Pay attention to book layout: Eight rules for the independent publisher

13 Sep 2015 5:14 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Ted Witt

You have finished your manuscript; now it is time to design.

Too many writers neglect book layout in their rush to get into print. Be professional. If you have not hired a graphic artist to lay out your book, you may violate one of these eight rules. Even if you hire a designer, an inexperienced artist may also make these publishing mistakes, and you will stand out as an amateur. Pay attention to these basics.

Chapter Starts

Chapters always start on right-side (recto) pages, and the corresponding page number must be odd, not even. The only excuse for a left-page (verso) start is when you have created a consistent two-page layout to introduce new chapters. Even in this instance, the exception applies to non-fiction books with magazine style designs where art and headers are on the left, but actual text usually starts on the right. Mass-market publishers who are cheap and disregard design (read St. Martin’s Press) start chapters on left-side pages.  Don’t emulate pulp fiction.

Page Number

Page numbers start with the Arabic numeral 1, concurrent with the first chapter on a right-side page. Front matter does not count toward the page count, and if front-matter pages are numbered, they employ Roman numerals, not Arabic. Turn to the end of your book; if a right-side page is not an odd number, you have a problem. Blank pages will count in sequence as part of the page count, but do not place an actual number on the blank page.

Blank Right Pages

There are no excuses for blank right pages. Blank left-side pages are acceptable. If a chapter ends on a left-side page, start the next chapter on the next right page. Never say, “This page intentionally left blank.”

Running Headers

Running headers typically include the name of the book or chapter ID running along the top of each page. The combination of text for running headers depends upon the structure of the book, but text on left-side pages is different from right-side pages. Examples of some possible combinations include:

Author Name                              Book Name

Chapter Number                       Chapter Title

Book Title                                      Chapter Title

When including running headers, the type should set to the outside of the page or at the center of the text block. Do not align running headers alongside the book gutter. You want to make it easy for people to read, not difficult. Aligning toward the gutter impedes readability, forcing readers to crack open the book to remind them where they are.

Page numbers should be set to the outside edge of any text, on both the left side and right side.

Do not use running heads on blank pages or on pages with chapter starts.

Type Justification

For most normal books, fiction or non-fiction, justified text is the standard. I once published a book with rag-right text because research said unjustified copy would be easier to read. However, the book lost its professional appeal. Learn from my mistake; stick with justified text. I would grant exceptions to gift books, children’s books, recipe books, and coffee table books.

Widows and Orphans

Typographers sometimes disagree on this topic, but the moral consensus is that it is our “ethical” responsibility to care for widows and orphans.

A widow is the last line in a paragraph that sits by itself at the top of a new page. Often it is short and fails to reach the margin. It looks odd sitting there, tiny and lonesome.  An orphan is the first line of a paragraph that ends a page. It is not as unfriendly as a widow, but calls attention to itself especially in non-fiction books where the author’s manuscript is often accompanied by lots of subheads, tables, bullet points, and enumerated lists.

A designer who wants a perfectly rectangular text block cannot fix orphans and widows without shortening some pages, so these dangling lines stay widows and orphans through the book.

The better approach is to fix them. Here is a simple guideline:  begin and end a page with at least two full lines of text.  If necessary, steal a line from a preceding page. Allow that page to be short by one line so that widows and orphans become married or adopted.

It is worth repeating: Always leave any extra space at the bottom of the page. Align recto and verso text blocks at the top of the page, not at the bottom. Always.

You are excused from the care of widows and orphans if you are dealing with a long page of staccato dialog. It may be impossible to avoid short lines.


Don’t be afraid of white space. Err toward more margin than less. Gutter margins must be wider to accommodate the binding and bend of the page; an inch is usually OK. Classic designs give larger margins to the bottom of the page than the top. At a minimum, your running head should be set on the half-inch line at the top of your page, with another line space of at least 1.5 lines separating it from the text block. Outside margins are usually wider than top margins; try three-quarters of an inch. When in doubt, buy a template.


To serious book publishers, using Times Roman for your book would be like using Comic Sans to write a business letter. It is just not done. Save Times Roman for newspapers. Serif type is a must-do for readability. Here are six classic book fonts: Bembo, Caslon, Garamond, Janson, Granjon, and Sabon. Once again, we excuse gift books, children’s books and specialty books from the tradition. Chapter heads may be of a contrasting font, such as a san serif type.

Ted Witt is a publisher, working at Pretty Road Press, an indie imprint located in Folsom, California.

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