Friday, December 01, 2006

Page layout for beginners

I have quite often stated on this blog my firm belief that a reader's appreciation of a book is heavily influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the overall shape and design of it.

I have also said that, by and large, American book design is superior to British. However, just to be contrary, let me give you a couple of examples of good and bad book design which contradict what I have just said.

When reviewing the UK edition of Terry Pratchett's Thud, I pointed out that it was not only a pleasure to read in terms of content, but also very easy on the eye. It was printed in 11.75 point on 15.5 point Minion, with 33 lines to the page in Royal Octavo size. 'If that isn't more or less ideal,' I said, 'I don't know what is.'

For an example of poor design, see the Pocket Books edition of Ian R. McLeod's The Light Ages. This is a small, mass-market paperback, whose sole virtue is that it will actually slip into a pocket. Other than that, useless. Narrow margins, tiny, tiny print, lots of lines to the page.

Such poor design reveals an attitude, or a form of thinking, on the part of those who commissioned it. The thinking goes something like this. 'This book is just science-fiction crap. It's only going to be read by nerds who've worn the same t-shirt for the last three weeks, and who wouldn't appreciate good design if you gave them a course of instruction. Furthermore, if we print the book really cheaply, then with a bit of luck it will fall to pieces after they've read it, so all their friends will have to go out and buy another copy.'

Which, according to your temperament, and whether or not you are a shareholder in the company, may or may not not give you a warm-hearted feeling towards the publishers of the book.

Today, however, as we all know, many writers are resorting to self-publication. For many this will be a reluctant choice -- it will be seen as third-best. But I would like to suggest to you that it would be wiser to view this move as a blessing and an opportunity. For it will, you see, give you complete control over the design of your own book.

Well, I say complete control -- that may be an exaggeration, because your printers may have a limited range of options. But you will at least have far more control than is available even to well known writers. Jeanette Winterson, for example, once reported that some of her friends had chided her for putting a female nude on the cover of one of her novels. But Jeanette had to tell them that Random House had given her no choice in the matter.

It so happens that I have been involved in designing books, in a fairly amateurish way, for over twenty years. And when you do that, even at the modest rate of a couple of books a year, you do learn a few things. Some of these things I shall now attempt to pass on to you.

The first decision you need to make relates to the size of the book.

Currently, through the arrangement that I have for printing and distributing books through my small press, Kingsfield Publications, I have two choices for size: either what is known in the UK as Royal, or Demy.

Royal is the metric equivalent, roughly, of the American 9" x 6", and it has the advantage of being in the ratio of 3:2. This is the size that I consider ideal for hardbacks, and it isn't at all bad for trade paperbacks of a substantial length, say 100,000 words or so.

Demy is smaller, about 8.5" x 5.5", and I have used it happily for a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction.

Having chosen the size of your book, you then need to consider the size of the block of text which will be printed on to the white space.

Many publishers, as mentioned above, will cram as many words as possible on to a page, in order to reduce the number of pages and so reduce costs. If the book is very short, however, they may want to pad it out and make it look more substantial. For an example of the latter, see the 'novel' that Britney Spears wrote with her Mom. Oh yes she did. You can buy one on Amazon for a penny.

Wise designers, however, especially if they are self-publishers, will value aesthetics over profit. If you're a self-publisher, there probably isn't going to be any profit anyway, so you might as well accept that from the start.

When it comes to the size of the text block, there are many and various theories, some of which may contradict each other. Here are a few:

The length of the line should be two thirds the width of the paper.
The text should occupy half the area of the page.

When it comes to positioning the text block on the page, few authorities would recommend placing it exactly in the middle.

One simple way to proceed is to subtract the height of the text from the height of the paper, divide the figure by five, and put 3/5 at the bottom and 2/5 at the top.

Do the same calculation for the width of the book and have a gutter (inner) margin of 2/5 and an outer margin of 3/5.

There are many other theories. Such as that the mathematical relationship between inside, top, outside, and bottom margins should be 2:3:4:5, or 2:3:4:6. (These are generous, by the way; many publishers cram far more on a page than that.)

Or -- 1:1.33:2:2.5. Or, again -- 1.5:2:3:4.

Within the text block, there are a thousand and one factors to take into account, but the chief ones are these:

The line should not be too long in terms of the number of characters it contains (a character being a letter, space, or punctuation mark). The optimum figure is often thought to be 60-70 characters per line. A figure of 100 would be too many, but anywhere between 52 and 78 (two to three alphabets) is acceptable. Short lines lead to more hyphenation, which is not desirable.

Then there's the choice of font (or fount, as the older Brits, such as the Times, have it; it means the same, and is pronounced the same, too). And on this, my dears, whole books have been written and whole lives have been spent.

You can, if you wish, buy books which give examples of famous fonts. One such is James Sutton's and Alan Bartram's Typefaces for Books (British Library, 1990). It's still in print. I have a copy, and find it passing useful. But you can do the same for yourself by printing out a paragraph in however many choices you wish, in Word.

Then, of course, there is what used to be called the leading, when type was set in lead. Leading, or just plain lead, is the space between the baseline of one line and the baseline of the next. This is normally expressed in terms of the size of the font, which is measured in points.

So, in the example of the Pratchett book quoted above, 11.75 point on 15.5 point means that the font used is 11.75 points high, and it is printed with the space that would be normal for 15.5 point type. In other words, there is a bigger gap between the lines, which gives the type a little more 'air', or white space, and makes it far easier to read.

And then, of course, there are all sorts of other refinements, such as whether a right-hand page should be allowed to end with a hyphen. Old printers say no, but the saintly and learned Mr Bringhurst says it's not important; at which the GOB gives a sharp intake of breath, but never mind. One thing's for sure: modern publishers don't give a damn about such refinements; it's all set by computer, and nobody proofreads it, and only boring old farts like me ever think about such minor points.

But that's enough for today. More later.

Further reading:
Robert Bringhurst: The Elements of Typographic Style, (reviewed here on 22 June 2006).
Hugh Williamson: The Design of Books (1983). Once, I believe, the standard authority, but it is not well designed itself, in my opinion, and is deadly, deadly dull. Available secondhand, and I'm not surprised.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating information and quite necessary in the book world. Thanks for the presentation.

Anonymous said...

It's good that somebody's writing about this at some length. I wrote my own related mini-rant not long ago in the preface to one of my lists at

Don said...

It's odd that you'd say that American book design is better than British book design. I've tended to think the opposite. Part of it is that some of the best book designers of the 20th century lived and worked in the U.K. Certainly Jan Tschichold's redesign of Penguin Paperbacks in the 50s was one of the signal events of contemporary typography, and his influence is still strong on the design ethos there even today. Most American-designed books that I have tend to be indifferent at best and truly awful in many cases. Just looking at the cover of a Signet paperback gives me flashbacks to the nausea I felt reading one printed from out of focus offset plates.

CEP said...

Please note, though, that standards for readability vary immensely depending upon the nature of the material. GOB has described a set of extremely conservative rules that work for purely narrative works. Once one starts adding subheadings, footnotes, illustrations, tables, equations, verse, nonlinear material (e.g., definitions and indices), and the like, those rules don't work any more.

Sometimes, too, the nature of the material demands defying convention. One of the most beautifully designed books I own is an illustrated (one per story) edition of selected Edgar Allan Poe stories. The gradual reduction of the leading in "The Cask of Amontillado" enhances the atmosphere of the piece itself... but would work very poorly for "The Raven" or "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Susan Hill said...

I am very proud of our page design, and our page designer, Julie Martin, one of the best in the trade. Design matters. We get compliments for Long Barn Books standard of design and production and although it costs a bit more, from a PR point of view alone it is well worth it.

Anonymous said...

Yes indeed, book design matters. Was it the GOB or someone else who said of Dava Sobel’s Longitude that the excellent design of the first edition -– its sheer possessibility -– may well have contributed to its huge success?

But you have to be realistic about this. Some of today's books are beautifully designed, but the calculation generally made by the sales and marketing departments which dominate today's publishing houses is that, beyond a certain minimum, appearance doesn’t much matter. And they’re probably right. Harry Potter fans will buy the next in the series regardless.

It’s not altogether a bad thing. The days when design really counted were the days when the rich were idle and the poor were desperate. The latter, even if they could read, certainly didn’t spend what little they had on books, so the market was dominated by buyers who had the time and money to care about such things. Times haven’t half changed.

One major change is the explosion of self-publishing. My guess is that some self-publishers care greatly about design, but most would be content just to get their book to look professional. So a word or two of advice to all who sail in that particular sieve. Rather than spoil the ship – sorry, sieve – for a ha’p’orth of tar, find out about book design before you begin. There’s plenty of advice to be had if you’re only prepared to look for it, and the er . . . bottom line (sorry) should be that your book would not look out of place on the shelves of Waterstone’s. The task is more painstaking than difficult.

You need to choose a decent format (page height and width), you need to get the cover design right and you need to know how to arrange prelims (everything that goes before the main body of the book). Get that much right, and your book is most of the way towards looking the part.

I tried self-publishing with conspicuous lack of success, but at least I produced a book that really does look all right at my local Waterstone’s, even if nobody’s ever going to buy it. If you’re interested -– and, at the risk of sounding self-important, I’ll say that if you have any notion of self-publishing anything, you really should be -– you can read about my experiences here.

It’s terribly easy to make mistakes. In my case, it was only at the last moment that I found out that, for most kinds of book, A5 is a wretched size. You see them, but never bearing the imprint of a major publisher. The trouble is that they’re just too wide for their height: they look ugly. So get your format right by going for something standard. You’ll never go wrong, for example, with demy octavo (or simply demy, as the GOB says).

When choosing a font for your book always go for something that the big publishers use for the sort of book you want to write. If you aren’t very confident indeed of what you’re about, originality is dangerous. As the GOB says, don’t overdo line length or number of lines per page. Make it readable.

And avoid -– like all the plagues of Egypt -– the many give-aways of amateur book production. (Before anybody starts foaming at the mouth, of course you can always break rules which are no more than conventions, but you need to know them first.) Begin your page numbering at two, not one; don’t indent paragraphs by more than three letters, and don’t indent the opening line of a chapter at all; use true quotes rather than inch and foot marks; use proper en-dashes or em-dashes and not double hyphens; if you have a strap (a heading -– usually chapter or book title -– which appears on every page) leave it out for the first page of a chapter . . . Oh, and so on and so on. There’s a lot to think about, but why look like an amateur when, with a little care, you can look like a professional?

For most people, the best bet for self-publishing today is probably Lulu, which has been favourably mentioned by the GOB a number of times, for example here. Lulu will obligingly take care of format and cover design for you, and you are free to be your own publisher (in which case, Lulu becomes little more than your printer). Print-on-demand technology means that you don’t have hundreds of unsaleable books stashed in various awkward places round the house (I write that with feeling), and Lulu’s service is absolutely free: you can publish your book for no pounds, no shillings and nuppence (younger readers, ask grandad).

Now as to whether it’s actually worth doing . . .

meika said...

thanks for this!! I'll note every point. But is mine okay? you might like to use it as a bad example about to be self-published via POD!

Preview copy of my seven tells .before country at
(pdf screen version).


I am releasing it in February through as a hardcopy, but feel free to send it around.

Ed S. said...

I think the worst thing I ever saw in a book was in the early publications from the small US publisher Tachyon. The publisher was in an experimental mood and decided to start producing books without right justification - the text along the right margin was irregular in length rather than squared off. Not a big deal I initially thought but quickly found it to be imposible to read - I gave up two pages into the book. I wonder if any other publsihers have been foolish enough to do this.

Anonymous said...

The Pan paperback original of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) was printed without right justification. It looked foul, and became a bestseller. Nevertheless Pan decided to be less experimental, or less cheapskate, with the design of the next Douglas Adams book.

nessie said...

Ahhhh! A whole other area where I lack education. Just the other day i was at Chapters (bookstore) and saw a book on Layout. It explained all that foreign, alien terminology you have used yourself.

ModernityBlog said...


Very useful information for us book lovers and would-be writers.

Strangely enough a few weeks back I found a copy of John Peacock's Book Production, which I had left on a shelf 6 years ago, unread.

He covers many of these issues, but not in your succinct fashion.

Anonymous said...

"I have quite often stated on this blog my firm belief that a reader's appreciation of a book is heavily influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the overall shape and design of it."

I entirely agree.
What does one want more, somedecent book with some decent weight, with some decent paper and somedecent lettertype, not too small, not too big, etc. this adds so much to the reading pleasure.
Very interesting blog.

Anonymous said...

Ex-typesetter here. I ever so fondly remember "casting on." Big sigh. I also remember working with "designers" who had no real world experience and wouldn't listen to me. But I loved my work, and did both typesetting (cold type) and book and page design (which are quite different). One of the most beautiful books I recall, though its size was not standard, was *The Grasshopper and the Ant," published in Canada in the 1980s. Beautiful.

I find most word processing programs very irritating -- leading is difficult to change; commands are to be set on the previous line; en and em dashes are hard to find; etc etc.

Great subject, though.

Mark Thornton said...

I can recommend "Envisioning Information" by Edward R. Tufte - this book is full of what might be the most boring information, brought fabulously to life through very imaginative design ('escaping from flatland' as Tufte would say) most of which breaks all the conventions described by GOB.

As an example, there is a classic 2-page commentary on a US medical bill, which uses callouts to both explain the language of the hospital billing itself, but tells the awful tale of someone slowly, painfully, and expensively dying. All that is left is a balance unpaid amount at the end. An incredible example.

Anonymous said...

Many people do judge books by their covers.
Aside from other people's reviews of a book, the appearance of the book is really all that a person has to go on when seeing it in the bookstore for the first time.
Also, beautiful books decorate the house well when they're not being read at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Because I published through Lulu, I accepted the responsibility of trying to make my book look professional. I agonized over my interior design - everything from font type and size to paragraph indention. I ultimately went with no indentation and a space between paragraphs, because I found it easiest to read. I wanted to indent and italicize the narrator’s personal thoughts (inside her head) which is why I did NOT indent the paragraphs. I justified right and left margins, and left no widows or orphans.

I knew it was non-standard, but the people I pre-tested it on seemed to like it, and it was exciting to try out a unique format like that. I only hope other readers will appreciate and enjoy it! LOL!

I designed the book cover as well, and tortured myself over trying to make it perfect.

Thank you for this excellent post, sure gave me a lot to think about for the next book!

Anonymous said...

Did you get my note about the amazing layout of the book, "Only Revolutions"? I fear it may have landed in your spam bucket.

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