Book Design: Have You Checked Your Margins?

by | May 14, 2012

I just finished judging half the entries in the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA) annual Book Awards competition.

This contest is open to members of BAIPA, an organization that includes many self-publishers but also small independent presses, professionals in the book industry and others.

Overall, the books from indie publishers were quite good, and that wasn’t much of a surprise since they usually hire professionals or have professional publishing experience themselves.

And some of the self-published books were also well done and had obviously been well thought out.

But then there were the others, and some of the most common problems that occurred again and again were with margins and page balance.

The Varieties of Marginal Experience

A contest is an unusual way to look at books, because I can’t think of another time when you have so many printed books in front of you for direct comparison.

One of the consequences of holding the printed book is seeing how the basic page layout has worked out in the real world. It’s one thing to have a page that looks good on your screen, quite another to make sure as it goes through the manufacturing process, that it comes out the way you intended.

Clearly, some of the designers of these books did not get the results they wanted. What went wrong? Stuff like this:

  1. Margins too small. This has become more common since the advent of print on demand. Is it because print on demand vendors charge by the page, giving you a cash incentive to get as much as you can on every page? I don’t know, to be honest, but it sometimes looks that way. Even some self-publishing “gurus” get this wrong, so don’t feel bad if this has happened to you.

    Now you might ask, “What’s too small?” And I would say that if an adult can’t hold the book without obscuring a good deal of the type on the outside edges, the margins are too small.

  2. Leading too tight. This is similar to #1 because it looks like an effort to get more on the page. Unfortunately, packing lines together (leading is the space from the baseline of one line of type to the next) doesn’t help either the look or the readability of your pages.
  3. Margins too big. A few books didn’t use running heads (the type at the top of the page telling you what chapter you’re in or other navigational information) or running feet (same as heads but at the bottom of the page), yet it looked like they had originally been part of the design (or part of a template?) and when they were removed the margins just got a whole lot bigger for no particular reason.

    Another variant you see is someone who has been reading books about the history of book design. You think I’m nuts? Here’s why: There are “classical proportions” to book pages that can be described with various golden sections and other formulas. In these diagrams, the proportions of the margins change, and it’s pretty easy to spot. They always have huge bottom margins, to conform to the formula.

  4. Falling into the Gutter. This is also unfortunately common, particularly with hardcovers. The spines on these books are often tighter (casebound) and they don’t open as easily or as far as the paperback version. Consequently, the pages disappear into the gutter (inside margin, where the book is bound) making it a challenge to read.

In many of these cases, the pages may have looked just fine on screen, and if you’ve never walked a book through the whole production process, you might have no way of knowing what’s going to happen farther down the line.

One way to avoid some of these problems is to take a ruler (or your pica gauge!) to a lot of books on your bookshelf. Virtually all of these were produced by professionals at traditional publishers, and you’ll learn a lot by examining them closely.

Try to find books very similar to the one you intend to publish and see how closely your pages match up.

And if all else fails, remember that print on demand means you can upload a new file almost any time you want to fix errors you didn’t catch the first time.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Rinelle Grey

    Great advice. I’ve only just published my first ebook, and I’d like to do a print edition, but right now it seems out of my league. Going to be reading a lot of articles on here first I think!

  2. Sirimewan Amaratunga

    Very good and informative article.

  3. Paula C

    In finding and reading this today I burst into laughter because just this past weekend I had pulled a few books off my shelf to measure their margins! I was worried that my margins were were too big (looking at them on a computer they seemed unnecessarily large), so I was baffled when I found that they came very close to what looked “normal” in a paper book.

    Thanks for the tips!

  4. Laura Pep Wu

    I really appreciate that you share details like this with us Joel, thanks!
    I especially like the tip about using traditional books to get a good understanding of the industry “rules”. It’s so crucial that indies adhere to the same high standards.

  5. Maggie

    Ahh … margins and leading. They can make or break a book. Thanks for this, Joel. It needed to be said.

  6. Drew

    Thanks for highlighting my pet peeve: margin errors!

    It’s my chief turn-off when reading self-published books. Even if the poetry or prose is beautiful, I can’t get through a book that just looks bad. Tight margins are an easy sign of an amateur.

    Thanks, Joel, for offering practical insight.

  7. bowerbird

    good advice, all around.


  8. Dan

    Doubleplusgood on the ruler advice. That’s what I did. I took six books of similar dimensions to what I was going to publish and measured them all over the place.

    How big were the margins? If they had a running head or foot, how much space between the text and the runner? How much space between the runner and the edge of the paper? Were the margins the same at the top and bottom? Gutter vs. edge? How many characters per inch horizontally? How many lines per inch vertically? How tall was each character? Was it the same for the text as the runners? How much space was around the chapter heads?

    And then there were the softer tests of holding it in my hands. That book is too large a format, so it flops over awkwardly. That one’s spine is so thick it doesn’t open easily. On this one, my thumb keeps intruding onto the text. This one… dunno, just looks funny, like the box of text is too tall. This one makes me squint.

    So I finally settled on a nice font, spaced out my lines just a smidgen, expanded my gutter margin, and adjusted the space between my text and my runner. For a final touch, I altered the font on the runners to set them apart.

    When I got my hot little hands on the proof copy, I had a strong gut reaction to it. It looked and felt “like a real book”. All those little measurements paid off in subjective experience that just felt right. I suppose, in the end, I concluded that not only did it LOOK like a real book, it IS a real book.

    So I wholeheartedly agree with your ruler advice, and thanks for all the tips that helped to give my book a professional look.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Dan, that’s fantastic. And you have discovered what book designers know—it’s the sum total of all those tiny details that makes a book look good, or not. And yes, your book is a REAL book. Congratulations and thanks for your comment.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.