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9 Book Design Tips that Authors Need to Know

by | Sep 15, 2010

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. Also pay attention to consistency in your chapter opening pages and their formatting.
  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.

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