How to Lay Out a Picture Book with InDesign

laptop computer loading printing coffee

I’ve lost count of how many people have told me they want to make their picture book someday. That’s why I created a whole Writing & Publishing tips section on this site (under The Archive, upper right). Let’s make that someday now.

One of the sticky points I ran into was digitally laying out my book. Once I had the final copy incorporated into the final art, there was definitely a “What now?” moment. Assuming you’re not a graphic artist, it’s intimidating! But it doesn’t have to be. In this post, I’m going to walk you through how to lay out a picture book with InDesign, step by step.

First, let me be perfectly clear. This advice is specifically for:

  • Self publishers
  • Who have no previous InDesign experience
  • Publishing picture books
  • That are case bound
  • With the text embedded in the images

By all means, you could hire someone to lay out your book for you. If you’re going with a completely DIY outfit like IngramSpark, they recommend it frankly. But I had a limited book budget (as I’m guessing you do, too), so it was imperative for me to do everything I possibly could on my own.

I managed, and I’m sure you can, too. So let’s get to it!

author illustrator books design publishing selfpublishing

Step 1: Read the fine print—CAREFULLY

Review every last word of your printer’s guidelines for submission. A lot of it will sound like “wah wah wah wah wah” and make your head hurt. Read it several times. Take notes. Ask questions.

Get help
If your printer doesn’t offer consultative help (IngramSpark does not—they never answered my emails and would take half an hour to get anyone on the phone—but that’s okay, they have several other benefits), find a friendly graphic artist who can help you decipher the details. Offer to pay them in money, your book, a home-cooked meal, or my reimbursement of choice: happy hour drinks.

Cheers Celebrate

Loop in your illustrator
Send those fine-print specifics to your illustrator, to make sure the art files you receive are exactly what your printer requires. For instance, if your printer requires CMYK color files, you won’t want to receive them as RGB files. InDesign won’t be able to make that change for you and neither will a layman’s version of Adobe like Photoshop Elements (which is what I have).

In other words: Do everything you can to avoid unnecessary—and potentially challenging—additional work for yourself.

Step 2: Gather all of your book assets

Have your illustrator submit each page (for two-page spreads, those count as two individual pages), the cover, the back, and the spine to you as individual PDFs.

Again, remember, we’re doing this all text embedded. Why? Because your illustrator should have worked that into the art anyway, and it avoids a whole other can of InDesign worms that I certainly didn’t want to open.

DenimJungle_Inside_Pages1213_Large DenimJungle_Inside_Pages1213_NoText

What you want versus what you don’t want.

The dimensions you’ll need for the interior pages should’ve been laid out in all that fine print we just talked about.

If you have an 8.5″ x 8.5″ book, are those the dimensions of the images? Nope. You need the image to extend beyond the page on the outside, top, and bottom, just in case the printing is a bit off. This is the bleed area, and your printer will give you those specifications.

Why isn’t there any bleed on the inside edge? Because that’s the “gutter,” where the pages attach. You don’t want ink in there, or the glue won’t adhere correctly. I suggest finding the gutter width (again, you can find it in that fine print) and having your artist add that width of blank space to the images. It just makes things easier when you get to the layout phase. So for left pages, that amount of white space will run down the right side of the page and vice versa.

Cover and back
The outside of the book is its own ball of wax. Luckily, IngramSpark offers a handy layout template… which I didn’t discover until after I had my art assets.

If you’re using IngramSpark, go to Cover Template Generator under Help/Tools. As soon as you know your ISBN, page count, and book size, fill this form out and submit it. They’ll then email you a cover template specific to your book that you can give to your illustrator. You don’t need to wait to do this at the end. As a matter of fact, it’s more helpful if you have it earlier rather than later.

Luckily I was able to easily fudge it with the denim texture art I had. It created the nice denim wraparound you see lining the edges of the inside covers, which I now love.

If the edges of your cover art are white anyway, this won’t be an issue for you. But if your art extends to the edges, you’ll want to have your illustrator make the pattern keep going for a couple of inches beyond the actual book size on the top, bottom, and outside. Otherwise, the probability of weird white edges showing up will be about 100%, especially for print-on-demand books (which have a greater likelihood to vary slightly with each printing).

Again, check the info from your printer, and when in doubt, have more bleed on the edges that you could possibly need. Cutting down is easier than magically making art appear that doesn’t exist.

Due to the number of page in my book, Ingram wasn’t able to print words on the spine of my book. It’s my only disappointment with the book, though a small one to be sure.

However, I still needed art for that space, and again, the denim pattern Jackie gave me worked great for that and transitioned nicely into my front and back cover designs.

Work with your illustrator to come up with spine art you need, and reference your printers guidelines for just how wide it will need to be.

Step 3: Print out all of your art assets

You already had a professional proofreader review your book, right? And you’ve read the final product a couple dozen times? And you’ve given the file to several other trusted people to give one more review? Your name is going to be on this book. You don’t want any gaffs or errors.

Even if you’ve taken all of these precautions with a file on your computer screen, print it out (in the actual size it will be, if possible). That’s right, each and every page. You don’t have to print it in high res—draft quality is fine—but you’d be surprised what you might notice in print versus on the screen.

Comb through it like you’re looking for the secret of the universe. Then, if it still looks tip-top, you’re finally ready to lay it out and send it off to your printer!

Step 4: Download InDesign

You can download a FREE 30-day trial on Adobe’s site. That’s right, FREE. The trick is to wait to download it until you have absolutely everything ready to go. You’ll likely need to get back in there and make edits, so don’t waste any of those precious free days waiting for final imagery, reviewing your printers dumbfounding guidelines, or finishing up your vacation.

When you’re sitting down at your computer ready to make the InDesign file to submit to the printer, that’s when you should download it. (The download doesn’t take that long either.)

Step 5: Create your file

Go to File > New > Document. (Not New > Book… that’s something else, so don’t be confused.) A window will open allowing you to type in the layout specifics for your book. You’ll likely want to choose:

  • Intent: Print
  • Number of Pages: The number of pages in your book, including copyright, title, etc., but excluding any blank pages or end pages.
  • Facing Pages: Check. Don’t worry, the first and last pages won’t be facing in this frame work you’re creating for inserting your files. They take that into account.
  • Page Size: Custom. Choose your actual page size. (For example, mine was 8.5″ x 8.5″.) Don’t worry about bleed here.
  • Columns: The “Gutter” here is not the gutter for the book, so don’t be confused by that.
  • More Options (button on right) > Bleed: Here’s where you indicate the bleed dimensions, as outlined in your printer guidelines. For instance, if it’s .25″, you type that into the Top, Bottom, and Outside fields. If you had your illustrator build in the gutter white space into the PDF, type 0 for the Inside field. If you didn’t, indicate the gutter width here, and it will all the inside white space for you.

Step 6: Drop your PDFs into your file

  • In the pages bar on the right, click on the first page. This should be your title page.
  • Under File, choose Place, and choose the image file that includes the art (with embedded text) for your title page.
  • Click open.  Then click and drag (starting at any corner) to create an image frame that fills the whole page, top to bottom and side to side.
  • If your file was created with the right dimension, you should be able to see the page in its entirety without any white around the edges. If you didn’t, you or your illustrator will have to do some adjusting.
  • Congrats! You have a page done.
  • Repeat for each page.

Step 7: Save your file

Make sure you save all your hard work:

  • InDesign file (in case you have to make any edits later).
  • The format your printer has requested, likely a PDF.

If you want to be fancy, you can also go to File > Package to save your project and all related fonts, images, etc. into one handy file on your computer. It’s not necessary, but it’s a potential convenience for, let’s say, giving a future hot-shot publisher all the files to print a million new copies of your book and distribute it worldwide. What? It could happen…

I hope this helps, and if you have any questions, please pose them in the comments. I may not be able to answer them, but I can track down someone who can.

And for more InDesign tips and a video walkthrough, check out Adobe’s tips here.

Happy creating!


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