When you lay out your book you won’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and this is particularly critical for nonfiction books written by entrepreneurial authors.
If you’re writing a book to establish yourself as an expert in your field – say you’re a business owner and want to become recognized in your industry or you’re a professional and you want to give a boost to your career – your book will be judged with a high level of scrutiny.
When you’re deemed to be an expert, decision makers who have the ability to open doors for you are usually too busy to read an entire book, so they’ll make a go-no go decision based on first impressions. They’ll scan through your book quickly, read a few pages and then decide based on what they saw.
Clearly, with such brief exposure to your content, your book layout comes to the forefront. Since these people browse through a large number of books, they have expectations that at a minimum you’ll follow well-established publishing standards.
Any book that breaks one or more of these design rules is likely to be deemed as amateurish, which will impact your reputation and credibility.
Often decision makers move in small circles (e.g. event managers, procurement managers, media producers, bookstore buyers, etc.) so you cannot afford to be badmouthed by any one of them.
For this reason, you should only work with professional book designers to lay out your book and never attempt to do this work yourself – there are just too many rules and standards to follow and too many things that could go wrong.
Having said that, I believe it’s very useful for you to at least become familiar with the mistakes that do-it-yourselfers make so that you have a general knowledge of the required publishing industry standards. Below are the top five mistakes to avoid when laying out a nonfiction book.
You should refrain from writing long, seemingly unending paragraphs. All your paragraphs should be broken down into short sentences that are easy for readers to digest. Aim to have between 3 and 5 sentences per paragraph on average.
Remember, the world of nonfiction requires that readers constantly process a lot of new information and you want to ensure that they don’t feel overwhelmed when reading your book.
You should always use a single break between paragraphs (i.e. the enter key). Multiple paragraph breaks is a big no-no in the book publishing industry.
Although your book designer will take care of this for you, make sure that your manuscript only uses single breaks between paragraphs. When you start a new chapter, use a page break instead, attached to the heading containing your chapter title – never hit the return key multiple times to get to the next page!
Widows And Orphans
A widow is a layout error that results in the last few words of a paragraph being pushed to a new page. An orphan is a layout error that happens when the first line of a paragraph is the last line of a page. Both widowed and orphaned text should be avoided.
Don’t left justify text blocks like you do when you write a letter, leaving the right edges unaligned (this is referred to as “ragged paragraphs”). The industry standard for nonfiction book text blocks is full justification. That is, your text needs to align against both the left and right margins.
Don’t start a chapter on the left-hand page – this is a clear sign that an amateur designed the book. All chapter pages must be placed on the right-hand page.
As an extension of the above rule, never begin numbering pages on the left-hand side of your book. Odd numbers must always appear on the right-hand side page, and even number on the left hand side page.
Also, page numbering should be in the header (the top) of your page, near the left and right edges of the book. Page numbers should not be in your footer for any page, with one exception: the first page of each chapter can show the page number on the footer or skip the page number altogether.
Don’t place any front matter sections between your introduction and your first chapter (such as acknowledgments, dedications, etc.). For maximum sales effect, your book’s introduction must transition directly to your first chapter.
Don’t use “fancy” looking fonts – they’re a sign of amateur design. Also, don’t use multiple fonts in the body of your book. All paragraphs must always be laid out with the same font type and font size.
The only exceptions are the captions for images, graphs, tables and charts, and also breakout boxes used to highlight a specific sentence lifted from the text.
Don’t use line spacing that isn’t proportional to your font size. Lines that are too close to each other are known to give headaches to readers. Lines that are placed too far apart are a sign of amateur design.
Never use hard indents like tabs or multiple spaces. Your book designer will take care of this detail, but to make their lives easier make sure that your manuscript doesn’t use either tabs or multiple spaces anywhere in your document.
Never use low-resolution images in a printed book. Always provide your book designer with the highest possible resolution you can obtain. Aside from being considered amateur design, blurred or pixelated printed images will devalue your book in the eyes of readers and decision makers.
Never overcrowd your charts, graphs and tables with too much information. The amount of information on any graphic element should always be in balance with the text that surrounds them.
If you have a lot of graphical information to share, break it apart into multiple images. Your book designer will be able to advise you on how to achieve the right balance.
Header & Footer Mistakes
Never jam-pack your header with excessive information. The header in your book is used for navigational purposes and shouldn’t be hard to follow or cluttered with too much text. Make sure your book title and chapter titles have a reasonable length so that they can fit comfortably in the header and table of contents.
Don’t place any text in the footer; the only exception is page numbers for the first page of a chapter and footnotes. Also, make sure there are no headers on the title page, copyright page, chapter pages and any blank pages.
Now you know what to look out for in a good book layout. Keep this information handy when you’re looking for a book designer. Ask them for sample books they’ve laid out and then check them against the above rules for compliance.
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 the 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.