How to Set Margins: Microsoft Word vs. Createspace vs. Traditional Typesetting

I’m currently working on a paperback and eBook layout commission for an illustrated children’s book: Cassie Kindly and the Naughty Christmas Fairies. The body text is in two columns, although the delightful illustrations of this 22-page book (which my six-year-old son loves, by the way) are full width. In my book, Format Your Book for Createspace, I suggest sticking to the Createspace template page setup defaults for novels, and seek advice if you need something more unusual. This is very much the latter case.

Before laying out the new book, I just popped into the Createspace site to check the margin guidelines, and was reminded once again of how something that is really very simple causes more confusion that it deserves to. So I thought I’d write this post to de-mystify.

Let me start by telling you the simplest way to think about margins. Once we’ve done that, I’ll move onto some of the other terms you will hear and why you will hear them. I’m going to assume for now that we’re talking here about a standard fiction novel, of 200-500 pages.

  • Each page has four margins: top and bottom margins are as simple as they sound. You also have an inside margin (between the edge of the page that disappears into the binding and the start of the area where text is printed) and an outside margin (from the end of the text area to the outer edge of the paper).
  • Notice I said inner and outer margins, and not left and right. Open up a paperback book and you will see a page on the right (a ‘facing’ page) with the inner margin (disappearing into the binding) on the left side of the page. You will also see a page on the left with its inner margin (disappearing into the binding) on the right. Don’t worry, there’s a diagram coming in a minute…
  • If you’re wondering about gutter margins, don’t! Gutter margins don’t exist as far as you’re concerned. In the Microsoft Word page setup, set gutter margin to zero. All you need to think about is the inner margin,
  • You don’t see the inside edge of the paper because it’s eaten by the binding. And some of the inner part of the page is visible but doesn’t lie flat because it is bent sharply into the binding. The more pages you have, the more of the inner edge of the sheet appears to be consumed by the binding.
  • If you want the text area of the page to look evenly surrounded by margins (which is generally a good idea), then it follows that the inner margin should be larger than the outer margin. That is because you must ‘give up’ some of the inner portion of the sheet to accommodate the binding.
  • And so you need mirrored margins. The inner margin needs to be on the left for all facing pages, and on the right for all non-facing pages. Take a look at a physical book and you will see the truth of this.

Here’s a diagram, adapted from Microsoft’s online help for Word, where I’ve shown some different types of margin.

In the approach I’ve just described above, I said you should concentrate on the inside margin. That’s in the diagram in the blue-green colour. The inside margin is the gap between the beginning of the text area and the inside edge of the page. In a bound book, some of this gap will appear as a margin, and some will disappear into the binding. In order for the margins in the bound book to appear equal either side of the text, the inside margin actually has to be wider than the outside one, as with the diagram.

The yellow margin is the Microsoft Word gutter margin. In Microsoft Word terms, when you setup mirror margins, you have an outside margin, inside margin AND a gutter. You can see the inside margin here in the gap between the yellow gutter margin and the text area. I have theories on why Microsoft do this, but I’m telling you that if you want to move away from Createspace default page setups and define your own margins in Word, then it’s much simpler to set the gutter margin to zero and only consider the inside margin. That’s right! Don’t let the gutter margin overcomplicate matters; ignore it!

Which leads us to what I’ve called the Typesetter’s Margin. If you hang around the Createspace Community pages (the forums) then you will come across a fair number of regular (and very helpful) contributors who come from the traditional typesetting profession. They will often talk about the gutter as the inner gap between the text area on two pages. This is the traditional meaning of the term ‘gutter’ in typesetting. I’ve shaded this in red.

As for Createspace themselves, their guidance seems to use the term gutter and inner margin interchangeably, even though in their Word templates they set values for both inner and gutter margins.

See, I told you it was overcomplicated!

So, to summarise:

  • Always use mirrored margins.
  • If your book is a standard novel (in terms of formatting and length) then stick to the Createspace defaults (which I’ve shown below).
  • If you want to set your own margins. Set the gutter margin to zero and just use the inside margin.
  • If you read people talking about how they’ve set margins, be very cautious because people use the terms inside margin and gutter margin to mean different things.

How to choose the inside margin size

Here are the current guidelines from Createspace.

Page Count Inside Margin Outside Margins
24 to 150 pages .375″ at least .25″
151 to 400 pages .75” at least .25″
401 to 600 pages .875″ at least .25″
More than 600 pages 1.0″ at least .25″

By ‘inside margin’ I’m certain Createspace are referring to my definition of inside margin: the blue-shaded area in the diagram above.

If you compare with the default page setup coming out of the Createspace (which is a 0.75” + .0.13” = 0.88” inner margin) then that looks right for a typical novel of around 425 pages. On the other hand, use your common sense in scenarios such as the big jump between 0.375” and 0.75” at around 150 pages in this table. A 0.75” inner margin at 151 pages will look large and won’t balance well against a 0.25” outer margin.

If you live in the US (and so it’s quick and cheap to mail proof  copies to yourself) it’s worth playing around in advance of your publication by trying out a few margin settings (and fonts, font size, and leading/ line height). In fact, it’s worth putting various options into private projects that you set up just to trial these settings. You can put a different margin setting in each Word section (the page setup can be set independently for each section — see the chapter on sections in part 1 of my book.) To see the true effect of margins, though, you will need to change the page count, because large page counts mean more of the page is snaffled by the binding.

I have some speculations as to why Microsoft have a separate gutter margin, but I’ll leave that to another day. If you scratch your head over margins, I hope this post has helped. Feel free to fire away with questions.

For more about sections, margins, and everything else you need to know to format your Microsoft Word document for print-on-demand, I have written a book, imaginatively titled Format Your Book for Createspace now in 2nd Edition, priced $2.99/ £1.95 for Kindle and $10.80/ £8.50 in paperback.

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About Tim C. Taylor

Science fiction publisher and author of the bestselling Human Legion series. I live with my wife and young family in an English village. I am currently writing full time, when I'm not roped into building Lego.
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9 Responses to How to Set Margins: Microsoft Word vs. Createspace vs. Traditional Typesetting

  1. CEO adviser says:

    I would like to be a mentor in this field someday. I just stumbled upon your article.

  2. CEO adviser says:

    I just randomly found your write ups. Thumbs up! Now I feel stupid. It is really a shock you do not have a larger following.

  3. Jesse Grillo says:

    Wow, that is a really great way of thinking about it! Thanks for sharing this interesting post with us. Your perspective is incredibly refreshing.

  4. I think this website holds some really fantastic info for everyone :D. “The test of every religious, political, or educational system is the man that it forms.” by Henri Frdric Amiel.

  5. Brenda says:

    A great explanation! Thanks for being so user-friendly!

  6. Susan Kitson says:

    This is the best explanation on margins I have read, and I have read quite a few over the last few weeks! Thanks very much.

  7. Pingback: Formatting Is Such Sweet Sorrow « the dog ate my novel

  8. Pingback: Microsoft Word layout tip: view gridlines to anchor pictures | Tim C. Taylor

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