Interior layout and book formatting helps bring a manuscript to life. The interior of a book can be playful, serious, regal, or dynamic—at its best, it should reflect and enhance the feel of the book. Any true booklover owns books that they think are especially beautiful, and chances are they’re not just talking about the cover. Maybe we don’t always know quite why we find the interior of a book appealing, but we know that we do, right?
That brings us to our first point, a harsh truth before we really dig in: the eyes can lie. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that the eyes can be untrained. Good interior book design, like much good design in general, may be invisible to its audience. That’s not a bad thing. And yet, the multitude of tiny decisions a professional designer makes affects both the reader’s conscious and subconscious reactions to a book. Most authors aren’t themselves graphic designers, and when they handle their own book design they may make arbitrary decisions based on what they think looks good—often without any design knowledge backing it up.
That’s a tough pill to swallow. We often don’t want to admit gaps in our expertise, and part of why so many self-publish is that they love having control of every aspect of the book’s creation. However, there’s nothing shameful about giving up some of that control to someone whose specialty is different from your own. On the contrary, it allows you to focus on the writing—a big enough task as it is. If interior book design didn’t matter, if it were as easy as making a few arbitrary, uninformed choices, there wouldn’t be people doing it professionally for the top presses in the world. There wouldn’t be university courses dedicated to it. There wouldn’t be international juried awards for it.
So what makes getting it right so important? A couple of things.
1. Interior formatting tells the reader whether or not yours is a professional book.
Readers pick up on a lot of the design choices made in books, whether they realize it or not. When your book doesn’t quite look like the books they’ve become accustomed to reading all of their lives, it throws up a red flag and plays into the snap judgments they before they’ve even read the first page. Likewise, when your book is as beautiful and polished as any other book on a bookstore shelf, it screams legitimacy.
2. Typography matters.
Let’s consider the example of Times New Roman, a popular desktop go-to workhorse font. The typeface was designed for The Times newspaper in 1931, and as such features tight kerning and sharp serifs; it’s meant to be read in the tight columns of a newspaper. In a longer and with a wider page space, it tends to cramp the line.
What’s more, if you’ve got a PC, chances are that you see Times New Roman every time you open up Microsoft Word. The same goes for your readers. When they see a book set in Times New Roman, it looks less special, less precious as a result. That’s not to say that Times New Roman is the worst typeface a book can be set in—it’s definitely not—but there are better options. And that’s why you won’t generally see bestsellers set in the font.
Fun fact: there’s an exception. Mass-market paperbacks (usually the smaller books you see on the racks at checkout lines) are sometimes set in Times New Roman, as their trim sizes are smaller and it allows for more words on the page.
The point here is that there are thousands of options to choose from, and most of the good ones used by publishing houses didn’t come with your computer. It’s easy to make an arbitrary font choice and assume readers won’t know the difference, but they do.
3. Interior formatting affects the reading experience.
Interior formatting goes far beyond picking a few typefaces and calling it a day. Designers are also considering things like the characters per line and the lines per page, the spacing between words, the way hyphenation and justification shape the page, etc.
For example: too many characters in a line makes the book feel more like a slog, as it takes longer to complete a page. It also increases the likelihood that a reader will skip a line when they move from one line to the next, then have to readjust their place in the text. It seems like a small thing, but it absolutely plays into the likelihood of a reader sticking with the book or abandoning it. There’s a great deal of competition in the book world; you want to ensure your book has every advantage it can get. Similar considerations factor into leading decisions. Leading refers to the space between lines, and if you’ve only ever casually used the word processor that came with your computer, you may only be used to single and double spacing, but most books have leading that falls between the two.
Good design also takes into account the physical experience of reading a book. If the text falls too far into the gutter (the inside margin, where the page folds into the spine), the reader is required to hold the book more fully open to read it comfortably. And text that’s not readable further from the eyes (either due to being too small or not being a suitable typeface) may also make the book less comfortable to curl up with on a lazy afternoon.
4. Word processors and layout software aren’t the same thing.
Layout software, like Adobe InDesign, is the professional standard for interior book formatting, and most independent authors don’t have access to it. There are free alternatives out there, as well as trial versions of pro software. That can help, but even when one has the software, can they use it well?
Many independent authors don’t bother with software like InDesign because they don’t understand the value in it. But witness the smoother justification and spacing controls of real layout software, and the difference becomes increasingly clear. If you want to exercise the kind of control that professional designers have over the manuscripts they work with, start learning about higher quality layout software. This will allow you to shape your pages much more cleanly, control spacing between words, characters, and lines with added precision, and create a book that exhibits the love and care that went into it.
Don’t just settle for making sure your interior layout meets the basic requirements of your printer. Like your cover, the interior design helps shape the reader’s impression of the book and affects their overall reading experience. Treat it with love and care. If you don’t know much about book design, research, research, research. Look for the resources professional designers use, and go beyond the blog posts of self-published authors (these can be a mixed bag.) Scour the Typophile forums and lurk some threads. Pick up a few books seen you’ve mentioned there. Or, better yet, go all in and hire someone to bring their expertise on board for your book team. Know that your book is worth investing in, and your readers will thank you.