Friday, April 1, 2011

4 Top Book Formatting Mistakes to Avoid

by Joel Friedlander

Looking at the actual files we print books from, like the Adobe InDesign files I produce, can be quite revealing.

I get sent a lot of files for various reasons. They might be the files from a self-publisher who thought they would design and lay out their book themselves. Faced with the learning curve to get the result they want, they send me the files to “fix up.”

Or an author switches book publishers and manages to get the files that were created by whoever did the book originally. For one reason or another, I get these files. I also hire layout artists on some projects, and they each have their own style, too.

Looking at the traces left by another designer can show how they approached the creation of the book. Behind the scenes, where no one knows how the book is laid out, you find out what kind of designer put the book together. Sometimes this is a pleasant surprise, and the files are neat and tidy, well organized, and a pleasure to work on.

Then there are the other ones.

Instead of ranting about the software abuses in these files, here’s a list of the most common formatting mistakes I’ve come across, and why you should avoid them.

Top 4 Book Formatting Mistakes to Avoid

1. Using paragraph returns for vertical spacing—When I see stacked paragraph returns used to space out elements on a book page, I know I have a problem with the files. All layout programs have ways to insert space above and below elements in the book. These controls are extremely precise and can be controlled for all similar elements at once. If your type re-flows because of corrections, and you have paragraph returns as spaces, you can easily end up with one or two at the top of a page, causing a big hole in that page. Not only that, if you want to change the spacing you have to hunt out each of these and adjust it individually. Don’t do it.

2. Using tabs for horizontal spacing—This is exactly the same mistake as number one. Hitting the Tab key to move type to the right, for indenting or any other purpose, is asking for trouble. Layout software allows us to set complex indents and outdents, negative indents and conditional indents. Tab characters used for space are just little tiny bombs waiting to go off. What if you adjust your indents or margins slightly? You can end up with a page full of holes caused by stray tabs that have moved out of place. Don’t do it.

3. Using copy and paste instead of Place—A few months ago a client called up to ask why the layout person she had hired to do her book had spent 20 hours replacing all the italics that had magically disappeared from the book manuscript when it was placed in InDesign. I groaned inside at the unnecessary work this involves, and how it has the potential to introduce more errors into the book. It’s the result of copying and pasting the text instead of using the software’s Place command. This command also allows you full control over the text import process through a screen full of options you’ll never see if you copy and paste. Don’t do it.

4. Using local formatting instead of styles—This error is going to become steadily more important as we adjust our workflows to accommodate eBook conversion from the same files used for print production. In the conversion process (as Joshua Tallent explained in my recent interview) it helps if all elements are styled with Paragraph and Character Styles. This is the only efficient way to format a long document anyway. When you individually style elements by highlighting them and applying spacing, font changes, rules or anything else, you create an anomaly within your book. If you decide to change the formatting of these elements later you may be left with sections of type in the wrong font, with the wrong alignment, or the wrong size. Use Styles. Don’t locally format.

Watching out for these four errors will make your book so much easier to create, and much easier to revise if necessary. Learning to use amazing layout tools like InDesign is the best way to avoid these potentially troublesome problems. Don’t put bombs in your book. Learn to format right.

Joel Friedlander is a self-published author, a book designer and blogs about book design, self-publishing and the indie publishing life at He's also the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, where he helps publishers and authors who decide to publish get to market on time and on budget with books that are both properly constructed and beautiful to read.

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