Book design: things to consider


Book design doesn’t just depend on the content that is to appear inside the covers: from genre to readership to distribution channel, there are many external factors to consider, too. This overview of the factors involved should help indie authors, particularly of non-fiction works, understand what their designer needs to know to get things right.

If you are developing your own brand identity as an author – and if you aren’t, you probably should be! – you may already have a style guide you want the texts to conform to, as well as general visual guidelines that will apply to the cover. Even so, every project is different. If you are paying a designer, he should discuss the project and work with you to achieve a result that matches your vision. Your designer is in the best position to guide you on your specific project, but it will help to have some ideas of the sort of information he’ll be taking into account and to have given some thought to a few basic issues before you talk to him.

To some extent, once the manuscript is complete, the design of the interiors will emerge organically, as it will be closely shaped by the structure of the text, with the Table of Contents providing a useful basic map from which to begin. Within a non-fiction book, though, there may be all sorts of elements that are not strictly a part of the main body of text.

Subtle changes of font, spacing and other design elements can make a big difference to how a text is read.

You may have chapter titles rather than numbers, perhaps with a quotation or explanatory phrase or two before the main text begins. Sections within chapters may be numbered, named, or both. You may need to have footnotes or references to a glossary. If you lift quotations from the text, do they all carry the same weight, or do they also have different levels of importance and therefore need different styles? There may be tables of information – either figures or words – and bullet point lists or block quoted text.

Your designer will need to decide on the style for each such element, and it will be his job to make adjustments when these fall at awkward points – a table straddling a page turn, for example, or a particularly long footnote. (Remember, too, that if you are producing a digital version of the book, with scrolling text and user-controlled font choice etc., these elements may require quite different handling.)

As well as these issues directly concerned with the manuscript, the designer will also want to consider some more general aspects of the book.

He will want to know who the intended readership is, and any important secondary reader groups. Is the book a textbook aimed at students? Is it for professionals of a particular field? Is it primarily intended to be read by the general public? Is it an introductory text or are your readers already familiar with the terms and concepts and with reading texts on the same subject? Subtle changes of font, spacing, and other design elements can make a big difference to how a text is read.

Once the manuscript is complete, the design of the interiors emerges organically, closely shaped by the structure of the text.

Do you expect your book to be read sequentially, or is it more a work of reference, where individual sections will be consulted ad hoc?

If this is a new edition of a previously published book or one of a series, you may have had feedback about what worked – or didn’t work – with the way previous editions or other books in the series have been presented. This may also affect reader expectations about presentation, and consistency across a series is usually an important consideration.

When it comes to cover design, one of the most important factors is distribution channel: will your book be available through bookshops or will you be selling it direct? This will affect whether it is in competition with other books on the shelves. If it is to be distributed through bookshops, the section of the shop you would expect it to be found in will be important as it will need to be appropriately contextualised. Does the book have any direct competitors? Are there any books that are directly complementary?

Naturally, none of the design and layout can be finally settled until the actual page size is agreed, and as well as all the above, there are lots of things to think about concerning binding, paper weight and colour etc. The context of your book alongside others is important here, too, and once again your designer should be in a position to advise.

There are many factors, both inherent in your manuscript and external to it, that need to be taken into account. Simply put, though, the clearer you are about who will read the book, what their expectations may be, and how your author brand plays a part, the easier it will be for your designer to produce the book you – and your readers – want.

In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field. In a book designed by rote, they sit like stale bread and mutton on the page. In a well-made book, where designer, compositor and printer have all done their jobs, no matter how many thousands of lines and pages, the letters are alive. They dance in their seats. Sometimes they rise and dance in the margins and aisles.
― Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style

If you’re an indie author who has decided to go it alone, you’ll find some useful information about typography and other design issues in our Guides for Writers, downloadable free here. And if you’d rather leave it to the experts,, then have a chat with us.