Book Design Basics for New Indie Authors

book design basics

What should your book look like?

By Kate Sullivan

You’ve written your first book. You’ve sent it through the rounds with beta readers, hired an editor, shaped up your title, and gotten a head start on building your marketing platform.

You’ve even done the research to determine that self-publishing is right for you; you’re going to avoid the hassle and fuss of going the traditional route and bring your book direct to your eager audience.

So you’re all ready to launch, right? Just upload that Word file to CreateSpace and Kindle, and you’re going to sit back and watch the passive income roll in, right?

… not so fast.

You have done everything right so far. You’re treating your book like a professional would by revising it, sending it to others to read and critique, revising it again, hiring a pro to polish up that revision, and making sure you have a solid marketing plan in place.

But even the best-edited book with the greatest audience clamoring for it can stumble if it doesn’t look like a great book!

Your mother’s advice to not judge a book by its cover was given for a reason because we do judge things based on appearances.

Books are such everyday objects in our lives that we subconsciously develop standards for what a “real” book looks like.

If you don’t meet these standards when creating your indie-published book, you run the risk of scaring off readers, because they’ll instinctively pick up that something is wrong with the book because it doesn’t meet their expectations.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with breaking with tradition to innovate— it’s what gave us the whole boom in indie-publishing in the first place. But in the case of book design, these conventions came into being for a reason.

They all serve to make a book a little easier to read and understand in some way, so it’s worth knowing the basics of good book design before you make any choices before you do your own thing.

What are the key elements in book design?

Let’s look at a few key elements of book design that you can apply to your project, no matter what kind of book you’re publishing and what program you’re using to lay it out.

These style guidelines mostly apply to print books, but they’re good practice for eBooks as well.

Front Matter

Every book needs front matter that discusses what’s going on, who wrote the book, and so on. One of the first pages, on the left-hand side, should be the colophon, that page that has all the copyright information.

At a minimum, your colophon should include your copyright notice (that you wrote the book, the year you wrote it, and that you hold copyright) as well as basic contact information.

If you want, you can also include the name of the publishing company, if you have one, as well as the book’s print and digital ISBNs.

It is also a good place to include information about who designed your cover, who edited the book, or any other credits you would like to include.

Front matter can also include a dedication page, an introduction or foreword, and a table of contents.

Chapter Openings

The first page of a chapter should start about halfway down the page.

You can include a chapter heading, like Chapter One or a chapter title, spaced about a quarter of the way down the page (halfway between the top and where the text starts). This is a great place to include graphics or fancy fonts to make the chapter heading stand out.

The top and bottom of the page should be blank, with no author information or page number (we’ll get to those in a minute).

Start the numbering for your book on page 2, the next page after the first chapter opening.

Yes, that’s a little weird, but it’s a convention. Leaving page numbers off the chapter openings keeps the reader’s attention on what’s written and on the engaging new opening to the next section, not on what page they’re on.

Font Choice

When choosing a font for your book, keep it simple. The title and the chapter headings can be fancy, but for the actual body of text in your work, it should be simple and easy to read.

Serif fonts are best for print books—they’re those fonts with little lines coming off some of the letters, like in the classic Times New Roman. These little lines (called serifs, funny enough!) draw the eye through the various characters, helping make the reading process easier and more comfortable.

Serif fonts have been proven to reduce eye strain when reading for a long time, especially in print, so do your reader a favor and pick a classic serif.

You might want to save on printing cost by using a very small font to cram more onto a page, but that’s a strategy that can backfire. Pick a font that you’d be happy to read yourself and keep the size manageable—in general, don’t go below 10-point font or above 14.

A few classic book fonts that most computers have built into the system are Cambria, Times New Roman, Garamond, and Georgia.

Full Justification

When you’re laying out that font choice, be sure to select “full justification.” No, that’s not your underlying reasons for writing a book — it’s how the text is displayed on the page!

“Left justification” means that the right-hand side of the text ends at different places depending on how long a word might be. It’s the style you see most often in blogs and online posts, because it’s simpler for the program to process, and it’s the default for Word.

But full justification is used for books, and readers notice that something’s “off” if you left-justify the text.

To a casual reader, it’ll look like you typed up your manuscript in Word and then just plopped it onto the page or fed it into KDP instead of taking the time to layout the book like a real book. And that’s not a good impression to make!

Full justification means that the text lines up neatly on both the left and right sides of the page. It creates a neater, cleaner finish and can make it easier to read.

Full justification for books

You can turn on “full justification” in Word and most other publishing and word processing programs by using the option that looks like lines all in a neat column, rather than of different lengths.

Comfortable Margins

Margins are also important for ease of reading and for making sure your book looks professional.

It can be tempting to reduce the margins down to nearly nothing to get more words on the page and reduce your print costs … or because margins don’t really matter in eBooks, right? There are no pages to stick together or turn!

But readers really do notice when you have teeny-tiny margins. So it’s best to leave some space on every side of the page. It causes less eyestrain and enables the reader to float from line to line and page to page without struggling or losing their place.

I recommend leaving no less than half an inch (0.5”) of margin on all sides of the page—top, bottom, left, right. This gives plenty of space for the eye to roam without being so big that it imposes on the text, and also gives print book readers a place to put their thumbs when holding the book.

Running Headers and Footers

The top and bottom of your book’s pages are where some pretty important information must go.

Remember how we said that no page information or author information should go on your chapter opening pages? Well, all the other pages should include that in the “running head” or “running footer.”

A running head appears at the top of the page; a running footer, at the bottom. These areas contain information about your book, like the author name or the title, as well as the page number.

You can use a header, a footer, or a combination of the two, depending on how you would like to style your book, but in a print book especially, you should always include this so that people can navigate your book better.

Personally, I like to put the page number on the outside of the page (to the far left on an even-numbered page, to the far right on an odd-numbered page) with the author’s name centered at the top of the left-hand page and the book title centered at the top of the right-hand page.

But you can also put the page numbers on the bottom, either at the far sides or centered, or reconfigure this however you think looks good. What’s important is that the header and/or footer information is there.

To insert heads and footers in a Word document that you’re preparing to become a print book, double-click in the margin at the top or bottom of the page. That will grey out the main text of your manuscript and let you add your head or footer text.

You can also go to “Document Elements” and add a header or footer that way, including adding automatic page numbering and changing the text that’s included on odd or even pages for a really professional look.

Remember to delete these headers and footers from your chapter openings.

There’s always more you can do.

There are a lot more guidelines that professional book designers use when developing a book design and laying out the book. Custom-chosen fonts; break hyphenation; widow and orphan control; text matching between your cover, chapter heads, and body font; adding graphics or images—all this and more is part of a pro designer’s job, and it’s often worth the money.

However, there are many great low-cost book design templates available these days that will let you create a professional-looking book for a fraction of the cost of a custom design if you’re not sure you can apply these tips on your own.

And Word, Pages, and many other word processors do make it easy to produce a good-looking layout if you’re willing to spend the time and effort learning your way around the program and understanding the basic rules of classic book design.

Pick up a couple of the books on your shelf and flip through them. Check the headers and footers, look at the chapter openings, examine the font and the margins. See what similarities you notice. I’ll bet there’s more than you expected.

It’s those similarities that signal “pro book”—and that’s what you want in your indie-published book.

Use these basics to get you started, and you’ll have a professional-looking book in no time.

Kate SullivanKate Sullivan is a professional book designer and editor. She’s also the web editor of TCK Publishing, an independent press dedicated to helping authors make the most of their publishing experience, whether they’re writing fiction or nonfiction. If she’s not working on a book, she can probably be found baking altogether too much bread.

Derek Haines

Derek Haines is an Australian author, living in Switzerland.

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