Sometimes I suspect that today's great strides in technology have given us too much confidence in our ability to "do everything." My case in point? The current tendency for authors to assume they can produce a great-looking book by using nothing more than Microsoft Word, and then saving it in PDF format. You've seen the results, I'm sure -- the book that fairly shouts "Amateur printer!" at you as you pick it up. Here are some of the things that can go wrong when an author tries to do his own page layouts.
1. Text is hard to read. Even if you avoid those cutesy fonts that are designed to look like they are written in chalk by a third-grader, it is all too easy to choose the wrong font for the right purpose. Fonts like Garamond or Baskerville are designed with serifs -- those little feet or flourishes at the ends of the letters. They are not there for decoration; they are designed to carry the eye from one letter to the next. When you're writing large blocks of text, they make reading much easier. Sans serif fonts, such as Ariel or Helvetica, are better suited to headings and chapter titles, where you want the individual word to stand out.
2. Pages look too crowded or show too much white space. Every font has slightly different spacing. For example, Garamond will require 30% more pages than Times New Roman to display the same document. Decisions about which to use depend on many factors, such as your intended audience, the number of internal breaks in the pages, the lengths of paragraphs, or predetermined page limitations.
3. Typesetting is flawed. The errors that can happen are almost too many to name. Margins change in width from page to page. Paragraphs are separated by an extra line but also indented. (It is correct to do either one, but never both.) Words that should be in Italics are underlined instead. (The underlining is a printer's cue to set the type in italics. Underlining should never appear in the finished text.) Straight quotes, like those from an old-fashioned typewriter are used instead of the curly ones that all publications now use. Right-hand margin is not justified. Some lines are really short rather than hyphenated. Worse, the right-hand margins are justified, but some words have huge gaps between letters t o s t r e t c h t h e m s o t h e y f i t . L i k e t h i s .
4. Page numbering is off. Books follow a number of conventions that you may ignore to your own peril. For example, the right-hand pages have odd numbers, and left-hand pages have even numbers. Cross them up and you will confuse even readers who do not notice the actual numbering. Also, new chapters always start on a right-hand page. That means that if one chapter ends on a right-hand page, the next page is left blank, so that the new chapter starts correctly. If you have chapter headings on each page, they should not appear on a blank page or on the starting page of a new chapter.
5. A book should not look like a blog, even if, like this one, it originally was a blog. Get rid of bullets and numbered lists. Don't use bold type to stress words. Forget about using boxes around some of the text. And avoid clipart or lots of stock photos.
If you learn those rules, will you be able to produce your own book layout? That's doubtful. My suggestions here will work for someone who only wants to turn out a small quantity of books, with limited distribution. I tried this myself, with a cookbook I put together for the Lions Clubs of western Tennessee. Originally I printed only 100 copes, sold them all to fellow Lions (mostly people who had a recipe in the book!), and raised $1000.00 for one of our local charities. Later I revised it a bit and sold another 150 or so to Lions from out of state who were attending a conference in Memphis.
When I look at the book now, I am fairly pleased with its typography, although the font is childish. Page numbering is correct, margins are justified, paragraph spacing is correct, and I managed to fill any white spaces with lots of cute little clipart (which now makes me shudder.) The book served its purpose, but no one looking at it would mistake it for a professionally-designed or published book.
I might recommend the Microsoft Word or Apple Pages book layout programs if you plan to produce a book of anecdotes for your class reunion, if you're helping your 10-year-old niece to "publish" her first short story, or if you simply want to preserve some family stories for future generations. If, however, you have written a wonderful book whose content can compete with professionally-produced books in its genre, don't spoil its first impression with amateurish layout. Hire a professional.