Top Five DIY Book Layout Mistakes

From book designer 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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at Book Life

7 thoughts on “Top Five DIY Book Layout Mistakes”

  1. My local library has, for years, carried quite a few print-on-demand books. The quality of the books today is much improved over what I used to see when I first noticed them. All too often I’ll pick up a book and leaf through it and wonder if the DIY self-publisher has ever seen a printed book. You wouldn’t think they had considering how weird and ugly their book looks.

    Laying out a print edition is a little more complicated than doing an ebook, but it isn’t terribly difficult. The best guides to use are on the self-publisher’s home bookshelves. Find a print book you like the look of and emulate it.

    • The best guides to use are on the self-publisher’s home bookshelves. Find a print book you like the look of and emulate it.

      I have been very surprised by how poorly some people “reverse engineer” the layout of books. They own books, right? They have seen them, right? Compare-and-contrast is really easy, right? And for any niggling questions, you have so many typographers and book designers on the web who are just a click away. Some tradpublishers even publish their style guides online, which address a few issues.

      If they’re willing to spend money, I think is ~$30 a month. If they just spent a few hours watching some of the videos and taking notes they’d avoid basic mistakes. They don’t even have to spend the whole month. Plus books on typography are easy to find; “The Elements of Typographic Style” is said to be a classic, and the also-boughts look promising.

      This stuff is easy to get right, for anyone willing to make a little effort.

  2. My daughter likes a self-pub writer, Alydia Rackham, who puts out some rather lovely paper books. She clearly takes time and care for them and in general, they look both right, and thought out. This week she asked me to look at an e-book by that writer. It was the worst ebook I’ve ever seen.. I think it was all scanned images or something. I posted a review on Amazon just on the technicalities of how bad it was. I hope the author sees it and takes steps. I’m boggled at how awful it was.

    • You raised my curiosity, so I went to look for myself.

      And, yes, I see what you mean. I suspect she’s trying to be too fancy with the ebooks, without using the tools (Jutoh or Vellum) that would allow her to bring it off. A shame!

    • Oh wow. I’ve looked inside one of them. I’m not sure what sort of scanner would cause one major error I’ve seen; it looks more like she didn’t know what she was doing to start with.


      “Is that what you call it? Looks like night to me.” “Ah, very funny.”

      She has the dialogue of two characters on the same line. It should be:

      “Is that what you call it? Looks like night to me.”

      “Ah, very funny.”

      I’ve only used old scanners, so I don’t know what sort of advances they have now that could produce the first, wrong version if she’d scanned in the second, proper version. But I do hope she listens to advice. It’s very kind of you to give her a head’s up. Hopefully others might avoid these mistakes.

      • I don’t know what fancy scanners do these day, either. But I stripped DRM and took a look through ‘edit book’ in Calibre and there are LOTS of image files, which when selected show lines of text. Or sometimes, just one line. If she’s doing that, and then pasting electronically, I can see getting two speakers on the same line. Whatever she did… don’t try to duplicate it.

  3. As usual, Joel F. is right on the money with these not-to-dos. And all any serious Indie Self-Publisher has to do to avoid them is to study a bunch a books. And having a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t hurt either.

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