3 Keys to Beautiful Book Pages

by Joel Friedlander on September 7, 2010 · 10 comments

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The first book my son ever got truly captivated by as an early reader was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. We had read the earlier Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone together, with me doing most of the reading since he had just learned to read. By the time the second book came out, he was determined to read it himself.

It was a remarkable experience to watch him drop into the world of witchcraft and wizardry, to be completely absorbed by the world created by J.K. Rowling, avid every day for the chance to dive back into that world again. This is a magical moment for any parent, even more so for someone who inhabits the world of books.

Why Readability Matters

Interior book design must be the most self-effacing kind of design there is. When it works, it’s almost invisible.

A good book design is one, almost by definition, that enhances the flow of the author’s ideas to the reader, while doing nothing to impede that flow. Then reading becomes an effortless movement in which the words themselves disappear and the mind is fully engaged with the subject matter at hand.

The Rowling books work because they promote readability with many of the elements I’ll explain below, and because they are ideally suited to their intended market. From the open feel of the page typography to the charming Mary GrandPré illustrations at the head of each chapter, they keep the young reader moving through the story to “find out what happens next.”

It all adds up to books that are terrifically readable. And readability is the key to getting the author’s message across.

Books Are Conventional

The form of the book really hasn’t changed much in the last 500 years. Tall columns of evenly spaced type, margins squared up all the way around, anything that’s not text is secondary to the text itself. Ample margins to allow for eyes to rest and hands to hold the page. Pretty standard stuff.

But even within that context, decisions have to be made that have a critical effect on the readability of the finished book. Of course the most basic decisions have to do with the main text block on each page. Here are three areas that determine that text block, and therefore how well your book communicates the author’s ideas.

  1. Typeface selection—Selection of a base typeface has the biggest effect on readability. Book designers tend to stay with the same group of typefaces, using them over and over again throughout their career. We each have our favorites, but almost all of these typefaces have one thing in common: they are classic book design typefaces.
  2. Using a classic typeface like Bembo, Bodoni, Caslon, Garamond, Janson, Granjon, Sabon, will immediately help in your quest to make your book readable. These typefaces get used over and over for a reason. They are workmanlike roman faces that will produce a harmonious and rhythmic line with just enough variation to keep the eye interested.

    Typefaces designed for the computer screen rarely translate well to the page. On screen typefaces like Verdana perform well; in a book they tire the eyes and fatigue the reader.

  3. Line Length—Another important choice is how long your line is in relation to the size of the type you’re using. This is critical because lines that are too short break the text so often that the natural phrasing of sentences is disrupted, and readability suffers. Well laid-out text will have about 10 to 15 words per line, depending on the type of book.

    Very long lines, on the other hand, cause “doubling” where you lose track of which line you were on when you have to travel a long way from the right margin back to the left to start the next line.

    In extreme cases, text on long lines can become unreadable. Think of reading your favorite book laid out as a web page on a modern, flat-screen monitor. It’s easy to have as many as 35 to 40 words on a line on these monitors.

    It’s interesting that the digital gadgets we have for reading books, like the Kindle and the Sony Reader, are the first vertical screens I’ve seen since the rotating monitors of years ago. Finally, the “landscape” screens we’ve been forced to read on are being flipped on their sides, an acknowledgment of just how deep-seated reading is as a habit, and just how conventional our expectations are of what a “page” is supposed to look like.
  4. Leading—As in many trades with a long history, the terms we use today tell us something about the history of the craft. During the four hundred years when type for books was set by hand, one letter at a time, the way to put space between the lines, and also to provide more structural stability to the thousands of little pieces of metal, was to interleave the lines with thin pieces of lead.

    But the leading—or the space between the lines—is critical in readability. Too little space and the lines blend in with each other, confusing the eye. Too much space and they lose their connection with each other and interrupt the continuity of reading. Getting this element of page design right gives readability a boost, as the lines, and thoughts, flow easily down the page.

    There Are Many Other Elements On the Page

    All the elements of the page design affect readability: running heads and folios; margins and how the type column lays on the page; typography of subheads, pull quotes, sidebars and extra-textural elements. All make a book more or less readable and enjoyable.

    But getting these three elements right at the beginning forms the base for excellent book designs. Typeface, line length, and leading produce the basic text block around which the rest of the page is built. When they are chosen well, both the author and her readers will benefit.

    Even without the magic of Harry Potter on their side, book designers manage to “protect” the message of their authors by their quiet attention to the details of page design.

    Resources on Book Design and Typography

    Here are a few of the classic books on book design and typography. All are affiliate links, available from Amazon.com

    A great free resource is the excellent enewsletter from MyFonts.com with new type designs, interviews with type designers and examples of creative uses of typography.

    Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by ckaroli, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ckaroli/

    This article originally appeared in 2009 in Editor Unleashed, the blog of editor Maria Schneider, currently offline.

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    { 7 comments… read them below or add one }

    Mirta Oliva September 9, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Thank you for your excellent information. I have finished the manuscript of my children’s book (2/3 text and 1/3 my own paintings/decorations) using Times New Roman as recommended in various sites; however, my Microsoft Works 2007 provides that option plus Courier and Garamond, your suggested typeface. The latter plus Courier appear better choices for the eyes vs. the Times New Roman. Why is it then that most sites recommend TNR? I wonder if I shouldn’t change my manuscript while I still can… I would appreciate your input. Thank you.
    Mirta

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus September 10, 2010 at 5:48 am

    >>Why is it then that most sites recommend TNR?<<

    I can't be sure if it's "most" sites, but many people recommend TNR simply because it's the default typeface in MS Word, and they don't know any better.

    TNR was developed for the British newspaper "The Times" (hence the name "Times New Roman") nearly 80 years ago. It's a condensed typeface which allows more characters to fit into a narrow newspaper column than other faces allow.

    The "Roman" in the name means that the face is upright, not italic. Actually, you can have Times New Roman italic or Times New Roman roman. You can even have Times New Roman roman Roman Numerals. (I always wanted to type that.)

    The "roman" is traditionally lower-cased when discussing type in general, but ucased in "Times New Roman" and "Roman Numeral."

    TNR works fine in the 12-pt size commonly used in business letters and school reports, but may be hard to read in a book set in 10 points. A book set in 12-pt TNR is readable, but may invoke sneers and groans from type geeks.

    It's unlikely that many readers recognize the typeface they are looking at, or care–as long as the words are legible. I think the choice of too-small type is worse than the choice of TNR vs Garamond, Palatino, Century Schoolbook or Constantia.

    The population is aging, and older eyes like bigger type. Self-pubbers should keep this in mind. Kiddie books need big type, too.

    Sometimes a bad decision can kill the reading experience. I own a book called "Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning." I love reading about words and thought I would get a lot of pleasure from this book. Unfortunately, my prime emotions were frustration and outrage.

    Some unnamed book designer chose to use a smaller-than-normal page size and, in order to squeeze all of author Sol Steinmetz’s text into a reasonable number of small pages, she or he chose a tiny typeface that looks like what gets printed on the back of a credit card.

    When I was in advertising, this mini-printing was scorned as “fly poop” (actually, we used the “s-word”). It has no place in a mass-market book.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    – “Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don’t be a Victim of a Vanity Press,” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661742
    – “Get the Most out of a Self-Publishing Company: Make a better deal. Make a better book,” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661777
    – “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 10, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Well, I can tell you’ve been roamin’ the typography blogs, Michael. Thanks for the input.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 10, 2010 at 11:12 am

    Mirta,

    Many people recommend TNR because that’s all they know. PCs have for years come with TNR and Arial and between the two, TNR is a better choice. It was designed for use in newspapers, and to my eye is a poor choice for books. Almost any Garamond would be better and easier for your readers. You might also be interested in my blog post 5 Favorite Fonts for Interior Book Design. Hope that helps, and thanks for stopping by.

    Reply

    Mirta Oliva September 10, 2010 at 11:39 am

    Thanks to Michael for all the information and, again, to Joel.
    Now I have a better understanding and your answers corroborate what I had noticed by comparing the suggested new fonts. To think that I thought that my material would be overlooked if I did not use Times New Roman! Lesson learned!

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus September 7, 2010 at 6:02 am

    Your story about your son’s first reading brought back a few incidents from my own family.

    When my kid brother learned to read, he used a strange technique with his first book. He went through it twice, first reading all of the recto pages, and then the verso pages. Since verso and recto had different headers, he assumed they were different stories. I’m not sure how he dealt with incomplete sentences at the bottoms of pages.

    I have a niece and nephew who taught themselves to read before starting school.

    Joe was a wrestling fan, and learned how to search through TV Guide to find the listings for wrestling shows when he was quite young. Next came movie schedules in the newspaper, and store names and logos on signs. As we were driving, he’d shout TOYS R US, TOYS R US or MCDONNAS, MCDONNAS.

    Joe’s sister, Allison, liked to sit on my shoulders, even when I was leaning over the NY Times at the dining room table. She learned her ABCs when she was two years old, and instantly figured how letters formed words and words formed sentences. She read the Times with me at age three, and entered kindergarten reading at a thrid-grade level. She got a job in a library when she was 12.

    Although my only “child” is a Golden Retriever, I have a strong appreciation for the intelligence of human children–and other mammalian children.

    Kids can learn a lot before they start school, if they are properly stimulated and guided. Two kids who lived near me were math wizards, helped by their father who taught them to play blackjack at a very early age.

    I’ve always been bothered by parents who consider it necessary to talk “baby talk” instead of standard English. Why should a baby have to learn TWO ways of speaking? Why can’t the mother say “I’m leaving now” instead of pidgin English like “Mommy go bye-bye?”

    (The last part of that sentence would make much more sense with British-style punctuation, where the question mark would come after the final quote mark.)

    Is there any research that proves that babies are more receptive to sentences cast in the third person rather than the normal first person? Does a baby better understand mommy saying “give it to mommy” rather than “give it to me?”

    My dog has been taught with proper English, and even responds to “please” amd “excuse me.” I’m amazed by what he has learned with no effort to teach him. When he was quite young, it started raining when we were out for a walk. Without thinking, I said, “Let’s go back,” and he turned around and headed for home. I had never used the command before, but he understood.

    A similar thing happened when I was bathing him. I said, OK, Hunter, please turn around”–and he did.

    The mind is a terrible thing to waste. Let’s ban baby talk.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    — “Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don’t be a Victim of a Vanity Press,” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661742
    — “Get the Most out of a Self-Publishing Company: Make a better deal. Make a better book,” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661777
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

    Reply

    Doug Lance March 21, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Baby talk is a way of meeting the budding speaker halfway. It helps the baby learn to speak. There’s a remarkable TED talk about it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/deb_roy_the_birth_of_a_word.html

    Reply

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