Understanding Book Layouts and Page Margins

by Joel Friedlander on August 14, 2013 · 24 comments

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When authors decide to format their own books, they don’t always make the best choices. It’s important to stay within formatting conventions because printed books have existed for a long while. Longstanding habits of readers and accepted trade practices have come to dictate that we follow these formatting guides unless we have a pretty good reason not to.

I talk to a lot of authors and look at hundreds of self-published books, and the ones that are problematic jump out at me. For instance, last year I was judging the annual book competition for a local publishing group, and I found formatting and book construction mistakes in many of the books produced by amateur publishers.

Today, I want to look at one of the most common of these mistakes, and show you easy ways to avoid it. This has to do with page margins—how to do them right and how not to do them wrong.

Small Things Make a Big Difference

I’m not going to deny that book designers are detail freaks. Who else would want the job? There are so many tiny details and decisions that go into formatting a book that you pretty much have to be someone who enjoys working on that scale to appreciate book design.

Some of these changes—ones that seem to make a significant difference to me—may involve differences of a hundredth of an inch one way or the other. When you’re dealing with typography, you get used to the effect of these small changes.

And that’s true for the decisions you make about margins, too. So in the rest of the article, I’m going to talk about small measurements. You’ll need to be able to measure the elements of your page accurately in order to implement these suggestions.

Do Margins Have Needs, Too?

Let’s talk for a moment about what we expect from our page margins. After all, they have a job to do too, even though they are blank areas on the page, something that designers refer to as “negative space.”

Here are some of the jobs margins have to do:

  • provide room for the reader to hold the book comfortably
  • show the entire type block area easily, without “disappearing” into the gutter (see below)
  • give a feeling of openness, making the book inviting to read
  • providing space for running heads (or running feet), page numbers or other navigation aids

Thinking About Book Page Margins

Once you’ve decided what your book size will be, the next order of business is to position the text block on the page. This refers to the tall column of type that makes up your text pages.

In most cases, people seem to want to put the text in the middle of the page. That’s understandable if all you’ve ever done with your word processor or layout program is create single-page documents or short reports that are stapled or clipped together.

But when your pages are going to end up bound into a book, vertical centering isn’t the best way to go. That’s because the pages of a book, when you’re reading it, aren’t flat the way a single piece of paper is. They curve in toward the binding, don’t they?

Because your printed book isn’t going to open completely flat, we always leave more room on the inside margins of our pages.

We even have a language for referring to this inside margin, whether it’s the left side of the page (right-hand, or odd-numbered pages) or the right (left-hand, even-numbered pages). That inside margin is referred to as the “gutter” margin.

Going Around the Page with Margins

Okay, so we know the gutter (or inside) margin on bound books has to be larger than the outer margin, but how much? Let’s take a 6″ x 9″ book as an example. For a typical novel or narrative nonfiction book of about 200 pages, I would start off with an outside margin of .75″ and a gutter margin of .875″.

Remember that because our margins aren’t even, our pages are asymmetrical, although if you look at your book as a series of two-page spreads, the whole layout is neatly and symmetrically arranged around the spine at the center.

One of the common mistakes in self-formatted books is making these margins too small. And it seems to me, just from the books I’ve been seeing, that these margins are getting smaller all the time, and I have a suspicion why that would be.

As you know, print on demand vendors like CreateSpace, Lightning Source, and others base their printing fees on the number of pages in your book. I think this has led some authors to try to find ways to get more words on each page to save printing costs.

Hey, I realize that when you’re publishing your own books you have to watch your budget and your profitability carefully, but this is not the way to do it. You’ll end up with a book that’s hard to hold and not that pleasant to read, and that’s not a good outcome.

Shrinking your margins is a crude way to jam more words on a page. Instead, try experimenting with different fonts. It’s surprising how much variation you can find in fonts of the same size. For instance, square-serif fonts like Memphis take up a lot more space than a typical old-style font like Garamond.

Tops and Bottoms

The top and bottom margins of your page will vary depending on whether you use running heads or running feet or neither, and where you put your page numbers (“folios” in book lingo).

For a book design with running heads and folios that are centered at the bottom of the page on a 6″ x 9″ book, try .75″ bottom margin and .5″ top margins for a start.

In any case, for a 6″ x 9″ trade book, you’re going to want to end up with 30 to 35 lines per page in most cases. And the margins I’ve suggested here will give you a line that’s about 28 picas long. Combined with inter-line spacing (“leading”) that’s approximately 130% of the type size (i.e. 11 point type with about 14 points leading), you will have pages that are easy to read and look the way they’re supposed to.

CreateSpace Margin Recommendations

You can find the recommendations from CreateSpace on how to set your margins on the page How to Create an Interior PDF of Your Book.

Keep in mind that the “minimum” margin of .25″ that CreateSpace refers to is too small for most books. This margin measurement is meant to create a “safe area” so that nothing on your page is in danger of getting trimmed off.

With these recommendations and a firm understanding of how margins work as part of your page layout, you’ll be ready to create good-looking books.


Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Originally published at CreateSpace as “Life on the Margins.”

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    { 22 comments… read them below or add one }

    Michael N. Marcus August 14, 2013 at 3:02 am

    One of my basic rules of thumb is that the a book’s outside margins must be large enough to comfortably fit human thumbs without covering up any text. It’s really annoying to have to constantly re-position pages while reading through a book.

    Paper is one of the least expensive parts of publishing, and if a book requires 10 or 20 more pages to be more attractive and more comfortable to read, it’s a worthwhile investment.

    While paper is not expensive, it’s not free, so keep printing costs in mind while evaluating suppliers. Each page from Lightning Source or CreateSpace costs the same, but other companies have wacky price schedules.

    With Infinity Publishing, a reader pays a buck more for a book with 129 pages than one with 128 pages and the author pays 54 cents more. Page number 129 is printed on a very expensive piece of paper.

    Xlibris also has an inflated and weird “delta” between page ranges. A 107-page paperback book will sell for $15.99 and the hardcover will sell for $24.99. If you add just one page more, the price goes up $4 or $5. The difference in the manufacturing cost is tiny, and can’t possibly justify the difference in cover price.

    The price for a paperback with 398 pages is $19.99 (just like the 108-page book), but, at 400 pages the retail price jumps four bucks to $23.99, and that price holds all the way to 800 pages.

    Xlibris gives away 400 pages for “free,” but charges four or five bucks for one page!

    Xlibris books are printed by Lightning Source, so the price per additional page is $.013 (or maybe even less if they get a discount).

    Sadly, both amateur and professional publishers seem to strive to save pages, dollars (and maybe also trees) and the result is often awful.

    The sample books that Infinity Publishing and DiggyPOD distribute to impress potential author/customers have barely enough margin room for a child’s pinky — let alone an adult’s thumb. Some magazines, including Bloomberg Business Week, are guilty of the same sin.

    Amateur book formatters should spend some time walking around an art gallery or even viewing the websites of companies that sell art prints.

    For example, Pablo Picasso created “Petite Fleurs” with ample white space or air around the image, and even the hands and forearms are mere outlines around white space to further emphasize the color of the flowers held in the hands.

    The folks at Art.com provide additional white space in the matte that surrounds the print in a frame. http://cache2.artprintimages.com/p/LRG/53/5378/1JCJG00Z/art-print/pablo-picasso-petite-fleurs.jpg

    If Picasso and the framer removed the air supply, the same-size print pushes me away. The print with ample air draws me in.

    Eyes—like noses—need air.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.com
    http://www.CreateBetterBooks.com

    Reply

    Tracy Atkins August 14, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Great Post Michael.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander August 14, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    It’s interesting how print on demand has changed the way we think about book production. Historically, when books were all printed offset, paper was the most costly part of any printing project. More than the labor or the binding.

    Using the minimum amount of paper for any specific project was so important that we would always try to get as large a first run as possible so we could order our paper by the “carload.”

    This would allow our production staff to create a sheet size that was exactly right for the book and the equipment it would print on, and we would have the paper custom made to that exact size, simply to eliminate any waste whatsoever.

    Of course, this had nothing to do with the design of the book, which is what’s under discussion in this article, and Michael’s points about margin size are good ones.

    Reply

    Daphne Caudle May 17, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    Dear Mr. Friedlander:

    I have been reading your good posts with suggestions and ideas on formatting, publishing and related information. I have written some poetry and I am in the process of writing my first novel. I love to write! I am a paralegal of 12 years by profession with hopes of passing my TExES exam in the very near future to teach special education inasmuch as I have already earned my Bachelor of Arts in Child and Family Studies with a minor in special populations. I am not yet attempting to make writing my full-time career. I simply love to write. While I am writing, my brain takes a vacation from the every day stressors of life and I can think creatively without distraction. Do you have a publisher of preference? Thank you for all of your postings which are useful to individuals such as myself.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 18, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    Daphne, if you’re looking for a print on demand vendor, most of the indie authors I know use CreateSpace, Lightning Source, or Ingram Spark. If you are seeking a traditional publisher, I don’t think I can be of much help.

    Reply

    Alan Drabke August 14, 2013 at 5:16 am

    Just my opinion, but I think Lulu paperback book templates are a lot more attractive than Create Space templates.

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus August 14, 2013 at 7:19 am

    Don’t pick a printer just because of its templates.

    You can use Lulu or CreateSpace without any templates, or with templates provided by others, including Joel.

    Keep in mind that Lulu’s printing prices are very expensive, making it hard to be competitive and make a profit.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander August 14, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    When we were developing the templates for our BookDesignTemplates site I downloaded every single book template I could find online. For one thing, there aren’t very many of them (hey, it’s not that easy to do in Word, anyway). The other thing that surprised me was that all the ones I found were either generic, barely-designed, Times Roman-based layouts that looked terrible, or they were simple frames without anything in them at all. Check out the ones at the link above, I think you’ll be surprised.

    Reply

    Jo Michaels (@WriteJoMichaels) August 14, 2013 at 7:30 am

    You’re so right when you talk about book designers being detail-oriented with a strong understanding of typography. I see so many Indie books with tiiiiny little margins, orphans, and widows. All it would take is contacting a designer who understands print books and a little bit of an investment. Well done. Shared on my blog! WRITE ON!

    Reply

    Joe August 14, 2013 at 9:56 am

    Great post, very informative on book layouts. This is just what I needed, Thanks!

    Reply

    Jaime Buckley October 18, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    Thank you for all that feedback and the great article (as always). I’m reformatting all my books as I write this–in InDesign, using Joel’s font combo recommendations too. Took out the art for now–will do special printings once I have the “right” art created as I always wanted.

    For now, the layout and fonts are my art =)

    Reply

    E.S. Ivy November 12, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    I really appreciate your informative posts! I was surprised to find that the gutter margins I’ve measured on middle grade novels are smaller than what you recommend, but maybe that’s because they have fewer pages and so it’s easier to open the book wider.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 13, 2013 at 11:04 am

    E.S. it’s also very difficult to accurately measure the gutter margin unless you break the spine or disassemble the book. But a little more room there will help your readers. But thinner books or more flexible bindings can also help.

    Reply

    E.S. Ivy November 13, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    You know, I thought I was getting around that problem by adding the measurment of outer margin to the width of the type column, and then subtracting the sum from the width of the paperback, to come up with the gutter margin. However, while reading your answer it occurred to me that the difference in measurement is so small it could be measurement error (I found that many of my measurements varied per page.) So – I’m going to go with the larger measurement to be safe. Thanks!

    Reply

    Safaa January 10, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Hi Joel,

    Thanks so much for the article! Very informative :)

    Just wanted to ask a question regarding LS printing. This is my first time self-publishing and I’ve chosen to go with LS, your article on CreateSpace vs LS was an excellent read (so thank you for that as well! :D)
    I’ve read articles and heard from people that LS can be very strict when it comes to accepting book files. I have not yet submitted mine in as I’m very meticulously trying to ensure I do everything correctly the first time. I also read your article on cleaning up book files for help on that :) Your blog has become my #1 place for info now!!

    I would just like to know exactly what I’m supposed to do once the book is ready to send for printing. I know I have to convert it to pdf, but am not entirely sure how to do so and what steps to take. I’m also not sure whether I’m supposed to adjust the margins according to the page size in mind before sending to them or whether they will take care of this.

    Any help will be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks so much!
    Safaa

    Reply

    TLynn April 29, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Confused. You write here about making the gutter margin wider as it slopes in, but on 9 Mar 2010 (Book Page Layout for a Long Narrative) you wrote, “You want to keep the inside margin—the one in the gutter or at the binding—smaller than the outside, because when the book is held open this will essentially double in size, combining the inside margins of both pages in a space in the middle of the book.” Please clarify.
    Thanks.

    Reply

    Vikk May 17, 2014 at 9:17 am

    Great article. Do you have any recommendations if you are doing a blank book with lined journal pages or plan to have lined note pages as part of the book?

    I’ve looked at your templates and have a couple but didn’t see any that address this type of book. I’m trying to use a Createspace template but I am wondering if I need to change the margins, the gutters in particular.

    Thanks!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 17, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Vikk, you may need to change the margins to make sure users can actually write comfortably in the book. My suggestion is to set the book up and have a sample printed at CreateSpace so you can examine it. That will quickly tell you whether you need any adjustments or not.

    Reply

    Vikk May 17, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    Wow, thank you again for such a quick reply. You nailed my concerns. I’m using the formatted template for the 5.5 x 8.5 size. Left gutters is 0.14″ with all the other margins at .76″ except for the outside which is at 0.6″. I’ll stop searching as I’ve already used up several hours and go ahead and finish making my adjustments and then order the sample as you suggest. Thank you, again.

    Reply

    TLynn May 18, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    Still confused.
    Here, you write here “…we know the gutter (or inside) margin on bound books has to be larger than the outer margin… I would start off with an outside margin of .75″ and a gutter margin of .875.″
    But on 9 Mar 2010 (Book Page Layout for a Long Narrative) you wrote, “You want to keep the inside margin—the one in the gutter or at the binding—smaller than the outside, because when the book is held open this will essentially double in size, combining the inside margins of both pages in a space in the middle of the book.”
    Please clarify. When should the gutter margin be larger, and when should it be smaller?
    Thanks.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 19, 2014 at 9:57 am

    TLynn,

    That’s a good catch, and one of the difficulties of writing on the same subject over a period of years. And keep in mind that some of these guidelines change depending on the kind of printing you’re doing. What I’ve found recently is that the books from print on demand suppliers have “tighter” spines than books from offset printers. Consequently, I always make the gutter margins on books intended for print on demand larger to make sure the type doesn’t disappear into the gutter, making it difficult to read. On books intended for offset it depends on the number of pages (longer books need more gutter margins) and kind of binding (perfect binding creates tighter spines than notch or Smythe-sewn bindings). I hope that gives you some guidance. I will go back and edit the article you pointed out, and my thanks for that.

    Reply

    Joseph June 30, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    Hi. Help me please, I need create a novels book 5.5 x 8.5 which size margin I need. Right now I have top, bottom 0.5 and inside outside 0.75.
    Thank you

    Reply

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