Book designers attend to an astonishing number of typesetting details when laying out a book.
Below are the most basic typesetting and book layout issues, so that you’ll understand how to typeset a book and know what to look for.
Once you understand these issues, you may start to question the wisdom of doing it yourself with a template or design software, and contact a book designer.
How to Typeset a Book
Text style: Will the text will be justified or ragged? Justified text imparts a formal tone, whereas ragged text is more casual and personal. The choice should suit the tone of your text, but keep in mind that reading a large volume of ragged right text can become very annoying, very quickly.
Margins: The margins should be generous enough so that the block of text has space all around it, allowing the eye to move comfortably from one line to the next while reading. When a book is bound, the pages are pinched together just a little, so if you don’t allow for this, the binding-side margin can look smaller than the outside margins. That’s a no-no.
Font: When typesetting a book, the important thing to remember is that serif type is better for text that is to be read continuously. Our mind is trained to recognize the shapes of words rather than reading letter by letter, and serifs form a link between letters.
Font size: Type that is too large can make your book look self-published, and reflect poorly on the credibility of your message. You should choose a type size that gets no more than 70 characters per line for the easiest reading. How you figure that out is beyond the scope of this blog post….
The book block: The main reason that a book looks like a book (rather than a brochure or a report) is that the text is confined to a tightly-defined area on every page called the book block. When a book is opened, facing pages should end on the same line. Although this sounds easy enough, this necessary task is an incredible time sucker-upper.
Widows and orphans: Within the book block, the first line of a paragraph shouldn’t fall on the last line of a page, and the last line of a paragraph should not appear on the top of a page. Why? Because each of these situations makes the reader stop, thus impeding reading comprehension. It’s often necessary to rework a number of pages to accomplish this goal.
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Word Widows: Another rule of book design, which varies from publisher to publisher, is that the last line of a paragraph should never be a word less than five characters long, including punctuation. The way around this is to adjust word spacing and tracking values within the paragraph, but very subtly, so it’s not noticeable by the reader.
Lines after a subhead: Another rule that aids reading comprehension is that at least two lines of text should follow a subhead at the bottom of the page, while still maintaining the book block. To do this, a book designer will typically go back and forth and rework pages as needed until the goal is accomplished, taking into account such complexities as bullet items.
Line spacing: Lines of text that are too close to each other (or too far apart) can be difficult to read. Line spacing can help expand the page count of a small book, or decrease the page count of a long book to save on printing costs. Some advice: A short book can’t be made into a long one, so please don’t try to fool people by adding so much line spacing that it looks silly.
Paragraph spacing: In most cases, there should NOT be a line of space above each paragraph in a book. A line space above a paragraph can be used sparingly to indicate a scene change or a new section. Whenever there is a line space above a paragraph, eliminate the first-line indent on that paragraph.
Alignment: Text lines must line up across the page. Look at a traditionally published book; it’s true, they line up. I won’t get into how this happens, but you’ll spend a lot of time making sure it happens, especially if you have subheads, lists and illustrations.
Word spacing: Word spacing should be fairly close to make it easier to read. A page of text should look uniform in color without overly tight lines (which look dark) or overly loose lines (which look light). The “color” should be even. This is accomplished by changing the justification settings: word spacing, letter spacing and glyph scaling. Experienced book designers know that different fonts require different combinations of justification settings to look just right. Sometimes different sizes of the same font require different settings!
Hyphenation: Hyphenation should be set so the reader isn’t annoyed by too many hyphens generally, or too many hyphens in a row. More than three hyphens in a row and it starts to look like ladders on the right margin. Avoid hyphenating the last line on the page because it forces the reader to wonder what comes next, and hold that partial word in mind as he or she continues reading. The stub end of a hyphenated word should never be the last line in a paragraph. Ugly. Also, avoid hyphenating capitalized words such as names, locations and titles.
Proper dashes: There are three kinds of dashes in every type font. Hyphens are used to hyphenate words and separate phone numbers. Em dashes are a form of punctuation, used to offset clauses in a sentence. The En dash, typically half the length of an Em dash, is used to denote duration, as in 8:00–5:00, or August 12–14.
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Proper quotation marks: Use true (curly) quotation marks and apostrophes. Using tick marks directly from the keyboard sends the message, “I don’t care how this stuff looks.”
Use of small caps: Uppercase text is set slightly smaller than the surrounding text. Otherwise, your capitals will SCREAM at the reader.
Letter spacing of capitalized text: Capitalized text or small caps appearing within normal text can appear too tight and crowded; they need to be loosened up a bit. Avoid letter spacing in lowercase book text. Looser spacing always decreases readability.
Boldface and italics: Use boldface text sparingly. Bold text is like a magnet to our eyes, and will ruin the continuity of your text. Italics and bold text, when overused, can appear condescending to the reader…as if you are saying, “I don’t think you’ll understand my words unless I emphasize what’s important.”
Underlined text: Even more distracting than boldface text is underlined text, which is a typographic abomination that should be avoided.
Special characters: The © (copyright), ® (registered trademark), and ™ (trademark) characters almost always need to be reduced, sometimes by as much as fifty percent, depending on the font.
Proper formatting of ellipses: According to the current Chicago Manual of Style, ellipses should be set with a word space on either side and a word space between each dot. Ellipses mustn’t break in the middle or begin on a new line.
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Watch the characters you use for lists: As a general rule, ballot boxes (checkboxes) and bullets should be about two points smaller than the surrounding text. Note that having too many different kinds of bullet characters makes your book look homemade and amateurish.
Word stacks: Avoid beginning or ending three consecutive lines with the same word. Override your software for a better look by adjusting word spacing or tracking manually in that paragraph only, or by rewriting the text.
Word does not contain the settings to make the minuscule adjustments listed above in a way that is invisible to the reader. And, we’ve seen many template layouts that inadvertently violate all of these standards.
One answer might be to purchase professional design software such as InDesign and learn how to use it. As you can imagine, such software involves an investment in the purchase price and in time to learn how to use it to achieve the desired professional result—following all these rules takes a lot of time. Understanding and following the rules are what book designers do, versus templates, apps, or “formatters” who do not attend to these details (and charge accordingly).
The decision to ask a professional book designer to typeset your book versus typesetting it yourself is driven largely by a limited budget, opinions about where your publishing dollars are best spent, and misinformation.
The proliferation of book templates has provided a low-cost option for authors wishing to self-publish a book. These templates, offered in Word or in specially designed apps, allow authors to create a book interior that looks professional to the untrained eye. However, anyone seeking to self-publish a book meant to compete with traditionally published books should be aware of book layout issues in order to properly assess whether or not the budget-friendly templates and apps will create a book that looks like it belongs among the bestsellers.
My advice? Compare the text in bestselling hardcover books from major publishers to that Word template or app. Your sharp eye will immediately see the difference. Then, ask yourself: Would a traditional publisher buy a template off the Internet to typeset books?