Can You (Should You) Typeset Your Own Book?

should you typset your own book
Photo credit: iandolphin24 on / CC BY-NC-ND

Today’s guest post is by Arielle Contreras of Reedsy.

If people judge books by their covers, then typesetting is the difference between a brief or a lasting impression. The cover may grab a reader’s eye, but what the reader sees when they crack open the book is what will hold their attention.

What’s more, it will do so without the reader being any wiser. Or at least, that’s what good interior design is meant to do. As world-famous typographer Erik Spiekerman says, “Design works not because people understand or even appreciate it, but because it works subliminally.”

Indie authors want control throughout the writing and publishing process. They also, typically, want to keep the process as cost-friendly as possible because going the self-publishing route means going without the marketing, editorial, design, and other teams that come as part of the traditional publishing package.

However, since typesetting can be a largely technical art, are self-publishing authors able to do it themselves? Thanks to the growing number of adept typesetting softwares out there, the answer is yes. Whether or not they should DIY is a different question, and one with an answer that depends on the type of book you’re publishing.

Why is typesetting important?

Publishing a book with grammatical errors or typos is guaranteed to leave your audience with a bad impression. Likewise, a book with design flaws will contribute to a negative reading experience. It distracts the reader and pulls them away from the content by interrupting the pace, tone, and atmosphere. Therefore, the goal of typesetting is to create a seamless flow of words that allows a person to read without obstruction. Think of it as a phone call between an author and a reader: with typesetting, the connection is clear and the message gets through. Without typesetting, the call experiences static and the author’s voice drops in and out.

Typesetting also involves choosing the relevant font for the content of a book. For instance, you wouldn’t your war memoir to use a chapter header font of Comic Sans (although, apart from your Grade 4 book reports, when is this ever really an appropriate font?). Good typesetting also ensures your margins are not too big, not too small, but just right; eliminates rivers of whitespace; and removes ladders (when there are a number of hyphens in a row). How does typesetting achieve smooth reading? Through technical details, such as removing widows and orphans. Widows occur when the first line of a paragraph is on its own at the bottom of the page; an orphan is when the last line of a paragraph is alone at the top of a page.

typesetting faux pas
Typesetting faux pas: on the left is a “river of white space” and on the right is a “ladder”
The margins are too big on the left, too small in the middle example, and ideal on the right.

Do-it-yourself (DIY) typesetting software

Not all books require a professional typesetter. Traditional novels generally have straightforward interior designs which can sometimes be handled by the author with one of the many softwares available. A more complex book (children’s picture book, cookbook, photo book, graphic novel, etc.) should be designed by a professional to ensure that all of the visual aspects look clean, appealing, and are appropriate for the content. Here are some of the DIY softwares available for books with both complex and simple interior needs.

For simple, text-driven books (such as a paperback novel)

  • Reedsy Book Editor (free). Launched in 2016, the Reedsy Book Editor enables self-publishing authors to produce a professional-looking book without hiring a professional designer. It incorporates both the word processing elements of Microsoft Word and the interior formatting capacity of a layout software. The Book Editor requires no design knowledge, provides automatic typesetting, supplies professionally designed templates, and is compatible with most ebook stores and print-on-demand publishers. However, the Reedsy Book Editor does have its limitations in terms of customization. For this reason, it is best suited for fiction and simple nonfiction books.
  • Vellum ($$). Another easy-to-use typesetting option for indie authors is Vellum—and it’s a popular one, too. Simply import your Word doc file, and you’re off to the races. It offers more customization options than Reedsy’s Book Editor, but again, it’s primarily for simple text books and not for anything image heavy. It has a few different “Book Styles” if you want something unique, and templates for copyright pages, about the author, and other standard front and back matter. Vellum’s one downside is that it’s only for Mac users. It’s free to download and use, but when you’re ready to generate your book, you have to pay.
  • Draft2Digital (free). Draft2Digital is mainly known as an ebook distribution platform, but they also offer a handy free formatting tool which they revamped in 2017 to offer more customization possibilities. Here’s how it works: You upload your Word manuscript, specify your chapter breaks, and highlight your chapter titles. And then D2D takes it from there: they add a table of contents, custom front and back matter, and ensure it meets the standards of most digital stores. This process is free, and while D2D will then encourage you to use their service to distribute your ebook, you can also just take the files and leave.

For complex books (such as an illustration-heavy book)

  • Adobe InDesign ($$). Adobe InDesign is what traditional publishers and professional typesetters or designers use. It’s the most powerful typesetting software of all, with the most features, but nearly impossible to use without proper training.
  • Bookwright by Blurb (free). Intended for books with strong visual components. You can customize the layout of each page, easily adding text and photo boxes to your liking. There are also several templates available for specific genres. Bookwright is a good choice if you want to publish an illustrated or photo book but don’t have the budget for a proper designer.

If you are planning to self-publish your book, you ought to be the first one to invest in it, whether that’s an investment of time to learn a new software or an investment of money to pay for one. Formatting your own book as an independent author clearly comes with a smaller price tag than hiring a professional. However, as professional Reedsy designer Kevin Kane notes, “Investing in the purposeful, careful, and practiced skills of a book designer is probably the safest investment you will ever make.”

Tips for hiring a professional typesetter

The search for the right professional to typeset your book can be a little bit like finding the right editor—you want someone who understands your work, who won’t try and change the core of what your book is about about, but who will elevate it to its fullest potential. Here are a few tips for finding the right typesetter.

  • Start by looking for designers who have experience in your specific genre. Their experience will not only help them better understand your book and its requirements, it will also allow them to make your book stand out as they will have market-specific knowledge.
  • Communicate. The beneficial effect that typesetting will have on your words will increase with a good relationship between author and designer. “Ask questions about the designer’s process, and about the decisions they make while designing a book. If you find a designer who doesn’t have thorough answers to your questions about book design, you’ve probably hired the wrong designer,” suggests Kevin Kane.
  • Familiarize yourself with their portfolio. The simplest way to determine how a designer will improve your book is by understanding their approach to typesetting and whether you believe this approach will translate well to your work.

For aesthetic and practical reasons, proficient typesetting ensures that the interior design of a book is tailored to what the author is saying. It elevates the artistic aspect of your book and can help bring the words to life. Therefore, deciding whether to hire a professional typesetter or to go the DIY route is a personal decision that should be influenced mainly by the kind of book you are publishing—and the message you hope to convey.

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