Confusing book design with manuscript formatting

A reader writes to ask:

I came upon your blog when asking a question about short story indentation at I don't know if you'll ever read this, but if you do and can spare some time, I'd appreciate a response.

I was just about ready to submit an anthology of short stories to the printer. I am self-publishing some of my stories.

Anyway, for some reason, this afternoon I looked at four short story anthologies in my personal library. In three of them, all of the stories begin without any indentation. In the fourth, there is an indentation, but the first letter of each story is formatted in an oversized capital letter.

I have begun each of my stories with a standard paragraph indentation, just as I note you indicate short stories should be formatted. But now seeing the formatting of the anthologies in my possession, I wonder if I should re-do the formatting of the first paragraph of each story.

You seem to be confusing book design with manuscript formatting. Let me try to explain the difference.

Manuscript formatting is what you do to prepare your book or story for submission to an editor. The editor's job is to decide whether or not to accept the manuscript for publication, and then to offer suggestions on improving the manuscript. He or she will likely make a lot of notes directly on the manuscript itself. That's why, when submitting a manuscript to an editor, you should do the things I suggest in my manuscript formatting guidelines, such as using a big, readable font, double-spacing, indenting paragraphs half an inch, and so on.

Once you and the editor have together hammered that manuscript into acceptable shape, the next stage is book design. This is the process by which your manuscript gets converted into the format in which it will be printed and bound. A lot of arcane knowledge and skill goes into proper book design, but at the very least a few basic things will happen. Your manuscript will be changed to a font more appropriate to a finished book. The text will be single-spaced instead of double-spaced. Your book will be given page numbers that appear in different positions on the left and right-hand pages. Paragraph indentations will likely be made smaller. The book designer will also decide what kind of fancy formatting to use at the beginning of each chapter (or, in the case of a collection, at the beginning of each story), and will apply that formatting consistently throughout the book.

All this is in the interest of making your book attractive and easily read by a reader as opposed to an editor. Though there are still rules and guidelines to follow, there is more latitude in book design than in manuscript formatting. When you pull a book down off your shelf to see how it is laid out, you are looking at book design, not at manuscript formatting.

That's what happens in traditional publishing, anyway. When you self-publish, you are essentially cutting out the middleman—the editor. You are not submitting a manuscript for anyone's consideration. You are paying someone to publish your book, and that means going directly to the book-design stage.

The big question to ask here is whether someone at the publishing company will do the book design for you, or if you have to do it yourself. If the company will do it for you, you may be able to offer some suggestions or preferences but you won't have to worry about questions like whether or not to indent or use initials or drop caps at the beginnings of chapters.

But if the company requires you to submit print-ready copy yourself, then you do have to make those choices, and, in fact, you may have a lot of work ahead of you. Word-processing programs like Microsoft Word can be used to create complex book layouts, but that can be tricky unless you're an expert user. Desktop-publishing programs like QuarkXPress or Adobe FrameMaker are more powerful but are also more complicated to learn to use.

In any event, find out from your publishing company how involved you will need to be in the book-design process before you start worrying about how your chapter headings are going to look.  

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