For several years, I have managed a five-chapter book in InDesign as 12 separate files organized into a Book (five 20- to 30-page chapters, plus all the front and end matter). It just seemed to make sense at the time.

However, after years of the mistake-ridden process of syncing, and syncing, and syncing, I'm beginning to wonder if I wouldn't be better off just combining everything into one big, happy document. (I suppose I wouldn't be thinking this if InDesign used the concept of a centralized stylesheet for styles, masters, settings, lists, formats, variables, presets, and swatches).

The only downside that I see to combining all the documents into one is the risk of file corruption causing a catastrophic loss of everything (as opposed to a catastrophic loss of just one chapter). I believe I can mitigate this by good use of version control software and by taking routine backups of my work.

What are the downsides to combining everything into one large document? What are the upsides to organizing a 130-page book into an InDesign Book?

  • 3
    For 130 pages I don't think there's a lot of upside to using the Book feature. Now 400-500+ pages it becomes more apparent. But for anything under 200 pages I, personally, never bother with the Book feature.
    – Scott
    Nov 17 '15 at 22:18
  • 2
    Having recently written my MA thesis (about 130 pages) entirely in InDesign as a single file, I would beg to differ with @Scott, at least as long as actively editing and updating the file is involved. I have never experienced such crash- and SBOD-prone behaviour from InDesign before, and I was kicking myself that I didn’t make it a book for days before I managed to finish it and get it shipped off. Nov 17 '15 at 22:34
  • 4
    And of course, some books are just extremely graphic-heavy. I’m currently setting one that contains links to 2–300 MB TIFF files on more or less every page, sometimes up to four of them per page (it’s a 300 x 400 mm book). Anything above ten or so pages is a nightmare to work with—thankfully, the chapters are all short. Nov 17 '15 at 22:36
  • 2
    hmm.. I never have any issues with under 200 pages, regardless of how graphics intensive the document links may be.
    – Scott
    Nov 17 '15 at 22:38
  • 4
    I just discovered a hidden downside: chapter numbering. I can create a custom list to hold my "chapter number" (which is not a real InDesign Chapter Number, which can have only one value within a document). I can use this "chapter number" in my "Chapter Title" paragraph style. But I cannot find a way to include my custom chapter number in a running head. This may be a deal-killer. Nov 18 '15 at 5:34

I work in a print shop that does layout for books and then prints them. Some of them have been up to 400 pages long, and the whole book (minus cover) is all in one Indesign file. As far as I know we have not had any problems with corruption or the files just not opening.

I think you would be perfectly fine to put this 130-page book into one Indesign document. Our 400-page books do not take very long to open up, so you shouldn't lose time with opening your document.

Honestly I have never heard of people separating the books into different files until I watched a Lynda.com video about ePUBS. Kudos to you for waiting for all the syncing! :)

  • 1
    My little 130-page project has become a 253-page project, and the one-file idea has worked very well. All the syncing was indeed slowly killing me. Jun 14 '16 at 20:36

Well, I've now gone several miles down each road. I've used both the many-files InDesign "book" feature and the single-file feature for many weeks each, and I have a definitive answer:

I can't envision ever using the InDesign "book" feature again. Ever.

The manuscript I'm working with contains just under 300 pages, logically organized into 100 small chapters. When I started the project, I organized the book physically into a single document. Life was mostly OK, but the following "book" features sounded nice:

  1. I wanted chapter numbers (not just titles, but numbers and titles) in my running headers. A book makes chapter numbers accessible to the running header mechanism.
  2. Master management would be much easier. Using a book, the first page of each separate file uses a master with folio but no header, and subsequent pages use a master with both a folio and a header. With a single file, I had to manually move masters around whenever I wanted to export to a reviewer, every time I changed the page count.
  3. And kind of a minor bonus, maybe a book would make it easier to re-order chapters during the phase where I was still learning how best to logically arrange the content.

These features were alluring enough to me that I decided to change my manuscript's physical organization. I spent several hours over the course of a couple days meticulously separating my single-file manuscript into 100+ separate "book" documents. What followed was a hellish experience. Here's why:

  1. Style synchronization is really inconvenient. I'm intimate with how it works, but still, I can't count how many times I'd make a minor tweak to a style and then five minutes later—after tweaking a style in another file too—realize that I hadn't made either tweak to the sync master. ...And then try to remember which two of the hundred files I just changed.
  2. The simplest things, operations that you expect to execute instantaneously, became ridiculous. To perform a global find and replace, for example, requires you to have all 100+ files open at once. Working with 100+ tabs open is preposterously hard to do. Just closing them all takes several minutes, requiring several clicks per tab. Opening so many files obliterates the utility of File › Open Recent. Even having 100+ files in the Book panel was difficult, because with so many files in the list, there was no space left to click into to de-select all files. The feature was clearly not designed for using so many files. The "book" feature just creates extra friction pretty much everywhere you look.
  3. Overview visibility is impossible without exporting to PDF and viewing the overall document there. This, by the way, is the workaround for the global find problem. I was doing find operations in my PDF viewer instead of within InDesign. Regular expression searches? Hope you don't need 'em.
  4. Table of contents generation and updating is buggy, complicated, and slow. Generating an accurate TOC would sometimes take me in excess of 10 minutes and several tries. One particularly annoying feature was that updating a TOC would first delete the existing TOC, which would collapse all the now-empty pages, which would then create an overset text problem, requiring me to manually insert the pages back in. I found a workaround for this: I put an empty text frame on each page, which counts as "content," so InDesign would not collapse the pages.
  5. Fixing overset text problems caused by section titles confined to start on the recto would waste more than 15 minutes of manually inserting blank pages into my section head documents, every time I wanted to export after having changed my page count.
  6. When I used the "book" feature, InDesign would crash incessantly. Many workdays, I would send 10+ crash reports to Adobe. Some features (attempting to export to IDML, for example) would guarantee a crash every time.
  7. The final straw was trying to index my manuscript. I never completely figured out what was going on, but apparently you can't build a proper index without having all 100+ files open at a time, which was simply not something I was willing to try a second time.

So, I invested the hours it took to reassemble everything back into a single "big" file (it's not really that big), and I'm loving life again:

  1. No more synchronizations to mess with.
  2. Everything is quick and responsive.
  3. It's rare now to have more than one InDesign crash in a day.
  4. Moving a chapter from here to there wasn't ever really that hard; it's just a cut and paste.
  5. TOC updates are accurate and lightning fast.
  6. Indexing is fast and easy.
  7. I can put a chapter number in a running header if I really want to (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBgBQJLErCM), but since my chapters are so short, I don't really need to.
  8. There's no need to manually adjust any of the section title pages that are directed to "start paragraph on next odd page".

When I converted back to the single document, though, I still had the problem of needing to manually manipulate which master is assigned to each page, which changes when I change my page count. However, my question at How can I automate Apply Master and Start Section selections? contained an answer that I found compelling. After some research, I purchased the tool called "Mastermatic" from https://www.id-extras.com/. It allows me to define rules like, "When a page has a Chapter Title, assign it the 'B-Master +Folio -Head' master page." It's a good solution for my final problem with using the single-file feature. (I am not affiliated with id-extras in any way.)

The clear answer for me is to not use the "book" feature. I've used it, and I can't imagine any scenario in which I would ever try it again. My experience with it was uniformly infuriating. I'm able to do everything I need with my manuscript organized as a single document.

  • 1
    I've been making books for 12 years without ever using the book feature. Short children's books, 2-300 page novels, 6-800 page scientific books, 3-400 page coffee table books with tons of images. Always all in one document for the same reasons you mention. Even though I've sometimes feared that I was being noobish and missing out on vital features, I've always suspected that the book feature would introduce unnecessary complexity. Thanks for confirming my suspicion. (And kudos for coming back 5 years later to answer this 😀.)
    – Wolff
    Aug 18 '21 at 22:24

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