Book Design: How should an author format a book manuscript for publication?

Thomas Wolfe poses with a wooden crate full of his loose pages for Of ‘Time and the River.’
Some of the most famous stories about manuscript formatting involve author Thomas Wolfe, who delivered his novels to editor Max Perkins as vast piles of paper. Here Wolfe poses with a wooden crate full of his loose pages for Of Time and the River. The story of this editing process was told in the movie Genius with Jude Law playing Wolfe and Colin Firth as Perkins.

One of the most common questions authors ask is: How should I format my manuscript before sending it to you for publication?

A simple question, right?

But the answer depends on your choice of a publisher. As publishing technology evolves, best practices for manuscript formatting change. Recently, we began working with an author who was considering another well-established publishing house for his next book. Then, that publisher sent the author an email with a link that was supposed to explain manuscript formatting.

That link downloaded a 66-page guide that detailed everything the author was supposed to learn and then actually carry out in formatting his manuscript. When we heard that story, we could hardly believe it. But, we followed that same link and confirmed: 66 pages of complex instructions!

So, if you are an author puzzling over how to format your beloved manuscript, this column is likely to be exceedingly good news!

If you work with Front Edge Publishing, we can boil down what you need to do into …

4 Simple Steps for Formatting Your Book Manuscript

  1. Don’t overdo the formatting! Authors love their manuscripts and want them to look gorgeous before showing them to an editor. But, at Front Edge, simpler is better. Our editors mark up the text, which means they add our coding to indicate how a book will look in the final print and eBook formats. Our editors have to remove any formatting authors have added to the manuscript before completing our mark up. If authors load a manuscript with formatting before submitting it, the editing process actually takes more time.
  2. Clarify author intent. The goal of thoughtful formatting is to correctly express the author’s intent in a manuscript. Author intent refers to both the author’s message and tone as well as the design elements that serve to easily clarify for readers any special words or passages in the author’s manuscript. For example, it’s important for an editor to know if a passage is going to be an epigraph, or an excerpted block quote, or perhaps it’s a transcription of a written interview. That will determine how an editor styles that passage so readers can distinguish between various kinds of text in a finished book. There are easy ways for an author to pass along notes about various portions of the text that need distinctive styling.
  3. Avoid formatting to specific pagination. Of course, authors need to indicate chapter breaks—or even significant breaks within a chapter—but authors should avoid over-formatting their manuscript to the point of putting together the look of individual pages. This is particularly important for manuscripts with multiple images and media elements. Authors sometimes go to great lengths to prepare manuscripts that they think will look like the finished pages of a book. However—the publishing process will not be able to replicate the layout in a manuscript put together in a word-processing program. Once again, this is a case where an author’s added formatting can wind up taking more time on our end as copy editors remove the original coding and replace it with our own. At the manuscript stage, don’t worry about the look of final pages. There is time to consider that later. If you are working with Front Edge, you will see—and be asked to approve—complete page proofs before final publication.
  4. Use flexible file formats. Writers prefer to use their favorite word-processing programs, but when it comes to submitting a manuscript for publication, make sure that the files you export from your word processor are flexible and can be opened on a variety of other computers and devices. Microsoft Word is a standard in the publishing industry. We also can accept other word-processing formats, but some formats—Apple Pages, for example—are more challenging for us to import.

Remember: Standards for manuscript formatting continue to evolve. Not all publishers are as easy to work with as Front Edge. When in doubt about best practices for manuscript submissions, ask your editor or check the publisher’s website.

About Dmitri Barvinok

Director of Production Dmitri Barvinok works on the digital development, print layout and distribution of new books. He coordinates Front Edge editors and designers and works with the BookEdge software suite.

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