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How to Self Publish Your Book #4: Designing and Formatting Your Book

Editor's Note

This article is part of our 5-series how to self-publish your book guide.

  1. Traditional vs. Self Publishing for Bloggers
  2. Setting Your Timeline and Budget
  3. 5 Ways to Sell Your Self-Published Book
  4. Designing and Formatting Your Book
  5. 11 Ways to Market Your Book


When self-publishing a book, writing and editing is often the only step people really think about… but designing and formatting your book for publication can take just as long, if not longer!

Design includes not just your book cover, but the page layout, typography, and more. And depending on where you’re going to publish your book, requirements for formatting can get complicated and confusing.

Here's what you'll need to know before you publish.

Deciding on Your Book Format

One of the benefits of self-publishing is that you’re in control of all the details… but it’s also one of the downsides! You’ll have to make all the decisions on how to format and design your book, without the experienced guidance of a publishing company.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common book formats and their common uses.

1- Print Formats

Books can come in paperback or hardcover, in all different sizes:

  • Mass market books are the most common format for fiction. If you buy a novel, it’s probably a mass market book. Mass markets come in one small standard size.
  • Trade paperbacks are higher quality paperbacks that come in different sizes. Nonfiction books are usually trade paperbacks.
  • Manuals and workbooks are larger books that are sometimes spiral bound.
  • Photography or art books don’t conform to any particular size.

2- Ebook formats

With ebooks, the emphasis is more on file types than on size/quality. The most common formats are:

  • PDF files typically come in standard page size, which is 11 x 8.5 inches, but you can adjust the size to suit your needs. PDF files are fixed and meant to create documents that look exactly the same across any device.
  • EPUB (.epub) is the open source standard for ebooks that can be used on most devices. It’s a fluid, flexible type of file that will change and look different depending on the device and settings.
  • MOBI (.mobi) files are similar to .epub files, but specific to Kindles.

Which Format Should You Choose?

Creating a print book on Lulu.

The format you choose will depend on the type of book you’re publishing, and how you plan to distribute it. (See the previous post, How to Self Publish Your Book #3: 5 Ways to Sell Your Self-Published Book, for more details on distribution.)

Ebook distributors will often require your file be a certain file type (such as .docx or PDF) and then they will automatically convert your book into various formats for your readers to choose from.

Before deciding on a format for your book, check with your distributor to see if they require a specific file type or format.

Print publishers will often be limited to specific sizes, and the size and format will usually affect your pricing. Make sure to review their options, pricing, and requirements before formatting your book. However, with self-publishing, there are plenty of conventions but no real limitations. For example, you might decide to design a short book in graphic-heavy PDF form only, publish it as a digital magazine, or create a mini-book for print. Don’t let tradition and convention limit your creativity! Some ideas:

  • If your goal is to publish a physical book to market your blog, get creative with your design, size, and formatting to grab attention!
  • If you want to reach as many readers as possible, make sure your book is available to read on all the most popular devices.
  • If you’re planning on only selling your book from your website, consider designing it as a PDF with your branding and original graphics.

Take some time to do research on similar books so you can get an idea of what kind of formats are successful, but don’t be afraid to get creative and do something completely different.

Book Formatting Terminology

When designing and formatting your book, these are the key terms you should familiarize yourself with:

  • Bleed: To ensure that no important parts of the page are cut off in the trimming process a bleed area is defined. A bleed area will extend beyond the trim when a photo or design fills an entire page. You will want to include a bleed in their print files to ensure their images goes to the edge of the page, regardless of how exact the trim is.
  • Book Cover: Any protective covering used to bind together the pages of a book.
  • Book Jacket: The detachable outer cover, usually made of paper and printed with text and illustrations.
  • Case Wrap: Hardcover books, but unlike cloth hardcover binding, the cover is wrapped in white stock which is printed in full color. It is then laminated with a glossy or matte finish.
  • Justification: The aligning of the top, bottom, sides, or middle of text or graphic elements on a page. Justification is often referred to as alignment.
  • Page: One side of a sheet of paper in a collection of sheets bound together.
  • Text: The main body of a book or other piece of writing, as distinct from other material.
  • Trim Size: The final size of a printed page after excess edges have been cut off.
    • Mass market books have to be 4-1/4″ x 7″.
    • Trade paperbacks are often in the 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″ to 6″ x 9″ range.
    • Manuals and workbooks are larger and typically in the 8″ x 10″ to 8-1/2″ x 11″ range.
    • Nonfiction titles come in different sizes, however, 6″ x 9″ is the most popular.
  • Photography or art books don’t conform to any particular size.
  • Safe Zone: The area inside the trim line where your graphics and texts are not at risk of being cut off or lost into the binding in the final print. Any content that you want to appear completely within the final printed publication should be kept inside the safe zone.

Formatting Your Book

When many first-time self-publishers consider the design elements of their book, they typically focus on the front cover. But the design of the pages inside those covers have just as much impact and require the same amount of careful consideration. It’s important to have a well-formatted book so that your readers can focus solely on the words, instead of being distracted by bad design. A common mistake authors make when formatting their book is using Microsoft Word. When using Microsoft Word it tends to add random bits of code and formatting that can be time-consuming to remove completely. The simplest way to format a book is to use the existing templates provided on self publishing websites, or to create a plain-text file which you can format using a dedicated book publishing tool (more on formatting tools below).

Self-Publishing Platforms & Their Formatting Requirements

The formatting requirements for different platforms will vary (though the trim sizes will be universal). Here are the formatting requirements of the most popular self publishing companies:

  • CreateSpace by Amazon: Guidelines include PDF specifications, cover page sizes, page formatting, and fonts.
  • Smashwords: Customers have the option to download The Smashwords Style Guide for simple instructions on how to format your manuscript. Smashwords also accepts direct uploads of professionally designed EPUB files.
  • Draft2Digital: They actually have no style guide or any special formatting requirements!
  • Lulu: You can choose an existing format, or create your own customized book from the options listed.
  • Kobo: You can upload a limited number of file types and need to run it through their validator first.
  • Blurb: They provide downloadable templates for books and magazines when using BookWright and InDesign.

Formatting Tools

Here are some of the most popular tools and software you can use to format your book:

  • Scrivener: Scrivener is a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents. This word processing software can be purchased for $45. Here are good Scrivener coupons (non aff link).
  • Calibre: Calibre is a free and open source ebook library management application developed by users of ebooks for users of ebooks. This conversion tool can be useful to authors.
  • Sigil: is a free, open source, multi-platform ebook editor. EPUB formatting/creation tool is available on Sigil.
  • PressBooks: Free ebook formatting tool, Wordpress-based, distribution is possible through PressBooks.
  • LeanPub: Free tool for turning a blog into an ebook, or publishing an in-progress book.
  • Apple Pages: Can export EPUB files, which is needed to meet many of the self publishing formatting requirements.
  • Apple iBooks Author: Is used for building enhanced ebooks for iOS devices.
  • Book Creator: iPad app for creating illustrated ebooks for iOS devices,
  • Tablo.io: Easy to use for multimedia and tablet delivery.

Designing Your Book Cover

Check with your publishing platform before you design your cover for their requirements.

Different platforms and publishers have different requirements for book cover image sizes, file types, file size, etc.

A great book cover can capture readers instantly – but getting a great cover takes a bit of research and effort. With websites like Canva, Cover Design Studio.com, DIY Book Covers, or built-in tools available from CreateSpace and other publishers, you can create a simple book cover by yourself, even without design experience.

Designing a book cover at Canva.

It may not be as original or artistic as a cover designed from scratch, but it’s an effective, budget-friendly option. When hiring someone to design a cover your you, the prices can vary greatly – along with the quality of work. Be sure to look at past work the designer has done to see if your style and vision align.

Depending on the designer, they can either create a cover from scratch or have a customized template created for you (usually a cheaper option).

What Makes A Good Book Cover Design

Dave Chesson, an online entrepreneur specializing in Kindle e-book marketing, has given us some inputs on the topic, “If I had to boil it down to one top tip, it would probably be ‘research your cover carefully'”,

This applies regardless of whether you are designing your book cover yourself, or having someone else do it for you. You want to make sure that your cover will be a good fit for the conventions and style of the genre or niche that you are publishing in.

Find out more on how to make a book cover.

Chesson further elaborates on the elements that important to a book cover.

“Your book's cover is the main thing that a potential buyer will form their first impression from, so it's essential that yours is up to scratch. Some of the things to consider when researching your cover include what type of colors and fonts competing [for] covers use, what sort of layout they use if there is a certain type of image or background which seems popular, and any other trends you notice.”

Dave Chesson, Kindle Marketing Jedi at Kindlepreneur, shares more about his website,

“Kindlepreneur is a site which teaches advanced book marketing. The techniques are tried and tested and broken down into actionable steps which anyone can follow. I also put my personality out there and show a little humor.”

Other Considerations Before Publication

Does your book need an ISBN? ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number.

This 13-digit number is used internationally as a unique identifier for books. The sole purpose of an ISBN is to establish and identify one title or an edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition. Certain book distributors require an ISBN to sell your book.

If you plan to sell your book in bookstores or have it in libraries, you will need an ISBN.

Authors who are self publishing their book have two options when it comes to obtaining an ISBN: You can choose to purchase an ISBN through your self publishing company, or head to ISBN.org to purchase. ISBNs can get pricey, with packages from ISBN.org starting at $350.

But some platforms like Smashwords will actually give you an ISBN for free. If you need an ISBN, this is a great option.

Publishing Your Book Isn’t the End of Your Journey…

Interior layout, design, and book formatting help to bring a manuscript to life and boost your reputation as a credible author.

But what’s a great book without any readers? Check out the next post in the series to find out the key to marketing your self published book.

Photo of author

Article by Keri Lynn Engel

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