Book layout design is a key element in the visual appeal of nonfiction books. Unlike works of fiction, where endless streams of similarly laid out text are used to “lull” you into the story, nonfiction layouts respond to a completely different set of needs.
The goal of most nonfiction books is to solve a problem for an individual or a business. Therefore, they need to be laid out to facilitate the transfer of knowledge from the author to the reader.
This requires your text to be compartmentalized in a way that’s simple for readers to process. For example, your nonfiction book layout may use charts, tables and images to bolster your thesis, and they’ll need to support your text.
As a result, both your text and your images will have to be laid out following certain rules of the trade so that they look professional. In this article, I’ll share seven basic rules for nonfiction layout design so you can develop a sense of the genre’s visual requirements.
The Importance of Book Layouts in Nonfiction
Nonfiction is a very particular genre. By the mere act of publishing a book, authors are assumed by readers to be instant experts in their fields. As a result, there’s always a high expectation of quality.
Also, by acting as a proxy for your experience, a nonfiction book will have a high reputational impact on your career. So, you want to ensure that your book layout is top-notch since this will reflect on your overall professionalism.
Why Hire a Professional?
The nonfiction genre is also a highly competitive. As a self-published author you need to be able to compete head-to-head with traditionally published books because they’ll appear side-by-side with your book on user searches.
Interestingly, nonfiction readers for the most part aren’t aware whether a book is self-published or traditionally published. But they’ll know an amateurish design when they see it and this is something that’ll always negatively affect your sales.
So in order to compete you’ll need to hire a professional book designer to level the playing field, and you’re going to have to budget for this expense.
Like any other profession, book design is something that requires extensive experience to get it right. As an analogy, a house renovation done by a professional contractor will always look better than a DIY job.
Although a contractor will cost you more, the resale value of your home will be higher. A DIY renovation may cost you less, but chances are it’ll also depress the resale value of your home.
The 7 Book Layout Design Rules
All professional book designers will follow the layout rules shown below. I’m including them in this article so that you’re well informed when you discuss different options with your designer.
Rule 1: Always Justify Body Text (with Very Few Exceptions)
The first layout rule for nonfiction books has to do with the most basic text-formatting element: alignment. The four options for text alignment are aligned left (a.k.a. ragged left margin), aligned right (a.k.a. ragged right margin), centered and justified.
The vast majority of nonfiction books are justified, that is, evenly aligned to both the left and right margins. This makes text easier to read and it also makes books look professionally laid out.
The exceptions are very few. Poetry books, art books and cookbooks tend to use a ragged right margin because when used in short bursts this type of text alignment is said to improve reader retention. But in long bursts, ragged edges make reading more difficult.
A technical exception is text laid out in a narrow column (e.g. text that surrounds an image). In this case, justification can sometimes look funny, so a ragged margin is used instead.
Rule 2: Begin All Chapters on an Odd Page
This is a stylistic rule that applies to most nonfiction books: you have to make sure that all your chapters start on an odd page number.
In other words, the first page of every chapter must be on a right-facing page. If your previous chapter ends on an odd-numbered page, then you must add a blank page in between.
Incidentally, this blank page must have no text on it whatsoever including no headers and no footers.
Nonfiction books that don’t follow this rule are perceived to be amateurish. The reason is that chapters in this genre are considered to be units of knowledge, where a full theme is developed from beginning to end.
The first page of each chapter indicates to readers that a new unit is about to begin, which requires the consistency of a similar look.
To help with this transition, the text in the first page of a chapter typically begins anywhere from one-third to half the way down from the top of the page and a large drop cap is usually used as the first letter of the first paragraph.
Rule 3: Use Between 3 and 5 Sentences per Paragraph
Each paragraph in your nonfiction book should only contain a single controlling idea or topic. This idea should be mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph and must be able to stand on its own.
The rest of the paragraph needs to expand on this idea and the final sentence should be used to sum it up and to transition the reader to the paragraph that follows.
Never introduce a new idea at the end of a paragraph or use the last sentence to give a preview of the next paragraph. Otherwise, the opening of the new paragraph will feel redundant.
Rule 4: Don’t Place Any Front Matter Between Your Book’s Introduction and the First Chapter
In nonfiction, the job of the introduction isn’t to ease the reader into the book’s subject matter but to act as a marketing “sales letter.”
Here’s the basic structure you’ll need for your book introduction:
- Draw your readers in by showing them the problem your book will solve and then by showing them the expected end result
- Reveal your solution without giving any details (readers must be compelled to read your book to find out)
- Show them why they should listen to you
- Reveal the roadmap that’ll take them from problem to solution
- List the benefits they’ll receive
- Give them social proof (testimonials of your solution in action)
- Address any known objections
- Compel them to take action
- Transition them to your first chapter
Now that your readers are sold, you don’t want to interfere with this transition by placing, say, your acknowledgements or a preface between your introduction and your first chapter.
You want to have a clean transition into the body of your book to allow readers to carry their excitement from your introduction into the roadmap to your solution.
Rule 5: Use a Single Font for Your Body Text (with Very Few Exceptions)
Your goal with the typeface of your book is to allow for consistency in the reading experience. Once you’ve settled on your body font with your designer, you want to stick with it all the way through the end of the book.
If you have multiple fonts in your body, you’ll “break the spell” of your writing by adding unnecessary distractions.
It’s as if you were immersed in a movie and all of the sudden they change the lighting dramatically for a minute or two for no reason. That would get you temporarily out of the story and make you wonder what happened.
The only exceptions are words or phrases that don’t interfere with the flow of your text. For example, image captions may use a different font (usually smaller). Words inside images may also look different.
Rule 6: Don’t Use Images with a Resolution Below 300 dpi
If an image looks okay on your computer screen, there’s no guarantee that it’ll look good when printed. Many images that look fine onscreen will look pixelated and “low-quality” on paper.
The reason for this is that digital printers can output pixels of a much smaller size than most computer screens.
The recommendation from the two largest on-demand printers in the world (Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and IngramSpark) is to use a minimum resolution of 300 dpi for all images that will be shown in the body of the book.
Rule 7: Use Healthy Margins
Finally, don’t reduce the size of your margins to fit more words per page in order to lower your unit printing cost.
Books that have thin margins look amateurish, and even from a practical standpoint they don’t allow enough space for the thumbs of a reader’s hands to hold it open without accidentally covering the text.
To choose the right margin size, seek the advice of your layout designer since there are standard formulas that apply to margins based on the trim size of the book.
In short, your margins need to look balanced – an excessively thick margin will look as amateurish as a thin one.
This article was meant as an introduction to the basics for professional nonfiction book layout. If you’d like to learn more, read my companion article: 10 Nonfiction Book Layout Tips That Will Glue Your Audience to the Page.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of 6 books published through Harper Collins (NY) and Titan Publishing Group (UK). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press and the founder/CEO of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, printing, distribution and marketing.