Book Design: Choosing Your Paragraphing Style

by Joel Friedlander on April 9, 2012 · 50 comments

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Anyone who wants to do their own book design can spend some very worthwhile time studying books that are old. I mean really old, like going all the way back to the beginning of printed books. Early on, I found these books and the book typography that’s used in them very stimulating when thinking about how I wanted the books I was working on to look.

Even though the technology back then was primitive according to today’s standards—no electricity, basic, natural materials, and everything done by hand—the books produced by early printers are prized, quite rightly, as outstanding examples of artful book design.

One of the reasons this historical background can be useful to today’s independent authors is that it shows how technology affects the books we design. Book design evolved slowly over a period of 500 years to get to the point it is today. We have terrific tools and enough experience to know how to present long-text documents to readers so that they really want to read them.

The Old Meets the New

Technology continued to influence book design as industrialization brought lots of new ways of getting ink on paper and binding up that paper into books. But the biggest technology change to affect book design has been the Internet, and we can see the influence of the online world in a lot of books being produced today.

One of the ways you can see that influence is in the confusion many do-it-yourselfers have about paragraphing styles.

What’s a paragraphing style, you ask? Writers organize their writing into parts, chapters, sections, and then into paragraphs. Paragraphs long ago became a standard device for organizing the ideas in a book or the flow of a story. When the writer creates a paragraph, it breaks the flow of text and sends an important signal to the reader.

The question is, how do we send that signal to the reader? The author wants to let the reader know that a new thought or a change in the narrative is requiring a new paragraph, but we don’t want the signal to overwhelm the message. A paragraph will do this because readers are familiar with the conventions of written language and barely notice the interruption.

As it happens, there are two basic ways to differentiate paragraphs:

  1. By indenting the first line of the paragraph. This indent, combined with the short last line of the paragraph that just ended, gives a clear visual signal that a new paragraph has started. The indent is typically between 1 and 2 ems, or about .25″.
  2. By adding a space between paragraphs. This is typically a line space, that is, the same amount of space between one line in a paragraph and the next. The appearance of what amounts to a blank line, along with that same short last line of the paragraph above, gives us the “new paragraph here” signal.

I think you could say that we owe this second method of paragraphing to the Internet and the vast amount of text we now read online.

Reading on-screen is vastly different from reading a printed book, and a new default style has arisen out of the needs of readers of all this electronic text.

The line space between paragraphs is very reader-friendly in an online reading environment. I use it on my blog, and if you publish online, you’ve probably found it’s much easier to read paragraphs that have a space between them.

However, that doesn’t translate well to printed books. In a book, we’re driven to continue reading by the flow of the story or the clever arrangement of ideas. An extra line space doesn’t aid that continuous reading.

Ed: Note that we also use a line space or paragraph break to indicate a change in scene or a shift to a different theme within a chapter. This article isn’t about those text breaks, just the ordinary paragraphs that make up the majority of your book.

Avoid This Newbie Mistake

Now that you know about these two paragraphing styles, you’ll understand the common error authors make: they don’t choose one or the other style, they use both.

I’ve seen countless books in the past year that have both a paragraph indent and an extra line space between paragraphs. As a professional book designer, that looks like an error.

If you’ve already signaled your reader that a new paragraph is about to start because you’ve indented the first line, what’s the point of adding an extra line space? Avoid this problem by simply choosing one or the other. For most books, use the indented first line of each paragraph as your signal to the reader.

To understand why this first-line indent is a convention in book design, use the resources you have. Take books off your shelf and have a look. You’ll find that virtually all of them use the indented paragraph style, no matter who published them or when they were published.

Books that might benefit from the line space paragraph style are in landscape mode (wider than they are tall), or books with large blocks of technical material. Sometimes books with very little text, like the copy accompanying artwork in a monograph, for example, might use the line space paragraph style to good effect.

But whichever style you choose, stick with that one, don’t use both. Your readers will thank you.

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    { 44 comments… read them below or add one }

    Chihuahua0 April 9, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    I only use the indent for typing schoolwork and for my own story (although I occasionally slip). However, I had been using paragraph breaks on the Internet, since it hates indents.

    Reply

    Ashley Zacharias April 9, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    A small point but one that really bugs me. Traditionally, indenting the first line does not indicate the beginning of a paragraph; it marks the transition from one paragraph to the next. The difference? A paragraph that does not follow another paragraph, like the first paragraph after a title, figure, mathematical equation, etc., is not indented. Pick any well-designed book (e.g., not a computer reference manual) and you’ll see that the first paragraph in any section is not indented.
    Typography is supposed to aid reading, not distract the reader. Blank lines between paragraphs are an abomination, foisted upon us by Web bowser programmers years ago because they knew nothing about typography and found it simpler to program blank lines than indents.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    An excellent point, Ashley, and thanks for the clarification. Of course you are right, and paragraphs that begin sections are not, as a matter of course, indented.

    On the other hand, text intended for reading online, in my opinion, needs formatting that’s quite different than what we’re used to in books, it’s simply a different environment with different needs. Thanks for expanding the conversation.

    Reply

    Ashley Zacharias April 9, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    I think you may well be right. Presenting text on paper is an art that has been perfected over the course of centuries. We have only just begun to develop the art of presenting text electronically. And our first steps have been clumsy indeed. It will be fascinating to see how that art develops over the next decades.

    Reply

    bowerbird April 9, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    joel said:
    > I’ve seen countless books in the past year
    > that have both a paragraph indent
    > and an extra line space between paragraphs.
    > As a professional book designer,
    > that looks like an error.

    well, i wouldn’t intend any disrespect to you, joel,
    especially since you’re a professional book designer,
    but… who are you to designate this as “an error”?

    (because, in typography, if it _looks_like_ “an error”,
    it most certainly _is_ an error. typography is surely
    about “the look” of type as much as anything else.)

    have you asked people why they’re employing both?

    if you did, you’d find that they say that they _want_
    to use indentation, because that’s what makes a book
    _look_like_ a book, and they want their book to do that.

    but they will also tell you that, because readers are now
    accustomed to the “blank-line” style, from the internet,
    indentation all by itself creates a “far-too-crowded” look.

    i’m not saying they’re “right”. i don’t think _anyone_ can
    say that they are “right” and another position is “wrong”.

    but that includes you, too, joel.

    if we trace back the reason for the original decision of book
    typographers, we see a choice of closed-up paragraphs was
    driven as much by _pragmatic_ matters as “design” ones…
    and perhaps more. vertical space was a costly commodity,
    because it impacted pagecount, and thus printing expense.
    boiled to its essence, they chose indentation to save money.

    but online, vertical space is free, so why not use blank lines
    to separate paragraphs? you must admit that it’s effective.

    so i’m not about to let the past dictate the future on this one.

    let us raise the issue with readers, and live with their decision.

    -bowerbird

    p.s. i must say, joel, that it is a pleasure that _someone_
    – namely you — is bringing up these interesting issues so
    that we can talk about them. you’d think that cyberspace
    is a big place, and lots of people would be talking about the
    myriad issues around the nuts-and-bolts of publishing today.
    but for the most part, nope. just joel and bookdesigner.com.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 11, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Thanks for the comment bowerbird. I don’t have the ability to look into other people’s minds, so I’ll pass on that, but I’ll stay with my opinion—and it’s an opinion—that using both styles is typographically redundant, hence an “error.”

    Reply

    bowerbird April 11, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    i’m not here as an advocate, for _any_ position…

    personally, i couldn’t care less what anyone does.

    i like the look of indents, but i also like a bit of spacing
    between paragraphs — not a full line, but half is nice…

    but that’s just me, and you might be different, and
    personally, i couldn’t care less what you like or not,
    just like you couldn’t care less what i like or not…

    i don’t even mind if you castigate some other position
    as “an error” just because it is “redundant”, although
    it’s _not_ a sin to be redundant with your typography;
    otherwise we wouldn’t make headers big _and_ bold,
    _and_ center them, _and_ start them on a new page.

    but if you think “redundancy=error”, i really don’t care.

    so do whatever you like. it’s fine with me. sincerely.

    here’s the rub, though.

    the readers — you know, people who _buy_ your book,
    pay their hard-earned cash for it — _might_well_have_
    a preference as to whether they want indents or blocks.

    and indeed, even though joel might lack the ability to
    “look into their minds”, _i_ know what they are thinking,
    because i have taken the novel approach of asking them.

    and if you asked them too, you’d find that it’s roughly
    split right down the middle between indents and blocks,
    with a good portion from each side leaning to a hybrid.

    which means that, no matter which way you decide,
    you’re gonna make _some_ people unhappy. sorry.

    now, in a print-book, you could have an option, with
    print-on-demand, of creating two different versions,
    so as to make all of your customers happy, which is
    usually a good thing for you to do, don’t you think?

    in an e-book, it’d be spiffy if our e-book viewer-apps
    gave the end-user a choice as to which style to use,
    and there’s no reason why this wouldn’t be possible;
    it just hasn’t been done by most of the programmers.

    anyway, like i said, do it however you like, people…

    you can even feel free to call other positions “wrong”,
    if it makes you feel better. but then don’t be surprised
    if you find that the other side starts calling you “wrong”.

    i say whatever’s right for you is right. for you. only you.

    -bowerbird

    Reply

    Tara Li April 20, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Annnd – most e-book programs I’ve seen have at least the option to turn off in-book CSS style sheets. Perhaps what we need most is really a good way to handle configuring our style sheets, instead of manually entering CSS code into a text box, plus a selection of common designs to pick from.

    We also need writers to quit focusing quite so much on exactly how their words will be organized on the page, because between resetting my margins, and changing my font face, font size and line spacing – they’ve got little chance of their words ending up exactly where they expect them.

    I know I tend to have my reader program set for indent & blank line. It’s what works best for me.

    Reply

    London Crockett April 9, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    I find it much easier reading printed material with a half-line of space between them instead of indents. The small break makes it easier for me to track where I’m at on the page and I believe guides my eyes over the text more easily. It’s possible that’s a by-product of reading online, but I’ve though the indented paragraph arose from a desire to save paper as much as reading comfort. As a (non-book) designer, I see things like widows and orphans (including widowed syllables following hyphenation!) that I would never allow in a pamphlet, ad, or other piece.

    P.S. I read Bowerbird’s response just before hitting submit. I would say indent + spacing is wrong because it’s redundant. One of the nice things about spacing is that it reserves indentation for other purposes. If you first-line indent and use spacing between paragraphs, you’re taking away two tools that could be used elsewhere.

    In design, there may not be rules, but there is grammar. Grammar is what gives people a common language. Like with writing, grammar can be violated without completely undermining the entire work, but it needs to be done with an understanding of what is being sacrificed. You can layout your novel in Ransom Note (a typeface that looks like it sounds) and nobody can say you are categorically incorrect. But I’m certain no one will want to read it because it violates all of the grammar of design without any benefit.

    However, when I printed copies of my first draft for friends via Lulu.com, I forwent my beloved half-line breaks for indents and allowed line breaks I wasn’t happy with. Over the course of such a long work, where you need to remain absolutely true to the original text, precise fitting and extra pages are expensive luxeries. For a final print edition, I’d be more rigorous about line fitting, but wouldn’t expect my readers to pay for more pages to get the easier to paragraph spacing.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 11, 2012 at 10:57 am

    London, thanks for your thoughtful reply. As we transition from print to ebooks (and sometimes, back again) we’ll continue to encounter situations like this. I write these articles because I think there’s a benefit in having an accepted standard or convention by which to judge books, all the while keeping in mind that both experimentaion and the limits of current technology have a role to play in how closely we hew to those standards.

    Reply

    Ernie Zelinski April 10, 2012 at 1:54 am

    Another important element in the difference of paragraphing styles between printed books and online material (including ebooks) is that:

    For printed books “CONTENT IS KING.”

    For online material “SNACKABLE CONTENT IS KING.”

    In other words, paragraphs for online material should be no more than two or three sentences whereas paragraphs of four, five, or even six sentences work okay in printed books.

    In fact, as I take steps to have some of my printed books published as ebooks, I will shorten some of the paragraphs to make the ebook versions more “snackable” and reader friendly.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    Best-Selling Author, Innovator, and Prosperity Life Coach
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 150,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 11, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Good point, Ernie, and one that I had to deal with last year when I published a book taken from blog articles. One of the biggest chores was taking out all the formatting used to make the blog posts “snackable” so the resulting book would look more like a “book.”

    Reply

    DC Gallin April 10, 2012 at 3:25 am

    “a new paragraph is about to start because you’ve indented the first line, what’s the point of adding an extra line space?”

    An indented line is a new paragraph.
    An extra space (line) between paragraphs (without and indent) is a change of scene… I thought?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 10, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    Good point, DC, also see the exchange between Ashley Zacharias and I near the top of the comment stream.

    Reply

    Deb Atwood April 11, 2012 at 8:28 am

    A related question for digital books–what about letters or emails or journal entries embedded in the text? In printed books, typically the beginning of a letter will indent twice with the letter’s margin aligned with the usual paragraph indentation. I’m not sure how that would work on an e-reader.

    I did notice in a book I read recently that the letter began with a double indentation on one page, but on the next page was using standard text format. Thanks for any comments!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 11, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Deb, it seems like it’s difficult to impossible to translate the formatting we’ve been using for many years in printed books into ebooks. Partly this is due to lots of people using automatic conversion services, and partly that it takes quite a bit of hand work to create a good-looking ebook that’s got a lot of formatting in it. I hope this will improve as we get better tools to work with.

    Reply

    Chandra April 11, 2012 at 9:18 am

    For all of those people wanting to make their e-books like online content I would like to point out that the original idea of the e-book was to make reading electronic books feel more like reading a printed book. They’re supposed to be like a book, because reading books on a computer screen with all of its programmed in typographical horrificness makes people not want to read them. Obviously, with the kindle and nook both having lcd screens, the screen was not the issue as it had been claimed before.
    A book has a certain flow and rhythm that works because oof the way it is designed… that’s why book designers do things as they do them. They don’t just decide things because that’s how it’s always been. I tried working on a novel on a private blog and I couldn’t stand the extra space between paragraphs and the inability to indent. I moved it back to word documents where things look right.

    Reply

    chandra April 11, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Dangit, I’m too used to these darn things adding the line space automatically. I guess I should have listened to that little voice inside my head that told me to add them…oh well.

    Reply

    Laurie April 30, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Although I happen to be on team extra spaces and eliminating paragraph indentions, I just want to say this thread is probably one of the most useful discussions I’ve ever run across on any blog. Several very talented copywriters, who worked with me at an advertising agency, brought this subject up in 1996 – when we were first developing content for online site reading. The concept of e-books was still 10 years away. Our conclusions back then – shorter paragraphs – no indentations. Not every writer or editor was sold. I hope a standard for e-books, whatever the outcome – comes soon. Thank all of you for the insightful comments!

    Reply

    Camille LaGuire April 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Just a note, ebooks were most certainly around in 1996, and actually began a commercial following in 2000.

    Project Gutenberg was already using the additional line space between paragraphs long before that. (Using it from the start in the 1970′s actually.) It was out of necessity for cross platform, so we put up with it, but it made it really hard to read novels on a handheld device.

    Reply

    Camille LaGuire April 11, 2012 at 9:41 am

    One of the reasons you see an indent and a page break in some cases is not because the book was designed that way, but because the internal conversion tools at places like Amazon and Smashwords play havoc with paragraph styles — especially when converting from Word.

    Also, I disagree that the extra line space has become the norm on the internet for readability. No, it was the norm because ascii has no indent. Block style began way back with ttf montiors and plain text coding. When all lines had hard returns (or if they did wrap, it would be in the middle of a word.)

    Block style is fine for non-fiction, and long paragraph writing generally, but it’s awful for fiction, particularly for dialog.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 11, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Thanks for the info, Camille. I remember those workstations well, but back then we never assumed that the text we were working with (in character mode, no less) was what would end up in a typographic product like a book.

    Reply

    Jack Fisher April 11, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    It is possible to do both, but a tree line space (one created by hitting return) with an indent is too strong.

    For instance, doing the regular indent as specified by the world processor of choice or a style sheet half indent (which sometimes looks better on Kindle formats) and adjusting the paragraph spacing to a sub-6pt ‘after’ space can be very sexy, especially with a half indent. However, publishing through Smashwords it doesn’t look so good; hence, one or the other is needed.

    As a final note, I would never suggest that someone insert a true space between paragraphs. It has a weight on the screen that just looks to bold in an e-book and damages reading flow. That said, a 4-8pt space looks ok, but I would still just go with the tried and true method of the indent. Readers expect it and personal choice holds lesser weight than reader’s needs.

    Reply

    James Byrd April 15, 2012 at 10:32 am

    As others have commented, ebooks are an interesting hybrid of traditional print formatting and web formatting. In a way, an e-reader is just a dumbed-down Web browser, so it is hard to know which (block vs indent) is the right paragraph formatting approach.

    So far, we’ve been formatting our ebooks more like our print books than our Web pages. We indent paragraphs and do not use line breaks. For scene breaks, we use a centered indicator of some kind (e.g. a group of asterisks). We do not indent the first paragraph after a chapter or scene break.

    I like using the print standards because e-readers have such a limited viewport. Line breaks take up too much vertical space, and the way the pages flow from one screen to the next may cause you to lose the visual “new paragraph” clue a line break would normally provide. You don’t have that problem if you are using indents.

    Reply

    Deb Atwood April 15, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Hi James,

    I like your idea of using the asterisks as a way to avoid the problem of scene breaks becoming lost on the e-screen. I’m definitely going to try that. What are your thoughts on formatting emails or letters within the text?

    Reply

    James Byrd April 16, 2012 at 7:05 am

    Hi Deb. The key to inserting excerpt text like emails or letters is to do something that makes the text stand out from the surrounding content. One trick is to shift to a mono-space font and make it smaller or larger than the surrounding text. The techniques I describe below assume you are working directly with the HTML files that make up your ebook. If you are uploading Word files and relying on automatic conversion, you may have to experiment until you get the effects you want.

    You can use the tag to tell the reader to switch to a mono-space font ( and are alternatives.) Some readers (including Kindle 2 and below) don't support the tag or the "font-family: monospace" style, but they do support the venerable tag.

    Other font tricks include making the text italic or bold. Italic seems to look okay, but an entire block of bold is jarring to the reader.

    In addition to the font change, I think it helps to add some extra vertical white space before and after the excerpt, and indent the entire block a little from the left margin. In non-fiction, I usually do not indent, but I include a horizontal line (or some other indicator) and a caption to bracket the excerpt.

    Reply

    James Byrd April 16, 2012 at 7:09 am

    Oops. Joel’s blog software got too smart for me. It took my tag references and used them to format my response to you!

    Let’s try that again, and I’ll use “[" instead of "<" for the tag references...

    *************

    You can use the [tt] tag to tell the reader to switch to a mono-space font ([code] and [samp] are alternatives.) Some readers (including Kindle 2 and below) don't support the [pre] tag or the "font-family: monospace" style, but they do support the venerable [tt] tag.

    Other font tricks include making the text italic or bold. Italic seems to look okay, but an entire block of bold is jarring to the reader.

    In addition to the font change, I think it helps to add some extra vertical white space before and after the excerpt, and indent the entire block a little from the left margin. In non-fiction, I usually do not indent, but I include a horizontal line (or some other indicator) and a caption to bracket the excerpt.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 16, 2012 at 11:09 am

    James is exactly right in saying that to indicate text that’s intended to stand out you have to differentiate it somehow from the context of the rest of the page.

    However, I’ve long been against using different fonts to achieve this. In my experience, there are very few times when, as a designer, I would resort to switching fonts, and formatted emails would be one case where it might work.

    The tendency to want to switch fonts, particularly in fiction, seems to me to make a book look pretty amateurish, and I’ve seen self-published examples where the author used 2, 3 or more typefaces to indicate different kinds of text.

    You end up with a big mess, and your book will not look the better for it. There are lots of other ways to accomplish this task.

    Reply

    Artisan John April 16, 2012 at 8:24 am

    I recently published a book which had quite a number if subheadings within each chapter, an average of about one per page, so some pages had more than one subheading. I did not use page breaks between each of the subheadings because that resulted in too much blank space. The subheadings were bold and centered, which gave them the appearance of having both left and right indents. Using indented paragraphs after the subheadings created a jumbled, disorganized look, so I tried no indents with about a half line space between paragraphs. This resulted in a much cleaner look, which was easier on the eyes.

    For fiction I never use anything other than standard indent with no space between paragraphs. However, for anything that includes a large number of centered or block items, such as subheadings, quotes, excerpts, etc. I have found that using no paragraph indents, along with about a half line space between paragraphs, provides a more attractive and easier to read work.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 16, 2012 at 11:13 am

    Thanks for the comment, Artisan. In normal nonfiction books, which often have one or more levels of subheads, there’s no reason to put a page break before a subhead, and I would recommend against doing so. The idea of not using indented paragraphs immediately after subheads or section breaks was discussed earlier in the comments, and your approach is the one most book designers use. However, adding space between paragraphs, as I said in the article, is redundant if you’re already using indented paragraphs, in my opinion.

    Reply

    Deb Atwood April 16, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Thank you so much for the comments! It’s been most informative.

    Reply

    John Alexander May 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Great discussion! I’m working on a non-fiction eBook project, and wonder why so many folks advise for nonfiction a block style with line spacing of some amount between paragraphs, but for fiction indents are preferred? If in fact conventional printed books are the model for eBooks, I find very few nonfiction books depart from the “fiction” standard of indents (with no indentation for the first paragraph of a section or subsection). So why the advocacy of a fiction-nonfiction dichotomy for the eBook version?

    Reply

    Camille LaGuire May 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    I don’t know if everyone agrees that nonfiction must be block style. It’s more a matter that with nonfiction, it could be either.

    Personally, I hate block style on an e-reader at all. However, block style is the “lowest common denominator” for how all computers can separate paragraphs, so it’s the most flexible in terms of how and where you can read it. (I.e. you can read block style on an old TTY monitor, and such).

    That flexibility makes for a trade off. With most nonfiction, you don’t lose as much, because the paragraphs are longer — it’s not as disruptive. So you might want to use it to make it even more universal.

    With dialog-heavy fiction, though, block style is too intrusive — to the point of being downright unreadable sometimes. (Especially on a small screen.) It is worth the trade off to format it with indents.

    Reply

    John Alexander May 8, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    Thanks for the rapid response, Camille.

    Is the proper rendering of a paragraph indent using CSS really an issue these days, in terms of the “lowest common denominator”? I mean, aren’t 99.9% of eBook readers, whether via Kindle or iBooks or whatever, able to see the indent we call out?

    I’m more persuaded by Artisan John’s April 16 comment above, in which he argues that a nonfiction work with many subsections or subheadings looks “cleaner” with line spacing rather than indents.

    But I’m still not convinced. Using the conventional nonfiction book layout approach, paragraphs which begin after headings aren’t indented, but all others are. Seems to me that still looks cleaner.

    I guess for my purposes, there are a couple of big considerations: (1) I want to choose an approach which, when it all sorts out, becomes the “standard” approach for commercial nonfiction eBooks; and (2) “useability” or “readability” of the end result on the various eReader platforms.

    So for now, I’m staying with the conventional paper model. On balance, Joel, is this where you would land for nonfiction?

    Reply

    Tara Li May 8, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    Here’s the thing – why are *YOU* worried about what kind of indent, when chances are the user has gone into their setup and picked the kind of indent *they* prefer? Admitted, not all reader programs are really doing good at over-riding the CSS, but ultimately, that’s the point of CSS – separate presentation from content, so the viewer can easily select their own choice of presentation. (HTML was originally supposed to be this to start with, and then they started mucking it up with extra stuff, and the FLASH and PDF people started complaining that *THEY* didn’t get to control just where each & every pixel is!)

    Seriously, if you want your e-book to be just exactly the way *YOU* want it, ship it containing PNGs of each page, and disallow any downloading by devices with a resolution other than what you have chosen. Otherwise – give it up, and let us just read the bleepin’ book without getting bowled over by *your* design decisions. I over-ride font face, font size, and paragraph indentation as a matter of habit. If you’re spending huge amounts of time worrying about *that* – you’re wasting time that could be put into actually improving the content – or getting the next piece of content out.

    Reply

    Camille LaGuire May 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    Tara Li is right:

    Take your best shot. If someone wants to look at it in another way, they can override most of the time.

    IMHO, unless you need a lot of fancy formatting (bulleted lists, headers and sub headers and numbered steps and block quotes) there is no need to sweat the formatting.

    Reply

    John Alexander May 8, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    I have trouble seeing the relevance of Tara’s comment, vis-a-vis the discussion of block versus indent paragraph style.

    I’m not calling out particular font styles or sizes, or attempting a PDF type “static” presentation. I’m just using the limited CSS functionality available to Kindle e-ink and better devices to choose the default paragraph appearance. Of course, users can still easily override such decisions on their devices.

    I can tell you that the vast majority of the major publishers’ nonfiction I’ve purchased in eBook format does use (modified) paragraph indents rather than block style.

    I’m more interested in Artisan John’s comments above on appearance of the lock style with many sections and subsections. Have others found this to be the case?

    Tara Li May 8, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    The relevance is – why sweat it? Chances are, what looks good on one e-reader is going to suck on another, and the users are setting up what *they* feel looks good to them.

    Spending too much time on something as minor as block vs. indent is not worth the time.

    Camille LaGuire May 8, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    Honestly, if your formatting requires a lot of headers and subheaders and lists and block quotes, you are really designing for pdf. It may look okay on a large screen device like an iPad or computer, but it’s awful on most ereaders.

    I will tell you this: if you do want to have more than one kind of header or subhead, use percentages in your CSS, not point sizes or predefined tags. On a smart phone, many subhead some out gigantic — bigger, even than the main heads.

    If your text is so complicated that it _demands_ block text, it should be a pdf. IMHO. As Tara said, don’t worry about it. Just go with your indents and be done with it.

    Andrew July 11, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Joel, great resource for folks like me who are about to publish their first book (I am at the design stage). Very informative and written in a clear way.

    For my non-fiction historical book, I was thinking about paragraph indentation (except for the first paragraph) as you described. Because of the topic that needs to be further broken, I want to have “minor” section breaks, just a space, and “major” section breaks highlighted by small graphical motif (diamond-like). There will be rougly one “major” section break per chapter.

    Two quick questions: if I understood correctly, paragraphs after section breaks (space alone or with diamond-like motif) should start without indentation but with small caps of first 4 words? and do you think that two types of section breaks is appropriate (chapters roughly 20-30 pages long in typeset format)? Thanks!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Andrew,

    No problem using 2 types of breaks, as you describe them. The small cap run-in is completely stylistic. It’s not required in any way, just something designers sometimes use. I particularly wouldn’t do it on the smaller “line breaks.” Hope that helps.

    Reply

    Kelli Jae Baeli March 31, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    All very well and good, but some manuscripts REQUIRE the use of both formats, as in indented text, offset by periodic blockquotes of other material…when you’re formatting a NONFICTION book for publication on Smashwords, they kick it back to you when you mix those styles, and yet, it is the CORRECT WAY to format a nonfiction book that quotes material. I find this atavistic mindset problematic in that regard. It forces us to create UGLY manuscripts.

    Reply

    Brian July 22, 2013 at 11:30 am

    Thank you, this was very helpful.

    Reply

    bita August 3, 2013 at 4:20 am

    dear Joel,
    These rules that you mention are common in all languages?
    Why do we don’t indenting first paragraph in books?

    Reply

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