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June 28, 2015
By Joel Friendlander
Book designer and author Joel Friedlander takes a look at pitfalls self-publishers face when doing their own book formatting, and explains how to avoid these mistakes in the first place.

With more and more authors taking the production of their books into their own hands, more and more of those books look... strange. That’s not a good thing for either authors or their readers.

Book design used to be a pretty arcane branch of graphic design, pursued by a handful of practitioners, many of whom were employed by typesetters and publishing houses. Like many other specialties, only the insiders knew or cared about the intricacies of long-form typography and all the small nuances that go into creating beautiful books.

Along with editors, these professionals made sure that the books they produced conformed to long-established publishing industry standards. That’s important when you’re sending your book to store or chain buyers, to media bookers, to reviewers, or to anyone who is used to looking at traditionally published books as part of her job.

So, it really behooves authors who decide to become DIY publishers to educate themselves as to how books are supposed to look, how they are constructed, and what book professionals expect to see. As my father used to say, it doesn’t cost any more to print a book that’s properly designed and laid out than it does to print one that’s a typographic train wreck, so why not do it right the first time?

Let’s take a look at the mistakes that seem to occur most frequently when self-published authors decide to do their own book formatting and how to save yourself the embarrassment of making these mistakes in the first place:

1. Blank right-hand pages: It’s very common, especially in nonfiction books, to have blank left-hand pages, and there’s nothing wrong with that. This occurs naturally if your chapters always open on right-hand pages. But if you’ve designed your book to use a two-page spread as your chapter opening (for instance, with an illustration on the left-hand page and text on the right-hand page), you run the risk of having a blank right-hand page immediately preceding the spread (since there’s no guarantee that the preceding chapter will end on a right-hand page). This is a no-no in book layout. We never want to have a blank right-hand page. To solve it, either adjust the typography, or have quotations or artwork on hand that will augment the message of your book, and put those on the otherwise-blank right-hand page.

"If you want your book to be taken seriously, it’s important that you take book design and layout just as seriously."
2. Folios running rampant: We need folios (that’s what book designers call page numbers) on most of the pages in our book, but not all. Remember to turn off page numbering for the title page, the copyright page, any blank pages, any “display” pages like part-openers, and any advertising pages at the end of the book.

3. Running heads misbehaving: This seems to be a challenge for a lot of amateur book formatters. If a page is blank—and there are usually going to be a number of blank pages in your book—technically it’s not part of the text. After all, there’s no text on the page, is there? A blank page should be just that: blank, with nothing on it at all. By the same token, those “display” pages mentioned above shouldn’t have running heads—text at the top of the page that lists title, author, chapter, etc.—on them either. Yet many books I’ve seen from self-publishers show that the author just didn’t know that, or didn’t know how to turn the running heads off—and nothing looks worse to me than a chapter-opening page with a running head on it.

4. Ragged composition: Here’s another oddity you may never have seen before. Of course, there are books that can be typeset in a rag-right style to good effect. (This means the type is unjustified, so the right-hand margin is uneven, unlike most books, the margins of which are perfectly squared away on both sides of the type column.) Examples include art, architecture, poetry, photo books, and similar illustrated works—but not memoirs, novels, histories, or other standard trade books. Whatever the merit of rag-right composition, these books aren’t a good place for it. Stick with justified copy.

5. Odd-numbered pages on the left: Okay, I saved the best for last. Or is that the worst? Just think about this for a moment. When you open a book, the very first page you see is p. 1. There is no logical way that p. 1 can be on the left, because then it wouldn’t be the first page. This is an ironclad rule in book layout: all odd-numbered pages in your book should be right-hand pages. Make sure you get this right.

There are a lot of other ways your book might inadvertently signal that you’re a design “amateur,” but these five errors, once you know about them, are easy to avoid. You want your book to stand out for your great writing, thoughtful arguments, or the tremendous value it brings to readers, not because it looks unprofessional.

Remember, if you want your book to be taken seriously, it’s important that you take book design and layout just as seriously. And, if this seems disturbingly detailed, you can always hire a professional book designer—and make sure that everyone who holds a copy of your book in their hands will recognize, consciously or unconsciously, that it has been properly constructed, providing a comfortable experience for your readers. 

Joel Friedlander is a book designer and author; he blogs about book design, marketing, and the future of the book at thebookdesigner.com.

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