Wednesday January 17
Subscribe to RSS Feed

First Steps in Formatting for Print

May 2, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 2, 2016

This article is the first in a series to address formatting for print books. If you intend to self-publish print books (I can recommend the experience as a positive one), then having a few tips and insights about the process before you begin will be helpful.

Because there’s a lot to cover, this topic is going to require several articles. And even then I won’t be able to cover every topic in depth. Still, if I need to go deeper on a topic, I’ll just work the info into another article.

Keep in mind as you read that this information deals solely with formatting print books, not e-books. (The specifics of my tips and suggestions are for MS Word, although you can format your manuscript for print using InDesign from Adobe or other software.)


Once you’ve written, rewritten, edited, and polished your manuscript, you’re ready to prepare it for release. And for our purposes in this article, that means prepare it for print.

You have lots of choices for printing and distribution if you want to self-publish print books. Two popular choices are CreateSpace (Amazon’s self-publishing group) and IngramSpark. Both have standardized the process, and you can find articles and forums filled with details and suggestions to help you out.

In this article we’re going to look at three important areas of formatting that you’ll need to decide on early in the process: trim size, font choice, and margin size.


Print Books

Pull out a paperback and examine it. Then pull out another dozen. At first glance, the interiors may look similar, but after some study, you’ll note the differences. And if you study even more books, you’ll find other differences.

For every element on every page, every place you find a difference between books, a decision was involved. And when you self-publish, you’ve got to make the decisions. All of them.

Even when page elements are seemingly the same across books, you still have options.


Trim Size

Before you begin formatting your text, you’ll want to choose a trim size. The trim size refers to the physical dimensions of the book. In inches, common trim sizes for print and self-published books are 5.25 x 8, 5.5 x 8.5 and 6 x 9. Yet you’re certainly not limited to these sizes; there are many, many more. Pull out a stack of books and measure them—you’ll see that you have options. For books with a lot of text, especially for nonfiction, 6 x 9 is a good choice. The longer book isn’t quite so long when you make the pages bigger. And that may affect the bottom line.

The company that prints and distributes your books gets a greater percentage of the retail price of books with more pages, so your choice of trim can have financial consequences.

Yes, you could adjust the font to get more words on each page and therefore lower the page count, but you wouldn’t want a font size that’s too difficult to read. And even if the text is legible, it could still be small enough to make the read hard or uncomfortable.

Your best bet for choosing trim size is to study books similar to yours and make your choice based on what you see in those books. Both CreateSpace and IngramSpark provide lists of their trim options.

You could change the trim size after you’ve worked through the formatting if you had to, but that would be a lot of extra work and time. Try to pick the right trim size from the start.


Font and Font Size

Choosing a font and font size should be done in conjunction with choosing a trim size. You’ll want to choose a font that works for print books. And Times New Roman, Courier, and Arial are not gonna work.

A print book—paperback or hardcover—is not a school report, a white paper for the company, a newsletter, or a thesis. It’s not going to be read from a computer screen. A print book requires a font that’s easy on the eye, one that helps readers move quickly from line to line and page to page. It needs to invite readers to want to read page after page after page of straight text.

You’ll likely want a serif font—with the embellishments that come with that font style—for the majority of your text. You can use sans serif fonts for headings, such as chapter titles, but serif fonts are typically easier for reading a lot of text on a page.

Caslon, Minion, Garamond, Bembo, and Dante are often mentioned as good fonts for print books. There are others as well. I suggest you make time to investigate recommendations by a variety of book designers.

While you can purchase fonts, perfectly acceptable fonts come with many products, so you may already have a font you can use. Some of the “pro” versions of the fonts do produce a nicer or more polished look—if you’ll be formatting a lot of books, you may want to invest in a good font.

Can you legally use a font from your computer for your print book? According to David Bergsland in an article at The Book Designer: “The fonts on your computer are usually licensed so that they can be embedded in a PDF. PDFs are used for print books, as you know. So, you can pick a font which reads really well and use it with no problem in the PDF you upload to CreateSpace, Lulu, Lightning Source, or any of the other print on demand vendors.”

You’ll also need to decide on the size of your font. Many print books use font sizes between 10 and 14 points (large print books are often 14 point). A couple of considerations as you determine font and font size: some fonts take up more space than others, even though the font size itself may be the same; and for some fonts, the letters themselves are thicker or thinner than the same letters in other fonts.

Play with different fonts and different sizes to gauge the effect of different combinations. Print a few pages with each combination to see how they compare with printed books.



Beyond font and font size, you’ll also want to adjust the vertical space between lines of text (leading) and perhaps the space between characters (kerning).

In MS Word, although it’s not labeled as leading, you can change the space between lines of text. You’re already familiar with this if you’ve ever changed single line spacing to double or vice versa.

Go to the Home tab and click on the arrow to open the Paragraph Dialog box. Choose the Indents and Spacing tab, go to Spacing, and adjust line spacing. Try something like multiple 1.1 or 1.2 to start with.

You may not have to change kerning, but you could. It’s likely you’ll want to adjust the space between letters for titles or subheadings whose fonts are 14 point or larger. If you don’t, you may find there’s too much space between the letters.

For kerning, go to the Home tab and click on the arrow to open the Font Dialog box. Click the Advanced tab. To make automatic adjustments for fonts 14 points or larger, click on Kerning for Fonts and enter 14.

To help you make your decisions, you’ll want to look at the number of characters per line and the number of lines per page produced by the trim, font, and margin sizes that you choose. These are details that will help you design a book that readers will enjoy spending time with and one that won’t give them a headache.

Typographers and book designers spend many hours devising the right balance of elements to make book pages appealing and the read easy on the reader. They also arrange the elements for flow. And many of these designers have shared their knowledge freely online.

Joel Friedlander at The Book Designer recommends 30-35 lines per page in a 6×9 trade paperback. As you play with the trim, font, and margin sizes, you’ll be able to see how changing them affects the line count per page.

In a novel, most text on a page will be of the same style, some kind of body text. Except for the first and last pages of a chapter, it’s likely that most pages in a novel will have the same number of lines per page.

Nonfiction books may have a wider variety of line counts per page since pages in nonfiction books are interrupted by headers, example text, images, or other additions. It’s likely that with at least some nonfiction, you’ll want more white space on a page, so you may include more space between a heading and the text that comes before or that follows it. Adding vertical space between elements on the page and using fonts of different sizes for different text elements will affect the number of lines per page.

Sixty-five characters (including spaces) seems to be the standard for characters per line in print books, although there is great leeway at either side. I found the 65-character recommendation in several places on the Internet, including in this article on line length and font size from Smashing Magazine. (The article focuses on web design, but the information for print books is there.)

Once again, I suggest that you explore the information and suggestions freely and widely available online. Look up topics such as formatting, lines per page, characters per line, recommended fonts and font sizes, and so forth for print books (recommendations will be different for e-books, magazines, and websites).



Page margins are the third of the major areas you’ll need to consider when you begin to format.

We format fiction manuscripts with margins of one inch on every side. But when it’s time to format for print, you’ve got to start fresh with margins.

Before you start changing the margins on your manuscript, change the paper size of your document to match the trim size of the book you decided on. (This is a good time to save the document under another name as well.)

In MS Word, set up margins and paper size on the Page Layout tab. Choose size and then more paper sizes. Enter your dimensions (if you haven’t already saved dimensions for a print book) and be sure to apply to the whole document—you want your paper size to be the same on every page.

You can then switch over to the margin tab, also in Page Layout.

You’ve definitely got options for your margins, but you want your book to look like a book and not something odd.

Margins help readers follow the text, and they also hold some of the page elements, such as title, author name, and page numbers in headers or footers. Properly sized inner margins, those between the pages, make it easier for readers to see all the text without needing to break the spine of the book.

Typically, the more pages in a book, the wider the margins need to be, especially the inner margin between facing pages.

Once again you’ll want to investigate what book designers have to say. I found some who recommended the same margins top and bottom but others who recommended larger bottom margins and still others who suggested going with larger top margins. Look at print books to see what choices were made for them and which you like.

As for side margins, you’ll want to be sure to include white space on the page.

For inner margins, the thicker the book, the wider the margins need to be.

To help you decide on margins, pull out books and measure the margins. Study the layout of a lot of books—see how margins create a certain feel or give you a particular impression about a book.

Printer/distributors for your print on demand books may recommend minimum margins, but they may be too small for your needs.

Try setting top, bottom, and outside margins to .75″ or .8″ to begin with. If you’re going to put title, author name, and page numbers all in the header, you might want a larger header and a smaller footer. If page numbers will be in the footer, you may want top and bottom margins to be the same. For a particular effect, you may want the bottom margin to be bigger than the top one.

For your inner margins, begin with .8″ or even larger. (In Word, enter nothing in the inner margin field in Page Setup but use the gutter margin instead and choose mirror margins from the Pages option.) For books with a lot of pages—meaning a thicker spine—go bigger, even up to an inch or more. If inner margins are too small, readers can’t easily see the text closest to the spine. For small and/or short books, you may be able to go a bit smaller.

Once again, study the way others have formatted before you. Measure the margins in several dozen books, especially those of a style, genre, and length similar to your book.


These three components—trim, font, and margins—are the setup you’ll want in place before you begin formatting your story’s text. Determining the best options for these components for your book may take some time, but don’t rush. You want readers to be able to follow your text easily.

■  Be prepared to try out multiple combinations—print several pages and fold or cut them to give yourself an idea of what the printed pages will look like.

■  Insert your sample pages into books and compare them with the text in those books.

■  Add headers and footers, even temporary ones, to see how they’ll look in the space you’ve left for them in top and bottom margins.

■  Hold the folded or cut pages in your hands to see where your fingers fall—are your outer margins wide enough that your fingers don’t cover the text?

■  How does the line spacing compare to the print books you’re using as guides? Are the lines of text too close together? Too far apart?

Decide on trim, font, and margin size before jumping in with other formatting. Once you have these elements in place, then you can tackle topics such as hyphenation, widows and orphans, distance from the header to the text, distance between header and chapter heading, fonts for chapter titles, fonts for headers and footers, placement of page numbers and so forth.

Working through these three design components is just the beginning of formatting for print, but it’s a critical beginning. Consider multiple options before making your decisions. Your decisions will affect how the text looks on the page and the ease of the read for readers.

edit well #2 83797AA0F48D684CBAC54FBF163B9699


Tags: ,     Posted in: Self-Publishing

15 Responses to “First Steps in Formatting for Print”

  1. What a kind thing for you to do. You spend extraordinary time and energy in the love of the word in service to the people who appreciate you. I think this series will serve them and you well. Looking forward to further installments, I remain
    Yours in the word,

  2. Kate says:

    You really are so generous with your information. I’m in the midst of turning a couple of my e-books into print books, so I will get a lot out of your article.

    I’m halfway through your book, The Magic of Fiction. I will post a review as soon as I finish — it’s a book that all fiction writers and editors need! I’m loving it!

    • I’m so glad this is timely, Kate. I’m sorry I don’t have the other info ready yet, but I do recommend that you look up information on formatting, both what to do and what not to do.

      Two quick tips that you might already know about—turn automatic hyphenation on and turn widows and orphans off. This means that you’ll have to adjust for hyphenation at the ends of lines and work through widows and orphans, but you, rather than the software, get to control these items.

      And thanks for letting me know you love the book. I would love a review and can’t wait to read yours.

  3. Dear Beth,
    I wish I had your private email address, as what I’m about to say may sound as though I’m taking issue with you or otherwise sounding anything other than complimentary of your efforts. You may want to delete this after reading it. Is that possible?

    First, when I format (novels), I print out the ms. and proof it. (I find that I miss too many things looking at just the screen.)

    Then I make the changes on the computer. (I often have to consult the author because I defer to him/her whenever possible. That means sometimes letting them go into print with things like “crepe myrtle” instead of “crape myrtle.”)

    My next step is to turn off hyphenation, spell check, grammar check, and widow etc. Re. those matters, if there’s a mistake, I want it to be mine, not some idiot software writer who doesn’t understand niceties of grammar, style, usage, and punctuation.

    I turn hyphenation off also because it really can’t be done until all kerning is accomplished and widows eliminated.

    Adjusting kerning paragraph by paragraph is tedious and time consuming but necessary in order to eliminate as many widows (orphans are on their own) as possible and to make sure the last line of each page aligns verso to recto.

    After adjusting kerning I manually hyphenate if necessary, taking care to look up the syllabification of a word. (I do not to use the ridiculous MERRIAM.)

    I do run spell check as a last matter but even there I take care to use the preferred spelling of words like “canceled,” not what some descriptive dictionary may allow.

    I print the ms. out again and pore over it manually, reading it aloud.

    As you realize, I’ve not covered every little step involved in formatting.

    I look forward to your posts.

    Yours in the word,


    • Frank, I have no problem with someone sharing their own methods here—giving writers options is helpful. I don’t see any reason to delete the comment.

      I will say that while formatting my book, I didn’t have to adjust kerning in my body text. (I considered it for a couple of lines, but I don’t think that I ever used it.) I did manually decrease the size of the spaces between words in a line one time (I think I kept that change after I made it). But most of the time I simply adjusted the text itself to take care of widows and orphans. I could do that since I was formatting my own work, not formatting for someone else who would have to approve that kind of change. For those self-formatting, using kerning or changing the words—or doing both—would work.

      I’m surprised you turned hyphenation off before working on widows and orphans—with hyphenation on, you can see how the text will be spaced along each line and can see the need to adjust for widows and orphans. Without hyphenation on, words may end up on different lines and then when you turn hyphenation back on, you may have different widows and orphans to deal with and thus have to repeat the work you’ve already done.

      I don’t mind letting Word start the hyphenation process—you can always change the way Word breaks a word. Since any change to text can change where lines break, I would recommend working on hyphenation issues last.

  4. When text is justified right as well as left, often odd spacing between words occurs or in a paragraph distracting “rivers” occur. Add to that the need to tighten kerning to eliminate widows and short words on one line at the end of a paragraph that would easily fit on the previous line, and I wind up doing a lot of kerning just to improve appearance.

    I am a bit confused by your method of adjusting kerning. Are you using it for left and right justified text? I don’t see that your method does anything. I will put it to the test on the next large project. If it works for me, I’ll be very happy.

    The method I use is 1) highlight the paragraph 2) in Advanced Font, go to the right-hand box after Spacing 3) click on the down arrow to get .1 pt or .2 pt etc. until the paragraph appears to have equal spacing between all words.

    In the case of single quote and a double quote marks jammed together, I follow the same procedure but instead of clicking the down arrow in the spacing box, I click the up arrow. This will put a small space between the single quote mark and the double quote mark.

    If there is an easier way to do these things, I’d truly like to know it.

    As for hyphenation, I hardly ever have a need to use it–only when kerning won’t fix the problem of odd spacing. I usually have fewer than a dozen hyphenated words in a 300 to 500 page novel. I detest hyphenated words at the end of a page but that’s a personal problem due to my being so anal about layout.

    Thanks, again, for all you do for everyone.

    • Frank, I’m not sure what you mean about my method of adjusting kerning—when I said I manually change the space between words? You know how there’s more space between some words than others because of the letter shapes? In that one sentence, I simply reduced the character spacing between words that looked like they had wider spaces between them. Thus I wasn’t using kerning to move everything closer together in a line or sentence, just those few words. I only did that when I knew I needed only a very little more space to fit all the words on the line. Your method is probably much faster if you have to adjust a lot of text.

      When I said I adjusted the text itself, I meant that I rewrote to shorten or lengthen lines to eliminate widows and orphans. It’s easy to substitute a word or two to make a line of text break in a different place.

      I’m still thinking that turning on hyphenation first would benefit you. Those rivers you mentioned can be created by a lack of hyphenation, when too much space is added to a line when text is justified. Using hyphenation allows more letters/characters to a line and thus less white space, reducing the possibility of wide rivers. A couple of links related to rivers (not necessarily for you but for anyone else following this discussion)—Book Design Basics – Use Hyphens for Justified Type and Type How-To: A River Runs Through It.

      Hyphenated words that break with a line break can be adjusted in a couple of ways, so you still have control over them—you can skip hyphenation for any single word, you can have the word break in a different place, and you can skip hyphenation for a whole paragraph.

      Like you, I don’t like hyphenated words at page breaks, and I read that you should fix them, so checking the final word on a page just becomes part of your proofing. (Maybe that’s one of the reasons it took me so long to format my print book.)

      A good conversation.

    • I meant to mention that I create my own thin space between double and single quotation marks. The font size I use for the space depends on the font size for the text—so if the text is 14 point, I might use 7 or 8 points for the thin space. And I use a nonbreaking space since I wouldn’t want a line break to fall between a single and a double quotation mark.

  5. I think we’re proving that with Word there are usually at least three ways to do anything and that whatever a person is comfortable with is fine. I happen to think one way is better but I will try other ways to confirm or change the way I do things.

  6. Excellent information here. I’ve shared it generously online. Thanks for this, Beth!