shakespeare book

What Is Book Formatting? A Quick Overview and How-To

What is book formatting and why should you care about it? 

Congratulations, champ! You’ve finished writing your book and now you’re raring to let the rest of the world read it. Hours of sweat and tears have resulted in this achievement. You should be proud because writing a book is no small feat.

But, hold up a minute. We’ve got some good news and bad news.

Good news is that you’re free to celebrate and to take a break from writing for now. Bad news is that your book isn’t ready to be consumed by the reading public just yet.
If you still haven’t sent in your manuscript to your editor (or if you’re going the self-publishing route), there’s a high chance that your work has not been properly formatted yet. Margins of different widths, weird font choices, misaligned pictures- the works.

Why is this so important, you might ask. You’re a writer, not a designer. Also, the meaning of the words is what’s essential, not how they look on the page. Substance over appearance, and all that.

Well, you’re completely correct on all those points. But think about it… have you ever read a book with text that are all in Comic Sans?

to be or not to be in comic sans
William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Of course, it’s unlikely that you have. 

After all of the hard work that you’ve put into researching, outlining, writing, rewriting, and editing, you don’t want to be stuck with a book that makes you and your writing skills look clumsy and amateurish. 

This is where book formatting comes in.

What is book formatting?

Book formatting is the process of transforming a raw manuscript into a professionally formatted book. Some of the book design elements that this process touches on include fonts (size and typography), line spacing, margins, and layout. Think of it like interior design but for books.

All books, regardless of their genre (fiction or non-fiction) or format (digital or non-digital), go through the book formatting process before they are printed and published.

If you don’t have an eye for design, book formatting can be confusing. It’s probably one of the least glamorous and least exciting parts of the book-writing process as it is.

However, no matter how you slice it, book formatting is still an essential step in publishing.

Yes, it’s only words laid out on a page. But the appearance of those words can greatly affect a reader’s experience.

Proper book formatting can…

Help with readability and improve the reader’s experience.

For example, the wrong font can make your book difficult to read. Make it too small and your readers would have to squint. Make it too big and your book’s readability will take a hit, as well as potentially make the book more expensive to produce (i.e. fewer words on a page, means more pages to produce).

Convince people see that you’re serious about your craft.

Having proper formatting can also greatly influence whether or not a publisher, an editor, or a literary agent will take your work seriously. When you abide by general formatting guidelines and common industry standards, you’re demonstrating that you’re a professional at what you do and that you take pride in your work.

Inspire readers to be attentive to your work.

Since you’ve obviously put great care into the writing and production of your book, it will inspire readers to exercise the same level of attentiveness and thoughtfulness in reading your work.

Help make the job of editors, agents, and publishers easier.

Editors and publishers usually expect manuscripts to be formatted in a specific way. They might have a preferred typeface, paper size, and font size. Some of them would insist on a specific file format like pdf or MS Word’s docx. Since they get hundreds of submissions every week, having a standard format allows them to breeze through all of those manuscripts faster.

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Is there a difference between manuscript formatting and book formatting?

Some authors use these terms interchangeably. But technically, they’re not the same.

Manuscript formatting is preparing your manuscript for submission to literary agents(insert link) and editors. As we’ve mentioned, these people usually have a standard format that they expect manuscripts to follow. Should you fail to adhere to these guidelines, you can severely hurt your chances of being accepted for representation or publication.

It’s always best to check if the editor or agent that you’re contacting has specific formatting requirements before you send your well-loved manuscripts.

On the other hand, book formatting is having your already-completed manuscript ready for publication. This process involves making decisions on typefaces, font sizes, line spacing, margin sizes, and even the size of the book itself.

We’re going to talk mostly about book formatting in this article as its title suggests. But you can stick around because some of the info here can also be applied to manuscript formatting.

How to start formatting your book

A book formatter is someone who does book formatting and layouting on a professional level. They go through a manuscript, see what design elements should be present, specify the typefaces to be used, and provide samples of probable layouts. If you have funds to spare and don’t want to go through all the trouble of making book design decisions by yourself, then hiring a book formatter is something that you should look into.

How to hire a book formatter

By now you should have at least a good idea of what you want your book to look like. Finalize all of its information (genre, book type, word count, etcetera) because your formatter would want to know about these.

  • Find a good book formatter or designer who is familiar with the format you’re targeting. If you’re looking into launching the next best Amazon bestseller, then work with someone who has already worked with clients with published books on Amazon.
  • Research the formatter or designer’s previous work. Ask them for portfolio examples so that you can see if they can do the job that you’re asking for.
  • Once they return the work that they’ve done, do a final proofread. Provide them with feedback and don’t be shy to ask for revisions if you need something changed in their design.

How to DIY your book’s formatting

But you’re a self-published author, so chances are that you don’t have a ton of cash to throw around. So why not try formatting your book yourself?

Yes, you might not have taken a design class in your life and know nothing about fonts, but please hear us out. Formatting your own book is a formidable and daunting task. But it’s totally doable, even if you don’t have a ton of technical skills. 

There are lots of formatting tools and resources out there that can help you get the job done in no time. You have formatting guides as well as templates that you can use directly

In fact, we’ve got one such resource right here in this blog! You can take a peek at some of the best formatting tools you can use in our post about self-publishing. (Note: If you’re opting to hire a book formatter, we’ve also included information about usual book formatter rates in there).  

There are plenty of free tools and resources out there to help you get the job done, from online formatting guides to templates you can use within programs like Microsoft Word.

Before starting…

  • Decide on what program you’re going to use. Refer to our self-publishing blog post, or just use the tool that you’re most comfortable with. Some popular tools include Calibre, Atticus, Reedsy, Vellum, Microsoft Word, and Adobe InDesign. 
  • If you’re not that confident with the formatting tool of your choice, then go look up some YouTube videos for a quick crash course. Most of the time, the site that you downloaded the tool from will have tutorials. 
  • You’re now ready to start the formatting process!

Note: Proofread, proofread, proofread. It’s easy to mess things up because you’re doing this all by yourself. You can have someone give your manuscript a once-over. A fresh pair of eyes can help point out mistakes and errors that you might have overlooked.

Different types of books formatting 

The first step in the book formatting process is dependent on your book’s final format. Ask yourself: what kind of book are you publishing? Because your book’s type will largely influence what formatting and style specifications it should have. 

Formatting for print books

These are your regular old printed books: text printed on sheets of paper which are then later bound together to form a book. When you think of books, this is the first image that’ll pop into your head. 

Formatting a print book means designing its interior so that it is pleasantly readable and visually appealing on paper. 

Formatting for children’s books and picture books

Children’s books and picture books are special in that most books that fall under these categories are pretty visual (i.e. they have lots of pictures). It takes a bit more skill and experience to know how to properly lay out text and pictures together. It is recommended that you consult with a designer or hire a professional who specializes in picture or children’s books if you’re going to publish these types of books. 

Going back to our Comic Sans example earlier, a children’s book is probably the only place where using that font is semi-acceptable. However, there are other better fonts for children’s books that aren’t as passé as Comic Sans. has a great list of FREE fonts that you could use as an alternative. 

Formatting for e-books

E-books are formatted the same way as print books are. But there’s an added complication here. People read ebooks on different devices with different screen sizes, so you have to ensure that your text still looks stylish no matter what gadget they’re reading from (e.g. Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc.). Your work would also need to be published as an epub file, which is the preferred ebook format of most online ebook distributors like Amazon.  

Formatting for interactive books

Interactive books are a subset of digital books. But unlike your usual ebook, an interactive book is pretty heavy on the creative design aspect of things. These books typically have multimedia features that a normal ebook wouldn’t have like fancy animations, hyperlinks, and videos. Some might even have quizzes and games embedded into the text. 

Since you’re going to need a whole design team for them (and maybe even programmers and animators), interactive books are beyond the scope of this article. But if you haven’t seen one yet, here are a couple of great interactive book examples from DivvyHq and iStockPhoto.

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Book formatting – design elements to look at

Now that you know what type of book you’re publishing, it’s time to get your hands dirty. Start by going through each of the items below and work downward from there

Trim Sizes

One of the major decisions that you would have to make is the physical size of your book itself.

Your book’s width and height is called the “trim size” in the industry. Generally, most authors follow the standard sizing for their book type. Since it’s what most editors and traditional publishing houses would follow too.

6 x 9″: typical hardcover size
5 x 8″: usual size for trade paperbacks
4.25 x 6.87″: size for mass market paperbacks. (Note: mass market paperbacks use lower-quality paper, and are smaller than mass-market paperbacks in size for easier portability)

Though rare, you could deviate from the standard sizing if you want to. Shorter books with word lengths between 50,000 to 70,000 can go for a smaller trim size so you can have more pages and a thicker book.

Why would you want to inflate your book’s thickness? For a short book, you want your readers to feel as if they’re getting more value for the money that they paid. Making your book slightly thicker makes it feel heftier, thus giving it a higher perceived value to your potential reader.


So many choices of fonts out there, but which one should you choose?

Go for a font that is not too overpowering. Classic serif fonts like Garamond, Georgia, Palatino Linotype, and the ever-popular Times New Roman are all safe choices. Don’t go for fonts like Arial or Calibri; sans-serif fonts like these are more suited for headings. Studies have shown that the extra strokes on the tips of serif characters help people read faster and avoid reading fatigue.

Margins and Paragraphs

The space between the edge of the page and your content is the margin. There are four margins in total for each page: the ones on the top, bottom, and outer side of the page, as well as the “gutter” margin, which is the one that is facing the inside or the spine of the book.

Margins for standard-sized hardcover books are 0.75″ for the gutter margin and 0.5 for the outside margins. Depending on your time size, this could go larger or smaller. This setting is easily configurable in a lot of modern word processors.

As for the paragraphs, this is dependent on the genre. Nonfiction books have only a space in between paragraphs, with no indents. For fiction, each paragraph is indented.

Widows and Orphans

You’ve read that right. In book formatting, you’re going to take care of a lot of widows and orphans. And when we say, “take care”, we mean “eliminate.”

Wait, what?

mistake, error, question mark-1966448.jpg

Yes, that definitely sounded strange. But in case you’re not familiar with the weird terms: in book formatting, widows and orphans refer to words or lines that are left behind in the beginning(widow) or end(orphan) of a page or column.

It might seem a bit superficial, but text with many widows and orphans has poor readability. These stragglers are visual interruptions that break a reader’s focus.

To “eliminate” widows and orphans in the formatting process, you need to remove a word or two, rearrange your text, and adjust the space between letters, words, and sentences. Thankfully, like with margins, most modern word processing tools have an auto-fix option that will take care of widows and orphans for you.

on the left side: “crystal” is a widow while “end” is an orphan. right side is how these can be fixed. photo from

Headers and Footers

Headers and footers are optional for most books. Page numbers are found in the footer. And if there’s a header, the author’s name usually goes on the pages on the left, while the chapter or book title goes on the right. Footers are where the page numbers are located.

The only rule here is that headers and footers shouldn’t stand out so much that they overpower the text and its layout. They should stay within the confines of the margins that you have specified too.

Final Words

Book formatting your book requires a bit of effort. But think of it like learning a brand new skill. As writers, we’re already used to working hard and staying up late- learning how to properly use fonts, whitespaces, and margins, shouldn’t be too hard.

Because the payoff – a beautiful, professionally-formatted book that you can be proud to share with the world – is just so totally worth it.

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