The time-honored way of writing a book is to…write it. That is, to plan what you want to communicate, to put your materials in order, and then write it out. Most writers use Microsoft Word, or Pages, for Mac. Then they turn to an editor and a designer to get their book done and published. Is there a way around this? Can you skip the effort and cost of making a professional book? That is where templates come in.
Do templates help? Do they make this process easier? Is the outcome better? We will explore the pros and cons of the three types of template-based publishing that we’ve seen:
- Book and photobook software templates provided by digital printing companies.
Many people have made a photobook using the free software provided by photobook printers such as Shutterfly and Blurb. These drag ‘n drop interfaces are very user friendly, and they have the page all laid out for you, ensuring that margins and alignments will look neat and nice. Blurb, in particular, tries to match real design software by offering a range of fonts and some text styling. Why are these templates free? The printing cost is very high, especially for longer books; most limit the page count. These services are charging a premium for color printing. This is fine if you are gathering a small photo collection and want to add brief text or captions, but longer books or ones that contain lots of text don’t make financial sense here.
- Database software with a “publish” feature.
Databases such as Ancestry, Roots Magic, and Legacy’s Family Tree all allow export as a PDF and as HTML. They also have their own proprietary templates as a way for users to publish their research in a book. Ancestry.com’s “My Canvas,” for example, appeals to Ancestry users who have all of their content already in place. The pro is that the template feature makes it easy to drag and drop existing material into the book. The cons? No control over the design at all. The templates are inflexible, so the page layouts can look pretty bad, and they won’t allow you to customize. This may be suitable if you want your book to look just like their screen interface. But wow, are their books expensive! It’s a quick and easy method for just a few high-end copies, but the printing cost is prohibitive for more books.
- Online social sharing sites
There are hundreds of sharing sites that encourage users to upload photos, documents and more. These online templates are, by necessity, pretty rudimentary. Because they must pay to host your files, users view low-resolution images. The web is not conducive to long-form reading; in many cases there are limited text boxes for stories. When there is just enough space for a paragraph or two, it results in cursory summaries. People don’t really write all they have to say as the interface itself discourages it. When these sites have a “create a book” feature, it is limited with few choices for size, page count, cover quality, paper, etc. The books are cheaper, and unfortunately, it shows.
In particular, beware of subscription template sites. They make their profit from monthly payments, yet few members get their money’s worth. They too require you to use them as your (overpriced) printer. Then there is the issue of “member sharing”, where other members are allowed to copy and use your book’s contents! Read the fine print before joining or uploading anything to the web.
I once experimented with a template service. I put my text and pictures into a basic design, and the book came out okay. What I didn’t realize was I didn’t own the book. If I wanted to take the book that I worked so hard to create elsewhere to use a different printer, that wasn’t possible. Two years later, they updated the software, and my book couldn’t be opened! To revise it I had to start from scratch.
That’s why I love Adobe InDesign, the pro-level software we (and most other book designers) use. It has infinite flexibility to do things templates cannot. In fact, if you’ve ever seen a book with interesting and complicated features such as sidebars, section dividers, text wraps, margin notes, custom frames around images, layered artwork, indexing, etc., you can be sure it was created in InDesign. You may not notice, in a well-designed book, how the pages have running headers, or the cool things that can be done with fonts, but these are the tools that make my print and e-books look great. Web templates can’t even begin to do that.
I think the most important thing is to retain control of your book. First, to control the content it contains – don’t let bargain software limit the very material of your book’s pages. Second, control your rights and make sure you own your book. We encourage our clients to self-publish with their own ISBN, and we give our clients every file we create. That means you can revise, reprint, and republish any way you like. It matters.