The Basics of Typesetting: How to Properly Format a Book for Print

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Nothing will turn away prospective readers quite like a book that is poorly laid out. Not only can it be distracting, but it can also make the book appear sloppy and unprofessional. For self-published authors, it’s especially important to have a good grasp of proper book typesetting. 

If typesetting is something you want to learn to do yourself, this post can help get you started. If you’d rather leave this job to a professional, it will help you learn what to look for when hiring a qualified typesetter. While typesetting may sound simple, it’s a lot more complicated than you may realize. Attempting the job yourself can result in a huge time investment with a subpar interior book design to show for it, so hiring a professional typesetter is worth it.

If you are at this stage, get us to typeset your book, and you’ll walk away with something that looks professional and that you can be proud to publish.

Typesetting basics

There are a couple of things to keep in mind before we get started. Firstly, we’ve only included the basics in this post—there are far more factors to consider than you may expect. Secondly,  there isn’t one correct set of dimensions, and every book has different requirements. These are simply the things you should pay attention to when typesetting a book for print.

Font: Serif (e.g., Times New Roman) is preferable to sans serif (e.g., Arial) because it’s easier to read. Make sure to go with a standard font—if it’s too unusual, it can be distracting.

Margins: Choose your margins carefully so there is adequate space where the book is bound; otherwise, the text may dip too close to the spine. All margins should look the same after the book is bound, which means they should look unbalanced before binding.

Line spacing: Avoid lines of text that are bunched together or are too far apart as both affect readability. Your line spacing shouldn’t be something the reader even thinks about.

Alignment and word spacing: Books should almost always use justified alignment so the edges of the text line up. However, this type of alignment can cause words to be closer together or farther apart, depending on the line. To make things look more uniform, you can go to the justification settings and adjust the spaces between words and letters or specific lines.

Book block: This is the area where the text sits on the page. It should line up with the page it faces. Make sure it’s uniform throughout the book.

Paragraph spacing: Indent the first line of a new paragraph instead of adding a blank line unless you are using blank lines for scene changes. If the new paragraph is in the same scene, you never want to use a blank line.

Lines after a subheading: If your book has subheadings, make sure there are at least two lines of text after them. It is distracting if a subheading is at the bottom of a page without an adequate amount of text following it. 

Orphans and widows: These are lines of text that are separated from their paragraph by a page. An orphan is when the first line of a paragraph appears on the bottom of a page, and a widow is when the last line of a paragraph appears on the top of the next page. Orphans and widows look sloppy and unprofessional, so typesetters format the page to eliminate them.

Word widows: Also known as a “runt,” this is a single word that’s the last line of a paragraph. These don’t necessarily need to be corrected, but many publishers think they can make the text look messy. Fixing them will definitely result in a more professional-looking book.

Hyphenation: Avoid having too many hyphens in a row on any line unless it’s deliberate and you know what you’re doing, as well as having multiple consecutive lines ending in hyphens—this is called a ladder and looks odd on the page. Also, avoid having a hyphen on the last line of a page, thereby continuing the word on the next page. You may wish to simply disable hyphenation so that words are moved to the next line rather than being hyphenated.

Word stacks: This is when three or more lines begin or end with the same word. Similar to the hyphen ladders, you wouldn’t want stacks of words on the page as this is distracting. Of course, there are exceptions, but in that case, the repetition must be deliberate and serve a literary purpose.

If you’d like to typeset your own book, a plethora of design software is at your disposal. Just be aware that there’s a learning curve with any application, and book layout takes a lot of practice to master. Some popular software options are:

  • Adobe InDesign: This is probably the most professional and versatile option, but it is quite complex and definitely not for beginners. Also, it requires a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud. If you opt for this, be ready to invest considerable time in tutorials.
  • Vellum: This is an option for Mac users. You can download and use it for free, but there is a cost to export files. This is much simpler to master than other software but is not as flexible. It is suitable for simple layouts without many images.
  • Microsoft Publisher: This is included with the Office365 suite (if you don’t have that, you can purchase it separately). It is easy to use, especially if you are familiar with Word or other Microsoft programs. It can handle very simple designs but lacks the versatility of other software and is not considered professional typesetting software.

If you decide DIY typesetting is not the route for you, knowing the above can still help you spot quality work when you are looking to hire someone to lay out your book. Are you ready to take that step? If so, have us design your book and get the peace of mind that comes with knowing you’ll have a beautiful, readable book.

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