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Blog > Book Design – Posted on August 30, 2020

Book Layout: 8 Key Tips from Professional Designers

When authors think about book design, the first thing that pops into their heads is usually the cover. We’ll be the first to admit that cover design is incredibly important — but book layout is arguably just as important! After all, your cover may attract readers’ initial interest, but your interior design needs to maintain it for the entire book.

And whether you hire a book layout designer or typeset the whole thing yourself, it’s crucial to know the basics of interior design so you can ensure a quality final result. To that end, here are 8 key tips to help you create a flawless layout, with advice from some of Reedsy’s top-rated designers.

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1. Let the content lead

An oft-repeated sentiment among our designers is that a strong book layout, improbable through it might seem, should be unique. A good designer doesn’t just apply the same template to every book and make minimal adjustments as they go. Rather, they view each new project as a blank slate, allowing the content to guide their process.

“I believe a book’s style and functionality comes only through careful assessment of content,” says Adam Hay, a cover and interior designer with over 30 years’ experience in the field. “I approach each project afresh, with content lead[ing] the design process each time.”

Content-led design is especially important for image-heavy books such as cookbooks, photography books, and catalogs. However, authors formatting text-only books should still remain conscious of subject matter and genre conventions — which typefaces are used, how chapters are divided, etc. When in doubt about what your content requires, peruse books that are similar to yours and take note of which design elements crop up.

book layout

An elegant gatefold spread, which caters to this three-part photographic sequence in George Daniels: A Master Watchmaker & His Art. Designed by Adam Hay.

2. Align your text carefully

Speaking of formatting books with text (which is to say, most of them), perhaps the number-one technical factor to take into account is alignment. You might be thinking: “Okay, I’ll line up the text. How hard can it be?”

The answer is harder than you think. Not only do your lines need to have consistent vertical spacing, they also need to be spaced so they’re all roughly the same length (or “justified”).

That said, you’ll want to steer clear of automatic word processor justification, as this can create awkward spaces in your lines! Instead, use specialized book design software that hyphenates some words for subtler justification, or simply hire a layout designer to manually adjust the text.

Finally, you’ll need a consistent grid, which means making sure the text lines up horizontally from page to page. This may be tricky if you’re printing physical copies of your book, as print companies sometimes skew the grid even if you’ve sent them a flawlessly aligned file. So if you’re printing on demand, make sure to order a test copy before mass-printing your book.

book layout

You can double-check the grid of your print book by holding the pages up to the light. From Not the Faintest Trace, formatted using the Reedsy Book Editor.

3. Get your margins right

Of course, in order to maintain a standard line length for your margins, you’ll need to determine how wide those margins should be. (Also keep in mind that when we talk about “margins,” it’s not just the space on either side of your text, but above and below as well!)

Luckily, there’s a clear-cut answer to this question. For a standard-sized book, your outside (or “rag”), top, and bottom margins should all be about 0.5 inches each, while your inner or “gutter” margins should be 0.75-0.9 inches. This ensures that your text isn’t swallowed up when the pages are bound, and that all your margins ultimately appear about half an inch wide — just enough space for someone to hold a physical copy of your book.

When formatting your text for ebook distribution, your gutter margins can (and should) be thinner! The standard for ebooks seems to be about 0.5 inches all around. Most ebook formatting tools will calibrate this automatically, but it’s still worth checking before you upload.

book layout

Feast your eyes on those perfectly proportioned margins (wider at the top and bottom, since this is a textbook). Designed by Elisabeth Heissler.

4. Hone details for better flow

Let's get back to the nuances of layout and look at some of the little details that will make your book flow. Though you might think of certain design details as more distracting than engaging, a good designer knows that honing such details is key to a smooth reading experience!

“Clarity and readability turn on the smallest of details,” says cover and interior designer Euan Monaghan, “from the font used for page numbers to the letter spacing of small caps. These details are received subconsciously by your readers. [When done right], the book will simply feel good to read.”

So in constructing your own book’s interior, take care with these kinds of details. Pay especially close attention to:

  • Typography — encompasses both the typefaces (such as Times New Roman, Garamond, etc.) and the font styling (bold, italics, font size, etc.) you choose. Typography is very genre-dependent, so again, you may want to research other books in your genre as you refine yours.
  • Running heads and feet — formatted lines at the top and bottom of each page, containing information like the chapter title (at the top) and page numbers (at the bottom). Keep the font size small and make sure they're either centered or aligned with your rag margins.
  • Ornamental breaks for scenes — you may have specially designed ornamental breaks, you may want to use dots or dashes, or you can disregard them altogether and just add extra white space.
  • Line spacing — again, be sure to align your text evenly, and try to avoid widows and orphans (isolated lines in the body of your text).
book layout

This cookbook spread balances a decorative typeface in the header with a plainer one in the body. The continuation of the photo in the left margin is another nice, subtle touch. Designed by Euan Monaghan.

5. Use white space wisely

White space is another detail that helps your interior design flow. But it can be used in so many ways — and can so easily tip into bad design — that it merits its own point.

For text-only books, white space is mostly rags and gutters, the margins on either side of your text. As mentioned, when typesetting, make sure these are measured properly; you don’t want massive margins constricting your text. Also mind the space around chapter headings! Each chapter should begin with a “sink” that takes up roughly one-third of the page, with plenty of white space to pillow the chapter title.

When it comes to books with images, white space is used in more diverse ways. The crucial thing here is to ensure sufficient visual breathing space between text and images. Resist the temptation to cram as many elements as possible onto a single page — it won’t look dynamic, it’ll just look busy. Remember, white space is your friend.

Children’s book layouts tend to use quite a bit of white space, as crowded pages will overwhelm their young readers. From Two Parts of Me, designed by Basia Tran.

6. Think outside the box

With all these rules to follow, you may start to feel like laying out a book is more of a burden than a creative endeavor. That’s where this tip comes in! Though you’ll want to adhere to convention in terms of technical aspects like alignment and margins, you can still experiment with header type, images, and other visual elements in your book.

Interior and cover design Stewart Williams exemplifies this intrepid spirit of design, approaching each project with an open mind and augmenting his methods as needed. “I often create original artwork in Photoshop from multiple images,” he says of his creative process.

“Strong typographic solutions are also an option… [such as] scanning text from old newspapers and magazines for a more organic, edgy feel. I always work toward a solution that fits the work of each particular author.”

As with white space, there’s obviously more opportunity for variation here if you’re working on a design-heavy book. But even a purely textual book layout allows for some flexibility — the typeface of your chapter headings, for example, and whether you want to bold, italicize, or drop-cap the first line of each chapter.

You can even add a few illustrations, so long as they don’t feel too jarring alongside the text! Black-and-white, minimalist illustrations usually do the trick in an all-text book, as seen below.

book layout

A striking example of a chapter heading illustration. Designed by Stewart Williams.

7. Match your trim to your text

We’ll squeeze in just one more technical tip — and it only applies to those of you printing books, so if you’re going digital, feel free to skip ahead! This is another pretty straightforward tip which has to do with the size of your physical book. Basically, you want to make sure that your trim size complements the length of your book.

You’ll find genre-specific trim size guidelines in the post linked above, but the vast majority of print books are one of the following:

  • Digest (5.5” x 8.5”)
  • US trade (6” x 9”)

So how to choose between 5.5” x 8.5” and 6” x 9”? Simply consider how many words your book is — your goal is to produce a book that's neither too thick nor too skinny. So to get the perfect goldilocks book, go for the trade format if your book is over 125,000 words, and choose digest for books under 100,000 words.

If your book is between 100,000-125,000 words, it’s really up to you! Either trim size will look reasonable; your only other consideration may be whether you’d prefer hardcover or paperback copies. (For hardcover, the larger trim will be better.)

This literary mystery novel is less than 100,000 words long, and as such benefits from a smaller trim size. From The Scarlet Macaw, designed by Rafael Andres.

8. Don’t get complacent

If you’re an author formatting several books in the same series, or even within the same genre, you’ll likely end up using a similar layout for all of them. But we’d still urge you not to become complacent with your design — keep an eye out for opportunities to engage your readers in new ways!

Professional designers can attest that there’s always room for creativity (though admittedly it’s easier to foster when you have a wider range of projects). “The variety in the genres I've worked on over the years have ensured I don't have a formulaic design,” says cover and interior designer Nikki Ellis. “Each one of my covers and interiors is bespoke, adapting specifically to the brief and target audience.”

Of course, you can adopt this same mindset by poring over tons of books and taking their various design elements into account. But what you can’t emulate quite so easily is the years of experience and industry knowledge that professional designers possess.

We hope these tips have helped you gain insight into the world of interior book design! That said, at the end of the day, you may still want to hire a professional for this task — and if that’s the path you choose, you’re mere clicks away from finding the perfect layout designer for you.