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  • Dennis DeRobertis

Making a Picture Book (Part I)

How a story goes from idea to shelf at a small press publisher

Various tools that go into making a picture book from Stone Hollow Press.

Last reviewed on 07/11/2022

Part I: Creating the Story and Shell File

Pick the Story

It all starts with an idea, doesn't it? Whether it's been simmering for years (or even decades) or something that you thought of this morning. Once you determine you have something to say, a plan and process usually follows to actually say it. Here's an example of how that happens here.

The story we're using is titled, "Bus Driver! Bus Driver." It was written many moons ago and tucked away in a dusty, digital closet. It's not a long story. It's not a deep story. It's not some kind of start to an ongoing series or anything grand in scope like that. Nope. It's a simple story about a quirky character named Lilly as she copes with a common fear.

Windows Explorer showing file details of early versions of Bus Driver! Bus Driver!
Sifting through various versions of the story

The story has gone through several changes since the initial version, as to be expected after the passing of so much time, but the core concept is the same as the original. It stars the same quirky character dealing with the same issue. (One big change in the final version of the story is that, unlike the original where Lilly's mom makes an appearance, the only character we see now is Lilly. Perhaps someone else would have included other characters, but the decision was made to limit the characters to just Lilly.)

Book Format Analysis

After the story was plucked from digital purgatory and updated, the next thing to do was decide on its best physical representation. Here we're talking about trim size, binding, cover type/jacket, paper weight/type, and ink/color properties. These are big decisions to make for every book as each option has an associated cost and benefit, both monetarily and towards the look and feel of the final product. It can be especially challenging for picture books as there are lots of sizes and variations on the market.

Best Picture Book Trim Size

Trim size is the final height and width of a book once it has been printed. One thing about picture book trim size is that the Internet will tell you what the most common size is. And you will be told with some authority, but if you look at the stack of children's books sitting right behind you on your bookshelf and measure them, you probably won't find a single, dominant size.

To determine your best trim size, you need to take into consideration several parts of your story. First, how much text is there? Is there text on every page and how does the text relate to the images? Are there many full-bleed pages? Few or many double-page spreads? Mostly partial or panel-like pages? How many characters are involved? What's the feel of the story? Is it big and expansive or narrow and focused? What age range is your story targeting?

You also need to make sure the size you want is available from your printer. And if it is, do you have the ability to select all the various options you want at a particular size. Your printer's file creation guide will be your best friend in helping you set up your book. In the end, your printer/distributor is the final authority on trim size.

IngramSpark trim size and bleed size tables
Lilly's book trim size will be 7.5" by 9.25"

Page Count

Just like trim size, the Internet will tell you the standard number of pages your picture book should have. You'll typically see this standard set as 32. However, look again at those stack of picture books you have sitting behind you. You'll be surprised at how many books don't adhere to this "standard." For "Bus Driver! Bus Driver!" the number of pages, including front and back matter, will eventually settle at 24 or 26 pages. No need to stretch the story to fit a 32-page formatted book.

One thing you can be sure about is your book will have an even number of pages. Your printer may also add additional blank pages to the end of your book whether you want them there or not. This has to do with the physical printing process and how paper is rolled, printed, cut, and bound.

Another factor to consider when determining page count is cost. A 32-page book will certainly cost more to print than a 24-page book. However, you may need 38 pages to completely tell your story. Don't get locked into a specific page count.

Format, Covers, and Colors, Oh My!

Hardcover. Paperback. eBook. There are multiple formats to choose from. Choose one, a couple, or all. Each has their pros and cons. You also need to decide on the type of cover and the quality of the inks.


Hardcovers definitely fall into the cool and classy category, and most picture books do come in a hardcover version. They're great to hold and look at, but also cost more to produce. Add a dust jacket to it and you'll see your costs climb even higher. You also need to be aware of the different sizing requirements when choosing hardcovers in regard to the pages contained inside. Keep in mind that your margins on hardcovers will be lower than on paperbacks.


A paperback is cheaper to produce than a hardcover, so your margins will be higher. However, a paperback lacks that classic picture book look-and-feel. The size of a paperback cover is also the same as its interior, so you don't have to worry about working with different cover and interior page sizes. If you're mailing out books directly, a paperback will cost less to ship, too.


eBooks are also another format to consider, though there may not be enough of an upside to convert a picture book to an eBook format. You can download free conversion software or purchase professional software and do the conversion yourself. Or hire someone else to do it.

eBooks also come in two layouts: flowable and fixed. A picture book doesn't need to be flowable, but some eBook retailers only accept eBooks of the flowable kind. Besides the technical and retailer-requirements of eBooks, if you do one, you'll also have to burn one of the ISBNs you purchased. Each version of your book needs its own ISBN. (Some companies offer free ISBNs, but there are caveats. For one, your book won't be listed under your company's name at retailers and two, there are specific requirements to maintain in order to keep using the free ISBN.)

If you're interested in pursuing an eBook format, make sure you research what's involved before investing the time and effort in producing one.

Covers and Colors

You also need to think about what type of cover you want. Is a simplex cover - a laminated cardstock cover that is only printed on the front and back of the book - enough? Do you also want a hardcover with printed images glued onto thick cardboard backs? Or do you really want that premium dust jacket treatment for that hardcover? How about paper weight and color? Does your printer have standard and premium color options?

You need to determine what's best for your particular picture book and then do an assessment of the final costs of everything.

Final Book Format Analysis for Bus Driver! Bus Driver!

After crunching the numbers and looking at the various options appropriate for this type of book, "Bus Driver! Bus Driver!" will have the following properties:

  • Paperback only.

  • Perfect bound with glued cover.

  • Standard color on 70lb white paper.

It's not economically feasible to offer a hardcover version at this time. This may change in the future, but for now, the only format slated for initial publication is paperback. A digital version of the book is still being evaluated.

Creating a Shell and Framework

Once the story and book properties have been determined, the next step is to create a shell for the entire book. As the process continues, you'll fill in the shell with content and use it as a collaboration tool. By creating this shell and framework, you'll have a good representation of where you want your book to go and how it will eventually look and feel. So, using your publishing software (we use the Affinity suite of tools), you'll create a file with your book's correct bleed and trim size, add the number of pages you think it will have, add your story text, and block out your front and back matter.

(Note: Let's talk a moment about your publishing application. You need one. If you don't have one, you might be tempted to use the powerful and ubiquitous Microsoft Office, which includes Word and, in some editions/subscriptions, Microsoft Publisher. Can you use either to get your picture book in the correct format for the printer and distributor? Yes, especially if you use Publisher (you'll have a really hard time doing it with Word and you'll probably get very frustrated in the process). Unfortunately, Microsoft has not shown too much love for Publisher in recent years; updates have been few and minor. Your best option is to use a dedicated, actively updated publishing application, like Affinity Publisher or Adobe InDesign.)

To Bleed or Not to Bleed?

Page bleed is when an image or artwork extends all the way to the ends of the paper. It's not printed like that. The image is extended past the book's trim size so when the paper is cut (trimmed), it gives the illusion that the image was printed to the edges. Some books don't need to worry about bleed, like most novels. Other types of books, like picture books, do need to worry about it (it's not 100% the case every picture book uses bleed, but most do).

Looking at the guidance given by the printer, bleed size comes in at a slightly larger size than the trim size. To help guide where the text goes and to ensure a picture reaches the bleed area, add an outline to your shell file on every page that denotes the trim size. When create the actual size of the file, you'll create it at the bleed size.

You will also want to mark out a "safe area." You'll want the main focus of the page to remain within this area. Crucial imagery too close to the trimmed edges may make for an awkward reading experience. Trimming a book is also not 100% accurate. Your printer will allow for graduations above or below the trim size, so keep that in mind.

Page layout with bleed, trim, and safe areas outlined in Affinity Publisher
Page setup and printing areas for Bus Driver! Bus Driver!

Add the Story

Originally, "Bus Driver! Bus Driver!" was in Microsoft Word format. It then worked its way into a text file. From an updated text file, the script was then added to our Affinity Publisher file. It doesn't matter if the text is perfect or not. It probably won't be, and that's fine. Just get it in there so you can get a complete picture of the book without getting bogged down finding the perfect words. More than likely, perfection today will change to "not quite there" when the final illustrations arrive.

At this point, you might even realize you have too many pages or too few. Update as you go. Do, however, keep in mind the cost of adding additional pages to your book, both from a page illustration and printing perspective.

Page layout with captions and dialog in Affinity Publisher
Add or write the text for each page. Don't worry about perfection.

(Note: "Bus Driver! Bus Driver!" has a combination of captions and word balloons. We'll look at using word balloons and word balloon text in a subsequent post in this series.)

Add Artist Instructions

If your book doesn't include initial sketches, adding artist instructions and page explanations right to the pages of the shell file is an efficient way to go. You may have a separate file with the story text and page/panel descriptions already, but why ask your illustrator to jump back and forth between a text file and a PDF of your shell file? It's easier and more manageable to use a single file in many cases.

Page layout with captions, dialog, and artist instructions in Affinity Publisher
Add illustrator instructions and comments directly to your shell file

Add the Front and Back Matter

As part of your book's front matter, it will have a title page. It may have a full or half title page, but it'll have one (or both). If you don't have the final design of the title, don't worry about it here. In creating the shell file, simply add something that approximates what you want and move on. You'll come back to it later. Same goes for your book's back matter. Maybe it'll contain an image of the book's main character, the company mascot, or a listing of other books you offer. Add something quick and move on.

Use Placeholder Text

Placeholder or filler text is great to show where text will print without worrying about the actual content. It gives you the ability to go back later and fill in the details without impeding the book creation process. Looking at your book's front matter again, add some filler text for your copyright section. Do the same for your Dedication if you have one.

Half-title page layout with filler text and temporary title design
Add filler text and a temporary title design to push the process forward

(Note: Your publishing or word processing application will more than likely include an option to add filler text. In Affinity Publisher, filler text is added via the Text menu. You can change the default filler text from the Preferences window. In Microsoft Word, type (without the quotes) and then hit Enter, "=lorem()" for several paragraphs of lorem ipsum text or "=rand()" for several paragraphs of non-lorem ipsum text.)

A Note About this Framework

Now, this is just a process. One process out of many. It's a set of guidelines that have been helpful in working on "Bus Driver! Bus Driver!" It will flow and change as different people use it or if something more productive is stumbled upon. Follow and use whatever works best for you, your workflow, and the individuals you are collaborating with.


Now that the story shell is complete, the next step is to find the perfect artist for the book. We'll find out how in Part II of Making a Picture Book.

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