formatted PDF in return, that I would be done. Indeed, even as I write this, I intend the final, FINAL edit of my book to be when I have the physical proof – a real book – in hand. YMMV.

With that as the backdrop, I thought I’d note a few of the issues I encountered, in the hope it might help some other poor f*ck – sorry, I mean author – treading along this path behind me.


First, like many here, I long ago determined to have both ebook and paperback versions of my book available. KDP and CreateSpace are not the only options out there. But they have certainly been front and center in making that ebook/paperback duo easy and increasingly common. There’s not much reason anymore to not do both.

The first, pleasant, surprise was that getting my ebook ready was a piece of cake. Notwithstanding the aura of here-there-be-dragons that has long wrapped itself around the topic – Guido Henkel’s Zen of Ebook Formatting has lived on my iPad for quite some years now – I found the one thing that made it painless. The magic pill.


Yeah, it’s not cheap. Especially if you spring for the unlimited license. And, for sure, it’s not going to be everything to everyone. But it’s among the more elegant pieces of software I’ve used in awhile. And, more importantly, it does exactly what it purports to do.

From the time I compiled out of Scrivener – where I do my actual writing – it took all of fifteen minutes in Vellum before I had epub and mobi versions built and ready for publication. And it only took that long because I had to manually go through each of my 53 chapters and un-tick the box that adds a chapter number.

A sidebar: For years I’ve done final editing on paper. My eyes just seem to pick up typos and grammatical issues and other faux pas better there than on-screen in Word or Scrivener. In using Vellum, I discovered that reading an epub or mobi version inside the iBook or Kindle apps on my MacBook Pro is an even better way to spot those errant rogues. Much better, even, than paper. I now have a new editing process as a manuscript heads into its final stages.

Seriously, fifteen minutes. Vellum. Just do it.

My excitement at having my ebook ready to go got an even bigger boost when my cover designer ( – highly recommended) sent me the mockups for my cover. I loved it! I could smell the finish line.

There was only one little thing. I had ordered both ebook and print book covers. Now everyone knows a cover for a paperback book is slightly different from its digital cousin. The physical print cover has a spine and a back and both of those elements must be included in the design.

My first hint of the new road I was on was when Dane asked me for my trim size. And the page count.

Trim size is easy, right? Just pick one. I go to my library, pull out a volume by an author I like, same genre. “Sure,” nodding my head. “I’ll just make it like this one.”

Page count was a little harder. I mean, for months, while I performed an iterative series of edits, Scrivener dutifully reported my 83K word count. And when I moved over to Word to finally format it, it reported I had 234 pages. Of course, that was 234 letter-size pages. I knew the page count would grow when scaled to a smaller page size. But how much?

It was right about there that I first began to have an inkling of what lay in front of me. That, alas, whatever good Karma I had gained in using Vellum on the ebook side… was exhausted.

Second sidebar: It was also right about then that I recognized the mistake I had made many months previous. Now my book is a collection of 53 stories, printed in Sport Rider magazine over a period of eight years. For each of those stories I had two copies sitting on my hard drive – the final, block-formatted, single-spaced, paragraphs delineated-with-a-blank-line draft I had made when writing it; and the conventional, paragraph-indented, double-spaced draft I had actually submitted to the magazine.

When importing into Scrivener, preparatory to putting my book together, I chose the former, block-formatted versions. M-I-S-T-A-K-E.

Now there’s probably a quick way in Scrivener or Word, or both, to reformat my block-formatted originals into a conventional, indented style. Alas, despite long use I don’t pretend to be a maven in either of those pieces of software. I just use ‘em for what I need, pretty much ignoring the features around the periphery.

And Vellum actually obscured the problem – handily transforming my ebook version.

So it was way late in the game when I realized my print-version manuscript was a problem. I had a million of these non-indented paragraphs, separated from their kin above and below by a million blank lines. I didn’t relish manually going through the draft, fixing them. What to do?

After much faffing around with Scrivener (compile to paperback), Calibre, and a couple other already forgotten dead-ends, Vellum once again rode to the rescue. It has a little-used “export to RTF” feature. It boogered up some of the lovely formatting from my ebook – losing drop caps and section breaks, most particularly. But it fixed my big problem.

Import that into Word, save as a .docx, and I’m ready for the final lap.

It was a long lap.

I’ll stop here and confess that despite a lifetime of reading books – thousands of ‘em, literally – there are many little things I apparently never noticed. Even if one is in a hurry to get to the words, how does one miss, for instance, that nearly all books are full-justified? That would be me, the late-middle-aged guy in the back, slowly raising his hand.

For trim size I told Dane it would be 5.25×8. That was wrong. But I didn’t know it yet.

For margins I faffed around for awhile, finally settling on 0.75” on the top, 1” on the bottom, 0.75” on the outside, and 0.75” for the gutter. Mirrored, because this is a book.

Margins, beyond the minimums necessary for a good reader experience – having sufficient space on the outside to rest one’s thumbs, for instance; and not having your text disappear into the gutter – are an aesthetic. Simply what looks right and balanced. But they’re also very much interrelated with the font, font size, and line spacing. And all those together then inform the trim size.

I’ll jump to the end of the story and reveal that I had to tweak my margins. I found my rather ‘texty’ headers were crowded; while the footers, containing only page numbers, had too much white space. The whole effect felt like a pressing towards the top. So I flipped them, putting the 1” margin on the top and the 0.75” on the bottom. That worked. No more feeling like my pages were scrambling out of a box.

I played around with fonts a bit. I tried Garamond and Bookman and Palatino and a few others. In the end I came back to my old standby… Times New Roman. 12pt. I know, I know. Boring, done to death, and too narrow. I can’t help it.

Line spacing was single-spaced, at ‘exactly’ and 15pt. All other boxes in the paragraph dialog zero’d. No particular reason. Just tweaked until it looked right.

Text was justified on all sides. And, funny, as soon as you hit that box up in the toolbar, the suddenly square right margin puts you in mind that, yes, you really maybe have a book here.

With all that done, I quickly decided that the line length in my book was too short. Too dinky. Not enough gravitas. So after some mild angst – I discovered that after choosing a trim size you feel rather bound to it – I changed the trim size to 6×9. Much better.

The Vellum-created version of my ebook had hooked me on drop caps. Putting them back in my print version wasn’t hard. Just tedious. Opening each chapter, one by one, putting them back in by hand. But soon enough it was done. Mostly… A word of warning: changing most anything related to fonts or paragraph formatting will sh*t-can all those pretty drop caps you just spent thirty careful minutes putting in. Get your other formatting square. Then do your drop caps.

The ornamental section breaks that Vellum had also hooked me on were another story. After faffing around for awhile – by now it should be clear that this whole process included a lot of ‘faffing’ – I discovered that Word includes… count ‘em… all of one section break symbol in its character table. And not the really cool ones that are in Vellum, either. The good news is that after you get over the angst of not having the exact symbol you want, the one included in Word is quite serviceable. And OPTION-6 is the built-in keyboard shortcut to insert it.

I’m told that Adobe’s InDesign has a more sophisticated kerning algorithm than that built into Word. I have no reason to dispute that. But neither did I find the results out of Word to be deficient in any way I can point to. I had a handful of widows and orphans to manually deal with. But, generally, I found the text flow to look very nice.

At this point I had a print-version draft that was largely comparable to my already completed ebook. I thought I was nearly done. Once again, I was wrong. Very wrong.

I’m not going to detail the morass of quicksand that I was about to step into. Nightmares, especially those born in Redmond, are best soon forgotten. I’ll tell you what I wanted… I wanted a professional-looking layout job. With proper formatting of the front matter and a clean, neat Table of Contents. I wanted Roman numeral page numbers in the front, and Arabic numbers for the content itself. I wanted chapters to all begin on odd pages. I wanted my even page headers to display my book title. And I wanted my odd page headers to display the chapter title. Except for the first page of chapters, where I wanted no header at all. And, finally, I wanted blank pages to be blank – no headers.

Getting any one of those things is mostly pretty easy. What I soon discovered is that getting them all is where the rub comes.

And now I’m going to cut to the chase and tell you what the secret is. Two secrets, actually. One big, one small.

The small secret is that you have to learn about Styles. Actually you don’t, unless you want a Table of Contents. But most books have one of those, so, yeah, you do. You don’t need to become a maven. But you do have to understand the basics.

You can build a Table of Contents (TOC) two ways in Word: manually or automatically. Making one manually looks like sh*t. It just does. Trust me. Not to mention you’ve just created a very high opportunity to get something wrong. A minor, last minute tweak somewhere and you forget to redo the TOC and, voila, you’re all set to hear about it when some Amazon reviewer gives you two stars.

Word will also build you a beautiful, the-text-is-all-aligned-the-way-it’s-supposed-to TOC, and will update it any time you want with the click of a mouse so the page numbers are all what they’re supposed to be. But to have it do that – you guessed it – you first have to have used Styles.

Again, I’m not going to belabor all the faffing around I did trying to create custom styles, saving style templates, and everything else under the sun that didn’t work. If you’re like me you just want to write your story, not fiddle-fart around with “Heading This” and “Title That.” The fanciest I usually get is making chapter headings 18pt. My whole friggin manuscript is “Normal.” That’s fine. Here’s the version for us simple folk: go to your first chapter heading. Yeah, the one there in 18pt. Select that. Now go up to the toolbar, with the ‘Home’ tab selected. Head over to the ‘Styles’ section, right-click on “Heading 1,” and then click Update to Match Selection. Voila! Your “Heading 1” in the toolbar is now your style. Now go thru your document and iteratively select each chapter heading, each time heading up to the toolbar and clicking on “Heading 1.” You’ve now made each chapter heading a “Heading 1” style. And now you’re golden. Now you can let Word build your TOC. And it just works.

The other thing – the big secret, the most important thing I have to tell you in this whole, long epistle – is that you have to learn about Breaks. Again, you don’t have to become an expert. But you do have to understand the difference between page breaks and section breaks. And then you have to understand the difference between the types of section breaks. Don’t try and ignore them. Don’t try and slink around them. You’ll be sorry if you do. Learn about Breaks.

Here’s the reason… having the proper break in the proper place is the only way I know to pull all those other threads – a split between Roman and Arabic numeral pagination, even-page headers, odd-page headers, different headers on chapter start, proper blank pages, etc., etc. – together. So bite the bullet, spend a few minutes looking into how breaks work, and I guarantee you’ll live years longer.

One tiny little hint related to Breaks… there’s a paragraph symbol up in the main toolbar section of Word. I never much noticed it before. I surely never clicked on it. But it stands for “show all nonprinting characters.” Just like the old “reveal codes” in WordPerfect, twenty-five years ago. Once you put in a break, you’ll need that little tool to help find them. It mostly works fine. Except that if you put your cursor at the very top of a chapter – typically the blinky is sitting there just to the left of the first letter of your chapter title – and you insert a break there, you won’t see it.

Here’s a second small hint related to Breaks… double-clicking in either the header or footer portion of a page will bring up the header/footer overlay – and it will instantly tell what section you’re in.

Breaks… learn to love ‘em.

And now, finally, at long last… you’ve got your Word document formatted exactly like you want. It’s perfect. Now all you need to do is save it to PDF, ready for your print house.

The bad news is that the place you’re naturally going to head – File->Save As->PDF – sucks so bad you won’t believe it. You’re going to get a message thus: A header and a footer of section 1 are set outside the printable area of the page. Do you want to continue?

Actually, you’re going to get a whole bunch of these messages, one for each section you created. And if you, indeed, click through each of those messages Word will dutifully create your PDF. Only it won’t have your page numbers or headers. You can’t use it.

What’s going on is that Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, is convinced that this PDF you’re creating is destined for that laser or inkjet printer you have over in the corner. A printer which has much quicker constraints in terms of printing towards the edge of your paper than does your professional print-on-demand print house.

Alas, no amount of faffing around in Page Setup or Layout or anywhere else is going to fix it. Don’t even try.

The good news is that the much more obscure option of File->Print->PDF… works like a charm. Just use that. And now you’re done.

And with that, I’ll bid adieu. Other than to say that DIY book formatting certainly isn’t for everybody. But I’m glad I went through what I went through. I love how both my ebook and print versions look. And the next go-round will be far easier.

That said, I absolutely have two C-notes waiting for the first developer that creates a Vellum-like tool for the print-book side. I’ll toss in a bottle of your favorite beverage. And my eternal gratitude…

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