A post by Jess Gately
Cover image by Mali Maeder on pexels.com
While many authors are excited about the cover design of their book, the internal design is one of the most important aspects of maintaining a professional looking book that ensures an easy-to-read experience. Designers working on books must consider the type size and type face, line lengths, margins, leadings, justification, image placement, and text distractions such as widows, orphans, kerning, and rivers (if these terms don’t mean anything to you yet, don’t worry, you’re about to learn what they all are).
If you really want to compete in the market, it’s worth engaging an experienced typesetter to do this for you. Typesetters are trained to see all the things we’re about to discuss and will adjust settings line by line, and even word by word, to perfect the readability of your book.
So, let’s start by looking at what programs you’ll need to typeset properly…
Typesetting programs and templates
No, you don’t typeset in Microsoft Word. It’s actually really terrible for typesetting. If you’re going to typeset your book yourself, you’ll need to use a dedicated program like Adobe InDesign, LaTeX or Scribus. It’s worth noting that most professionals use Adobe InDesign for typesetting but LaTeX and Scribus are two open source options.
The majority of self-publishing companies will give you a template to work with depending on the size of your book and the type of binding you’re going to have (that’s a discussion for our next part in the series). There are also different templates for when you are producing an ebook versus a print book.
Most of the issues of typesetting we’ll discuss here are related to fixed layouts, but it’s worth quickly mentioning that ebooks also have the option to have a ‘reflowable’ layout, which is related to the ePub file format. Reflowable layouts often have a wider distribution for ebooks because they adapt to different devices and apps. With this format, readers can change the size of the text, spacing, and margins themselves. If you’re publishing novels and textbooks solely online the reflowable layout is saves time and money while also maximising readability, however it may be challenging if you’re producing a children’s book or an image-heavy book. If you’re producing an ePub file, it’s important to make sure all of your formatting is fixed in your original document (whether that’s Microsoft Word or from a dedicated writing program like Scrivener) before you export to ePub.
Moving on to the considerations of typesetting, let’s start with the obvious one. Many self-published authors choose the wrong fonts, either in an attempt to stand out or purely because they don’t know better. There’s a reason most books look the same on the inside and that’s because certain fonts are easier to read than others (and are less distracting). If you’re relying on your font to make your book stand out, then you’re probably putting your focus in the wrong place.
Serif vs sans serif fonts
Most professionally published books use a serif font. If you’re not sure of the difference, here’s an example:
Do you notice the difference? Serif fonts have those little decorative flicks on the ends of the letters, and they work well for books because the little flourish helps direct the reader’s eye from one letter to the next. Having said that, chapter titles and headings may use a sans serif font to help them stand out from the body text.
It’s interesting to note that there are particular fonts that are more popular in particular genres of books. For example, Baskerville is more commonly used in literary fiction, Sabon is popular in romance, and Garamond is the font of choice for many crime and thriller novels.
As always, it’s a good idea to do some research into the typefaces that your genre most commonly uses and stick to those to ensure you’re giving your readers the least distracting experience possible. On that note, whatever you choose, it’s important to apply consistency and stick to the same font throughout the text. Don’t get halfway through the book and decide to switch.
And please, oh god please, stay away from comic sans and papyrus!
While we’re on the topic of fonts, let’s talk about getting the size right. Have you ever been reading later in the evening and find yourself rubbing at your eyes because you’re straining to read? Chances are the font size of your book is too small.
Sometimes a smaller font size is chosen because it means less pages to print and you can therefore save money. However, keep in mind that a small font size may also disadvantage readers with vision impairments or may just make it really hard for the average reader to sit down with your book for long.
Your audience will also make a difference. Children’s books have much larger font sizes than most adult books, while literary fiction books tend to have smaller font sizes because it requires more ‘concentration’ to read (there is some snobbery at play here sadly). Or perhaps you want to have a version of your book in large print for vision impaired readers, in which case using a much larger font size will help them digest the book much more readily.
With that in mind, font sizes have ranges and you’ll need to pick what works best for your book. As a general rule for adult books (note children’s books and large print books have different expectations):
- Body text should be no smaller than 10pt and no larger than 12pt
- Chapter Headings start from 14pt and max out at 16pt
- Sub-titles or sub-headings start at 12pt and max at 14pt.
It’s worth noting here as well, that changing the font may require a change in size—not all 12pt fonts are the same physical height.
Now that we’ve got fonts out of the way, let’s talk about some other aspects of typesetting. These are some of the big picture things you may have already heard of.
Margins are the white space around the main body of the text (also known as the book block). Usually, in a print book, the margins will be slightly larger on the inside edge (known as the gutter margin) to allow for where the book is bound together. Margins which are too small will see the text run into the spine of the book and/or right to the edge of the page, making it harder to read and harder to move comfortably from one line to the next.
If you’re working from a template, you’ll probably find that your margins have been set for you, but if you’re thinking about amending them, just remember that they are often determined by line length as well as by the size of the page. The line length is the average number of characters you can fit on the line. This will change depending on your font, point size, and character spacing. Usually, you’re looking to get 45–90 characters per line including spaces (65 characters seems to be the sweet spot for most). So, at 12pt, left and right page margins are usually about 1.5–2.0 inches.
It’s also normal for the top and bottom margins to be different widths as well. Often the bottom margin is about 0.25 inches bigger than the top margin to help the text look more centred on the page. You can adjust the top and bottom margins to fit more or less lines on the page (more lines obviously means less pages).
Again, whatever you do, it’s important to make sure your margins are the same on every page. Your top and bottom lines should line up with each other throughout the book.
Running Heads and Feet
The running heads and feet are the areas of the page where you usually find the title of the book or chapter, the name of the author, and the page numbers. We’re talking about the top (header) and bottom (foot) of the page.
Many novels will include page numbers which often appear in the footer and may be either centre aligned or aligned with the edge of the page. Occasionally, the page numbers will appear in the header usually aligned to the edge of the page. It is rare for title or author information to appear in the same header or footer as the page numbers as it creates a cluttered and unbalanced feel.
Some books feature the author name on one page and the title of the book on another; however, anthologies of multiple authors are the most likely to utilise this format as it allows them to highlight the different authors and stories within the collection.
You probably recognise alignment from your normal word processors. Alignment refers to how the text lines up along an edge of the page. There’s left alignment, right alignment, centred alignment, and justified alignment. All books use justified alignment, i.e. the text is aligned on both the left and right sides of the page by modifying the spacing of the letters and words.
If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, copy and paste part of this post into a word processor and play with the paragraph settings pictured below. That fourth option, where all the lines are the same, is justified alignment. Highlight your paragraph and switch between the four options to see how it changes the text.
Line and paragraph spacing
Also known as leading, the space between lines varies depending on the font type and size you’re using. Most books use a leading of 1.25–2.00 points. If lines are too close together, they start to run into each other; but on the flip side, if they are too far apart it makes it harder to move from one line to the next. Finding the sweet spot is a matter of experience.
Usually, paragraphs do not have any extra spacing between them in a book. An extra space may be used to indicate a scene break or a new section, but most of the time the spacing between paragraphs will be the same as the line spacing.
Widows and orphans
Widows and orphans are when a single line of a paragraph is left dangling on one page while the rest of the paragraph is on another. A widow is a single line left at the top of the page, with the rest of the paragraph on the previous page, while an orphan is a line on the bottom of a page with the rest of the paragraph on the next page.
Widows and orphans are often fixed by carefully increasing the spacing between letters and words on their respective pages to ‘push’ the line into place. For example, you might fix a widow either by increasing the character and word spacing on the previous page until another line drops down to accompany the widow. Or you might reduce the spacing of the characters and words until the line is retracted onto the previous page with the rest of the paragraph.
Lines after a subheading
Generally, the rule of thumb says that when a subheading appears at the bottom of a page, there should be at least two lines of text beneath it before moving to the next page. It’s a bit like the widowed and orphaned sentences we’ve just talked about. You don’t want to leave them all on their lonesome. If you only have one line of text, or no line at all, you’ll need to adjust the spacing of the section before it to either bump the subheading over to the next page, or retract it enough to bring another line in underneath it.
Most books don’t have blank pages. It’s a waste of paper and it looks weird. It most often happens where the publisher/author wants to have all chapters start on a particular side of the book (i.e. a new chapter always starts on the right page). Ideally, where this is an issue, a typesetter will try to increase the character and word spacing, either over the chapter as a whole or over the last few pages, so that several sentences will overflow onto the last page.
(Perhaps you’re starting to see how tricky this typesetting business is!)
Lines and words
Right, now that we’ve got the look of the pages down, it’s time to look at the text itself. There are a few issues you want to look out for.
In fiction, most paragraphs begin with a small indentation of the first line EXCEPT for the first paragraph in a chapter or a new ‘section’. The indentation of the first line is never more than the leading (the line spacing).
A runt is when a single word appears on the last line of a paragraph. Runts can often be left alone, especially if it makes the spacing of the previous lines look odd. However, runts are particularly problematic where the word is very short (only three or four letters long) and is therefore shorter than the indentation of the first sentence of the next paragraph. This is generally considered to be bad typesetting and should be amended, either by increasing the character and word spacing on previous lines to move more words onto the last line, or by decreasing the spacing so that the last word is retracted onto the previous line.
Word stacks are when the first or last word of each line in a paragraph are all the same. It’s a rare occurrence but it not only looks weird, it also makes it incredibly difficult to figure out which line you move to next. If you do see a word stack in your typeset document, amend it immediately.
Kerning is the spacing between individual characters and is particularly important for readability. Kerning is most often an issue where the normal spacing of letters makes it look like they are either much further apart or much closer together than they actually are. The image below shows an example of how a change in kerning can affect the way we read a word. The kerning in the top has the W and A too far apart where the kerning in the bottom is too close together. The middle option is the best possible kerning to make the word easily readable.
Rivers are gaps in the main body of text that appear to run through a paragraph due to coincidental spacing throughout the lines. The only way to fix it is to manually address word spacing throughout the paragraph to try and rearrange the gaps and disjoin them. You can see an example of a river below in the image from CreativePro. Notice the gap that runs down the middle of the paragraph, almost making it look like two separate columns. There’s also a second river in the last four lines to the left-hand side of the paragraph, and even a third in the last six lines on the right-hand side.
Ladders and hyphenations
Hyphenations at the end of a line allow longer words to be broken over two lines thereby preserving a more even spacing overall. However, sometimes the location of the hyphen can unintentionally change how the word is read, either changing the meaning of the sentence or prompting a reader to reread the sentence in order for it to make sense. Likewise, it’s preferable not to hyphenate a word that is already hyphenated (i.e. having two hyphens in the same word) as it can be confusing for the reader.
Ladders occur when the end of each subsequent line has used a hyphen to split words (as shown in the image below from CreativePro). Where this occurs, you should adjust the spacing of the words and characters to minimise the number of hyphenated words across lines.
If all these terms and considerations have got you confused, intimidated or just plain tired, you should consider hiring a proofreader to go through your document after it has been typeset. A good proofreader should look out for all these things in the final typeset document, as well as checking for any last spelling or grammatical errors. In many cases, a proofreader will be the first person to have ever seen and checked some of the elements of your book, such as the front and end matter, as well as the various typesetting elements.
Even if you’re employing a typesetter to undertake this process, it’s worth having a professional proofreader go over your work to ensure that everything has been double checked and accounted for. The final document is normally presented to a proofreader in PDF format and they will mark up directly on the document with designated proofreading marks. You should then be able to send this document back to the typesetter to have fixed.
Examples of some of the above terms
An image from Publish My Book that illustrates margins, leadings, headers and footers.
An image from Herron Printing & Graphics highlighting what widows, orphans, runts, and rivers look like.