What Is the Layout of a Book?


1106 Design

September 11, 2019

The layout of a book incorporates some basic elements, which I describe below.

But wait!

Before you read this blog (and if you’re really interested in page layout!), choose a book from your shelf—one from a traditional publisher—and look for the elements as we go through them. Select a book from the same genre as the book you intend to publish; while the elements of book layout are the same for both fiction and nonfiction, the intent of the book will impact how those elements are executed.

So, go ahead, pick up your book, and open it to a page spread, like this:

Fiction layout

Nonfiction layout

Now, follow along as we go through the layout of a book.

Left and right; odd and even: Odd-numbered pages are always on the right and even are on the left. Chapters tend to start on odd pages. The exception to this rule is if the publisher decides to save on printing by allowing chapters to start on the next page, regardless of whether it’s odd or even.

Are you following along with an actual book? In your book, do chapters consistently begin on odd pages?

The book block: Books look like books (rather than brochures or reports) because the text is confined to a tightly-defined area on the page called the book block, where facing pages usually end on the same line (see nonfiction sample above). The exception to this rule might be the last page of a chapter (see fiction sample above). Sounds easy enough, but this necessary task is incredibly time-consuming.

Check to see if the last lines on facing pages are aligned. Line up a ruler under the last line on the left page to see if it’s aligned to the last line on the right page.

Margins: A margin is the white space around the edge of the page. There are margins around the entire book block. Generous margins around the book block allow the eye to move comfortably from one line to the next while reading. When a book is bound, the pages are pinched together just a little, taking up space in the margin. If you don’t allow for this, the binding-side margin can look smaller than the outside margin.

How wide are the margins in your sample book? Is the inside margin narrower than the outside margin? If so, not enough space was left to allow for the binding.

Alignment: Text must line up across the page. Book designers spend a lot of time adjusting the line spacing to make sure this happens, especially if there are headings and subheads, lists and illustrations. Note the nonfiction sample above; although there are callouts and multiple headings, the text at the bottom of the pages is still in alignment.

Still with me? Pull out your ruler again and look at your book; if you put a ruler under a line on the left page, it should line up with the same line on the facing page.

Widows and orphans: The first line of a paragraph shouldn’t fall on the last line of a page, and the last line of a paragraph should not go over to the top of the next page. Widowed and orphaned lines make the reader pause, thus impeding reading comprehension. A book designer will go back and forth and rework pages as needed to get rid of these.

Go on a scavenger hunt in your book and see if you can find any widowed and orphaned lines. If it’s been typeset properly, you should not find any.

Lines after a subhead: When a subhead appears at the bottom of a page, it should be followed by at least two lines of text while still maintaining the book block. Like widows and orphans, leaving orphaned headings is a no-no.

This rule is of particular concern in a nonfiction book. If you are looking at a nonfiction book, flip through it to see how the designer handled headings and subheadings.

Paragraph spacing: In most cases, there should NOT be a line of space between paragraphs. A line of space above a paragraph can be used sparingly to indicate a scene change or a new section. Whenever there is a blank line above a paragraph, eliminate the first-line indent on that paragraph.

Take a look at your book and notice how paragraph spacing has been handled. In our nonfiction sample, you’ll see that on the left-hand page, the first paragraph under the major heading (the underlined heading) is not indented, while the first paragraph under the subheading on the right-hand page is indented.

Line spacing: Lines of text that are too close to each other (or too far apart) are difficult to read. Some authors attempt to increase or decrease the page count of a book (e.g., to reduce printing costs) by adjusting the line spacing.

One last look at your book: do you find it easy to read? Are the lines too far apart or too close? And while we’re talking about readability, take a look at the font used for the main body of the text: is it serif or sans serif? Serif fonts have the extra curly bits added on, which help to guide the eye from one word to the next, making blocks of text easier to read. Sans serif fonts are lacking the curly bits to guide the eye and thus are best reserved for headings.

So there you have it, the basic layout of a book.

Perhaps by now, you have realized the enormous amount of detail that a professional book designer looks after, and we’ve only touched upon the subject. For a more detailed list of typesetting tasks, check out this blog from our archives.

If you are publishing a book, ask a book publishing services company such as 1106 Design for assistance. We’ll take the headache out of page design and typesetting and ensure that your book is professionally and beautifully designed.

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