14 Tips for using InDesign for Fiction Authors

Publishing fontfacesDo you want professional looking print and ebooks to delight your readers? Of course you do!

Following my post about the best tools I found to create and produce books, here are some 14 specific, highly-useful tips about how to use Adobe InDesign to create print-ready PDF files and ready-to-upload ePubs for the best effect!


1. Using InDesign

First, let’s be clear that this is a tips column, not a general instruction on how to use InDesign. It’s a tool I love and have used to produce several books (mine and others’), but it has a steep learning curve and price. If you’re unfamiliar with it, you might want to get the 7-day free trial from Adobe. Spend those 7 days with some free learning resources (like YouTube videos) and play around with it. Refer to the list below as you go, and see if you can make sense of it, and if it helps.

At the end of the week, if you decide this is the path for you I suggest getting a proper online course about InDesign Essentials, like this one on Lynda.com. They even have a free first month via LinkedIn, so you might be able to get the course during your 7-day free trial from Adobe. This will give your book production skills a huge jump-start.

Also, this is aimed at fiction authors – where there aren’t too many complex elements (no compounded illustrations or interactive elements in ebooks). The tips should help you produce a good-looking general fiction book.

2. Document Properties

When you create a new document in InDesign, you can set the trim size (book dimensions). Pick something from the ‘Print’ templates. Change the units to inches to work with the printing industry standard, then set the width and height of your book to something that you can then use with CreateSpace / Ingram Spark. (I use 5.5 x 8.5, but 6 x 9 is also very common). You should know your trim size before starting the project.

As for margins, I set half an inch for top, bottom, and outside margins, and three-quarters inch for inside margin. The difference is that the inside margin is where the spine is, so you want a bit more space there to allow for the bend in the page. This will ensure that your text appears visually centered on an open paperback.

No need to worry about bleed and slug. Bleed is only when you intend to run an image right up to the paper’s edge — and most fiction books (e.g. not children’s fully illustrated books) don’t use that.

Give yourself about 5 pages for a start (even if your book is massive epic) and click Create. You’ll see that Indesign places the first page on the right, and then each two pages together. This simulates the reading experience (the first page inside the covers is a right-hand page). Save this project somewhere, and away you go!

3. Front matter(s)

Open a book (or several) from a traditional publisher, and take a look at structure. Look at what appears on each page, and how pages are numbered. Here’s how I do it:

  • Sometimes you’ll see a first page with praise for the book. You can safely skip that, as that is intended for people browsing in a bookstore — and as an indie it’s unlikely you’ll get much shelf space in brick and mortar stores.
  • The first real page is the title page. Elements that go here are the book’s name, author’s name, publisher’s logo, etc. Create a text-frame, put your book details, and align them all to the centre of the text-frame (rather than the page — remember that offset with the inside margins).
  • On the back of the title page comes the copyright page. All the copyright notices, ISBN details, printing and edition numbers, useless threats and pleading with book pirates, etc. go in here.
  • Dedication is next, all by itself. If you dedicate your book, make that special someone feel special!
  • Foreword if you have, and table of contents, maps, prologue, etc. come next. I like to start main sections on a right-hand page as well, so order things as best to fit in here.

Create more pages as you need them from the Pages panel (Window > Pages). You can also reorder pages there if you need to.

4. Conditional Text

InDesign as a feature called Conditional Text. This allows you to show or hide certain blocks of text based on parameters you supply. I use it to differentiate between ebook and print content. For example, print and ebook editions require a different ISBN each. You can also put images with different resolutions (though I tend do it in the ebook post-production), different copyright notices or tables of content, etc.

To bring this up, select Window > Types & Tables > Conditional Text. Add two conditions, one for ebook and one for print. When you placed the ISBN, duplicate the line and type the ISBNs of each edition, than mark each line with a different condition (select the text and click the condition). You can then show or hide that text by clicking on the eye symbol.

5. Importing your novel

First, ensure that you export your novel as a Word document using OpenXML format (.docx) from whatever writing software you use. You’ll need just the novel contents, skipping the front matter etc. that you’ve already placed.

Importing is done with InDesign’s powerful ‘Place’ tool. Select File > Place (ctrl-D on Windows, cmd-D on Macs), and then select the Word file of your novel. This will change the cursor to a small black triangle with a floating text block. Go to the right-hand page where you want the novel to start, hover of the top-left corner of the margin (pink box). You’ll see the triangle cursor change from black to white. Hold down the shift key and click. InDesign will import all the text and styles from the document, and create multiple pages with linked text-boxes for it.

For reference, the white arrow icon indicates that it will use the whole page within the margins. The shift-click tells InDesign to create pages as needed. Linked text boxes mean that if you add text at the start, any extras will flow to the next box in the chain. Styles are added by the “Place” function — if you tried copying from Word & pasting into InDesign, you’ll find that InDesign strips formatting.

6. Fonts

We love our fantasy fonts, don’t we? Don’t go too crazy though — readability is more important than snazz!

When you import the Word document, InDesign will let you know about any missing fonts. Make sure you install them on your system, or replace them with a similar choice. As for font selection, choose something classic for the main text (some version of Garamond is usually safe), and something contrasting and appropriate for the chapter headers. Pick something that is genre-appropriate. Fantasy/historical, futuristic sci-fi, chick-lit, poetry – all have a different “feel” that can be enhanced with the right font.

Another consideration, is that choice of font — face, size, spacing, etc. — will have a distinct effect on the final page count. Page count affects printing costs, which can then affect your final margins from sales. i.e. a choice of font or spacing settings that still looks visually almost the same to a reader, can still result in 10%-20% change in page count for a typical 300-400 page book. Play around, and do remember to get proof copies of physical books.

As for ebooks, on the assumption that you will be using Amazon, bear in mind that Kindles support a limited number of fonts. It’s possible to supply a publisher’s font option, but most users will override it. So your basic choices are limited, and the biggest distinction is probably between serif (for text) and sans-serif (for headers). Other e-readers that use ePubs format and allow embedded fonts (e.g. through SmashWords) are likely to be a very small market segment for you compared to Amazon, so that’s another reason why you shouldn’t stress too much over fonts. Just pick something that looks well in print, is readable, and go with it.

7. Page Masters

Here’s how to elegantly handle auto placing book titles, author name, and page numbers with page masters. An additional advantage, is that information on the master pages goes into the print PDF version, but not to ebook ePub version.

At the top of the Pages panel, there’s a section for the masters. By default, you’ll see “[None]” and “A-Master”. Double click on the A-master, and you can then edit it. Add a text box that spans the width of the margins right above it (touching the margins, with space to the edge of the page). Add your name on one side, and the book title of the other side. Make it all caps, and in a small (8 pt) font.

Add similar text boxes at the bottom (hint: hold down Alt key and drag the boxes to duplicate — saves you on copying styling). Edit the bottom boxes, and select Type > Insert Special Character > Markers > Current Page Number.

Now, you’ve probably noticed that most books start the story on page 1, while all the front matter pages are numbered with lower-case roman numerals. But what we’ve done has just been applied to everything! To fix this, create a new master (right click in the masters section of the Pages panel, and select New Master). Leave the defaults.

Go to the content pages section. Select the first page and right click on it. Select “Numbering & Section options”. Change the Style to lower-case roman numerals. Select all the pages in the front matter, right-click and Apply Master. Select the new B-Master.

Go to the first page of the actual story (e.g. Chapter 1 heading, or the first act if it has it’s own title page), and right-click and select Numbering again. This time set the numbering style to regular (Arabic) numbers, and ensure that you set Start Page Numbering to 1.

Ta-da! Professional page numbering and headings in under 5 minutes.

8. Working with Paragraph Styles

Unless it’s the occasional italicised word, you should set styles for everything — never use direct formatting for things like chapter headers. This allows you to control and change appearance for all occurrences from a single place, and to use intelligent features like tables of contents.

I hope that you do this in Word too (using heading styles), but it doesn’t matter if you didn’t. In fact, my biggest gripe with Scrivener (otherwise an excellent tool) is that it doesn’t export headers with their own style. So once you’ve imported the novel text into InDesign, you’ll likely need to go over it and set paragraph styles throughout.

To do this, open the Paragraph Styles panel (Window > Styles > Paragraph Styles). Place the caret in a particular paragraph (say the first chapter header) and look at the side panel. It will say something like “Normal+” meaning it’s the normal style with additional rules. Click new style button, which will create a new entry based on the current paragraph. Right-click on it and select edit.

Make sure you:

  • Give it a meaningful name
  • Ensure the font family, sizes, indentation, etc. are correct
  • If it’s a header, you might want to change where it start on the Keep options (e.g. start at a new page, start on next odd page, etc)
  • If it’s a plain text, you should set hyphenation, justification, etc.
  • First paragraphs in a chapter often have drop-caps or the first 4-5 words capitalised.

Then go over the document, and every time you come across a chapter header, place the caret on it and select the right paragraph style (and then follow with the style for first paragraph in the chapter, then the normal paragraph style, interspersed with the style scene break markers, etc.) Double check you applied the styles correctly throughout. This will save your sanity later!

9. Images

From fantasy maps to chapter header decorations, from fun illustrations to technical information, there are a lot of cases where you might find yourself dealing with images. The most complex fiction book I’ve produced with images was The One, by Eric Klein, as it had many of those elements.

(Bonus tip: when you look on Amazon website “Look Inside” feature, there are different contents for the ebook and print versions! Switch to the paperback before clicking “Look Inside”.)

When working with images, you’ll need to keep in mind a few things:

  • Image resolution should be 300 ppi for print, so make sure your originals are good. You can then size them down for ereaders.
  • Maps and the like can occupy their own full page. Embedded images inside the main novel text need to be anchored inside the text to handle flow correctly. Manage this by using object styles and custom anchoring.
  • If you have compounded images and illustrations (e.g. text in a shaded box), you’ll need to rasterise them properly as a single image for ebooks
  • Add a caption to each image (with its own paragraph style) so you can create a table of images later.
  • Double check image placement after export, to ensure they are all in their right places

10. Widows and Orphans

In typesetting, widows and orphans are lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph which are left dangling at the top or bottom of a column, separated from the rest of the paragraph. The Chicago Manual of Style uses these definitions:

  • a Widow is a paragraph-ending line that falls at the beginning of the following page or column, thus separated from the rest of the text.
  • An Orphan is a paragraph-opening line that appears by itself at the bottom of a page or column, thus separated from the rest of the text.

These make for some slightly broken reading on paperbacks, but for practical purposes (since, again, as an indie, most of your readership will likely buy the ebook anyway), I say that mostly you just need to worry about a chapter ending with a single line at the top of a new page. This just leaves a useless blank page in the book.

You can deal with widows and orphans in the paragraph styles (told you!) under Keep options, under “Keep Lines Together”. However, I find that that can get a bit heavy handed at times. It’s better to go over your manuscript visually (i.e. scroll the length of it), and see if there are any occurrences you need to really fix. Then play around with the preceding paragraph styles (or even edit the text lightly) to deal with each problem.

11. Table of Contents

Tables of contents (whether basic chapters or list of illustrations etc.) are based on paragraph styles. Pick an empty page in the front matter section, and click Layout > Table of Contents.

On the TOC dialog:

  • Set the title for the table (usually “Contents” will do nicely) and the style for it (I reuse chapter header)
  • Select the styles that are the basis of the TOC on the right and add them to the inclusion list on the left. These are nested, so will be displayed as a tree in the actual TOC (similar to Word). e.g. I use sections, followed by chapters.
  • For each paragraph style that go into the TOC, set the Entry Style. This makes the TOC contents display sensibly, otherwise the entries are displayed in their original style — including page breaks. You can then edit those TOC entry paragraph styles for tab spacing to ensure the page numbers are right-justified.
  • Make sure that the “Make text anchor in source paragraph” is checked, for later ebook export.

Click OK, and review the TOC. Fix any styling and content issues, until happy.

Here’s a common clash between print and ebooks. For ebook readers, it’s important to have an entry for each chapter. For print, unless the chapters are named, you might want to skip them and keep only the main sections (e.g. Foreword, Act I, Act II, Act III, Bonus Material). Why? Because hardly anyone cares about which page does chapter 34 appears on, but it’s useful to highlight that you have some bonus material and a glossary at the end. In this case, you can use conditional text again, and skip the unwanted parts in print, but keep them for the interactive TOC on ereaders.

12. Metadata

All documents have metadata associated with them, which includes things like author, dates, copyright, summary, keywords, etc. (This is where I spend my day job — you’d be amazed at what I can learn from document metadata that people never knew was included!) For an indie author purposes, it just helps to have these set up correctly when you upload the file for ebook distribution.

Go to File > File Information. In the Basic tab, set the title, author, description (blurb), set the rating to 5 stars (believe in yourself!), add keywords (same as you’d use on Amazon), and copyright details.

Click OK and you’re all set. This information will be added in the right places whenever you export the book.

13. Export for Print

To get a print-ready PDF that you can upload to CreateSpace, Ingram Spark, etc, export your book as PDF/X. This ensure that images, colours, fonts, etc. are all embedded correctly inside the file, and it’s ready for the print-on-demand service of your choice.

Luckily, you don’t need too worry much about it. Click File > Adobe PDF Presets > PDF/X-1a:2001. Save the resultant PDF file. On the next screen, just ensure that you export as pages (default) rather than as spreads. For preview purposes, set the layout to “Two-up (Cover)” – this will ensure that the first page is a right-hand page, so you can see how the text will flow in the print. Unless you are running images up to the pages’ edges, you don’t need to worry about bleed or anything else (see above).

Open the result in Acrobat to review. Most common errors are to do with embedded fonts, which you should have already handled.

14. Export for eBook

Exporting from InDesign to ebook is easy! Making the ebook behave properly and look better is a tad more complicated though.

In brief, chose File > Export and then set the format to “EPUB (Reflowable)”. Save the file somewhere, open it in Calibre and ensure everything is correct or fix as needed. You can then upload the ePub directly to Amazon and other services.

The devil is in the details, however, and there are many things that can trip up an ebook. If you’ve followed the tips above you’re already ahead, but since handling ebooks is a lengthy post all by itself, I’ll expand on this subject in two week’s time with the next installment in this series. (It pays to follow this blog ;-).


Sounds confusing? It’s not, but it does require practice to get over the learning curve. It’s worth the effort, in my opinion, as this gets you professionally-looking books and ebooks, and places you firmly above the amateur league. The next article in the series focuses on how to produce gorgeous ebooks while keeping your sanity.

If you’d rather concentrate on writing, you can always get professional book-layout services (same as you would get a professional editor and a professional cover artist). While I work with freelancers for the last two functions (see the Purple Toga team), I do book layout myself as it’s a skill I use often in my day job. I’ve produced many books by now (for multiple authors), so if you want help with this, just contact me!

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