Layout and Design
I joined the school newspaper staff my first year of college, and during that year I got to learn both the old and new ways of laying out a newspaper. The old method involved printing out each story and headline individually and then, along with developed photographs straight from the dark room, stick all the items down on large blank sheets of paper using wax and a roller. This wasn't the 1800's we're talking about; this was 1991/92. Midway through the year, we switched over to computer-based layouts (PageMaker 5.0 running on Mac Classics). While I am aware that many wonderful layouts were created by hand throughout the annals of time, digital layouts gave budding designers such as myself the ability to move things around indefinitely to find the perfect layout without getting wax all over the place.
While using Pagemaker, Quark Express, Adobe InDesign or any of the other expensive layout programs is certainly an option, the vast majority of what you'll need to do can be done directly in your word processing software, whether you're using Microsoft Word or free programs such as Open Office or Google Docs.
When it comes to layout and design there are three good pieces of advice I can give you.
The first is, copy someone else's layout and design. Simple, I know. Open up another book and look at what they've done. Do their chapters start on even pages or odd pages? How did they format their table of contents? Even better than looking at one book is looking at several. Combine ideas from multiple places. Years ago I took a Layout and Design class and for the first week all we did was bring in magazines and cut out layouts and advertisements that we liked (the majority of my high school yearbook's layouts were stolen from skateboarding magazines of the time). As you look at books from different genres you may notice for example that technical computer books have a different look and feel than joke books. It is probably wise to make your book look like other books from the same genre.
The second piece of advice I can give you is, be consistent. There are lots of choices to make when writing a book and the rules of English grammar are constantly changing. the key is to make a decision and stick with it. For example, back in high school (depending on how old you are) you may have learned to put two spaces at the end of a period ending a sentence. This is an old rule that was carried over from monospaced fonts on typewriters. With modern computers it is generally accepted that one space after a period is acceptable. Which you choose (one space or two) isn't nearly as important as being consistent with your decision. I cannot stress that enough. If you flip-flop back and forth throughout your work you will distract your readers and draw their attention away from your writing. Here's a personal example: my book Commodork is all about computer bulletin board systems. What is the correct abbreviation for a bulletin board system? My whole life I've seen it written as BBS, although technically, B.B.S. would be proper. The tougher question was, what is the plural of BBS? Are they BBSs, BBSes B.B.S.s or B.B.S.es? All bet you never thought about that before, and if you read Commodork, hopefully you didn't notice. I decided to go with BBS and BBSes. My argument for "BBSs" was that since the "S" stands for "System", the plural of "System" has an "s" and not an "es" following it; however, if you treat BBS like a word, then the plural would be "es." Like I said, the decision I made wasn't nearly as important as sticking with it throughout the book's entirety.
Not to belabor the point, but here's another puzzler for you. If a sentence contains a quotation mark at its end, the punctuation should go inside the mark. (Example: Joe said, "I am cool.") Note that the period goes inside the quotation mark. Another use for quotation marks is to make a word stand out. (Example: Joe's idea of "cool" is wearing parachute pants.) So, here's the problem -- what happens when the second use happens at the end of a sentence? Is it:
Joe thinks he is "cool."
- or -
Joe thinks he is "cool".
I'm still on the fence about this one and I could argue for or against either one. Again, the choice isn't as important as the commitment to the choice.
The third piece of advice I can give you is, when it comes to layout, design, and especially fonts, it is true what they say: less is more. I know it can be really exciting to find sites like 1001 Free Fonts, but try to resist from using all 1,001 of them in your book. Generally speaking, books are written using a common font (Times New Roman or Verdana (which is the new Arial) are safe choices) at somewhere between 9 and 12 point, depending on the application. Don't leave your book looking like a ransom note. The idea is to make your work as simple and pleasing to read as possible; to enable people to more easily absorb your words, not hinder the process.
Breaking the Rules
"Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind." - Douglas MacArthur.
One of the first rules of layout and design is that any other rule of layout and design can be broken. For example in photography there is something called the rule of thirds. Generally speaking, when taking a photograph you should mentally draw two horizontal and two vertical lines dividing the picture into nine squares (think "The Brady Bunch") and put the subject of your photos in one of the four places where those lines intersect. That's a rule. That being said, I'll bet I could find hundreds of award-winning photographs that break that rule. The photographers don't break the rule because they don't understand the rule; they break it for a reason. You too can break rules if you first understand the reason for the rule. Breaking a rule simply for the sake of breaking a rule (see: using 1,001 fonts in a book) is a terrible idea. However, let's say you were trying to create a hectic atmosphere of some sort; changing fonts could possibly (and maybe even subliminally) create a chaotic atmosphere that conveys that feeling to your readers. Learn the rules, follow them when in doubt, and if you're going to break them, be ready to justify why.
The front and back covers of your book are typically the first and sometimes only thing a customer sees before purchasing your book. If your book is picked up by a publisher you may have no control over the cover design. If however you end up self-publishing your book through Lulu or another online publisher, chances are you will be responsible for designing and providing front and back covers to the publisher.
If you don't have access to Photoshop, don't know how to use it and can't find anyone to give you a hand, there is still hope. Lulu and most other online publishing sites have templates created using royalty-free images. These allow you to place text over an already designed cover and be done with it. It's not very personal, but in a pinch, these can come out looking pretty good.
On the other hand, if you are an artist, a budding artist, a wanna-be-artist or simply a digital dabbler, you might want to take a stab at creating your own cover. Before doing this you'll want to find out what the digital requirements are for supplied artwork (300 DPI is standard and probably not your default size). I created both the front and back covers of Commodork and Invading Spaces in Photoshop. I think I worked on the Commodork cover for about two hours; the one for Invading Spaces might have taken three or four.
If you don't have the "mad skillz" to make your own cover but don't like the stock choices provided, hiring an artist is always option. I've never done this so I am not sure of going rates, but I would assume you can spend either a little or a lot, depending on an artist's experience, complexity of the artwork, and the time frame in which the artwork is needed. Obviously a starving college student (or your niece or nephew) will be cheaper than using a professional art firm, although results and quality may vary.