Samples of 2-Column Book Layout

by | Dec 17, 2018

Here’s a question from reader Pat B.:

Hi Joel,

Are there any rules of thumb for deciding whether text on a wide-format page should be printed in one or two columns? And if you go with two, are there guidelines for determining the optimal space between the columns?

Thanks, Pat

I’m not sure if there are rules, but some examples should help.

First, here are some cases where you might use a 2-column layout:

  • indexes, glossaries, and appendices in the back matter of your book
  • larger-format books for efficient use of space for text and graphics
  • reference books that mostly consist of item listings

Examples of 2-Column Book Layouts

Before we get started, here’s an example of the original 2-column book layout. Yes, it’s the very first book of all printed with moveable type, the Gutenberg Bible.

book design

The Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 1450s

Although printers of that time were closely imitating the work of scribes who were responsible for all the handwritten books of the era, you can already see the basic geometry of the page clearly expressed in Gutenberg’s careful typography.

Here are three examples of modern 2-column layouts, with the complete typesetting specifications so you can get the same effect in your own book. I use the picas/points units in all my layouts, you can easily switch between units in InDesign’s Preferences palette.

Margin values often adjust depending on the way the running heads and footers are used in any particular book. But if you are tasked with doing your own layout and wondering where to get started with a book—or a section of a book—you want to divide into 2 columns, these examples will get you up and running quickly.

Reference Work

book design

Reference works use 2 columns to maximize the use of space

Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names, Vol. 1
Steve Allen

Body font, size, leading: Georgia 9.5/14, tracking –5
Display font: Myriad Pro Black 10/14
Page size: 8-/12″ x 11″
top: 3p (3 picas)
bottom: 4p
inside (gutter): 5p/6 (5 picas and 6 points, i.e. 5-1/2 picas)
outside (trim): 5p
inter-column: 1p6

(Note: the header for this article shows the chapter opening style of this book.)
[yellowbox]Doing your own book layout? Check out my recently published The Book Blueprint: Expert Advice for Creating Industry-Standard Books.[/yellowbox]

Text book

book design

This design has to account for photos, illustrations and numerous text boxes

Walking Well Again: Neutralize the Hidden Causes of Pain Second Edition
Dr. Stuart M Goldman DPM

Body font, size, leading: Adobe Caslon Pro, 11/14.5
Display font: Myriad Pro Bold
Page size: 8-1/2″ x 11″
top: 3p
bottom: 4p
inside (gutter): 5p6
outside (trim): 5p
inter-column: 1p6

Business book

book design

Layout accommodates illustrations across columns

Sales Strategy Playbook: The Ultimate Reference Guide to Solve Your Toughest Sales Challenges
Steve w. Martin

Body font, size, leading: Helvetica Neue 10/14, tracking +10
Display font: Helvetica Neue Condensed Bold
Page size: 7″ x 10″
top: 3p
bottom: 3p6
inside (gutter): 5p6
outside (trim): 4p6
inter-column: 1p

[yellowbox]You can download a full size, full resolution PDF of these three spreads so you can see all the details. Just click here: 2-column-samples.[/yellowbox]

Photo: Chris Jennings

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Linda

    It’s useful. Thank you.

  2. Rashel

    Amazing article with an awesome example. thank you so much for share.

  3. JR Holmes

    So a long-standing question I’ve had was whether it was possible to take a long page of simple HTML text (just a bunch of paragraphs), and have a style sheet that is applied when being output to printer that puts that into two-column format.

    • Joel Friedlander

      JR, in years gone by I did a lot of what we used to call “database publishing” to do this sort of “automatic formatting.”

      We used the report generator to embed typesetting codes on either sides of the fields that the report would generate, allowing us to literally dump the data from the database into a text file, import it into our layout program, and have it all format itself.

      If you can process the HTML in a similar way, it might work if you use a layout program with text-based formatting commands.

  4. michael n. marcus

    I’ve used two columns—and even three—for indexes, but not elsewhere in dozens of books with 6-by-9 pages of one-column text. My newest book, about Trump, has 7-by-10 pages, but still one column except for the index. I suppose I might use two columns if I ever publish a cookbook or dictionary or use pages larger than 7-by-10.

    It should be noted that some books (such as the “Idiots” and Dummies” series and “Looking Good in Print”) are sort-of-two-column, with one normal-size column plus an enlarged outside margin that contains brief remarks.

    Some magazines (e.g., “Time,” “Car & Driver”) are sort-of-three-column, with occasional center columns holding tiny bits of text—but I have not seen this in books.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Michael, I’ve done dozens of business books that use the type of layout you are talking about, I generally refer to that small column as a “sidebar” just the same way we call the narrow column on this web page a sidebar.

      It’s useful for bits of content that add to the main narrative, and makes the pages more visually interesting.

      Keep in mind though that pages with sidebars are much more difficult to convert to standard reflowable ebooks.

      • michael n. marcus

        This might be the first time I heard “sidebar” since I was in journalism school in the 60s. Thanks for the memory. My blogs have sidebars, as do some of my websites, but so far none of my books.

        Also, there’s an error in my original comment (I wish your format allowed corrections in posts like other blogs do). I wrote “enlarged outside column”—but meant “enlarged outside margin.”

        • Joel Friedlander

          Fixed that typo, Michael. Sidebars are a permanent part of the WordPress site structure, although you don’t have to implement them. I find all these echoes of print conventions in the digital world interesting.



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