• Jody E. Skinner

Word? InDesign? Vellum?! Help!

Updated: Jan 10

Which program should I use to format my paperback book or ebook?

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Word, InDesign, Vellum?? Which is right for my project?

Why does formatting a book have to be such a headache?


Well, there's this thing called "publishing" . . . And there are loads of rules and codes along the way for what looks acceptable in a book. (They're really more like guidelines, anyway. Name that movie.)


I mean, when is the last time you thought about the fact that the latest book you read had margins? You'd only notice it if the text was printed all the way to the edge, or maybe if the text column was messed up. Right?!


We have these ingrained ideas about what looks right.

And based on those ideas, book formatting and design should be virtually invisible.


So what programs will make my formatting invisible? I'm glad you asked. It can be super confusing once you ask Google or Siri, "How do I format a paperback book?" {It's like going to a giant hardware/lumber store when you only need that one bolt that fell off your kid's chair leg. Seriously. I want to say "can of worms" but much less squirmy.}


I decided to write a comparison for you. This is by NO means an exhaustive list--I just want to narrow the field a bit from my own research this past year, and some of what I've learned through trial and error (lots of errors . . .).


Remember that "invisible" formatting?


Of course you do. Well, I'm happy to tell you that those things you don't notice--or shouldn't, if they're done right--involve margins, headers/footers, page breaks, line and character spacing, and even the chosen fonts/typefaces. Have you ever noticed that some books start each new chapter on the right-hand page, regardless of if there's a blank page on the left or not, while others just start on whichever side is next? And of course we've all come to a screeching halt at that awkward line of text that only has four words with gigantic spaces between them, all in the name of making the text justified on both edges.


Yeah. All these programs I'm bringing up today have the power to work with these requirements and scenarios. (And yes, you can fix that weird gappy line in Word. For real.)


So. Let's start with Word.


You open up a blank document and start typing, right?


Well--yes. But if you're like me-from-a-year-ago, you have no idea what a powerful tool Word is in addition to that fairly simple open-and-go premise.


We'll get to InDesign and Vellum in a second, but I wanted to mention that for both those programs I create a file in Word first, then I transfer.


{NOTE: If you use tabs to indent, or you hit the Enter/Return key a bunch of times to space out your headings or get to the next page, you'll likely have problems in creating your paperback or ebook.}


As for the list above--margins, headers/footers, even starting a chapter on a right-hand page--can Word do all that? Absolutely! There are actually several sites online with paperback formatting templates for Word, but I found it troublesome because I was changing almost everything in the template based on researching publishing standards.


So, true story on my first-ever formatting gig: I formatted the Word doc and then moved it to Adobe InDesign. The formatting, type, spacing, the whole setup in both programs looked virtually identical, but I got hung up with InDesign and switched back to formatting in Word. It was A LOT of headings and a seriously touchy appendix, but other than glitches {likely imported from a large section of pasted hyperlinks/web addresses}, it handled six levels of headings perfectly fine and turned out great.


Word absolutely CAN format a paperback. It's touchy, but it's doable, and if you're ok with looking up a thousand publishing rules to work in a program you already know, then give it a shot.


The biggest complaint I encounter is that Word doesn't have the same power as InDesign for being able to adjust text. Here are some technical terms:

- tracking: space between large sections of letters - kerning: space between individual letters - leading: vertical space between lines of text {and that's ledd-ing, not leed-ing}


But here's the thing. No, adjustments aren't as precise as you can make them in InDesign, and there's not a "kerning button" ... But there IS an option to expand or condense text (tracking OR kerning, depending on how much text you highlight!) You can also adjust line spacing to whatever decimal you want (ledd-ing, anyone?). So the prejudice against Word isn't *entirely* justified: Word CAN do basic tracking, kerning, and leading.


Word also has the ability to hyphenate words for adjusting the word spacing if needed. Basic but helpful.


Additional comment: If you use Word for e-book foundations, I don't recommend using the same file as a paperback because you want much, MUCH simpler formatting. No fancy fonts or headings or characters. Just no. (And Vellum is my favorite way to make pretty ebooks. More in a second.)


Pros: exporting to PDF for uploading to publisher is easy; it's likely a familiar user interface; thousands of available tutorials online; multipurpose platform where you can write AND format

Cons: files may get glitchy; details are still tough to navigate until you know where to look; can handle images but not very many or very big


Okay. InDesign.


So InDesign (ID) is like driving a luxury SUV that's super fancy, compared to a dependable import that you know is going to run for 200,000 miles. Only the SUV is a manual transmission with the shift lever on the column, and all the instructions and indicators are written in Latin. {So many bells and whistles, sooooo many features. Wow. Can of worms.} Adobe programs will always be complex; they set the standard for the tools for text/image/web designers, and that's the reason you can take full university classes to learn them.


Thankfully, it's possible to learn them in the everyday world. I have tried four different course providers, and LinkedIn Learning is the best, hands-down. (Ask about free access using your card from your local library!) It's an amazing resource for heading-heavy nonfiction books or anything that requires significant graphics work, illustrations, or tables.


As for that checklist above, margins and page size and all that--of course ID is highly qualified for ALL of that. I had trouble with margins, which was totally user error where my master pages were concerned, and the most common comment I've encountered in this process are the two words "learning+curve." Yeah. It's true.


E-books: InDesign can do them. And someday I'll be able to speak HTML and CSS and use the EPUB file output from ID. But not today.


Pros: completely professional features, extremely customizable for true book DESIGN with images/illustrations/tables; many small features that just make things prettier

Cons: learning + curve; not meant for use during the writing process; exporting to pretty much any file type is a little complicated; subscription-based ($19.99 - $59.99/mo)


{Edit: If you don't need Adobe-specific source files, Affinity Publisher is a program I would check out for a one-time purchase program with similar capabilities.}


Now, on to Vellum.


Vellum is beautiful! It's a program specifically designed for--drumroll, please--formatting books!! The native design was for e-books but they've added paperback capability. Vellum does have the most limited features of these three programs, but what it does, it does very well. There's a learning curve because the menus aren't like Word, but it's far less complex than InDesign.


It's not well suited for anything with lots of illustrations or even very many headings, but as a PC user I have been happy with this Mac-only program (via a MacinCloud remote Mac server first, and now I run it on a used MacBook Pro). The program is a free download, and you can test all the features and book styles at no cost--just be prepared to pay $199 (ebook) or $249 (ebook and print) when you're ready to export files.


Paperbacks: Some people don't care for the limits on customization, but for the basics, it looks very professional. It may seem like a large purchase up front, but worth considering the price point if you would rather format multiple books yourself than pay someone to do it. (And considering a custom print book interior format may cost you $600 and up, this isn't unreasonable.)


E-books: Ah. May. Zing. At present, Vellum is the output for every single ebook I produce. I plan to learn HTML and CSS, but until I'm fluent in those, Vellum is my go-to. I have provided dozens of these files to clients and have yet to have a single one rejected in the Amazon upload process (through Kindle Direct Publishing).


File types: I generally finish the format process with a separate Vellum source file to generate a print book, if the client has chosen this rather than a custom InDesign format. Print books are expected to be justified text (straight on the left and right edges) and ebooks read better left-aligned to avoid crazy gappy text--hence why I create a second source file. There you go.


Pros: free trial (Mac); simple but clean end product; fairly streamlined output process; same file used for paperback and ebook format since you can select whether to include options for paperback or ebook only, or both

Cons: menus aren't especially intuitive to navigate; can be an expensive option if you don't already own a Mac


In summary:


I do believe there's room in this market for all these programs, and I'll be your cheerleader for taking on any of them yourself! Let's not talk badly about how a book is put together, for Pete's sake, when we writer + editor + formatter types have a common pursuit:

words + publishing = author!


Follow those dreams, write those words, get that book out there. Reach out to me if I can help you, or go chase these things yourself.


You've got this!!

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