Project Focus: Long and Complex Books Demand Attention to Detail

by | Oct 1, 2018

Two recent projects have reminded me of just how much attention book designers have to pay to details. With a complex book, every detail counts.

What makes a book “complex”? It could be very long manuscripts, books with footnotes, endnotes, annotations, massive amounts of front matter and back matter, separate text streams, lots of tabular composition, sidebars, pull quotes, graphics incorporated into the text, material in several languages, or any combination.

Both of these projects are from well-established authors, and at a glance, they don’t seem to be your average self-published book.

But the range of books authors can publish themselves is much larger than Kindle romances and print on demand paperbacks.

In these cases, these are substantial, scholarly works that might have come from university presses. But in both cases, the authors decided their best course was to publish their own books.

From the point of book design, they both represent challenges typical of long and complex manuscripts.

Here are the books I’m talking about, and how each reached a balance between the demands of complex manuscripts and the needs of the readers who would eventually hold them in their hands.

Opera as Opera

book designThis collection of writings by noted writer on opera Conrad Osborne was a massive undertaking.

The manuscript was long, and the author wanted to create a single, readable volume from the disparate pieces that make up the book.

One of the ways I saved space in this book was by use of a font with a large “x-height“, Andada. This allows you to use a smaller than normal point size without sacrificing readability.

Here’s a chapter opener from the book, which ended up with a pretty classical design:

book design

In this two-page spread you can see the overall density of the pages, as well as the extensive footnoting. In fact, this book has both bottom-of-the-page footnotes and numbered chapter endnotes in the same text. Interesting challenge.

Also note the “A” level heads have been designed to stand out for the reader without taking up too much vertical space. In an 840-page book, this can be critical.

With the selected fonts we achieved 40 lines per book page, so each page has 460+ words on it.

Pages of notes are much denser, as this spread indicates. Here we achieved 53 lines per page, or over 730 words per page:

book design

This marvelous book was offset printed and has already sold out its first printing, gaining rave reviews in the opera press.


Opera as Opera: The State of the Art by Conrad L. Osborne
840 pages casebound, offset printed
6″ x 9″
Fonts used: Andada, Trajan
Find out more: Opera as Opera

book design

Jesus’ Death in New Testament Thought

What do you do when a client hands you a manuscript that’s 723,839 words long? Yes, that’s almost three-quarters of a million words.

In this case author David Brondos, who had previously published several books in the same genre with traditional publishers, knew what he wanted.

We ended up with a two-volume work of prodigious proportions. Like similar books, there are a variety of reader aids included for the academic users of the book, including 3 indexes, a bibliography, 117,000 words of notes, and more. The back matter alone accounted for over 100 pages.

Again, space was at a premium, so I increased the trim size to a slightly larger than normal 6.14″ x 9.21″. I used a standard book font that looks great no matter what size it’s been set in: Adobe Caslon Pro. Here’s the chapter opening, which uses a minimum amount of space:

book design

On the text pages, we managed to get 44 lines per page that is quite readable, yielding over 560 words per page. That’s a lot! Again, you’ll see that although the “A” and “B” heads are distinct, they use a minimum amount of vertical space:

book design

Just one of the interesting indexes supplied by the author for the benefit of academic readers:

book design

These books totaled 1400 pages and were printed as jacketed hardcovers by Ingram Spark. Although the unit cost for these books is quite high, the retail price, which will largely be paid by libraries and other institutions, is high enough to cover the production costs.


Jesus’ Death in New Testament Thought: Volume 1: Background, and Volume 2: Texts by David A. Brondos
1366 pages (both volumes) casebound, digitally printed
6.14″ x 9.21″
Fonts used: Adobe Caslon Pro, Poppl-Laudatio
Find out more: Jesus’ Death in New Testament Thought: Volume 1: Background, and Volume 2: Texts

It’s amazing to me to see these kinds of books migrating to self-publishing, and very encouraging too, I think. I’ve designed award-winning technical books, textbooks, coffee-table books, and just about every other kind of book for authors in recent years. Isn’t that great?

These long, complex books are very satisfying to work on. If you’ve got a project that looks problematic or is just so big you don’t know what to do with it, let me know and I’ll see if it’s something we can accomplish together.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Michael W. Perry

    I layout complex scientific texts for publication, the kind with thousands of endnotes. I’d amend that to read, “The bigger the book, the more inadequate a similar amount of funding is for catching errors.” A book twice as long needs at least twice as much funding for proofing.

    • Joel Friedlander


      Seems like simple mathematics, doesn’t it? Don’t take on a massive project without adequate funding, and to find out what that means for your specific book, consult someone who has done it before, like a book designer.

  2. Michael W. Perry

    Quote: It’s amazing to me to see these kinds of books migrating to self-publishing, and very encouraging too, I think.

    There is a practical reason. That gives authors rather than academic publishers control of their availability. That matters much with academic titles whose author would like to keep them in print forever. That’s why last week I was ticked off to discover that a Princeton University Press book I wanted to buy was so limited in stock that used copies were selling for almost $250 (hardback) and $50 (paperback).

    Here is the title.

    The second listing illustrates how unscrupulous book dealers scam Amazon. Its overpriced copies are not only listed separately in search results from the one linked first, they are ranked higher in search results. How did those book dealers get a book that at the other link more reputable book dealers are selling for under $50 listed separately so they might get away with their inflated price, perhaps paid by an academic library desperate to buy?

    Easy, they lied about the publication date, making it look like a collector’s edition. That “Paperback—1602” means that Amazon’s database software is being told this was a paperback book published in 1602, and thus not the same as the other listing. Note too that the publisher is listed as “Princeton University Press (1602).” That is insane. Princeton wasn’t founded until 1746. My hunch is that this easily weeded-out problem exists because Amazon’s quite happy to take its slice of those dishonestly inflated prices.

    There is another factor. I’ve seen evidence that the paperback version was released POD via Lightning Source and thus should still be in print. Why isn’t it? My hunch is that Princeton is not that eager to keep in print a book whose author, bylooking at the smallest possible voting districts, discovered that those who voted for Hitler in Germany’s last free elections were disproportionately affluent and well-educated, i.e. resembled Princeton graduates. Princeton would rather that research be forgotten.

    Self-publishing prevents a hostile or indifferent university press from keeping it out of print. That said, a wiser author might instead have a contract that says the rights revert to him when it drops out of print. Promoting academic titles is best left to an academic press.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hopefully, correcting errors results in fewer errors.


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