How to design a book (and an eBook)

Part 2: An insight into self-publishing a book

Andrew Couldwell
Feb 19 · 9 min read

This is the second part of a series about how we self-published a book. This part is about how to design a print and eBook version of your book.

I have worked exclusively in digital my whole career. I had no clue how to design a book! But I relished the challenge. This article shares my design process and what I learned.

From planning and InDesign to prototype

Learning and inspiration

I started in the same place I start all design projects: getting inspired and drawing ideas in my sketchbook. I had the content, but I was new to book design and knew nothing about it. There are many little details in book design that I’d never noticed or appreciated, such as the positioning of page numbers, or the useful inclusion of running chapter titles. I spent time in book shops leafing through the books to see the different approaches designers had taken. Behance is a treasure trove of inspiration for book design. I soaked up as much as I could and sketched ideas before I progressed on to a digital design tool.

Design tools

I had no experience with print design software, but I knew Adobe InDesign was the industry-standard tool. To get up and running with InDesign, I started with a Skillshare class called Book Design Basics by Neil Swaab. I’m a “learn by doing” kinda person — I only have so much patience for learning (oh the irony that I wrote a book) — so I didn’t complete the whole course, but did just enough to get me up and running with the basics so I could learn the rest as I went. The Skillshare class I took is a great place to start if you’re not familiar with InDesign.

I’d actually done the bulk of the creative direction and concept layout design in Sketch before I even attempted to use InDesign, because I’m fast and comfortable in Sketch. This meant that when I got into InDesign, I could focus more on the technicalities and less on the design, which I think helped a lot. As with any design, you should use the tools that work best for you to get your initial concept down.

Creative direction

As seen in the last instalment of this article series (with the temporary “register interest” website), I was initially playing with the idea of using shapes and a multi-coloured style. But as the brand idea developed, I settled into a simple yellow, black, and white colour scheme. I chose yellow because of its connections to the construction industry and building sites, which works well with the construction analogies used in the book (relating to building design systems and ‘laying the foundations’). The various shapes are a mixed bag of construction analogies —playing with ideas like building blocks, or the shapes of construction signs. And the monospace typeface I used for the cover and chapter titles is a contemporary play on the font used in construction signage.

Page spreads from our book

Designing for print was an interesting learning experience. It was also an exhaustively long process. More than anything, getting all the images in place and working with the flow of content (in InDesign) felt like it took an eternity! But I’m really pleased with the outcome. I think the time I took to design it myself makes me so much prouder of the end result.

As the brand and creative direction of the book design had taken shape, I moved on to the design and build of a website to market and sell our book:

The website I designed and built to promote and sell our book

I will delve more into this website and the intricacies of selling a book online later in this article series. So read on! 😉

Creating an eBook

I’m not an eBook person — in fact, I’d never even seen an eBook before I tried to make my own, so this part was really alien to me. Turns out there are two types of eBooks: reflowable and fixed layout. Reflowable is the book equivalent of a responsive website, meaning it responds to different screen sizes, and it has accessible qualities like the ability to change font size and colours. While this sounds perfect, unfortunately, they are best suited to text-heavy books like novels. Graphics intensive books (like mine) are more suited to a fixed layout, owing to reflowable layouts’ poor handling of images and formatting. Having said that, it turns out reflowable is the format most people want, which we’ll come back to.

Aside from the reflowable and fixed layout types of eBooks, there are a number of different formats too. The main ones are ePub, PDF, and Mobi.

Fixed layout ePub and PDF

Thankfully, with a little trial and error, it’s easy to export a quality fixed layout ePub and PDF format directly from the original InDesign print file. The fixed layout ePub looks exactly like the printed book.

Reflowable ePub

The reflowable format ePub is very different, as it requires the content to flow and work regardless of the screen size, font size, or colour. This presents a unique challenge for book designers and can cause some awkward layout situations in the flow of the book, particularly if your book has lots of imagery, captions, footnotes, and other bespoke content.

To give an example: let’s say you’ve deliberately filled page 10 with images that relate to the text on page 11. This arrangement works well in the printed book — or the fixed layout version of the eBook — because the images fill the space and pair nicely with the corresponding text. However, with a reflowable book, there’s no guarantee this pairing of images and text will stay in place. If the reader decides to increase their font size, the number of pages in the eBook will increase, and that nicely arranged page of images could now be positioned several pages away from its related text. This could create a confusing flow of content for the reader.

The solution is to anchor images to the specific text they relate to, but the result isn’t always as pretty or clear as the original layout.

This issue applies to a multitude of formatting and positioning decisions, including image captions, footnotes, references, and text in general — it’s all at risk of ‘breaking’ in a reflowable book. So just to prepare you: basically anything bespoke about the design will need to be changed to be anchored inline with the text. Again, this is more of an issue for authors creating books with more complex layouts. If you’re writing a novel, a continuous flow of text will be easy to format!

When you’re ready to create a reflowable version, I recommend duplicating your original InDesign file, making the necessary edits, and exporting it as a reflowable ePub — and don’t forget to test it in an eBook reader to see if it works.

This was a real learning experience for me. I launched the eBook exclusively in the fixed layout format to ensure the digital book experience was as close as possible to the print book. I’d been very thoughtful about the design of the book, so it pained me to strip out the custom layout choices I’d made. However, after many customer requests, I decided to bite the bullet and release a reflowable format alongside the fixed format. It took about a week of work (time I honestly didn’t really have to spare), and it wasn’t easy, but I wanted to give those customers who asked for it the option of having a reflowable book.

Here’s the reflowable ePub in action:

You can purchase and download the eBook here

Both ePub formats work with most eBook readers (e.g. Apple iBooks and Google Play). They don’t, however, work on Amazon’s Kindle. Amazon decided to be difficult and have their own eBook format, called Mobi. And as I quickly and painfully found out, Mobi and Kindle are effectively the Internet Explorer of the eBook world (for you non-web developers reading this: this means it’s outdated, clunky, and nearly impossible to design for). 😭

The Mobi nightmare

The Mobi format is a pain in the ass, to put it mildly. You can’t generate a Mobi format from InDesign, which is a good indication of how difficult they are to create… Even Adobe hasn’t bothered, or couldn’t figure it out!

You can, however, convert an ePub to Mobi format, which I imagine is what most Kindle users do when they download eBooks that don’t come with a Mobi format (which is understandable given what I’m about to tell you). The Kindle Previewer tool by Amazon supposedly lets you preview what your converted ePub file will look like on Kindle devices, and also allows you to convert your ePub to their Mobi format. Sounds great! However, while my preview looked perfect in the Kindle Previewer tool, in reality, the conversion didn’t actually work on a Kindle device. 🤦‍♂

Fear not! There’s also Amazon’s KindleGen, a command-line tool for converting ePubs to Mobi… Nope, that didn’t work either. I then tried a host of third-party online converters, but ran into various problems. After more research, I found a free downloadable tool called Calibre, which some reviews say is good, but 15 hours and 3 attempts later, I decided it really wasn’t that good. Now feeling a little desperate, I found a beta version of a Kindle Plugin for InDesign, but I felt like crying when I found out the latest Adobe CC versions of InDesign don’t support it. 😩

In the end, I had to give up hope that the Mobi format could look the same as the ePub and book. So — as with the reflowable ePub format — I duplicated my original InDesign print file, stripped out everything Mobi couldn’t handle, saved it as an ePub, and converted it to the Mobi format with Kindle Previewer. It’s not perfect, but it works. Needless to say, I recommend our readers use the ePub format in iBooks or Google Play!

If you found this useful, please consider applauding this article and sharing this series!

Page spreads from Laying the Foundations

What next?

With the book written and designed, I now had to figure out how to print, sell, and distribute the book. I broke these next stages of the self-publishing process out into two separate articles. If you’re serious about self-publishing a book, these next two articles will save you time and money, I promise.

Continue to:

👉 What you need to know about print-on-demand book publishing

Skip to:

👉 How do you sell a self-published book online and manage shipping?

Go back to:

👈 What we learned writing and self-publishing a book


I hope this helps you if you’re thinking about designing and self-publishing a book or eBook. If you are, good luck! :) Oh, and please buy our book! 😉

How to self-publish a book

Books need to be written, edited, designed, printed…

Thanks to Meagan Fisher

Andrew Couldwell

Written by

Web designer & developer • Portfolio at: https://roomfive.net

How to self-publish a book

Books need to be written, edited, designed, printed, marketed, sold, and distributed. Self-publishing can be fun and rewarding, but also frustrating and costly. This series shares our experience, the hard lessons we learned, and advice to save money and succeed.

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