9 Book Design Tips that Authors Need to Know

by Joel Friedlander on September 15, 2010 · 10 comments

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Some books involve book designers right from their conception. These are books in which the way the content is presented is intrinsic to the purpose of the book. Think of manuals, travel books, workbooks that accompany another text or a seminar. These are all examples of books where design will play an important role right from the beginning.

General nonfiction books are less likely to involve designers at the beginning. But that doesn’t mean authors shouldn’t start paying attention to how their books are put together. I think it’s fair to say that authors who are truly concerned about communicating their message effectively to their readers will pay attention to the design of their books.

Consistency is Important

Many design issues can wait until the manuscript is complete. The principle thing for authors to think about while writing their book is consistency. Books, by their nature, need to be consistent. Cues are sent to readers, often below their level of awareness, about how the book is organized and what to expect as they proceed through the book.

Here are some points to think about as your manuscript comes together. With all these suggestions, keep the reader uppermost in your mind. You’re writing to be read. Every other consideration ought to be secondary to getting the reader your information in the best possible way for them to consume it.

9 Book Design Tips that Authors Need to Know

  1. Book division. Decide whether you’ll divide your book into chapters. Decide if you’ll use parts to organize the chapters into coherent sections, and if there’s a good reason to do this. For instance, if your book covers a wide range of time, it might make sense to impose a structure by dividing the main sections of the book into different parts, then, below those, to divide content into individual chapters.
  2. Non-text elements. Be consistent in how you number chapters, parts, tables, figures, charts, and so on. A good method for numbering graphics is to use both the chapter number and sequential item number. For instance, in chapter 1, the graphics (or tables or figures) might be numbered Figure 1-1, Figure 1-2, and so on. In chapter 2, start the numbering over again, like this: Figure 2-1, Figure 2-2 and so on. This will make it immediately obvious to everyone working on the book which graphics go where. It also keeps your references simpler and easier to track.
  3. Epigraphs. (Not epitaphs which appear on tombstones!) These are the quotations authors like to put on the chapter opening page. If you put these on one or two chapters, readers will expect to find them on every chapter. And if the first six epigraphs are one liners, do you really need that half-page quote you stuck into chapter 10? No, you don’t.
  4. Bold type. Don’t use bold within the text of your book. It won’t look good, it’s non-standard and it devalues the text around it. If you need to emphasize something, use italics or re-write so it has a natural emphasis from the structure of your prose. Bold is fine in heads and subheads.
  5. Formatting. Don’t kill yourself formatting. Most of the formatting authors do in their manuscripts ends up on the layout designer’s floor, discarded as useless to the book construction process.
  6. Styles. Learn to use styles instead of local formatting. Are you using Microsoft Word? Have you ever looked at the style menu or style palette? Putting in 20 minutes to learn to use styles (and it won’t take longer, I promise) will save you many hours of tedium in your writing life. And you want to spend your time writing, not formatting, don’t you?
  7. Tabs. Eliminate the use of tabs within the text of your document. Tabs are unnecessary unless you’re creating tables or other non-text graphics. Your designer will only have to strip them out, and any tabs inadvertently left in the file could be problematic later in the design process.
  8. Spacing. Don’t double space between sentences.
  9. Backups. Make a backup. Make another one, and email it to yourself. This is the fastest and safest off-site backup you can get. And it won’t cost you anything. The file, as an attachment to your email will sit on your email server until you decide to delete it (check your email client settings to see if messages are automatically deleted after some specific amount of time has elapsed.)

A lot of these suggestions are aimed at manuscripts you are preparing to send to a book designer or layout artist. While you’re working on your book you probably will do lots of formatting because it simply makes the document easier to understand and more visually enjoyable to work on.

Work on a copy of your file instead. Designate it as a backup because you will delete it when you change the master file, then create another copy to work on. You don’t want to end up with more than one version of your file, if both have unsynchronized changes.

Paying a little attention to how your book is going to look, how it will be constructed, will pay off when you go into production. Your book will get to press more quickly, it will be more consistent, and it will be better at communicating your content.

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

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    { 10 comments… read them below or add one }

    Janice F Baca October 7, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    It’s exciting to see my book cover design is going exactly as described in your article. It makes me feel better knowing that we are right on track!

    Thank you for your article.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 7, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    My pleasure, Janice, thanks for reading.

    Reply

    Patrick Wallace September 18, 2010 at 2:03 am

    This is all really good advice.
    Learning how design elements work and how to use styles will go a long way to helping you make better books. There is always a reason why some things are regarded as best practices while others are not. When you can start understanding the reasoning behind the practices, it begins your transformation from an amateur to a professional. Knowing why will help you understand when rules of thumb need to be kept, and when they can be freely broken.
    The whole point of the design is to present the content to the reader in the best possible way. Design elements such as chapter headings, page numbers, and typography work best on the subconscious level–the reader is so immersed in the content of the book that they are taken for granted and may even go unnoticed, unless these elements are missing or are poorly done.
    Regarding bold type, in nearly all style guides, bold, italics, all caps, and scare quotes are not used to highlight words in body text–good copy-editors will take them out and rephrase the material to highlight the words through syntax. The use of bold type in body text will call attention to your words, but often not in a good way. If the bold type causes the reader to break his/her train of thought and begin to form opinions about the author, editor, or designer, rather than the content of the book itself, then the bold type is certainly out of place.
    This same rule holds true for nearly all aspects of design and editing.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 19, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Patrick,

    I loved this one: “When you can start understanding the reasoning behind the practices, it begins your transformation from an amateur to a professional.”

    Thanks for such a well-written and on-target comment.

    Reply

    Frederic September 15, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    Joel, your blog is one of the best around, especially for indies. And I respect your fixation on elegant design, even if I can’t share it. This is a good list, but #8 is one (among many editorial holy commandments) that sets me off.
    So much of conventional wisdom in the publishing biz has no perceivable foundation – it’s just a collection of opinions handed down as thou-shalts from a bunch of high priests. Can anyone show me a credible study, done in the last 25 years, that clearly demonstrates a majority of readers insist on serif fonts, or that there must be only one space between sentences, or that head-hopping is a blunder only a rank tyro could make … et cetera? Most of these strictures seem to be just another case of people unquestiongly accepting what they’ve been told to accept – you know, tradition.
    I think the majority of such writing niceties mean nothing to most readers, who care a lot less about the form than an entertaining/informative substance. If I’m wrong, I’d love to see some proof.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 15, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Frederic,

    Thanks for your interesting comment. I don’t consider typographic rules as having come from high priests, and I’m all in favor of experimentation and typographic innovation. But for newcomers it eliminates a lot of the confusion and guesswork to have some guidelines to follow.

    If every book you’ve read has one space between sentences, then you pick up a book that has 2 spaces between sentences, don’t you think that would look odd? And what’s the logic? At the end of a sentence you have a period, a space, and a capital to start the next sentence. What’s added by another space? Why not 3?

    Technically, these extra spaces are a nightmare. When justifying, we often allow the spaces to expand so the lines will fill the measure. It looks really bad to me to have a double-wide space in the middle of the line. And if the sentence break hits at the right margin, or at the end of a page, you have real problems and a book that looks very amateurish.

    I don’t think any of that has to do with priests, traditions, or anything of the like. If you don’t have a good reason to break with the convention, my advice is to follow it and allow the content to speak for itself instead of odd typography interrupting the reading experience.

    And there are plenty of books set in sans serif fonts. Personally, I don’t enjoy reading them.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Reply

    Maggie September 15, 2010 at 6:52 am

    Excellent advice, Joel. This is something every author should read. And along with tabs and double spaces, here’s another device authors should avoid: soft returns. It’s SHIFT RETURN on a Mac; assume it’s the same on a PC.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 15, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Maggie, good one. I didn’t think enough people would know what the soft return is to make it an issue, but you could be right. I do get them in the files I receive. Thanks!

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus September 15, 2010 at 3:21 am

    Please forgive a little disagreement with the master.

    You said, “Don’t use bold within the text of your book … Bold is fine in heads and subheads.”

    I think boldface is also appropriate to start paragraphs in a list, as you did in this post. I sometimes use bold within a paragraph specifically to attract attention of people who may be skimming or flipping pages. I also switch from serif to sans serif type for this. Another case for bold is in instructional books to indicate a web url, or something to click on while working with software. However, bold would almost never be right in the middle of a fiction paragraph.

    One area where consistency is becoming less important than in the past is always starting chapters on recto pages. Many recent books start chapters on verso or recto. OTOH, I recently read a very poorly designed book about self-publishing where chapters end and begin on the SAME page! Yuck. The book has tiny margins so perhaps the self-pubber wanted to minimize the cost of paper — but there were six pages in the back that were either labeled “NOTES” or completely blank, and there was no index.

    Also: I agree that it’s important to have offsite backups, either physical or in the cloud. An email server may not always work because of a limitation in file size. As I recall, Yahoo mail can hold bigger files than Gmail (or maybe vice-versa). The problem with setting the time limit for retaining emails is that tons of junk may be saved along with manuscripts.

    People who use UPS Stores for printing proofs get free file storage on the UPS site. There are also free websites that can hold large password-protected files. MediaFire.com can store files as large as 200MB (approx. 2000 pages), and there’s no limit to the number of files you can store. Multi-gig files can be stored if you pay for “Pro” hosting.

    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 15, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Michael,

    Thanks for your input. I think you’ve put your finger on part of the problem. A blog post needs to be scannable and like a lot of commercial writing, uses whatever devices are available to maintain reader interest.

    My opinion is that these devices don’t belong in books. So I’m going to stay with the “no bold in your text” because to my eye it really looks bad, and I don’t want the books I read to look like blogs or magazine advertisements or brochures.

    Starting chapters on recto or verso pages to me is a matter of genre and style. As long as it’s consistent, I don’t think there’s a rule one way or the other. Some books lend themselves to one approach, but in cases like a novel with lots of “chapters” it’s entirely possible to create a great looking and great reading book with chapters opening recto, verso, or on the same page.

    Reply

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