Type and Design Tips for self- and small publishers POST #2

Okay, so you’ve decided you’re going to design and typeset your own book.
The first thing to note is that I have never come up with a way around needing either Quark Xpress or Adobe InDesign. Anyone who says you can do perfectly good, professional page layout in Microsoft Word is either lying, ignorant, or a Microsoft shill of some kind. (The same goes for OpenOffice and the Word clones out there. They’re very sophisticated, but they’re NOT PAGE LAYOUT SOFTWARE. And yes, you can drive a nail into a board using the handle of a screwdriver, but why would you want to?)
I’ve been using Quark for about 17 years now, and I’ve tried to make the switch to InDesign twice, and ended up back at Quark both times. But both programs have the powerful ability to make the specific adjustments necessary for professional typesetting that Word and other word processors don’t.

There are a million video tutorials on how to use these programs out there, and although the software is expensive to shell out for ($700 to $1200 last I looked…) both programs let you download a fully functional trial version that works for 30 days. If you’re a savvy Internet user you probably also know that Google-fu might turn you up free or pirated copies of both programs. Here’s my hope. In the spirit that we are all in the publishing business hoping that our creative endeavors will be rewarded with money as well as fame, I urge you to purchase your software. I’m not a saint; I’ve definitely done the trick of downloading the trial version, using it for 29 days, then downloading a new copy to a different computer, using that for 29 days, and so on… until my business reached the point where I could reasonably pay for the software legitimately.
However, if you’re only doing one book because you’re self-publishing, use the trial version, it doesn’t cost you anything, and it will look a LOT better than MS Word would.
Let’s say what you’re designing is a collection of short stories. Here is a brief checklist of design decisions you need to make:

  • Title Font (used on: front cover, half title page, and title page)
  • chapter or story title font
  • header font for title & author’s name
  • body text font and size
  • placement of the page number (corner? centered?)
  • header: include author and story or chapter title? or just book title?
  • what size should the header be, does it include other design elements?
  • margin size (partly determined by the requirements of your printer)
  • leading (rhymes with “sledding” — the space between lines)
  • style of section breaks — asterisks? fleur? do you leave out the indent?
  • is the first line of each chapter indented or not?
  • what size indent?
  • drop capital at the start of a story or chapter or no?

Yep, if you hire a designer, s/he is going to be having to figure out answers to all those questions and come up with unique answers for each book and each client. If you’re doing it yourself though, here is some initial advice:
Picking fonts that don’t look dumb is hard. Generally speaking, don’t go with anything too cute or too elaborate. At the other end of the extreme, whatever you do, don’t use ANY of the standard fonts that came pre-installed in your computer (Arial, Geneva, Helvetica, Times, Calibri, Verdana). At Circlet Press I’ve settled on a few specific fonts that work well for various uses, purchased them (cheap, like $15 each), and stuck with them. In particular:
Title Font — Don’t pick something stupid or crazy. The title on the cover should be large enough to be read from at least 10 feet away OR the illustration has to be so striking that people should want to cross a bookstore to pick it up to see what the title says. (I’ll talk about ebook versus print book covers in a future post.) On the interior of the book, though, the title shouldn’t be too humongous or it looks silly.
Author’s Name — If the author is well known enough that their authorship is the selling point, then their name goes closer to the top of the cover, and the title closer to the bottom. Otherwise, title nearer the top, author’s name nearer the bottom and in a slightly smaller type size. You might be amazed to find there are books out there where you can’t tell which is the title and which is the author. It does matter. Also, do not use the word “by” on the cover. Look at the books on your shelf. Does it say THE SHINING by Stephen King? No. It just says THE SHINING Stephen King. (Well, actually, it says STEPHEN KING The Shining, because in King’s case, the author’s name is way more important than the title.) Likewise in the interior, though, it shouldn’t be clownishly large.
You will think that the title on the cover is Too Big. You will be Wrong. Assuming a 5.5″ x 8.5″ book cover (trade paperback size) you’re probably looking at fonts between 42 point and 72 point on the cover. Yes, there are covers that break this rule and break it well in the bookstores. But you’re an amateur designer — start with the rules before you break them.
Body text and font size. Pick a font that has serifs and that is reasonably compact. Don’t use Times (aka Times New Roman) unless you have no other choice. One of the painful things about Times is that it’s so universally used that the multiple versions out there can create conflicts from one version of your book’s file to another as it moves from computer to computer. I use a font called Joanna as my standard body text font, but I’m the only one I know who prefers it. I would avoid Palatino as another over-used one. I see a lot of Garamond, Bookman, and New Century Schoolbook, but they seem to work well, so that’s why people use them.
Next post, we’ll talk about how to actually compose a page PROPERLY. Does your software do the right thing to hyphenate all words? I bet it doesn’t. Are you using the “keep together” preference to try to stop widows and orphans? DON’T. Do you not even know what a widow or orphan is? We’ll cover it. (Click here to continue.)


  1. Cecilia, excellent article. One thing I would say it that it IS possible to achieve a good, professional layout worth MS Word–and, no, I’m NOT lying, ignorant, or a Microsoft shill–but it’s EXTREMELY difficult and limiting. I know because I’ve just done precisely this with ‘Panverse Three’ and ‘Aegean Dream’ and both volumes look terrific, every it as much as P1 and P2 which were laid out by others with InDesign.
    I don’t, however, advise anyone to do this as it’s a huge exercise in frustration as you fight Word every step of the way. Leading and Header control are especially irksome. And Word will introduce hidden codes and things which, on conversion to pdf can cause your page count to weirdly and unaccountably increase, and set you back to zero. Widows and orphans have to be done manually (turn off the Word control on this at outset), and good luck with adjusting the leading. Ugh.
    If one’s time is worth anything at all, or (as you say), one is going to be repeating the process on more than one book, the investment in Quark or Indesign.
    Great advice on all the design and font issues also–thanks so much!

    1. You’re so very welcome! And ugh, you are exactly right about MS Word. I’m amazed to hear you fought it and succeeded without giving up entirely… I doubt I would have had the patience. I actually ended up just boycotting Microsoft Word entirely when I bought a new Mac a few years ago, moving entirely to NeoOffice (OpenOffice done natively for the Mac) — largely because I found NeoOffice to be MORE COMPATIBLE with the many versions of Word docs I was working with than WORD ITSELF.
      (I’ve since reinstalled one version of Word on one of my work machines, just for checking purposes, with a disk borrowed from a friend in IT at a local company where they bought it in bulk.)

  2. c, you said this:
    Are you using the “keep together” preference to try to stop widows and orphans? DON’T.
    are you advising against letting microsoft’s crapware try to do this with its useless attempt at ‘keep’ options, or saying something in particular about widows and orphans?
    thanks in advance — from someone raised on quark but finally much happier with indesign. and yes, i have issues with the shift keys.

    1. I’m saying don’t let microsoft’s crapware try to fix anything for you. You should be fixing/avoiding widows and orphans, but that isn’t the way.
      I’ll probably make the transition to InDesign eventually.

    1. I wish I could find an opentype or truetype version of Joanna, though. The compatibility seems to be getting dicey on some of the older postscript fonts I rely on!

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