Print Ready Files

From manuscript to book!


A question I often see is some variation of this:

I have illustrations from the artist, now how do I get the book printed?

So, let’s back up and go through the process of getting print ready files.


First, before you hire an illustrator, you need to decide on a trim size, the finished size of the book. This decision means you must know ahead where you plan to print the book, or else you must know standard trim sizes. Any non-standard size will cost much more to print and will cut into your profit. It’s always better to stick with a standard trim size.

Please read this post about the difference in print-on-demand (POD) printers and offset printing. I’m going to assume you’ll use POD printing because the standard trim sizes for them are the same as for offset printers.

There are three main POD printers: KDP, IngramSpark, and Lulu.

Here are the links for trim sizes at each:

Though it varies widely, for novels, most self-publishers use 5” x 8”, 5.5” x 8.5”, or 6” x 9”. Popular sizes for picture books include 8.5” x 8.5”, 8” x 8”, and 8.5” x 11”.

Let’s assume for this article, that you are publishing a children’s picture book and decide to use the 8.5” x 8.5” trim size.

Now, you’re ready to give you illustrator a spec sheet (list of specifications) for the project. Here’s an example that can be varied to meet your needs, and your printer’s specifications (which can vary!).


32 pages (Why 32 pages?), 8.5” x 8.5” with 0.125” bleed (check printer’s specs for exact bleed requirements; often you can download templates for covers).

  • 14 double-spread illustrations, plus one single image for page 32, and background for copyright/dedication page.

  • Double-spread cover, with the exterior cover doubling for page 1/interior cover.

  • All images must be 300 dpi, print ready, provided as jpegs or tiffs.

Add any details about payment schedule, due dates, etc.

Bleed - Printing can vary by hundreds of an inch and to prevent tiny white lines around the edges of a book, the printer requires that images extend beyond the borders of the book for about 0.125”. This gives them some small allowance for variations. Check your printer’s specs for the exact amount of bleed required.

300 dpi - One measure of the quality of an image is dpi or dots per inch. For print, the standard is 300 dpi. For the web/ebooks, the standard is 72 dpi. All photo formatting programs can change the 300dpi to 72 dpi without a loss of quality, but you can’t go the opposite direction. If your images are 72 dpi, you can’t change to 300 dpi, or the image will pixellate. Therefore, require all art at the highest dpi needed and convert as needed for the web/ebooks. (If you don’t follow this discussion, you’ll have to read elsewhere about image quality, as it’s beyond the scope of this article.)


With illustrations in hand, you can turn to layout and design. Of course, you’ll be thinking about his as the illustrations are developed. I’ll cover it here as a separate step, but it’s really integral to the illustrations step.

Layout refers to how the images are integrated with the text, and is an art-form. The illustrator should have allowed space for the text, or you may have planned to add colored boxes for text. All of the planning for the trim size, art direction, and integration with the text is referred to as the book’s design. This is a vast topic, the subject of many books and courses. For a simple introduction to it, I recommend The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams. But know that you’ll always be learning how to improve your layout and design.

For a novel, you’ll worry about page numbers, page headers, and margins. For newbies, I highly recommend that you buy and use a template, such as those from They set up everything for you in either Word or Indesign. For a quick reference on industry standards for book layout, refer to the IBPA’s Industry Standards Checklist.

As an alternative, use the Vellum program to layout both ebook and print at the same time. The templates are limited, but professional. If you’re doing both digital and print, this may be the best solution. One drawback: it’s only available for Mac. It’s so easy and useful, though, that I’ve know some folks who buy a used Mac just for this purpose.

For picture books, however, I highly recommend Adobe’s Indesign program because it’s the industry standard for creating professionally designed books. It’s a $20.99 monthly subscription (at time of writing) based on single-app subscription rate. (BTW, one seldom known advantage of the Indesign subscription is that you also have access and can use in any project any of the Adobe fonts.)

The learning curve for InDesign is steep, but I recommend you persevere in learning the program so you’re not always at the mercy of others. Also, as I’ve done foreign rights, the foreign publishers expect to receive Indesign files.

The alternatives to Indesign are poor: Microsoft Word, Canva, Powerpoint, etc. In my opinion, they lack the design capabilities to produce the best layouts at the best quality. The one alternative that I’d consider is Affinity Publisher, an Indesign lookalike from a British company. It’s a one-time purchase of about $50 and the program’s development is robust and ongoing. (Notice that you won’t have access to Adobe’s fonts.)

The design process can take anywhere from one day to a month, depending on your skill and experience, and your level of perfectionism. Take the time to get this right, so the book will have the best possibility of success. (I should probably repeat that 100 times!)

Fonts are often debated hotly among self-publishers. There is no required font, just what looks pleasing with the illustrations and fits the tone of the book. For children’s books, I recommend at least 14 pt, but it can go much larger, depending on the story’s length and the layout. 


Printers require a print-ready pdf. Indesign exports easily in any pdf format required. Usually, the PDF/X1-a:2001 standard is sufficient for print-ready files. Some printers will also accept the PDF/X3a:2002 standard or a later standard. These standards are presets that ensure the files are high quality; if you use a non-standard program, you still need to make sure the files match that quality standard.

MSWord will export the standard pdfs only if your system includes an Adobe add-in that facilitates the exports. Unfortunately, that add-in isn’t commercially available. It’s often included, though, in tax or accounting software, so your system may have it. To check, open a Word document, then click PRINT. At the bottom left, click on the PDF option. You’ll want the “Save as Adobe PDF” option to get the correct options for print-ready files. See this video for details to see if you have the right add-on.

InDesign has a Preflight Panel that checks all the files for compatibility with the printing process. Be sure to run this before exporting.

I usually choose to export with the Adobe present PDF/X-1a: 2001, as it’s widely accepted by POD printers and offset printers.

I label the files with the ISBN number and a one-word truncated title for easy identification.

You’ll need a separate file for the interior and for the cover. Be sure to look through the entire file before uploading to a printer. This is your last chance to catch mistakes.

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Sometimes a transparency in a file (usually a png file) creates a blank text box. In that case, export to the 2004 standards.

Any other problems? Let me know and I”ll add to this list of troubleshooting.

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