Book Design Quick Tips for Self-Publishers

by Joel Friedlander on February 13, 2013 · 28 comments

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Recently I was asked to contribute an introduction to print book design for a publication that will be out soon. I decided to address the piece to an author who was thinking about self-publishing, but wondering whether it’s worth doing a print book. Here’s my response:

If you want to sell books at events or give them away to reviewers or to friends and family, you’ll want to use print books. And many people prefer reading print books, even people who own laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

So there’s a big role for print books to play in your publishing plans.

But as a new self-publisher, you may not know how to get your book ready for printing.

Print books haven’t changed much in 500 years and they are far more complex than ebooks when it comes to preparing your book files.

With ebooks, you’re just converting your file from one format into another, then adding some cover art.

But with print books you have to know how they will be printed, who will be printing them, and that specific printer’s requirements. It’s good also if you’ve designed a lot of books before, so you know how the image on your screen will translate into paper and ink.

And if you’re thinking about marketing your print books, they will need to look even better. After all, they’ll be competing with books from big publishers, where all the books are designed and produced by professionals.

Now I’m not going to pretend that I can give you an education in book design and production in this article. But what I can do is give you a big head start on your journey to creating a good-looking, reader-friendly, market-oriented print book.

And point out a few things to avoid so you don’t look like a complete newbie. That would be good, right?

Okay, let’s dive in and start at the beginning.

Newbie Mistakes to Avoid

One thing you probably don’t want to happen is have your book “look” self-published.

Honestly, it doesn’t cost any more to print a book that’s properly put together and intelligently designed than it is to print a book that ignores book publishing conventions and looks like an amateur production.

In fact, I’ve got an idea of exactly what would help you get that book, and I’ll tell you more about that in a minute.

No matter what you plan to do with your books, they will be more likely to succeed if they avoid the most common mistakes new self-publishers typically make.

Here are some to watch out for.

  • Getting your pages switched around—remember that all the right-hand pages in your book, starting with page 1, are odd numbers. All the left-hand pages are even numbers.
  • Make sure your blank pages are blank—a blank page doesn’t need a running head, a page number, or “this page intentionally left blank” on is. In printed books, blank pages are just that—blank.
  • No blanks on the right—your book should never have a blank page on a right-hand page.
  • Forgetting the front matter—you want to include at least a title page and a copyright page, and probably a contents page before you start the text of the book.
  • Tiny page margins—trying to save money by printing fewer pages rarely produces a book people actually want to read. Leave enough space on the outside for the reader to hold the book, and on the inside (or “gutter”) so that it doesn’t swallow your text.
  • Not capitalizing properly—titles, subtitles, chapter titles and subheads should all be title case, not sentence case. In other words, all words except short prepositions are capitalized.
  • Avoiding full justification—you don’t really want your book to have “rag right” typesetting, where the right margin is ragged. You want your book to be fully justified, which means that your page of type is a rectangle with all the lines (except the last line in a paragraph) extend from the left margin all the way to the right margin.

If you’re curious about any of these tips, have a look at some of your own books.

You’ll discover that these are rules or conventions of book publishing. Virtually all books produced by professionals will follow these rules and conventions unless the designer has a good reason not to.

By watching out for newbie mistakes, you’ll make your book look a lot better, and your readers will thank you for it.

Picking Fonts for Your Book

One of the big decisions you’ll need to make when it comes time to get your book ready for printing is: What fonts will you use?

What fonts you have available might depend on the software you’ve installed on your PC, and what fonts came along with the program. Or you might have purchased or downloaded fonts from one of the many font sites online.

In any case, here are some guidelines that will help you choose typefaces for your book.

  • Readability—this is the most important quality for your text font, the one that most or all of your book will be set in. Many designers feel that the most reliably readable are fonts based on oldstyle typefaces like Garamond, Bembo, or Caslon. More modern versions include Minion, Adobe Garamond, and Sabon.
  • Contrast—you’ll want a different typeface to use for chapter titles or part titles, and for subheads in nonfiction books. Combining a text typeface with a san serif display face can add drama and subtle allusions to a specific era or style.
  • Legality—fonts are intellectual property, just like your book manuscript. Make sure you have the rights to use the fonts in a book by checking out the licensing agreement, if possible. Most fonts that ship with software are licensed for commercial use, and there are reliable sites where you can download free, commercial use fonts online.
  • Appropriateness—you’ll want a text font for your text, and a display font for your title and perhaps for interior display use. For an academic treatise, you don’t want your chapter titles in Comic Sans, do you? That wouldn’t be appropriate. If you can’t decide, have a look at other, similar books and try to do what they did.

Researching Book Interiors

As many other authors have discovered, there are great guides to how your book should look right nearby. Start taking a critical look at some of the books on your own bookshelf:

  • How do they treat the various elements of book design, like the chapter opening pages, the running heads (or running feet, if they appear at the bottom of the pages), the page numbers?
  • What do you notice about the typefaces these books use to convey the author’s ideas? Is a separate font used for the chapter titles or part titles?
  • How are titles, epigraphs (those are the quotations often found at the beginning of a chapter), and subheads aligned? How are the spaced compared to other elements on the page?
  • What are the margins like, are they symmetrical? Are the outside margins larger than the inside margins? How close does the type come to the edge of the page?
  • If there are illustrations, charts, tables, figures, graphs or other graphics, do they have captions or explanations of some kind? Are they numbered or referenced to the text somehow?

This is one of the fastest ways to educate yourself about how books are put together and what might work for your own book.

Concentrate on books that have been successful in your own genre or category, that will help keep you focused on finding a style that will work for you.

A few hours absorbing these seemingly minute details will give you a grounding in book design as it affects your kind of books. Make notes on the elements you like the best, you’ll use them later on.

You also want to make sure your book is put together properly, that’s really important.

What Will Help

Okay, I promised to tell you about something that would help.

I’ve been working for years on ways for new self-publishers to produce better books. A lot of the over 900 articles on this blog are a testament to that effort.

But guess what? I’ve had a breakthrough, and I’m almost ready to share it with you.

In about a week I’m going to open the door to a new way for DIY authors to create industry-standard, great-looking books. I’ve seen too many of the other kind of books, and it’s time to do something about it.

I’m really excited about this, there’s nothing else like it anywhere. Inexpensive, simple to use, effective.

So stay tuned, I know you wouldn’t want to miss it.


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    { 23 comments… read them below or add one }

    Luke McEwen November 13, 2013 at 4:43 am


    I am self-publishing a collection of 5 short stories, which are about 8,000 words each. Each one is broken down into 3 chapters.

    How should I set this out in the contents page. I had thought about just referencing the Story titles and not the chapters.

    What do you think?

    Kind regards


    E.S. Ivy October 27, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Thanks! This is great information and exactly what I was looking for. I’ve been a textbook editor, so I knew that white space and lead space was important for readability for kids. In other words, knew enough to know I didn’t know enough about print design. :)

    This is a nice list of a specifics to look for as I scan through a stack of example books.


    Buchgestaltung March 12, 2013 at 1:56 am

    This is a great post. I really enjoyed the points you made. I believe it doesn’t cost any more to print a book that’s properly put together and intelligently designed .


    evelyne holingue February 15, 2013 at 11:48 am

    Great list of reminders, here. All very valid points. Thank you.
    The most difficult, based on my experience, remains the paper. Even if you pick a good quality paper to start with, the print on demand remains an obstacle. Since books are not always printed at the same location they will slightly differ from one batch to another. The color especially can be noticeable. Any feedback on this issue?
    AND I am very interested by the promise of a new DIY information.
    Thank you again for the great info you keep providing. Best to you.


    Merry February 13, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    But…but…but…I have 4 hours set aside for working on my book format tomorrow, now what am I going to do until next week?!


    Joel Friedlander February 14, 2013 at 11:11 am

    Hey, I just freed up your time today. Go smell some flowers or have a favorite beverage while you contemplate how much time you’re going to save doing all that formatting. And if you want to get the word first, sign up for my email list and you’ll be the “first to know.”

    Subscriber List


    Widdershins February 13, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    What a great hook for your upcoming announcement.

    I can thoroughly second the tip about gutter margins. I’ve read some books where I’ve had to break the spine to read them. A few extra pages are worth a few extra dollars!


    Joel Friedlander February 14, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Widdershine, thanks. Outside margins are victims too, and I’ve seen books by indie authors that make reading quite a bit more difficult because they tried to get as many words as possible on a page. A better idea is to be kind to your readers. After all, they are the ones who will decide whether your book is a success or sinks without a trace.


    Tracy R. Atkins February 13, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Formatting the interior of the book can be a challenge for independent authors, especially the first time around. Gathering the font-matter you want to use, getting the pagination right and getting it pixel-perfect can be the stuff of nightmares. Dozens of hours can go into it if you go your own route, and still have mixed results. Resources like this website help out tremendously, but even then, you have a lot of labor to get it close to right.


    Jo Michaels February 13, 2013 at 7:08 am

    This is a great article, Joel. Again, you’ve nailed things everyone needs to consider when formatting the interior of a print book. I came across an interesting one recently: Splintered. It inspired me to do more with my own fantasy novel. You might take a peek, the designer used some odd elements that really set the book apart. Thanks for the tips; I’ve shared them! WRITE ON!


    Joel Friedlander February 13, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    In addition to a great cover, Splintered has some lovely chapter openers and breaks, very nice, thanks for the tip Jo.


    Ellen M. Gregg February 13, 2013 at 5:34 am

    What a tease, Joel! :-) I look forward to more information, because formatting my first release continues to be a nightmare. I won’t put it out for print on demand without it looking professional, and it’s not there yet.


    Joel Friedlander February 13, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    Okay, I’ll “open the kimono” a little bit, just enough to tell you to fire up your copy of MS Word, you’ll be needing it.


    Rosanne Dingli February 13, 2013 at 5:14 am

    Now you’ve done it, Joel – I’ll be on tenterhooks until you reveal this amazing “thing” !! What could it be?


    Tracy R. Atkins February 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    I am pretty excited myself!


    Joel Friedlander February 13, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    Sorry, Rosanne, you’re just going to have to wait, but I promise it will be worthwhile for authors who are committed to the DIY path.


    Thomas Rydder February 13, 2013 at 4:56 am

    Hey Joel…
    An article chock-a-block with things many folks wouldn’t think about, such as keeping the margin a little wide so one can hold the book and read it. Fantastic. Most of my friends are indie writers, and as you know, they’re swamped with the entire process of getting the book out, stem to stern. Your articles are invaluable, and I re-blog them regularly…well done, my friend :)


    Joel Friedlander February 13, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Thanks, Thomas, glad to be able to help.


    Rod Schulhauser February 13, 2013 at 4:35 am

    I look forward to seeing and reading about your industry standards for these authors. Great initiative!


    Ernie Zelinski February 13, 2013 at 12:46 am


    Great article:

    You say, “For an academic treatise, you don’t want your chapter titles in Comic Sans, do you?”

    I get the point about not using the font in an academic work, but I wonder: Do you have anything against Comic Sans in general?

    It turns out the chapter titles in my self-published “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” are in Comic Sans.

    Certainly, the use of the font hasn’t hurt sales very much, given it’s the best-selling retirement planning book on Amazon and had its best year in print sales ever in 2012 with 18,600 copies sold.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 175,000 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)


    Michael N. Marcus February 13, 2013 at 1:59 am

    There’s a lot of good advice for Sans fans and others in Thou Shall Not Use Comic Sans: 365 Graphic Design Sins and Virtues: A Designer’s Almanac of Dos and Don’ts.

    A typeface has to be appropriate. I’ve published a series of e-books with retro-comic-book-style cover art. The text in the thought bubbles and speech bubbles is, of course, Comic Sans.

    Michael N. Marcus

    JUST OUT: “The Look of a Book: what makes a book cover good or bad and how to design a good one,”
    NEW: self-publishing company parody,
    NEW: reviews of books for authors,


    Jo Michaels February 13, 2013 at 7:11 am

    Comic Sans was a huge no-no when I was in design school. If we used it we had to have a REALLY good reason or the profs would knock off points on our grade. They said it was because Comic Sans was too easy to fall back on. It’s a more light-hearted font that’s perfect for comic strips but not so great for serious discussion. That’s probably why Joel mentioned it wouldn’t be appropriate for ‘serious’ topics.


    Joel Friedlander February 13, 2013 at 8:48 am

    It just goes to show that a good book can overcome a lot of flaws—even Comic Sans.


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