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Top Five DIY Book Layout Mistakes

From Joel Friedlander via Book Life:

With more and more authors taking the production of their books into their own hands, more and more of those books look… strange. That’s not a good thing for either authors or their readers.

Book design used to be a pretty arcane branch of graphic design, pursued by a handful of practitioners, many of whom were employed by typesetters and publishing houses. Like many other specialties, only the insiders knew or cared about the intricacies of long-form typography and all the small nuances that go into creating beautiful books.

Along with editors, these professionals made sure that the books they produced conformed to long-established publishing industry standards. That’s important when you’re sending your book to store or chain buyers, to media bookers, to reviewers, or to anyone who is used to looking at traditionally published books as part of her job.

So, it really behooves authors who decide to become DIY publishers to educate themselves as to how books are supposed to look, how they are constructed, and what book professionals expect to see. As my father used to say, it doesn’t cost any more to print a book that’s properly designed and laid out than it does to print one that’s a typographic train wreck, so why not do it right the first time?

. . . .

1. Blank right-hand pages: It’s very common, especially in nonfiction books, to have blank left-hand pages, and there’s nothing wrong with that. This occurs naturally if your chapters always open on right-hand pages. But if you’ve designed your book to use a two-page spread as your chapter opening (for instance, with an illustration on the left-hand page and text on the right-hand page), you run the risk of having a blank right-hand page immediately preceding the spread (since there’s no guarantee that the preceding chapter will end on a right-hand page). This is a no-no in book layout. We never want to have a blank right-hand page. To solve it, either adjust the typography, or have quotations or artwork on hand that will augment the message of your book, and put those on the otherwise-blank right-hand page.

. . . .

3. Running heads misbehaving: This seems to be a challenge for a lot of amateur book formatters. If a page is blank—and there are usually going to be a number of blank pages in your book—technically it’s not part of the text. After all, there’s no text on the page, is there? A blank page should be just that: blank, with nothing on it at all. By the same token, those “display” pages mentioned above shouldn’t have running heads—text at the top of the page that lists title, author, chapter, etc.—on them either. Yet many books I’ve seen from self-publishers show that the author just didn’t know that, or didn’t know how to turn the running heads off—and nothing looks worse to me than a chapter-opening page with a running head on it.

Link to the rest at Book Life and you can read more of Joel’s thoughts at The Book Designer.


35 Comments to “Top Five DIY Book Layout Mistakes”

  1. How about unreadable fonts, line spacing too close or too far apart, lousy margins, etc. Even in e-book that can be a problem. I just read one where it was interesting enough that I bothered to fiddle with the Kindle’s line spacing and margins display for it. But I shouldn’t have had to.

    And my husband can spot someone who basically pubbed an MS Word document from a mile a way. Or at first glance.

  2. It’s good advice, but I can’t blame indie authors for not taking it. I’d happily buy a template from a designer, but I won’t pay hundreds of dollars on something that will return coffee money, if that, no matter how it’s formatted.

    • A few years ago, I bought a couple of templates from Joel Friedlander at thebookdesigner.com and they worked nicely.

      I just checked and Joel has a lot more templates for sale with a variety of different styles. The templates start at $59 and come with access to a US tech support staff to address any usage issues.

      I don’t have any business association with Joel, but he’s a long-time online friend.

  3. CreateSpace provides free templates for Word to pour your manuscript into. The template has all the right section definitions to account for running heads, etc.

    That should do most of it for a lot of the offenders, if they bothered to use them.

    • Thanks. Will look into those, especially if Word can be eliminated from the loop by pouring, instead, Scrivener’s output.

      I only went to Word for the polishing stuff for print because I couldn’t get it in Scrivener then.

      Createspace could eliminate the Word step if it has hyphenation and running heads done properly.

  4. It’s not that difficult to avoid these problems. You don’t even have to buy a template.

    Pull a book you like the look of off the shelf and copy it.

    Another common problem I’ve seen is a line space between every paragraph. Looks weird, especially if the grafs are indented.

    • It’s not that difficult to avoid these problems. You don’t even have to buy a template.

      Pull a book you like the look of off the shelf and copy it.

      Repeated because it’s precisely that cheap. There’s no reason to get this wrong. You can get it right for free, no money required. You can learn specific concepts for free courtesy of Friedlander and friends who blog on the internet.

      Or you can save time completely by just not publishing in print. Why do it at all if you’re not going to do it right? Worse, why would you ask someone to shell out money for a product you didn’t care enough to produce properly? It’s insulting to your customer. Don’t insult them.

      • Yeah, all you really need to do is pay attention to the books on your shelves and figure out how to copy what you see in most of them. I use Lulu for publishing practice books for personal project (I can set them to private, so no one else sees them), and that’s helped me narrow down some things that I’m doing right or want to do differently.

        I bought a paperback copy of a writing book from one of the indie writing advice authors who gets rec’d a lot. The paperback was an insult. The font was probably 18 point or bigger, there were references to “this ebook” in the text, and external links that were just underlined words without any actual URL. It was clearly something only intended as an ebook, and the paperback was so half-assed I had to wonder why the author even bothered.

        • I use CreateSpace the way you use Lulu. I just slap an “Uncorrected Proof — Not For Sale” label on the cover image. Tradpub ARCs all have those on their covers. I also never push “Send” or whatever the button is, which is probably the part that helps the most 🙂 I actually forgot Lulu existed until now; I may investigate them later.

          • Lulu’s prices are cost-prohibitive for any real POD sales. I have a 700-odd page hardcover (no photos, a novel) personal project that I got printed, and it was over $30, I think. That was the base cost to me (not counting shipping). While yes, that was a large book, I think even a short novel would be at least $20. Trying to add enough to the price to actually make a profit if someone buys it, even if you’re direct selling from your own website, makes it too expensive for almost anyone to want to buy. And that’s even without considering that their paper quality is not great (it’s okay) and the covers are always too dark.

    • Yep. That’s what I did with my books. Found the typeface and font size on the web and rolled with it. Created my own Adobe InDesign files since I have experience as a typesetter/desktop publisher and it saves me money. Everything else I hire out–copy editor, proofreader, cover design, cover art. There are great people out there who charge reasonable fees and I’m in it for the long game. You can put my books in a B&N and nobody would be able to tell they’re not published by a BPH. Actually, you can put a fair few indie books in bookstores and nobody would notice the difference. We’ve come a long way, indies.

    • I prefer no indent/block paragraphs with a blank line separating them. And that’s how I format my documents, including ebooks and pbooks.

      • It’s fine to prefer that and to format your books based on what you prefer, as long as you realize that probably the majority of readers (including me) will see it as unprofessional. Most readers might not consciously know why it doesn’t look like a “real book” (as they’re liable to put it), only that it looks off. (Because it’s figuring out those details that separates a professional look from an amateur look–and how to replicate them–that is the tricky part.)

        Actually, if I see a comment by the author somewhere that amounts to, “Yeah, I know the way I’ve formatted something isn’t the standard professional way, but I like it better and it’s my book so I do what I want,” I’d respect them more because I’d know it wasn’t just out of ignorance or lack of care. (I’d still think it looks less professional, and I still wouldn’t like it, but I’d respect the choice as an intentional one instead of, “This author didn’t even care enough to make the thing look professional yet still expected me to spend money on it.”)

        • This is where I fall. If you’re intentionally misformatting your print books, put in a note so that readers know that you mean to do it that way, so they know you intend to be quirky rather than insulting.

        • @ Anon

          It appears from your post that you’re not very familiar with the standard formatting conventions for non-fiction, especially technical and “how-to” NF. (NF biographies are typically formatted in the same way as narrative fiction with indented paragraphs and no blank lines between.)

          For technical and how-to books, readers are usually looking for specific information. Block paragraphs, blank separation lines, bullet items, document organization, etc. make it much easier visually to scan pages quickly to find desired info.

          Readers of narrative fiction, however, read word by word, paragraph by paragraph in a sequential flow.

          Since what I write is technical and how-to NF, this is the formatting I use, based on decades of experience as a technical editor and writer in high-tech and aerospace. And I will continue to do so. It’s what works best for my kind of writing, and is anything but “unprofesional” or “ignorant.”

      • “…no indent/block paragraphs with a blank line separating them” is the standard for internet usage. Using that format in books is going to tell your readers that you are either ignorant, or don’t care if your books look like blogs rather than books. As a reader, I wouldn’t even buy a book formatted that way.

        • Felix J. Torres

          Wasn’t there a novel a while back that pretended to be a series of blog posts, like an epistolary narrative?

          That format would be appropriate there.


          I’ve run into quite a few ebooks formatted that way by the embedded css. Not to my taste so I disable the CSS and override with a more traditional indented paragraph formatting. It’s my ereader and *my* eyeballs.

          (On the flip side, I prefer ragged right margins with no hyphenation. No accounting for tastes, right?)

          • I prefer hyphenation, but with paperback, you’ve really got to review the whole file to see if the program hyphenated something in an undesirable way. It’s a bit of a nuisance, but I think it’s necessary.

            Yeah, that is the nice thing about e-readers, that you can modify a lot of that yourself as a reader.

          • How do you do this? I picked up a book the other day that looked good, but the double spaced lines mean I didn’t get past the first paragraph (although I’m wondering if that was done for the sake of upping the page count >< )

            • It depends on the reading app and the store you got the book from. Many apps have a switch to disable ebook CSS in the settings. Some do it by default if you tweak typography.

              If that doesn’t work… “…some assembly is required.”
              Might be minimal, might be multiple steps…

              For the Kindle store, the easiest way is for DRM-free ebooks. You can download them on the PC and copy them to your android phone or tablet (Fire works.)

              Open it with FbReader, go to settings, and disable the css.
              Then you can choose typeface (any ttf or otf font), line spacing, margins (individually), hyphenation, alignment, etc.
              Or you can go with the app defaults.

              If the file is DRM’ed you’ll need to strip DRM with either the standalone tools or their plug-in versions for calibre. (These tools only work with files legally purchased with your Kindle or ADEPT account. There are easier ways to pirate content.) Calibre by itself is “merely” a fabulous ebook organization and conversion tool. Advanced users can replace all their ebook CSS’s with a custom one or make specific changes in bulk conversions.

              Once you have a DRM-free ebook, proceed as above.

              If the ebook comes in epub form it can be easier: just open the DRM-free epub to your phone or tablet. A lot of epub reader apps have CSS disable. Bluefire, Kobo, Moon+, etc.
              I’m not too familiar with iOS but I know iBooks and Kindle don’t have it.

              So, look at your reading app settings.

              In my case I use FBreader because it supports DRM free Kindle as well as epub and other formats. With free plug-ins it also does pdf and cbz/cbr. And, most useful: .doc format. And the text to speech on the Fire tablets is excellent.

              Above all, it lets me customize the whole layouts, columns, typography, margins, gutter, background color and texture, text color, hyphenation…

              Works beautifully on Fire tablets and there is also a spinoff version for Windows 10. Since there are some ridiculously cheap high res WinTablets coming out of China it is possible to combine Calibre, Kindle for PC, and FictionBook Reader for a very pleasing experience.

              Android is a close second,lacking only native Calibre. You can even get eink open Android readers with easy access to FBreader and Calibre Companion.

              My eink readers both died recently so for now I’m reading on tablets only. Before that I had FBreader running on a hacked Sony.

              It’s one of the reasons I favor DRM-free ebooks from BAEN and Indies: Less hassle getting typography I can control. It’s my ebook, not the publisher’s. (My version of First Sale.)

        • @ Catana

          See my above reply.

          And feel free not to buy my books.

  5. Regarding the OP’s point about page numbers, I would also mention that I find it unprofessional when the book doesn’t start on page one. That sounds like a ‘no duh’, but I saw a tradpub novel recently where the first page of the actual text of the book started on like page 16. There weren’t page numbers visible on the pages before that, but there was clearly a formatting issue where they’d started the numbering on the very first page in the book and had set the earlier numbers to be invisible while forgetting to offset so that page one started on page one. On a *tradpub* book. This whole “tradpub means quality” myth is getting more and more ridiculous.

    • That’s actually quite standard. I have at least a thousand tradpub books left in my library after doing a massive cull, and very few of them begin the actual text on page 1.

      • Unless they all consistently start on the same page (like page three), I wouldn’t call it standard. Common, maybe, but not standard. Not having a consistent place to start the numbering if you’re not starting at one is just widespread sloppiness, not a publishing standard.

  6. 5. Odd-numbered pages on the left: Okay, I saved the best for last. Or is that the worst? Just think about this for a moment. When you open a book, the very first page you see is p. 1. There is no logical way that p. 1 can be on the left, because then it wouldn’t be the first page. This is an ironclad rule in book layout: all odd-numbered pages in your book should be right-hand pages. Make sure you get this right.

    That snippet from the OP made me shake my head because I know exactly how it happens. When doing a Word layout for print, with mirror image pages, the odd (right) pages are on the left and the even (left) pages are on the right. It is only the view and has no effect on printing, but if a person gets flustered and inserts a blank page in order to force the page numbering to start on the “correct” side of the screen, it’ll mess up the page numbering throughout the entire book. Plus, it gets confusing with margins and the language in the headers and footers. (One reason InDesign is so much easier.)

    • And forgot to add another Word quirk: When using Odd Page section breaks, Word will not display any resulting blank pages. And if a blank page is inserted via an Insert command, those won’t display either. You can see by the status bar that all is well, but it sure looks wrong.

    • Yeah, this where my “This Old House” ethos kicks in: use the right tool for a job. If you absolutely must use Word to layout a book, do so with the understanding that it’s not intended for that purpose, and it’s not set up to make it easy. It’s like using a saw in place of a hammer when you need to nail something. It can even be hard to get proper advice because the people who know what they’re doing are using hammers.

      • True, true, Jamie. Unfortunately, good publishing programs are expensive. If an indie publisher is doing a large number of print layouts, then they can justify the cost. If they’re doing only one or two books a year, then the cost can appear prohibitive.

        MS Word wasn’t created for commercial publishing. It can be a pain to wrestle it into submission. But in the good news department, it’s gotten better. Using the latest version of Word, anyone willing to put the work in can create a print on demand book that only a hardcore book designer could tell was created with something other than a publishing program.

        • Yeah, it would be awesome if InDesign had a cheaper competitor. The thing is, though, even if someone is saving money on one end, they still need to pay the time cost of learning to layout the books. I can understand avoiding the financial cost by using Word; the problem is refusing to pay the time cost of learning how to do the layout correctly. There is an upfront cost in time, and afterwards you’d have your own template which saves time. But if an indie isn’t willing to pay the time cost, then they should outsource the layout task to someone else (or just forego the format).

    • This is one thing I like about LibreOffice. I use it in two-page view, and it shows the first page on the right, just like it would show up as a book, so you don’t have to fiddle with things or stretch your brain to imagine what it looks like as a physical book.

  7. I know I’m late to the party here, but formatting in Word will be greatly improved by saving your work in a .doc file instead of .docx. This gives you more choices for formatting in the options menu–such as “full justification as in WordPerfect 6.0.” That will tighten up the text beautifully. Also, line spacing set at 1.15 looks better than 1.5 and is easier to read than single-spacing.

    • Adding here the basic rule of setting the leading/line height: your leading (the spacing between the lines) should be about 120 – 140% of your type size. If you’re using (for example) 12 pt Garamond, then the bare minimum leading is 14.4pt (120%).

      However, you will likely find your page looks more comfortable at 15pt leading. And 12/15 will likely result in a comfortable page count for POD purposes. If you wrote a doorstopper, you might go with 11 or 11.5 type size, and a leading of 14.4 (HP & the Order of the Phoenix).

      The relatively shorter “HP & the Deathly Hallows” is 12 pt Adobe Garamond Pro with a 16.8pt leading, and is very easy on the eyes (140%). Just note that 16.8 pt leading will give you a higher page count, so you might want to only use it if your text is say, 100k words or less. Or if you have a font with unusually long descenders (the tails of letters j,p,q) and ascenders (letters b, d, k, h). Does this make sense? Note, in a basic wordprocessor your double spaced lines of a 12 pt type size comes out to 24pts. Way too much.

      Typographers recommend setting your indents in accordance with your font size, so if you have a 12pt font then your minimum indent is 1em (on a Kindle) or just 12pt (in print). Adjust incrementally, but don’t go past 4x the type size. And again, a lot of book designers/typographers just put these tips on the web for free 🙂

      • Garamond has a relatively small x-height. Setting line-height purely based on font-size will look different across different fonts. Typefaces with a larger x-height will likely need greater line-height to achieve the same sense of space to the human eye.

        • For the average “book” font the principle holds. However, I covered the descender/ascender issue in my post, see again.

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