Book Design: MS Word vs. Adobe InDesign

10 Jul

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.



25 Responses to “Book Design: MS Word vs. Adobe InDesign”

  1. Stephen Tiano July 10, 2007 at 9:36 pm #

    What is this? Everywhere I turn, someone is talking about MS Word for laying out books. I’m getting tired of hearing myself say that books typeset with Word look it, and that to do so is like knocking a nail into a wall with the flat side of a wrench—it’ll sort of get the job done, but not well; and it’ll look like something other than a professional piece of software was used.

  2. mlong July 11, 2007 at 4:43 am #

    Well, that kind of conversation–Word for book layout–reminds me of a post a while back on (I think) the Book Design Blog–the folks in Argentina–about different blogging platforms. As they said, if you want to have a blog–I paraphrase–that looks like a 13-year-old girl writing about her summer vacation then use a system like LiveJournal. But, if you want to be taken seriously, use a platform–Wordpress, Typepad–that is designed for professional blogging as opposed to (primarily) social networking.

  3. Preston P. DuBose July 11, 2007 at 9:44 am #

    Interestingly enough, RPGs have a lot in common with textbooks in terms of layout complexity. They both tend to have more than a few illustrations and tables. At 12 to Midnight, we have a mixed workflow. Manuscripts are written in MS Word, and all the proofing and editing is done in that program. Since we have virtual offices, we heavily rely on the Track Changes and Comments features to communicate changes as we pass the documents back and forth.

    We also use a Word template that includes all the style names used in InDesign. The actual styles themselves don’t matter. Heading 1 could be 12 pt Times New Roman or 48 pt Verdana. The important thing (from a layout perspective) is that the heading is tagged with the Word style name that’s identical to the one in InDesign. When it’s ready to go to layout, I drop it into InDesign and my styles are automagically applied to the manuscript tagged with the identical style names. That cuts my layout time down dramatically and lets me focus on adding art, formatting tables, and fine-tuning instead of gross stylistic changes.

  4. Mark Long July 11, 2007 at 4:13 pm #


    I totally agree about the utility of using/applying styles—however they may actually defined—in Word that have a corresponding name matching a predetermined style in InDesign. (We do as much of this as we can.) So, as you say, 48 pt. Verdana in Word can automatically become 18 pt. Arial bold in InDesign as long as both styles are called “main header” (or some other commonly designated style name) when importing that content. In addition, it doesn’t necessarily matter what the original style in Word was called because after importing that content into InDesign we can redefine/apply any particular Word style with a predetermined InDesign style. And, as you also note, this across-the-board application of paragraph styles allows for an overall document layout design to be applied relatively easily, allowing for more time to be spent on fine tuning particular graphics with their related demands/needs.

    We have, however, lately begun to do more proofing and copyediting after content has been dumped into InDesign—as opposed to first doing it in Word—because of various problems that can crop up—especially with hard/soft returns plus bulleted and numbered items—during the importing process. Plus, in our case this is made easier by that fact that all of us in the publishing office have InDesign installed on our computers and, for better or worse, are at most about 15 feet apart from each other.

  5. Stephen Tiano July 11, 2007 at 7:31 pm #

    Marked up copy is the best way to go, certainly, with long projects. Engineering texts, for instance. And Word is good for that, whether with InDesign or Quark. I imagine it works well with the other WYSIWYG layout packages, too. And this discurse, thankfully, helps to put MS Word back in its place. Phew!

  6. Jan Overton September 4, 2007 at 3:33 pm #

    This is not related to book design but the article above speaks directly to a problem i’m having. I received a Word Template file that contains several color photos. The document has to be converted to PDF for publishing on the web. When i tried to convert the Word file to PDF, many of my Word defaults were changed and now the photos are not visible unless the document’s viewed in Word’s print preview. I’ve reset most of the Word defaults, but can you tell me what to do to be able to again view the graphics when i simply open the file in Word?

  7. garsiaga September 6, 2007 at 10:40 am #

    The problem may be with your settings when you save to a pdf. It may be something on the Word side, but most like it is a Adobe Acrobat/Reader problem. Adobe has a great website where you can type in a Acrobat question or look at questions posted by others and see the response Adobe’s people gave.

    Just go to….


  8. Mark Long September 10, 2007 at 9:51 am #

    In addition to Grace’s suggestion, I should mention that the reference guide we use is the Adobe Acrobat 7 PDF Bible by Ted Padova. It’s one of those books that we use infrequently but when we need to figure out some checkbox option buried in three nested pull-down menus, it’s always been of great use.

  9. Ali Shabdar January 19, 2008 at 10:58 am #

    I’d say you better give LyX a try.
    It is multi-platform, based on LateX, and free!

  10. Kendall June 4, 2008 at 4:26 pm #

    Thanks so much for this information. I can’t believe how hard it has been to find information about the types of software used by publishers! Your writing is clear and detailed, with helpful links.

  11. Stephen Tiano June 9, 2008 at 9:04 pm #

    Well, software used perhaps less by publishers and more by design and production types.

  12. Stephen Tiano August 9, 2008 at 9:19 pm #

    Do publishing companies, not self-publishers, really use TeX, or LateX, or Scribus, or LyX et al.? I doubt it. So if you’re serious about book design and typesetting, learn InDy and/or Quark. I happen to think there’s room for both and, in fact, use both, tho’ I do have my pref.

    I was recently asked to guestblog about Quark v. InDy. I did, it’s uo, and you can read it at

  13. louis September 24, 2009 at 6:13 am #

    hey i am pleased to come in here first time.
    adobe indesign specifications like average product price ? installation history ? can we use with windows xp .

    i am interested in self publishing and have started writing a manuscript.

    plase assist me !

  14. Stephen Tiano September 27, 2009 at 7:39 pm #

    You want assistance? Okay, here’s the best thing I can say: Don’t write manuscripts! Write a helluva book! Focus on a plan to decide who your audience is and how you can best reach them, as well as how you WILL reach them.

    I assume you are writing a book that you’re the one to write and that no one else, you feel, can write this particular book the exact way you are writing it. Think about that for book design and production, too, because after all the work of writing and setting your marketing plan, your book will best be served by a professional book designer/production artist. That is, unless you’re Leo DaVinci or otherwise really a renaissance man of numerous skills, talents, and much patience and time.

  15. Indian Book Publisher October 5, 2009 at 6:57 am #

    Yes, both are popular. But a lot of software tools are available today, allowing us to go for much attractive designs and typesetting

  16. alisha February 17, 2010 at 3:54 am #

    I’ve already designed a rough catalog in corel…! now that i have the real text from the client i need to put that with the page numbers etc.please can someone guide me how to put it and redesign the final catalog without too much effort in corel or is there a simpler way of doing it in indesign.? I’ve heard too much about indesign being perfect for that kind of a job but i’m a beginner and need a step by step tutorial on how to do it in indesign..plz help!!

  17. alisha February 17, 2010 at 3:56 am #

    *the text from my client is a word file.

  18. Stephen Tiano February 17, 2010 at 8:07 am #

    Alisha, Corel–unless you’re talking an old version of Ventura, which I believe Corel (the company) ended up owning–is not for page layout. InDesign or Quark is. If yu’re looking for a step-by-step to learn to use InDesign, I would suggest you get hold of Adobe’s Classroom in a book for the version of InDesign you own. Although I don’t recommend it, that is how I learned InDy 2.0 “on the fly” while doing a freelance book design and layout project about 5 years ago. But I needed the book at my side while I worked to refer to; and one of us just giving you the “step-by-step” you seek won’t do you much good when questions arise–and they will–and we’re not there.

  19. Grace Arsiaga February 17, 2010 at 8:24 am #

    Yes, I agree you do need the book from Adobe to reference as you work. I know Adobe offers a lot of step-by-steps online, but to do this project in InDesign with no previous experience in the program will require more than one list of instructions. Adobe’s Classroom in a book goes into great detail about any little issue that may arise and everything is organized well, making the information easy to find. Definitely a good investment since you can use it on future projects!

  20. Stephen Tiano February 17, 2010 at 8:37 am #

    Alisha, I should also say that one reason I found it easy to learn while doing was that I’d already been doing book design and layout in PageMaker and Quark for over 10 years by the time I started with InDy. This is a tricky proposition for a real beginner to take on. I hope your client is understanding.

  21. alisha February 18, 2010 at 7:23 am #

    Stephen and Grace,Thank you for your replies….The client is understanding enough,…but i need to weigh my options now..With this weekend as my deadline i cant even push it next week if i’m going to have to learn from bad.!…I can handle corelx4 well enough and i guess will pull through it for the catalog..its only 8 pgs.though i really need some serious software training nw..!! I’ve been comfortable with corel n photoshop too long to realise the importance n convenience of using illustrator, quark or indesign…I’ve graduated only 2 yrs back…
    Thanks so much for the valuable inputs.

  22. Stephen Tiano February 18, 2010 at 7:50 am #

    Well, if you’re client is cool with it or–more likely–doesn’t know any better, you may be fine on this one. But I wouldn’t count on being taken seriously as a professional if your software arsenal is so limited.

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