Self-Publishing Basics: 5 Layout Mistakes that Make You Look Unprofessional

by Joel Friedlander on September 17, 2009 · 38 comments

Years ago my wife and I went to a wedding at a very prestigious “club” here in San Francisco. My wife looked gorgeous as always, and I wore a very nice light gray English wool suit that seemed suitably low-key.

When we walked in the door I realized that I “hadn’t received the memo” because every one of the hundreds of men in the room was wearing a tuxedo.

Needless to say, the next couple of hours were “interesting” and a real “character-building” experience. But don’t let this happen to your book, if you’ve taken on the responsibility of doing your own layout, or if your cousin Wendell has offered to help because he knows how to use Microsoft Word.

Don’t Jeopardize Months of Work

You’ve worked for months to research and write your book. You know that to get a reviewer’s attention or to get noticed by book buyers and editorial writers your book has to look “professional.” But all too often, in learning how to publish a book the many details of book design and layout can get lost in the rush.

Self publishing gives you the opportunity to do many jobs that used to be done by dedicated professionals, but in some cases you may not get the results you want. If part of your plan includes book reviews, media attention and sales through traditional book publishing channels like chain bookstores, be sure to avoid these pitfalls, so you don’t “stand out from the crowd” in all the wrong ways:

  1. Blank Right-Hand Page Many books have blank left-hand pages and there is nothing wrong with that. If your chapter openings are always on right-hand pages, about half the chapters will have a blank before the chapter opening. But if your chapter openings are on facing pages (a left and right together, for instance with illustrations facing the chapter opening page) you run the risk of the blank right. 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.
  2. Folios Everywhere Of course we need folios (page numbers) most places, but remember to turn off page numbering for the title page, the copyright page, any blank pages, any “display” pages like part-openers, and any advertising pages at the end of the book.
  3. Running Heads on Blank Pages If a page is blank, technically it is not part of the text, because there is no text on the page, is there? So a blank page should be just that, blank, with nothing on it at all.
  4. Odd-Numbered Pages on the Left When you open your book, the first page you see is page 1. There is no logical way that page 1 can be on the left, because then it wouldn’t be the first page. All odd-numbered pages in your book are right-hand pages.
  5. Rag Right Composition There are some books that can be typeset in a rag right (unjustified) style, but they are rare. Whatever the merit of rag right composition, book are not generally a good place to use it. Stick with justified copy.

Check Your Outfit Before You Walk Out of the Door

Of course there are a lot of other ways you can inadvertently alert people that you are an “amateur,” but these errors, once you know about them, are easy to avoid. Make sure your book stands out for the great writing, the thoughtful arguments, or the tremendous value it brings to readers, not because it looks unprofessional.

Remember, you want buyers and reviewers to take your book seriously. It’s important that you take the design and layout details of your book just as seriously. In the end, the best investment might be to hire a professional book and cover designer, someone who knows how to properly construct the book, and who will look after all the details for you.

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    { 34 comments… read them below or add one }

    Regina Clarke May 17, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Frankly, Joel, if I could create this website as a hologram that I could take with me, to consult at any moment out of thin air, it would be excellent, since every single question I put into Google is answered by you. Thus, I had to subscribe to this site! I have just self-published an ebook–now I am journeying through the infinite details I need to understand to arrive at the best way to convert it into a book for CreateSpace. In the title page where you’re supposed to put “publisher” I feel as if I should put your name.

    Thanks and thanks again.

    Regina

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 17, 2014 at 11:49 am

    Thanks much, Regina, I really appreciate that. To make converting your book to print a bit easier, you might want to check out the tools and services here: Book Design Templates.

    Reply

    Laura Lis Scott January 13, 2014 at 6:15 am

    I was in a local indie bookstore (Tattered Cover) looking at a lot of books from independent presses, and one of the things that really leapt out at me as feeling rough was use of margins. For example, I looked at many books that had comfortable margins on the outside edge, but narrower margins on the inside, as if the layout artist did not account for the gutter; this left all the pages feeling off-center, with words diving into the binding. Some books also had imbalances in top and bottom margins, with huge margins up top and very thin margins down below—even with bottom page numbering. The whole experience of looking through these books was thoroughly depressing. No wonder POD books have such terrible reputations! (My background includes magazine publishing, so I suppose I’m more attuned to these kinds of things—perhaps to a fault!)

    In the indie book world, there’s great writing, there are fabulous covers, there are innovative new ways for authors to connect with readers…but it feels like when it comes to actual book layout, there’s still a lot left to be desired. Thank you for this site. This is a topic that seems to be overlooked by too many indies, and that needs to change, for when it comes to the general public, we all are implicated in poor book layout/printing execution.

    Reply

    naja December 11, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    The worst of all is “page intentionally left blank”

    Reply

    Richard Sutton October 17, 2013 at 6:22 am

    Joel will want to weigh in here, but here’s my take on it. I always choose sans-serif faces for text in print. The “feet” on this kind of typography actually help speed the eye along the baseline, easing eyestrain. Also these type faces were generally perfected for the proper contrast/weighting for paper reading. Sans-serif faces, especially recently, have been designed especially to work properly on a screen — transmitted light v.s. reflected light, so I use them for eBooks and online communications. Selecting the right font, then adjusting the letter spacing and line spacing for the text column width and page size to create the best word flow and line length, take a bit of tweaking, but since it’s a visual process that has least eyestrain and most legibility as the goal, it’s not hard to do. Good luck with it.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 18, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    Richard, do you have a typo in your reply, and mean to say “I always choose serif faces for text in print”?

    For book typography I use serif faces, preferably “old style” designs, although some art books look quite good with sans serif fonts.

    Reply

    Richard Sutton October 19, 2013 at 6:48 am

    LOL! Nope, just another example of the scourge of keyboard dyslexia… Yes, of course, serif for print. I once set a sanserif font for an annual report, going for the high tech thing, and it failed utterly among the Board members! They thought it looked “cheap”. I use a variety of fonts depending upon the period and mood of the work. On screen devices, I’m enjoying the roll out of the newer sanserif fonts that are hinted for screen reading. Many are very good, and I actually have used Caliber with very legible results in twelve point text, but it seems ok down to ten on screen.

    I should also acknowledge your point regarding the lasting impression of the justified page design. I realize I’m just doing the Quixote thing, but hey… there’s always another windmill!

    Reply

    Catheryn Smithwick October 17, 2013 at 12:59 am

    Thanks for the article. As a long-time print publisher myself (niche music instruction books sold worldwide – pre- PC days), I am preparing to get my catalog back in print. What are your thoughts on serif vs sans serif fonts? I always use(d) serif for text and, depending on the product and design I was after, sans serif for headers (or sometimes same serif in bold larger point for headers).

    Feedback on this would be helpful.

    Thanks,

    C

    Reply

    jacqueline greeno September 5, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    I have been reading your articles and the books you have so kindly shared via email. You have helped me through depression and feeling very lost not knowing what the heck I’m doing. I had in Oct. 2010 self published with Trafford Publishing and that was an experience I will always regret and never forget. I cancelled my book in 2012 and self published 2 ebooks with Amazon and Smashwords, and recently being stubbling along to put these on print. Thank you for getting me back on track as I had given up but through your books I’m energized. Thanks again Joel
    Jacqueline Greeno

    Reply

    Norma Brumbaugh June 10, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    It is quite helpful to read what-to-do and what-not-to-do in self-publishing. We want to get it right. Thank you.

    Reply

    Theo Compernolle January 7, 2013 at 6:41 am

    you wrote a lot of interesting things on fonts. Thanks.
    What I can’t find is something about fontsize: which fontsize do you advise for which trimsize?
    Would it be different for a 5,5/8,5 papareback and a 6/9 non-fiction

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 22, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Theo, I don’t talk about specific point sizes because they vary quite a bit depending on the font, the size of the book and the overall design. My best advice is to experiment.

    Reply

    Elizabeth November 6, 2012 at 7:39 am

    Under “Blank Right-Hand Page” you have “quotatations” rather than “quotations.”

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 22, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    Thank you Elizabeth.

    Reply

    Tracy R. Atkins August 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Sorry to resurrect an old post;

    On point 1, chapter openings, is it considered poor form to have the chapter opening on its own right-hand (recto) page and the text of the chapter begin on the next right hand page? Due to the nature of some of the content in my novel, the text does not flow well if it is interrupted because the short amount of text that will fit under the chapter. It appears to work best on its own page.

    On point 5, justification, do you find that there is a particular issue with the automatic justification applied by a program like MS Word, versus software like In Design? Is hyphenation preferred over simply adding gaps between whole words to even out a line?

    Thanks
    Tracy

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 22, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    Tracy,

    On point 1, it’s not necessary to have a deep drop on the chapter opening page, and many fiction books are designed with the chapter opening page on either a left- or right-hand page, leaving no break or blank pages to interrupt the flow of the reader.

    On point 5, the typography produced by InDesign and other professional-level equipment is far superior in every way to the same output from a word processing program like Word. This includes hyphenation, justification, tracking, kerning, and all the other refinements that add up to truly beautiful type.

    Reply

    Richard Sutton June 13, 2012 at 8:23 am

    Isn’t the typesetting canon of justified text for books a holdover of hot metal slugs and printer’s devils? I have always found rag-right text to be much easier to read, when the line length and leading is carefully chosen for the font. No matter how well-set justified galleys are, there will be white rivers running vertically and spacing issues on most lines. That will slow down the read. Why is it still considered “professional” to specify justified typesetting for book pages?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 22, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Richard, I’m afraid anything you might gain from more even spacing will be given up by bucking the very substantial impetus of hundreds of years of fully-justified books.

    Reply

    Andy Conway January 19, 2012 at 4:18 am

    Using a tab or em space in the opening paragraph of a chapter is the one that really grinds my gears.

    I discovered this typesetting feature while poring over books as a teenager and cannot understand why people much older seem to have never noticed it.

    Reply

    Dixie Jones December 16, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    I assume the directives about odd/even, blank, and left/right page layouts apply only to printed books. Are there similar or different considerations for e-books in how page numbering or part opening pages should be handled?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 22, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    Dixie, since there are no page numbers in ebooks, these rules don’t apply.

    Reply

    Chrystine Julian September 19, 2011 at 8:33 am

    The way many people use full justify is one of my pet peeves. Too often they click the full justify button in a book or document and feel they have done a good job. The problem is that most word processing programs only adjust spaces between the words, which often results in large white space gaps in the text. I find that distracting and difficult to follow. It reminds me of something done with refrigerator word magnets.

    Maybe it is because I am old enough to remember doing this on a typewriter, but my preferred option is to pretend that I do not have a full justify button. I know it is time consuming, but I feel it is worth the effort to adjust the font spacing, condensing or expanding to fill each line and wrap words into a line to fill the space. While many paragraphs will look “okay” by just clicking the full justify button, they look better if you adjust the character setting first, and I feel it is a must for text with the large white gaps. Once that has been done, clicking on the full justify button results in a near perfect look.

    Reply

    Faraz October 21, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    Nice article. Thank You.

    Just one question. I’m confused about number 4. It is titled as “Odd-Numbered Pages on the Left” but the last line is “All odd-numbered pages in your book are right-hand pages” I”m not sure what exactly this means. Does it mean that when i’m looking at an open book the odd number will be on the left and even number on the right?

    Thanks for your help!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 21, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    Faraz, I’m sorry it wasn’t more clear. When the book is open, all odd pages are on the right, all even pages are on the left. Hope that helps.

    Reply

    Faraz October 21, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    Thank you very much! One step closer to perfecting my book design. Your articles are an immense help and an invaluable resource.

    Reply

    Jane E. Noponen Perinacci March 22, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    I see I have a lot to learn. I really enjoyed your helpful hints! Thank you so much!

    Reply

    Joel February 12, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    Alisha, I was trying to make the point that the very first leaf is on the right, because we start books by opening them from the right, and the first page pretty much has to be page 1, making all right-hand pages odd pages.

    When books are paginated, the designer or editor may decide to start with roman numerals, then switch to arabic numerals for the body of the book. In this case, page “1” could be many pages after the beginning of the book’s frontmatter.

    There’s a complete article on how to paginate a book in my archive, which you can read by clicking the link. Hope that helps!

    Reply

    Alisha February 12, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    You mentioned earlier in the post:
    When you open your book, the first page you see is page 1. There is no logical way that page 1 can be on the left, because then it wouldn’t be the first page. All odd-numbered pages in your book are right-hand pages.

    Now, do you mean that page 1 is on the first page of text (like a preface) or the page 1 is on the first chapter of the book?

    My book has a dedication, preface, then chapter 1. Where would “page 1″ be located?

    Thanks!

    Reply

    admin September 28, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    @Stephen Thanks for the visit. I’ve admired your blog and its design for several months. I’m glad to hear you are getting the archive back up because I’d love to see more of your work.

    Reply

    admin September 28, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    @Henry, yes, that one’s good too. Although traditionally we never used “full tabs” or “three spaces” since all these measurements are best done in “ems.” The other measurements are directly from typewriter nomenclature and don’t have that much utility in the context of typography. And yes, so many errors could be avoided if people just looked at the books on their shelves.

    Reply

    Stephen Tiano September 28, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Another quick way to spot an amateur is leader dots in the Table of Contents from the end of a chapter title ro the page number it starts on.

    Nice blog, by the way. I think I’ll add you to my blogroll. I invite you to take a gander at mine-although I’ve been blogging on book design for over two years, I was hacked into earlier this year and haven’t gotten my archive back up yet, so there are just the few current postings up.

    Reply

    Henry Baum September 28, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    One other major one – full tabs for paragraphs. Should be three spaces or so. SO many self-published books have full tabs without justified margins. It’s like people don’t look at trad published books before putting theirs together.

    Reply

    admin September 18, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Thank you! With so many things to keep track of it makes sense for many self-publishers to turn these details over to a professional. One less thing to worry about.

    Reply

    BookWhirl.com September 18, 2009 at 12:17 am

    Thank you for posting all these helpful tips and reminders about layout. As we all know, layout is crucial especially in retaining the attention and comfort for the readers. We look forward to more superb posts!

    Sincerely,
    Bookwhirl.com
    You have the book…We have the Marketing Resources.

    Reply

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