When it comes to book design, one of the questions we get all the time—especially from (potential) authors—is what kind of software we use for page layout. Or, more specifically, they ask us if we use MS Word. Part of this is curiosity on their part. Another part of this, though, is that we have plenty of folks who spend an inordinate amount of time formatting their manuscripts in Word before handing them off to us either thinking that they are helping us out or to show us what they want their page design to look like.
The short answer is that we never use MS Word for page layout. Instead, we use Adobe Indesign CS. And, when we get manuscripts—whether they are in Word or WordPerfect or any other format—we almost immediately dump the content into InDesign and then begin working with it there. There are several basic reasons for this.
First, for the type of publishing we do—graphics/illustration heavy textbooks and technical materials—MS Word is incredibly unfriendly to use. As Aaron Shepherd has noted at his blog about using Word for page layout (as well as in his book Perfect Pages: Self Publishing with Microsoft Word, or How to Avoid High-Priced Page Layout Programs or Book Design Fees and Produce Fine Books in MS Word for Desktop Publishing and Print on Demand), if all you have is text, MS Word can be made to work for you. But, for anyone who’s dealt with trying to uniformly place pictures in a Word document, much less the technical glitches that can arise with those graphics when converting that file to a PDF, the hassle and time involved is not nearly worth the payoff in terms of final layout quality and consistency.
In addition, when it comes to applying styles to text—such as deciding that all main headings will use 18 point Arial bold font—InDesign is more powerful and easier to use. Plus, InDesign, as being part of Adobe Creative Suite, is integrated with other programs such as Illustrator and Photoshop that we use on a daily basis. And when it comes to converting the final InDesign files to PDFs using Acrobat—yet another Adobe product—we have fewer (not none, but fewer) problems than when going from Word to a PDF.
Finally, when you get down to it, Word is not really made to be used for book design. (I’m not really sure even MS Publisher is meant for book design, but that’s another subject entirely.) Word is good for letters, memos, reports, short newsletters, and the like. It’s just not powerful enough—or easily powerful enough—to use for graphics-heavy books. It’s kind of like when I used to teach online classes as an English instructor. We used WebCT, one of the two premier distance learning platforms (the other being Blackboard), a software system designed specifically for distance learning course management. Now, does this mean that you absolutely couldn’t use something like MySpace to teach an online class? Sure, of course you could, after a fashion. But the problems arise from using a social networking system to try and teach a class—and all of the time and labor it would take to get it to do that—would greatly outweigh, in my opinion, the relative “cool” factor of having your class on MySpace.
In the end, for anyone interested in doing book page layout for books or other publications, I would suggest breaking down and buying either Adobe InDesign or Adobe PAGEMAKER. The initial learning curve for both of them is pretty steep—all the ins and outs of master pages and gutters and toolbars and palettes and checkbox options—but in the long run you’ll have more control over how your book looks as well as putting it all together.