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If you’re going to publish your own novel, you’d like it to look professional, right? The “look” of an ebook is mostly irrelevant, because the user can change the font or type size, and there isn’t really anything resembling page layout. The look of an ebook is its cover art, no more than that.

A print book is a different kettle of fish. Text font, margins, leading, page headers and footers, a decorative font for the chapter heads — all sorts of elements have to be considered. (And that’s just for a novel. If you’re doing a book with graphics, the things you’ll need to worry about are a lot more complex.)

What I’m finding is that there are two basic routes. You can design your own book interior, or you can hire the print-on-demand (POD) publisher to do it for you.

They will charge for this. At bookbaby the charge is $350. This is over and above the $200 they charge for combined print and ebook publication. $350 is a chunk of change, but (assuming they know what they’re doing, which I’m willing to assume) it will save you some headaches. However, if you have several books that you want to make available, the cost will quickly mount up. I have a four-volume series, plus a separate novel, plus a story anthology, plus a reprint of a novel I wrote in 1991 that’s waiting in the wings. That’s seven books — $2,450.

Maybe I ought to try doing the formatting myself.

I understand most of the details. The right-hand pages are odd-numbered. You don’t want headers or footers on the pages of front matter (unless you have a Preface or Foreword, in which case lower-case roman numeral page numbers are the norm). You also don’t want a header at the top of the first page of a new chapter. You want to control the widows and orphans (technical terms for a short line at the end of a paragraph or a single line of paragraph at the top of the page). You want justified type. You want the type to be automatically hyphenated. You may want a wider margin in the gutter, which will be on the right of the left-hand pages and on the left of the right-hand pages.

Still with me? Good, because this is where the nightmare starts.

The POD publisher wants you to send them a PDF of the interior of the book, formatted exactly the way you want it. They’re not going to fiddle with it. Most word processors will export PDF files. But how do you convince your word processor that you don’t want headers and footers in the front matter?

I struggled for a couple of hours with OpenOffice and LibreOffice, trying to get them to do this. I failed. You’d think it would be a simple matter; these are mature programs. But they’re also freeware, and supported by a community of volunteers. Sometimes design flaws are “baked in” and would be difficult to eradicate without rewriting reams of code.

Naturally, POD publishers (one is tempted to say “POD people”) don’t offer support for these very nice free programs. They will, however, offer you some basic instructions on how to do stuff in Microsoft Word. Word is part of Office, for which you pay $99 per year. There’s a 30-day free trial, which I have now downloaded and installed. Formatting seven books within 30 days might be pushing it. Still, $99 is better than $2,450.

Bookbaby provides a free PDF called “Printed Book Design 101.” Sounds promising, doesn’t it? I searched it for the word “header” and got no results. So much for support from the POD people.

Plus, the automatic hyphenation in Word 2016 is crap. Word refused to break up compound words that I had hyphenated myself. In another paragraph ran four hyphens on four consecutive lines, which is not good publishing practice. (I’ll bet you never noticed, but that’s one of the rules. Usually, no more than two hyphenated line endings in a row are allowed.)

Somebody mentioned a freeware page layout program called Scribus, so I downloaded that. It seems designed to do, you know, 12-page church newsletters, that type of thing. Multiple columns, color photos, etc. When I tried to import a 250-page novel, it choked.

Then I noticed that Microsoft Office also includes a program called Publisher. But it’s pretty much the same thing. It doesn’t seem to be designed to do full-length text-only books. Plus — get this — Microsoft’s icon-happy menu/toolbar system is so spiffy it doesn’t even include a Help menu. How would I learn if it will do consecutive page numbers and left-vs.-right headers if there’s no Help menu?

Go ahead: Search the Web for “microsoft publisher manual”. I dare you. If there is one, my search engine can’t find it. Microsoft themselves offer a 12-page quick-start to Publisher 2013, but I don’t expect to find anything about page headers or hyphenation in that. If you want to make your mom a birthday card, it’s probably just what you’ll need.

After spending a whole day poking at the page design problem, I still have no idea what software I’ll be able to use to produce professional-looking pages. I feel like Basil Fawlty thrashing his car with a tree branch. If I want crap, that’s easy. I could run off a crap PDF in twenty minutes. But if I have to choose between bad page headers and bad hyphenation, I’m screwed. To continue the Fawlty analogy, it’s cold duck time.

Update: After a restless night, I rose early and found a pretty good series of video tutorials on how to use Scribus for novel layout. Feeling much more optimistic, I dove back into it. I created left and right pages with page headers — no problem. I started styling my chapter heads — no problem. I even figured out how to add a footnote. (Footnotes in a novel? Unorthodox, but Terry Pratchett used them.)

And then I hit the next speed bump. I noticed that the italic type had disappeared from the text of my novel when I imported it into Scribus. Very bad! I do not want to go through even one novel line by line, much less half a dozen novels, replacing the italic that got stripped out.

There’s supposed to be a way to do this. Instead of cutting and pasting the text from the word processor, you use the Get Text command, which imports directly from an Open Office .odt file. This command does indeed preserve the italic. But sometimes only the first page of text from the .odt file is imported … or, to be more precise, the entire text is imported, but only the first page is ever displayed in the layout. The rest is invisible. Sometimes Scribus chokes and never finishes the import.

If you get it imported properly, you then have to go through the whole thing in the Scribus text editor window (which is not the main layout window — it’s a big dialog box), adding your own paragraph styles for things like chapter heads, paragraphs with drop caps, and so forth. The difficulty that soon arises is that the text editor window was never designed for a text the length of a novel. When I apply the Chapter Head style to the head of chapter 2, the window pops back up to the start of the file. And of course the Find command doesn’t work in this window, so you have to manually scroll back to the start of chapter 2 to add the Drop Cap style to the first paragraph — and then it pops back to the start of the manuscript, so now you have to scroll down and find chapter 3. And so forth for 25 chapters.

Hey, this is free software. What do you want for free? Do you want it to actually work the way it’s supposed to? Silly goose!

Adobe InDesign is only $20 per month. That’s starting to look like a better option. Whether InDesign is any better at laying out a novel — I think I’ll need to do a little more research on that.

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