As more writers eschew the mountainous path to publication via agents, editors, and traditional publishers, making wise decisions about self-publishing becomes not only more necessary than in times past, but vital if we want to compete with the million-dollar titans and their armies of production teams. And, yes, any one of us who has walked the level path around the mountain long enough has heard the cries for world-class quality by now. Fourteen years after the debut of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, the message about moving from rushed amateurism to edited professionalism has become loud and clear.
But, if we take the cries for quality seriously, then why would we consider converting the reflowable text from a KDP e-book into a crappily formatted paperback edition? Wouldn’t we want those cries for professionalism to extend to all formats, from content to presentation?
If we care enough about our readers to give them a paperback or hardcover edition of our e-books, then we should also care enough to give them a quality copy of that paperback or hardcover edition. That means delivering the quality inside and out. And that means not skimping out on the tools that make such quality possible.
Now, for self-publishing writers who have no design or technical sensibilities, then outsourcing layouts and cover designs to a professional is the best bet. Common sense dictates this, even if the wallet screams for mercy.
But, what if the wallet is too thin? You want to get the book out to the public, but you’d also kinda like to eat a few nights this week. What then?
Well, there’s still hope. If you wrote your book on Microsoft Word or Scrivener (with Scrivener being the much cheaper yet more sensible writing tool for writers), then you could probably upload your document (MS Word) or converted document (Scrivener) directly to KDP, Draft2Digital, or whichever service you’re using to get your book out, and cross your fingers that it’s good enough. After all, maybe it is good enough. If you’ve spent any amount of time setting up sections in Microsoft Word, or establishing hyphenation rules as I’ve outlined in my 2016 article “The Art of Hyphenation,” then your .doc or .docx file may work well enough. It certainly would for a generic e-book, and there’s no reason for it not to work if your book is straightforward fiction with no special design considerations.
But what if your book is supposed to have fancy formatting? What if you want your chapter headings to have a cool shape embedded into the page behind them? Well, the good news is you can still do this. The bad news is that you can’t really do this in Microsoft Word. You’d need a special layout program for that. The worse news is that the most-used and best-known layout program for books (especially nonfiction) is Adobe InDesign, which if you know anything about InDesign, you’ll know that it’s from Adobe, the makers of needlessly expensive subscription software that has too few updates to justify the ridiculous pricing.
The better news is that Adobe isn’t the only company making software that self-published writers can use to better their products. The best news is that its strongest competitor does not require a subscription, and its buying price is very affordable.
Yes, I’m referring to Affinity Publisher, and if you’ve kept up with my blog or YouTube channel since April 2020, you’ll know I’m a fan of all things Affinity. In fact, I’ve used Affinity products (Designer, Photo, and Publisher) to redesign my paperback version of The Computer Nerd.
Now, maybe you’re happy with Microsoft Word and Microsoft Paint for your book design. I mean, if my book had this cover, it wouldn’t change a thing about the words inside.
And maybe that’s fine. But I don’t think anyone would buy a book that looked like that. And I don’t think they’d want a book that looked just as shoddy on the inside, either.
This means I have to consider what my readers want before constructing the paperback version, including what they may find aesthetically pleasing.
And this means upgrading my functional but basic Microsoft Word interior:
Into something more intentional, like what I can accomplish in Affinity Publisher:
Yes, after researching and practicing the self-publishing game for many years now, I’ve learned a few things about how to make a paperback worthy of seasoned readers. And now I’d like to pass them along.
Here are the considerations you might want to make before uploading your formatted document to KDP or some other distributor where readers might accidentally find you.
- You probably already wrote your draft in MS Word, so preparing for readers is just a matter of uploading to KDP, Draft2Digital, or Smashwords, provided your document is formatted in a way that passes inspection.
- Creating e-books in MS Word and uploading them to Amazon is really easy and intuitive. Even if you choose not to create a paperback edition, you can still create a functional e-book through minimal effort.
- Converting text to PDF is also very easy. If you do base your paperback on your MS Word document, then you’ll want to first “Export to PDF,” as that will preserve your format.
- Even though MS Word is not a formatting tool, it can still handle basic layouts appropriate for fiction, like headers or footers, section breaks to permit alternative headers and footers and page layouts, and page numbering within headers or footers.
- Microsoft Word is not technically a formatting program, which means it can’t do complex formats, including those common to nonfiction, textbooks, and magazines.
- Fixing a typo in a formatted Word document can throw off the layout for the entire book.
- Because pages shift around so easily, wrecking pagination and other position-dependent sections of text or images is a constant headache. Be careful not to breathe on your text too hard.
- Hyphenation and other typographic solutions are wonky at best.
- Special formatting like embedding shapes or images behind text, or creating special designs for aesthetic effect is impossible.
How to Use Effectively:
- Remember that everything from your title page (front) to your promotions for other books (back) will be part of the same document. To prevent insanity from taking over your layout, remember to set up your book by sections and be mindful of how right (recto) pages differ from left (verso) pages, as well as how both differ from first pages. And remember that these three page layouts are your only considerations throughout the section. If you need a new layout, then you need a new section.
- Convert to PDF when you’re finished.
- Don’t upload your PDF until you know you’re finished with it. Changing anything translates into hours’ worth of revision work.
- Check out my article on hyphenation on how to handle the nuanced elements of formatting for paperback books in MS Word.
- Inexpensive but powerful software that you need to buy just once!
- Integrates well with its two companion software for images and designs, Photo and Designer.
- Allows for custom layouts via “Master Pages” that you can apply to any page, eliminating the need for sections.
- Because it’s a layout program, it allows you to arrange your text and images however you want, including through layers. This makes it possible to create fiction, nonfiction, textbooks, and magazines—whatever you want!
- Basic formatting techniques like custom pagination, drop caps, and hyphenation is both simple and intuitive to use.
- Making a change to the text while allowing the document to adapt is fairly simple.
- If Photo or Designer is installed, you can edit images on the fly using the Studio Link feature.
- Some repetitive tasks like starting a new chapter on a recto page a third of the way down can be handled automatically (with instruction).
- Exports to PDF.
- Still not quite as advanced as Adobe InDesign, especially when it comes to handling text outside of margins.
- Just because it’s easier to format interiors in Publisher than it is in MS Word doesn’t mean it’s quicker. Revisions (if needed) go a lot faster, but the initial design can still take hours to accomplish.
- No software is perfect. You’ll still need to review the entire document for extra pages added whenever you make changes that risk pushing the text down past the orphan line.
- Creating and applying Master Pages can take some getting used to.
- Not ideal for writing, just for formatting. Any additions or changes you make to the text should begin in your origin document.
- Doesn’t allow for simultaneous bold/italics/underline enhancements to text, if you even need that kind of thing. Your font family of choice will need a version that simulates bold italics to get that effect.
- Isn’t ideal for electronic formats. Only print.
How to Use Effectively:
- Buy the dedicated workbook and keep it near your desk. When it comes time to design your book, refer to Chapter 5. Trust me, it’s all the advice and considerations you need. It’s what I used to remake the paperback edition of The Computer Nerd.
- Can do most everything Affinity Publisher can do, except for using a Studio Link to swap in toolbars from its companion Photo or Designer apps (Photoshop and Illustrator respectively).
- Can actually do more than what Affinity Publisher can do, like manage text and characters outside the margins (if I’m not mistaken).
- The COST!!!
How to Use Effectively:
- For this, I defer to anyone who knows the program because I don’t. I know what it does, but I don’t know all that it can do because I don’t use it. I just know it’s powerful, if not complicated. But really, Affinity Publisher makes more sense if you’re interested in creating an excellent product for one low cost.
- It’s capable of creating a formatted text for publication.
- No one actually understands how to do this effectively.
Honestly, I love Scrivener as a writing and organization tool, but I have no interest in trying to turn it into a publication tool, even if Scrivener 3 tries to simplify it. Last time I investigated its formatting tools, my brain transformed into a pretzel. Wasn’t worth it to me. If I ever look into its formatting tools more seriously, I’ll revisit the topic. But honestly, a combination of MS Word and Affinity Publisher can accomplish everything I need to create a worthy paperback novel (or e-book).
- You’re joking.
- Okay, it’s probably already installed on your computer.
- It’s Microsoft Paint.
Note: This is the program I’ve been using for years until I found Affinity Photo.
- It’s better than Microsoft Paint.
- It’s lightweight enough to keep you from getting overwhelmed by features.
- Can handle moderate editing through layers and brushes, including cropping, burning, dodging, and other essential modification tools.
- Integrates well with subsidiary programs like Painter Essentials and GRFX.
- Doesn’t require a lot of memory to run.
- Has a user-friendly shop integration to plugins that are actually good.
- One-time fee (per annual version).
- Often appears in a Humble Bundle.
- Saves only in RGB format (making it horrible for print books).
- Has limited features for special effects. To accomplish certain actions, you might need to use a plugin or another program entirely.
- Doesn’t have access to LUTs, making color treating difficult.
- Upgrades are annual and require a new payment to access (though these are still mostly affordable, especially if you wait for them to show up in a Humble Bundle).
- Almost double the cost of the superior Affinity Photo (unless you wait for it in a Humble Bundle).
How to Use Effectively:
- First of all, note that I do not recommend PaintShop Pro for designing paperbacks. You need the CYMK format to design print items effectively, and PSP cannot save or display in CYMK. For proof that it’s bad for print, look at the differences between my original paperback (PaintShop Pro 9) and my updated paperback (Affinity Photo) for The Computer Nerd.
- That said, PaintShop Pro is still competent for electronic book cover or interior picture design (in RGB format), as long as you don’t need anything fancy.
- Just remember to use layers and save in the native format before you export to JPG. This will come in handy if you need to make adjustments down the road.
(Affinity Photo and Designer)
- One-time fee of $50 (when there are no sales).
- Single purchase includes all future updates and upgrades (at least until Affinity releases a true successor).
- Can handle layers, blends, masks, inpainting tools (for smart erasing), LUTs, and all the things you need to make an effective cover or composite (in both print and electronic forms).
- Can save in CYMK, TIF, and other nonstandard formats (including PDF).
- Integrates with Affinity Publisher for on-the-fly image editing.
- Has useful workbooks and tutorials available.
- Can integrate with useful app plugins like Luminar 4 and Painter ParticleShop.
- Has a built-in plugin store for easily adding new brushes.
- Has one of the best designer communities on the Internet (and YouTube).
- Can mimic many of Photoshop’s special tricks, like using smart objects for mockup designs.
- Directly incorporates stock photos from Pixabay, Pexels, and Unsplash (though you still need to check their licensing before using them in commercial works).
- Still not quite as advanced as Photoshop.
- Image filter designers rely heavily on Photoshop for designing their special tools, keeping Affinity Photo as an afterthought (though they still might work).
- Even though it handles smart objects well, Affinity Photo still cannot replicate Photoshop’s “actions,” which renders many design tools useless.
- It cannot yet handle objects designed for Lightroom.
How to Use Effectively:
- Really, just do what I do: experiment, watch tutorials, study the workbook, and experiment some more.
- LUTs, blends, and gradient tools are your friends.
- Invest in stock photos, especially Depositphotos during Appsumo deals (in May and on Black Friday), to get the most of your image potential.
- For more generic photos, including image filters, make use of the integration with Pixabay, Pexels, and Unsplash. Just remember to convert them to Raster.
- If you’re designing a paperback, design for the front and back cover, not just the front.
- Always start your composition in CYMK format if you expect to print it. Likewise, make sure to use “transparent background color” if you plan to use PNG images to prevent unwanted backgrounds.
(Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and Lightroom)
Note: I don’t use these programs, so my perspective is based on videos and research.
- These are the top tools of the industry.
- If it can be done, then these are the programs that can do it.
- Every plugin and theme designer builds for them.
- Finding instructions on how to use them for your specific use case is easy.
- Requires an expensive monthly subscription to use.
- Doesn’t get updated nearly often enough to justify the price.
How to Use Effectively:
- See my note above. That said, any sophisticated photo or vector manipulation tool needs layers and masks to work well, so you should learn how to use those features.
Other Options and Conclusion:
Hopefully this article and these checklists will help you make a decision on how to approach your print books, or even your e-books if you wish to keep things simple. If you want to see a longer form explanation of how these differences look, then check out my companion video on the topic, released earlier this morning.
But, if you want to bypass all the potential pitfalls that come with formatting for e-books and paperbacks, you could invest in a tool designed exclusively for formatting. The top performer in the market right now is Vellum, which boasts “beautiful books,” although I’m not sure what its record for paperbacks is at the moment. I just know it’s well-revered as an e-book creation tool. If you check out any presentation on Vellum, you’ll soon agree that the books it produces are top of the line in design. But is that you’re only option? And is it even your best option?
Or, if you’re willing to wait a little longer, you might be interested in a new challenger entering the ring soon that will likely upset the competition.
But if you can’t wait for Atticus, just remember this:
Calibre is good for e-books only and works by converting your text to HTML (the native language of e-books), which you can then design as uniquely as you want, as long as you don’t have to make any drastic updates to your text after you’ve formatted it.
Kindle Create also designs e-books only, and provides just a handful of themes that may or may not be good for your book. It’s also limited in how it handles front and back matter. I think it also designs for Kindle only, which means you’re probably not going to get much out of it if you’re creating for other platforms. But on the positive side, it can create not only reflowable books like novels and memoirs, but it can also create textbooks and comics (early access feature, as of this writing).
The Reedsy Book Editing Tool is a bit friendlier when it comes to publication options (it creates both e-book and print editions), but it still struggles with front and back matter (or did the last time I tried using it). And like Kindle Create, its theme options are limited, if not too limited. That said, if you’re looking to go wide, this is your free tool of choice.
Note: Calibre, Kindle Create, and the Reedsy Book Editing Tool are all free to use, so it doesn’t hurt to give each one a try to see if they’re useful for you.
Lastly, Vellum is the big dog in the formatting space, and its purpose is to design not only the best looking interiors, but also the best organized books, which means boxsets are a specialty feature here. But it’s also expensive ($199 for e-books only or $249 for both e-book and print access), and it’s only available for Mac, which means many authors won’t get to use it even if they buy it (unless they want to spend even more money on a Mac emulator). Also, like all the other tools, it’s unfairly limited in its theme options. That’s actually authors’ number one complaint about it.
But if none of these options work for you, then consider why. Do you prefer to do things manually? If so, then I hope my checklist will inform your choices. But if you prefer using tools that do the formatting for you, but you just don’t like how limited the above options are, then get on the waiting list for Atticus. I can tell you right now that its theme options alone make it worth the wait. It’ll also be available for Windows, not just Mac. It will cost you some cash to own, but not nearly as much as Vellum. And, well, let’s just say there’s more to come.
Regardless of what you choose, though, I hope your publishing considerations go well. Even if you’ve designed an ugly book like I had back in 2015, you can still fix it. With the right tools.