A few formatting golden rules for self publishing a novel in the UK

This is a quite specific list for UK novels

This is only about formatting a fiction novel for the UK market.

Some different rules apply for the USA, and for non-fiction, but this is what I have learned so far and I am going to break it down into a simple checklist.

Obviously others will have their opinions, which may be just as valid, but I reckon this list is a good starting point, and I have made enough mistakes, by now, to be a bit of an expert.

  • Book size 7.8″ x 5″* which is 198mm x 129mm – Portrait (obviously)
  • Paperback cover weight – 250gsm-300gsm is normal
  • Interior paper (typically) 80gsm-90 gsm cream, or other off white colour (not white)
  • Font – Garamond 10pt or 11pt (11 is just a little easier on tired eyes like mine)
    Font for younger readers – Century Schoolbook 12 or 14 point
  • Single line spacing. 6pt space between paragraphs
  • Justified both sides. Nice neat straight lines down left and right
  • Mirror margins and a gutter to stop the text disappearing down the spine
  • Start each chapter partway down the first page. (maybe add an image above)
  • Get the header and footer formatting right. (e.g. page 1 is the first page of the story, not the book.)

I think that’s all, but I will add others as and when I think of them or people point them out.

  • On Createspace it is 5.06″ x 7.81″ but to be honest, six hundredths of an inch really don’t make that much difference to a book on a bookshelf.

Learning from mistakes in self-publishing.

Worst self-published print book ever?

The first book I began to write was “Children of the Wise Oak” but that stalled because I decided the original idea was terrible and I didn’t know how to proceed with it. The very first book I finished was a short story called “Time Tunnel to Londinium.”

I had no intention of trying to find a traditional publisher. Not because I didn’t want one, but because I felt that the entire industry is geared up to a “rejection” process rather than a “selection” process. I knew my shallow ego could not face rejection. I also felt that publishers were only interested in books by celebrities. While this may not be strictly true, it was enough to put me off.

But at that time, I came across a company called “Blurb” who are still going. They offer a self-publishing service for any number of books from a single copy to hundreds. They have a variety of options including their own software for creating the book interiors and covers, and a huge range of book sizes and formats. They even offer hardcover options.

What they don’t do, at least not for free, is tell you how to make sure your books looks professional. Nobody does, and boy is it easy to make mistakes. See here for help to avoid some of those mistakes.

  • Book size
  • Paper choice
  • Font
  • Font size
  • Gutters
  • Justifying
  • Line spacing
  • Cover design
  • Blurb
  • Editing
  • ?????

There are so many little things to consider, and if you get any one of them wrong it sends a signal to prospective readers “this is an amateur book”. They might not even know why!

So how bad was my first effort? – Pretty terrible, but don’t take my word for it; I still have plenty of copies left.

Let’s start with the front cover. Well ok, it could have been worse, but I mocked it up using images from the internet without bothering to check if they were available for reuse. (This is a serious mistake and nobody should ever do this, although I fear huge numbers of people do) If you cannot find an image you like which is officially available for commercial reuse and modification then you should not touch it with a barge pole. Take a photograph yourself, get a photographer, or artist, or a professional cover designer to help you. Rather use a WYSIWYG cover designer like on Amazon Kindle than leave yourself open to a copyright suit in the future.

Then there is the size issue. These books were a standard size offered by Blurb, but paperbacks in the USA are a different set of sizes from those in the UK. Almost all my market is the UK so I should have used a standard UK paperback size. That size is 198mm x 129mm (I just typed that from memory and then double checked) (It is actually 7.8 inches by 5 inches but who uses inches these days?)

Let’s just reiterate that
UK standard paperback size for a novel is 198mm x 129mm
If that is the only size you know you will be fine for some time to come.

So what about the interior? How badly did I mess up that can of worms? Well…

Have you spotted it yet?

Comic Sans!

That’s not all, but it is enough. I wanted to make it easy to read for young readers. I personally dislike double story “a” even now. Nobody writes an “a” like it is printed. But that is no excuse for using Comic Sans in any book aimed at children over the age of about five.

Now it turns out I was worrying over nothing much. Most junior school children can comprehend the difference between a double-decker serif “a” and the letter “a” they write with their pen or pencil. It might be an issue for Aspies like me who spent ages fretting about this little detail but not for “normal” children. (there’s a whole world of things you can do to help those with dyslexia, but that’s an article in itself)

I now tend to use Century Schoolbook 12 or 14 point (the larger for younger readers 6-18 smaller for 8-10) and Garamond 11 point for YA.

I also got it printed on white paper because I naively thought that looked more expensive. Alas it also makes it less readable, especially to dyslexics apparently.

Blurb saved me from making some of the other classic mistakes, for example page numbering and titles in headers being incorrectly formatted, not having gutters (the words disappear into the book spine without them) and mirrored margins; but it did allow me to use “left justified” instead of “both justified”. In books you do not want a ragged margin on either side of the page.

So I had one hundred copies of this book printed (the more you print the cheaper it is per book) I sent out copies to people who bought them, but now I refuse to sell any more because I know how awful they are. I keep them as a warning to myself and others of the perils of not doing proper research.


Early Lessons in Self Publishing 1

The bottom of the learning curve.

I thought perhaps, it might be time to begin sharing my self publishing story from the very beginning. I have made so VERY many mistakes on my journey. I probably still haven’t made them all, but the lessons I have learned could be worth a lot to anyone starting out. Besides, I have a terrible memory, so it wouldn’t hurt to have a handy reference guide for myself.

So, right back to the very beginning. Before I thought of publishing anything. Right back to when mobile phones were the size of small bricks and the earliest days of the internet.

Oh, I will warn you now. This is likely to turn into as much an autobiography as an instruction manual. Later, I may distill it down to a ten point action plan, but for now, it is probably gonna ramble. Sorry.


Why write? Some people write purely for themselves and a few close friends; some write for pleasure; a few have future publishing in their sights. I started, largely for the first two reasons, by writing a website.

I was researching my family tree with my new home computer. A Tiny PC with a Pentium II™ processor and dial-up connection. I searched for information about my grandfather, Frank Kingdon-Ward, who was a ‘famous’ plant collector. There wasn’t a single hit on the search engine. There were ten thousand hits for Pamela Anderson. I thought that was a bad thing.

I found a biography (whatever you do, don’t pay more than a few quid for it. It’s not that great) about my grandfather written by Charles Lyte. I remember him coming to our flat in London and interviewing my ‘dizzy’ mother. He didn’t get much from her, but he did borrow a lot of papers which he subsequently gave to Kew Botanic Gardens (with my mother’s consent, although now she denies it) Using a WYSIWYG web-builder I made my very first Geocities website.  It was a bit rubbish, but little did I know my publishing career had begun.

Once you start, you can’t stop.

Like a lot of things, writing can be a bit like a drug. You get hits on your website from people who care about your subject matter. People who know more than you about your subject matter actually send you corrections. If you are sincere in your objectives, then you don’t mind. You don’t mind people correcting your spelling, grammar, facts, or style. It all helps.

Another aspect of my website, unrelated to the Frank Kingdon-Ward biography, suddenly started getting huge numbers of hits and when I started to monetize it with advertising, it began to pay my hosting fees. I was a “professional writer”! Well, sort of.

It was around this time that I started to wonder if I might one day be able to make a living as a writer. Even as I write this, I am still wondering that, so please; if you are seeking a get rich quick scheme, then writing professionally may not be for you.

Cover of
“The Great Explorers” Robin Hanbury-Tenison (Thames and Hudson)

But before I was able to finish writing my first novel, I was commissioned to write an article for a book called “The Great Explorers” by Robin Hanbury-Tenison; published by Thames and Hudson.

I was asked to write one thousand two hundred words and was paid my first ever fee for writing. It was a rather exciting moment.

Interestingly, I recently read some statistics and facts that strongly suggest that writing non-fiction is a better way to make money as a writer. Indeed, the evidence of my own experiences supports that so far, albeit from a very small statistical sample.  I made eight pence per word for that article. I wish I could say the same for my self published stories.