Remember the last time you browsed for a book on Amazon? If you're like me, you do this quite often. And you probably do many of the same things I do. You see a book cover that catches your eye. You click on it. Read or skim the blurb. Your interest is piqued. Then you click on the “Look Inside” feature to read a bit of the prose. But as soon as you're inside the book, something feels off. Maybe you know what it is. Or maybe it's subliminal. Either way, the text seems off. Sloppy somehow. The spacing isn't right. Or the font hurts your eyes. You hit the back button and continue browsing, forgetting about the book.
This is a key example of how important book layout is. You can have an amazing cover and the best blurb ever, but if there are problems with the layout, people won't buy your book. And if they do, they probably won't read all of it. Which, in this day and age, can keep your author career from taking off.
Fear not, though, because this article will take you through the key factors of book layout. Because even if you're paying someone else to do the layout for you (or using a tool), you still need to know what a good layout looks like.
- The basics of book layout
- What design factors go into book layout
- How to master book layout without breaking a sweat
Table of contents
Book Layout Basics
Let's start here with the basics of book layout. Then we'll move on to book design factors.
Trim size only matters for print books, as ebooks are formatted to fit the device they're read on. So if you're an ebook-only author, this may not pertain to you. However, print books still make up the vast majority of book sales. So maybe it's time to take advantage of print-on-demand services!
The trim size that's right for your book depends on many factors. Most text-heavy fiction and nonfiction books are one of two sizes:
- 5.5″ x 8.5″ – For books under 100,000 words
- 6″ x 9″ – For books over 125,000 words
However, if you're publishing a cookbook, a children's book, a coffee-table book, or something that doesn't fit neatly into a topic/genre, you'll want to consider other sizes. It's best to look at other books like yours and see what they're doing for trim size. Following these conventions can help make your book attractive to potential readers.
Proper margins are key to publishing a book that's attractive, easy to read, and easy to hold. Most ebook formatting programs take care of margins for you, but print books are a different story. You've got the top margin, the outside margin, and the bottom margin. The inside margin, where the pages are bound together, is called the gutter.
The top margin usually has the author's name and the book or chapter title (and sometimes the page numbers). The outside margin needs to be big enough for a reader to hold the book open without covering up text with their thumbs. The bottom margin may have the page numbers or it may just be a cushion for the text.
While people won't sit with a ruler and measure your margins to make sure they're “correct,” they will subconsciously notice if something is off, which can detract from the reading experience.
Proper alignment is also an important factor in your book's layout. This means that when you open your book, the text on both pages is lined up, regardless of any page break, paragraph differences, or images. Fully justified text alignment is the norm in most books.
Of course, there are exceptions to this, as alignment will be different in a picture book than in a text-heavy nonfiction book. Some paragraphs in a children's picture book may be flush-left, whereas others may be center-aligned. Some may even be fully justified.
However, proper justification is different in a book than it is in a word document. Luckily, a lot of book layout tools, such as the one built-in to Atticus, do this automatically. If you're not using a tool like this, you'll probably want to hire a professional for your book's interior design.
Although technically part of proper alignment, it's important to ensure a consistent grid. This means that the text on all pages lines up. So if you hold a single page of your book up to a light, you can see that the text on both sides lines up perfectly.
This is another factor readers probably won’t notice consciously, but are likely to note it subconsciously as they read your book.
Book Layout Design Factors
Now that we've covered the basics, let's look at interior design factors. Sometimes referred to as page layout factors, the following can help you ensure a professional-looking book and a pleasurable reading experience.
Typography refers to the font in your book. Choosing the wrong font can make for an unbearable reading experience. You want the bulk of your text to be pleasing to the eye. But you can get a little more creative with chapter headings, page number font, headers, and footers.
If you're publishing a comic book, a children's book, or a nonfiction book with lots of sections and images, you'll have several typography choices to make.
In fact, you'll want to vary the font you use for things like breakout boxes, illustration descriptions, and sidebars. Again, it's best to look at other books like yours and emulate them with your interior layout and design factors, including typography. This is not to say that you should copy any one book's exact text layout or design. Just that it can inform your choices along the way.
For fiction books, it's best to stick with fonts that are commonly used in your genre. Fantasy books use different fonts than romance, and so on.
Spacing (And White Space)
A good page layout takes spacing into account throughout the book design. This doesn't mean just the line spacing, which should be somewhere between 1.5 and 2.0 in most books. It also means the spacing at the beginning of chapters, at the ends of paragraphs, and even how you use white space.
Proper spacing and page layout can prevent widows and orphans, which are lines of text that are isolated from the body of words by spacing or page changes.
The most common use of white space in fiction books is called the sink. This is where the body text of a new chapter starts halfway down the page. This is standard among fiction books, and starting your chapter higher or lower on the page will throw readers off.
White space is doubly important in books with lots of text and images. Without using this blank space properly, your pages will end up looking congested and overwhelming to the reader. For books like this, it's usually best to hire a book designer or to get very acquainted with Adobe InDesign and learn a bit about book design.
For fiction authors, a well-designed book layout template takes care of the proper spacing for you. For example, the numerous templates included in Atticus can do this with the click of a button.
Running Heads and Feet
I've never seen a running head, but I'm sure it would be a sight. Fortunately, we're not talking about severed heads running around. No, this section is about those tidbits of information at the tops and bottoms of the interior pages.
Running heads in a fiction book will typically include the author's name, the book name, and/or the chapter name. Sometimes they'll also include the page number. But often, page numbers are located at the bottom of the pages, which would then be the running feet.
In nonfiction books, the running heads usually include the chapter name so readers can easily navigate the book.
How you align your running heads and feet depends on the style you want the book to have. Some are centered, while others are located at the outside edges of the pages.
Sometimes called a section break, this is a way to tell the reader that something is changing. In a fiction book, a section break may signal a POV shift or act as a sign that time has passed. In a nonfiction book, this usually means that a new topic is starting.
The most common types of ornamental scene break are dots or stars, like this: ***. However, you can choose other images to use for section breaks. Some prefer just to use a section of white space. It's up to you which you decide, but again, look at the types used in books like yours if you're not sure.
The use of photographs, images, and artwork in your book requires careful consideration. You don't want to bombard the pages with a lot of images and text smashed in between them. Instead, you want the eye to flow easily over the text and images, making the reading experience smooth.
For a photo book, you may want a single photo on the left-hand page and the text that accompanies the photo on the right-hand page. Or, if you only have limited text, you could place the text box underneath the photo on each page.
For a cookbook, you could have photos of the meal on the left-hand page and cooking instructions on the right-hand page. For a children's book, you'll probably want to have the text over the images in such a way that it's easy to read and doesn't obstruct the artwork.
Creating image-heavy books for printing can be difficult. It's worth investing in a graphic designer to get this done if you don't have any graphic design experience. Like book cover design for a great book cover, it takes skills and know-how to produce a good book with lots of images.
How to Get the Perfect Book Layout (The Easy Way)
This all may seem like a lot of information to absorb; lots of things to address after writing your book. However, there are ways to get the perfect book layout without spending a ton of time or a ton of money.
Fiction and Text-Heavy Nonfiction
If you're a fiction author or are writing a text-heavy nonfiction book, our Atticus writing software can take care of book layout for you. There are plenty of book templates to choose from, and you can even select the headers and footers you want to include with the click of your mouse.
With Atticus, you can go from an MS Word document to a PDF file that's ready for printing in under an hour. You can customize your book's font, line spacing, drop caps, section breaks, justification, and even margin sizes if you want to. However, choosing one of the 17 Atticus themes takes care of most of this for you. It's available for a one-time fee and includes all future updates for free. Click here to check it out.
Although you can add images in Atticus, it's probably not the best choice if you're publishing a book with lots of images. But you may be able to find a book template you can use. There are plenty of templates available online.
However, if you're determined to do the job yourself from the ground up, software like Adobe InDesign is probably your best bet. There's definitely a learning curve, but if you have any graphic design experience, you're already ahead of the curve!
If you're a children's book writer, I have a number of resources you can use to help make your book the best it can be. Check them out here.
Book layout is an important part of book formatting, and a lot goes into it. From proper line spacing to making sure the margins are correct so your text doesn't get swallowed up in the printing process, there's a lot to consider. And it's important to know the basics of page layout so you can make sure your self-published book is up to snuff. Luckily, you can choose a template (like those on Atticus) and rest easy knowing that you only have a few easy decisions to make to get a perfect book layout!