Guest Post: There’s More To Book Layout Than Meets the Untrained Eye

By Michele DeFilippo, owner
1106 Design

Michele is a frequent contributor to many of the publishing lists and email groups, so, when I knew it was time to discuss design, I asked her to pitch in. Thank you, Michele!

We’ve heard the question many times, “Should I layout the interior of my book myself?” Seems like a no-brainer. You have word processing software. You know how to set margins and choose a typeface. You even know about books that describe the process (written by folks who are not trained in typography by the way). So why shouldn’t you layout your own book?

Of course you can and should use your word processing software to write your text, but interior design and formatting are best left to people who do this for a living. Why? Because there are a lot more details involved in page composition than you’d think.

For starters, word-processing software does not have the sophisticated hyphenation and justification controls that professional page layout software does. This results in tight and loose lines that are unsightly and that distract the reader. And even if you were to buy page layout software, there is a very steep learning curve. It’s a mistake to assume that no knowledge of typography or design is required to use it effectively. As the saying goes, “Owning a hammer does not make one a carpenter.”

There are several dozen conventions to be followed in book design that may not be perceptible to the reader, but when followed, they give your book a polished appearance. But it’s not only about knowing the rules, it’s knowing how and when to bend or break them on a case-by-case basis that makes the difference between an amateur layout and a professional one. These decisions must be made quite often when the words in the text don’t cooperate with the page geometry.

Quality typesetting has never been about the tools. Experienced typesetters rarely use software at the default settings. We adjust the settings for better results, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, line by line, and even word by word. Why? We were trained to see the difference between “so-so” type and great type.

For what it’s worth, only beginning self-publishers consider using a word processor for page layout. Established publishers wouldn’t think of producing the text in this way. They know that experienced book designers bring real value to the table, offering creativity and aesthetic judgment that only comes with training and experience.
When we show customers the difference between their attempt at book layout and our own, they are usually blown away. They’ll say something like, “Wow! I thought my layout was just fine. Now I see how bad it really is!”
Here’s a current before-and-after example. IC_Book_Orig.pdf is the client’s attempt at book layout, and IC_Book_Designed.pdf is our design. (You may want to open or print both PDFs to compare the pages side by side.) See the difference? In addition to a much better look and the elimination of giant spaces between words in the original, professional typesetting saved 5 pages from the original’s 19 (more than 25%), thus reducing the client’s printing costs significantly.

It’s been clinically proven that quality typography improves reading comprehension. More importantly, an amateur job won’t satisfy the distributors, reviewers, and book retailers, the “gatekeepers” of the book industry, who will immediately spot a beginner’s efforts and reject your book as “self-published.”

Many people think that converting a word-processed file to a PDF is all the printer needs. That’s true. But it’s not all that YOU need. Printers won’t turn away a PDF that was made from a word-processed document. They’ll print your book because that’s what they’re in business to do. Their success is measured in how many books they print. Your success, on the other hand, is measured in the number of books you sell.

Your book design, inside and out, establishes your credibility in the eyes of the buyer. Buyers may not be able to pinpoint exactly what is wrong, but without a professional interior design, your book will not measure up to those that are professionally prepared. For the success of your new publishing endeavor, we hope you’ll give this issue some serious thought, and choose an experienced book designer to give your book the professional look it deserves.

15 Responses to “Guest Post: There’s More To Book Layout Than Meets the Untrained Eye”

  1. Bryna says:

    You make an excellent point (one of many in your blog) about the interior layout. I never would have thought that was an issue without seeing your example. But before I commit to spending money on interior layout (and what’s reasonable to pay for that?), are there any software programs one could use to do that oneself? (PageMaker?)

  2. Hi Bryna:

    There are software programs for layout, of course, but these are just tools. Just as in any other line of work, book design training and years of experience will yield the best results.

    The buying public will quickly see the difference between an amateur job and a professional job, but more importantly, so will book distributors, reviews, and retailers…the folks you need to help sell books. Self publishing is hard enough. It’s really important to prepare a well?crafted product that will meet the standards of the book industry.

    Also as in just about any other service you might buy, you’ll find every price range in book layout. The final price is the total of all the time spent on the job, including initial design, emails, questions answered, as well as the book layout task itself. For this reason, very low bids could indicate that the customer support just won’t be there when you need it.

    I look forward to answering any other questions you may have.

    Michele DeFilippo
    1106 Design

  3. I am a huge fan of everything related to typography, I’ll definitely keep coming back

  4. Fantastic blogpost, I favorited your blog post so I can visit again in the future, Cheers, Deloris Weech

  5. Katy says:

    Good point, some things are best left to the pros.

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  7. webdesign says:

    I`ve read couple of articles on your blog and could say it was really interesting, thanks for sharing that.

  8. mobiDude says:

    Although I wholeheartedly agree that this type of formatting should be left to the professionals, I am still interested in knowing what kinds of software and tools are used. As someone who “transforms” documents into mobi format, I am trying to better understand the poor quality and awful layout I see in the Kindle books…

    Any, and all, insight you can share would be appreciated.

    • This was a guest post, and I don’t really know much about laying out text.

      Despite that fact, I still have an opinion on this issue. (No surprise there, to those of you who know me!!) The poor quality of the layout in Kindle books is, IMNHO, largely attributable to the lack of a hyphenation and justification engine in the Kindle programming. If there were such a thing, it would be able to do full justification and still change the font size and the screen size/shape on the fly. Without one, you’re left with those terrible justification problems, widows, orphans, and all the rest of its atrocities, and there’s not one thing a poor publisher can do to change those issues.

      FWIW, I think we’re stuck with some of this.

      Marion Gropen, your host

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    • I do not allow copying of my material without prior written permission, but you are more than welcome to link to anything. (I’m sure you know this, but some of our readers may not: it is generally considered more polite to use a regular link rather than a hotlink — that is, one that brings people to my site, rather than making it appear that my content is on your site.)

  10. Thanks for your post – I was going to publishing an ebook without using any kind of software – just old word to pdf.

    Having read your posts I can see I can create a much more polished product with proper software.

    Thank you!

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  12. […] designer, or willing to learn professional-level book design, your layout will look amateurish.  This article by book designer Michele DeFilippo lays out the advantages of professional design, and this article on the standards for book […]

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    Guest Post: There?s More To Book Layout Than Meets the Untrained Eye « The Profitable Publisher

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