When we speak of books, we mostly speak of them as one of two things: an object, made up of surfaces and contours and textures, or as a vehicle for ideas. We rarely pause to consider the interior design of a book, unless of course it is a book that draws attention with smart graphic design and accentuation. What readers and producers of comic books, graphic novels, and illustrated fiction take for granted, the prose community has by and large neglected; that is, when we crack open the cover of a new book by Hugh Howey or Rachel Swaby or Sarah Taylor, we forget that every letter on those pages, every jot of ink and swathe of white space, has to be carefully arranged in order to make for a pleasant––and submersive––reading experience.
For the self-published author, a book’s interior aesthetic can spiral out of control quickly. This is because a self-published author is not, generally speaking, a renaissance man with phenomenal powers of writing and artistry and graphic design. A beautiful cover may seem like a more worthwhile use of a self-published author’s limited time. Though there may be the rare exception, the average person who chooses (or is required by circumstances) to bypass traditional publishing also lacks the legion of highly specialized editorial staff who comb through manuscripts and ARCs looking for even the tiniest flaw––an orphan sentence, a snafu in line spacing, you name it. And believe me, even though we don’t tend to think of readers as detail freaks, they have a sensitive nose for anything that feels “off.” Your job as a self-published author is to keep your reader reading your book, not caught up in the intricacies of its design. For that reason, a book’s interior should look as polished as possible.
Here are a few tips:
1. Choose your typeface carefully.
Whether you decide to opt for a serif or a sans-serif typeface, make sure you know what it will look like on whole blocks of text at once––pages and pages of text. Also keep in mind that while sans-serif fonts have a sort of “cool” factor and are often evocative of popular science and science-fiction––and therefore add a dash of visual interest as well as genre resonance––serif fonts are actually easier to read at length. That’s what the serif tags are there for, to help your eyes track seamlessly from one letter to the next. Still, your choice will come down largely to preference (mine is for Monotype Bell and MVB Sirenne, both of which read well in multiple sizes, as well as in italicized passages and headings).
2. … And about those headings?
Not every book uses chapter headings on every page. Take a look at the books in your genre, to get a feel for what’s normal there. I’ve found in my collection that there’s a tendency toward headings in nonfiction and certain chapter-driven science fiction pieces, but that for the most part, fiction sticks with simple page numbers. Also keep in mind that your inclusion (or exclusion) of headers and the positioning of your page number will affect your margins. It’s absolutely essential that you leave extra white space on the edge of the page with a page number or heading––both of these things are considered extensions of your typewritten page, and they affect the eye as such.
3. Margins do deserve the attention, I promise.
Take a look at the nearest book. (In my case, it’s Howey’s Wool.) Compare the inside margins of the pages (the ones adjoining the binding) to the outside margins (the ones your thumbs touch as you flip pages). In the standard book, the standard traditionally published book, those inside margins are significantly larger. This is to allow the book’s binding to curve as you crack open the spine, letting the pages curl away and yet remain readable. It is not uncommon for self-published authors to forget this tiny detail, and for the book to suffer for it. If I have one piece of advice for authors looking to format their own books, it’s this: Don’t sacrifice your margins––for anything. Yes, it’s cheaper to pack in more words per page, and so to save on printing fees. But I promise, more people will want to buy your book if they pick it up and it feels gracious, spacious, and easy to read. It’s wise to aim for about 12 words per line of text––this is the standard in traditional publishing, for good and time-honored reasons.
4. Justify your paragraphs.
Take a moment to modify your text alignment from “left” to “justified.” This means that your text still begins at the left-hand margin of the page, but that it’s right-hand side also ends at its respective margin, creating a smooth visual block of text, all the way from the top to the bottom of any given page. Leaving that text simply aligned “left” will create a jagged line along the right-hand side of the page, wherever the words leave off. You want to check your kerning line to line before you release it to the printer, in order to ensure each page looks perfect, of course––that’s par for the course.
5. Leave no blank right-hand pages.
The first page of your book is going to be a right-hand page, and the first page of content––not the title page, not the copyright information, not the dedication––will be “Page One” and should be marked such. (Page numbers should only appear once the content of your book begins, and not before.) Every succeeding chapter should begin on a right-hand page, even if the previous chapter ended on a right-hand page. The solution is to leave a blank left-hand page, which you can utilize for illustrations, quotations, or other related material. The point, however, is to play to a kind of “psychology of reading,” which asserts that readers find it easier to begin new thoughts if there’s that reliable visual cue there. Blank pages should be left entirely blank, including of page numbers and page headers.
6. Go easy on illustrations, graphics, and other addendums.
It’s easy to get carried away inserting pictures into our books––after all, a picture is worth quite a few jots of ink, right? But there are a couple of dangers to watch out for here, as with everything else related to design. First of all, your images need to look every bit as polished as your text. If you’re inserting inexpert photographs, clipart, or hasty sketches, they’re going to negatively impact the reader’s opinion of your book’s quality. (We do judge ideas based on their presentation, for better or worse.) Secondly, they need to be important. If they’re not somehow integral to a reader’s understanding of your book, then they don’t need to be there, and they shouldn’t be there. Illustrations, like your words, have to work to earn their keep. And finally, your images need to be high enough in resolution that they hold up and read well at different scales, both large and small, and on multiple platforms, including tablets and e-readers. If readers can see pixellation, they’re likely to dismiss a book as amateurish.
And last but not least:
7. Fresh eyes are vital.
The best advice I ever received from a writing instructor was to work until I thought a piece was done, and then to walk away for days, preferably a week, and then to return for a final (or quarter-final) evaluation. Invariably, coming back with fresh eyes led to me spotting weaknesses and glitches and errors that I would never have seen otherwise. It’s also important to remember, as a self-published author, that there’s a promotional benefit to showing early readers advance copies of your book, with a plea that they give you feedback on what’s working and not working, in terms of design as well as content. Their advice will help you tweak your book to perfection, while also spreading the word that you have an upcoming publication on its way!
[ NOTE: If you’re looking for the first blog in this post, a general overview of merchandising for self-published authors, you’ll want to look here. If you’re interested in reading up on extras and special editions, take a look at my second post in this series. For last week’s post, on book cover and jacket design, follow this link. ]
I’m realistic, or I like to think I am. This topic is bigger than just me and my own thoughts. I’d like to open the floor to you, dear reader. If you have any thoughts to share on the topic of merchandising, or questions you’d like answered, send them my way via the comments box below! I want to hear from you, and I love nothing more than a good excuse to do a little research if I don’t know something off of the top of my head. Jump on in!
||ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog, kellyschuknecht.com.