Most writers know that a great cover is a necessity when self-publishing a book. It grabs a potential reader’s attention and tells them, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, what to expect from your story. Unfortunately the inside pages (referred to as the book’s “interior”) are sometimes not given as much thought or attention.
Book designer Erik Spiekermann once wrote, “I have seen too many books with great covers but horribly designed content. It’s like great packaging, but when you open it, the food inside looks brown and boring. It may still be nourishing, but my appetite is gone.”
Whether a book will ultimately be read on paper or an e-reader, interior book design can make or break a reader’s enjoyment of a book. Book layouts are particular and definitely not one-size-fits-all. The design also must be adjusted for the style and genre of the book. For example: an art book should never crowd the graphic elements with too much text—the point is the reader wants to see the art! A sloppy, rushed or mismatched book layout sends a bad message to the reader and can make the book difficult or tiresome to read.
A strong book interior is pleasing and well-balanced in two important areas: typesetting (font, type size, space between the lines, and hyphens that break the lines) and layout (margins, columns, and illustrations and art).
This article will take you through basic elements (and most common pitfalls) of both typesetting and layout design. If you keep these in mind and understand their importance, your next book layout will be a success.
Selecting a trim size is the first step in the book layout project. Will it be a standard size (like 5.5 x 8.5 or 6×9), which is best for the long chapters of a novel or memoir? Or maybe a wide art book with a small caption of text on each page and lots of room for large photographs?
If your book is over 250 pages, a small trim size (5 x 8 or smaller) will create a thicker book, which can turn off a potential book buyer. If you write poems with long lines you might choose a wider format so your lines won’t have to break.
You’ll also need to choose whether you want a paperback, a hardback with dust jacket, or a casebound with the art printed directly on the cover. Hardback and casebound books carry higher production and shipping costs.
Even though they are technically blank space, margins are perhaps the most important part of a book layout. A book page has three margins (outside, top, bottom) and a gutter (the inside margin where the pages are glued or sewed together). Each of those margins has a particular job: the outside margins give room for the reader’s thumbs when they hold the book.
The top margin is where you’ll usually find the author and name of the book, as well as the page number (more on those later!). The bottom margin provides a pillow of white space that supports your text block. The gutter makes sure the text doesn’t slip into the glue area. Traditionally, the outside, top, and bottom margins are close in size (often around half an inch each), while the gutter is the largest (usually .75 – .9 inches).
The next thing to settle on is typeface. Books are traditionally set in serif fonts like Garamond, Caslon, Baskerville and Goudy, but guidebooks, art books, cookbooks, and other genres use sans-serif for their modern feel and for ease of reading.
Whatever font you choose, make sure it’s legible and well-suited for book layouts. Make sure it has italics, semibold, bold and small caps all included. Commercial books (like thrillers and mysteries) are usually set a bit bigger because their audience tends to be older. A comfortable size for most books is 11pt font.
Equally important is the white space between the lines, known as “leading.” Leading makes sure your readers can read your book without getting a headache from all those lines jammed together. Because books with more pages cost more money, there’s an incentive to cheat and get as many lines on a page as possible. You may save a few cents on each book, but your design (and its readability) will suffer. As a general rule, aim for 33-36 lines on each page.
Running heads and feet
Running heads are the little lines at the top of the page that give the reader all the pertinent info—author, book name, and page name—as they read. Sometimes the page number will be at the bottom of the page, making it a “foot.” They help the reader chart her progress in the book and find her way back if she loses her place. Usually centered or placed slightly to the left and right of the text margins, running heads and feet also provide a nice visual frame to your text block. They should be small enough to not intrude on the text, while still legible and clear.
Art and images
If your book has photographs, illustrations, or art of any kind, the layout must be designed to accommodate them. Depending on the genre, the text and art will interact in different ways. If you’re writing a children’s book, the very small amount of text per page will go right on top of the art. If it’s a cookbook, you might want a photograph of the food on the left, with a two-column recipe on the right. A true photography book might have large, beautiful photos on each page, with simple captions under the photos and a brief introduction by the artist at the beginning. Always give the art room to breathe—one great photo is often more effective than a collage of many.
These are the fun little details that really make a design pop and separate a well-designed book interior from one cranked out from a template. It’s essential to start your chapters or sections deep on the page (called a “sink”) to create visual cue for the reader and give them a mental break before they dive into the new material.
The sink is a great place for a graphic element or fun type design. Add a dramatic drop cap or set the first line in a different type. (Here’s a tip: use that secondary font again in your running heads to create a motif!) Within the chapter, a cute graphic can be added to clearly define sections and bring a little visual flair to your page. Make sure it’s small and fits the aesthetic of your interior.
The most common mistake in a book layout is not leaving enough white space. Make sure your margins are ample and your leading is generous, without looking gappy. Word processor documents do not make good book interiors—be sure to change double dashes to the longer em dashes and take out the tab space most programs add automatically at the beginning of each paragraph.
Understand that hyphenated words at the end of lines are unavoidable but make sure the word doesn’t break to create a different word—like “overpowering” becoming “over-powering”— which can confuse your reader. Keep an eye out for single lines marooned at the bottom (“orphan”) or top of a page (“widow”) with no paragraph to support them.
Get a great book layout design for your masterpiece
A strong layout is a collection of small decisions on the designer’s part. From leading to font choice to margin size, the most important principle is strict consistency—if you make a design decision on page three, you have to be willing to stick with it through two-hundred or more pages!
Before diving into your book layout project, think carefully on these six areas of the page: trim size, margins, typeface, running heads and feet, art and images, and contrasting lead lines. Thoughtful decisions at the outset of the book layout will ensure the process runs much more smoothly and the final product will be well-appointed and comfortable for the reader’s eyes.