book layout

Book Layout: What Makes a Book More Readable?

Ann O'Brien

July 18, 2022

Have you ever picked up a book to peruse the pages and something just felt . . . off? Maybe the layout seemed a little different than a typical book or the font was too big or too small. Or did the pages just seem too full with not enough white space? All of these experiences describe a book that has low readability which is the opposite of what an author wants – for readers to enjoy the story or content without the book’s format, style, or feel getting in the way. So how can an author create a book layout to enhance its readability? Let’s take a look at what constitutes readability and how you can increase your book’s readability so readers will love the content without being distracted by the book layout or formatting.

What Is Readability?

Defining readability is tricky because just the smallest detail can impact it. Heavy photography books require different qualities for a readable book layout than text-only books. But all books should have similar qualities in their layouts and design that create a seamless reading experience. Details that do not distract the reader from the book’s contents are mostly related to the layout of the book and the small choices that the author or publisher makes about the way the style of the book is designed. Books with high readability are easy on the eyes, have a flow and logical book layout, and encourage the reader to move through the pages and sections without the book feeling off. Ultimately, readability relies on a variety of factors as well as how they work together.

The Big Picture

Books in any given genre look and feel similar for a reason. So one of the best ways for a self-publishing author to understand what a book layout with high readability should look like is to pick up a published book in the same genre as their own project. But a readable book layout is the result of good design principles surrounding the trim size, margins, and alignment in the book’s formatting. These big-picture design concepts set up the framework so that the details of the book layout will flow well and provide a smooth reading experience.

1 Trim Size – A book’s trim size describes the dimensions when it is printed, bound and then the edges are trimmed to a straight edge for uniformity that results in the final size of the publication. The trim size impacts page count and as result, the spine size since a high page count combined with a small trim size creates a thicker spine. Authors should decide on a trim size that makes their book neither too skinny nor too thick based on the book’s word count as well as one that generally matches their book’s genre so potential readers will draw the connection between them. A good rule of thumb is

  • Books under 100,000 words have greater readability when they are close to the standard Digest size (5 ½ x 8 ½ inches)
  • Books over 125,000 words have greater readability when they are at least the standard U.S. Trade size (6 x 9 inches)
  • Books between 100,000 and 125,000 can be either size or a custom trim size

Note about Trim Sizes: Using industry sizing for each genre is a good rule of thumb to follow. Genre standards (in inches) are:

Novella: 5 x 8
Children’s: 7 ½ x 7 ½ or 7 x 10 or 10 x 8
Non-Fiction: 5 ½ x 8 ½ or 6 x 9 or 7 x 10
Fiction: 4 ¼ x 6 ⅞ or 5 x 8 or 5 ¼ x 8 or 5 ½ x 5 ½ or 6 x 9
Memoir: 5 ¼ x 8 or 5 ½ x 8

2 Margins – A margin refers to the size of the white space above, below, and to the sides of a book’s text. The outer margin is referred to as the rag and the inside margin (next to the binding) is called the gutter. The size of the margin will contribute to the overall size of the book since larger margins extend the text’s length and smaller margins reduce the overall length of the text. These standardized margins make book readability better:

  • Rag, top and bottom margins: ½ inch
  • Gutter margin: ¾ inch

The goal is to have all margins appear identical but the gutter must be designed a little bigger to allow for the page to sink into the binding. Margins that are too wide can impact the look of two-page spreads, causing a disconnect in the readability of the book. In addition, the ½-inch margins are intended to be just enough for a reader to hold the book open so adding extra white space alters that seamless feel of the text.

3 Alignment – The final design component that affects the big picture of a book’s layout and readability is the alignment of the spacing and grids within the book’s text. While lining up the text sounds simple and straightforward, overall alignment takes the needs of your specific book into consideration.

Spacing

Most writers have heard the term justification in relation to the alignment of text. Text that is justified using typical word processing programs will create a perfect block of text for your book. Unfortunately, these programs will space some words out to accommodate the format request while others may be squeezed together to achieve the perfectly straight justified margins. Instead, authors should utilize specialized software made for book design when possible, because it creates a softer, more thoughtful justification presentation. The specialized software hyphenates words when appropriate to create a visually pleasing justification of the text, whereas word processing programs simply block the edges of text into a straight line. Thoughtfully justified text creates a much more readable book layout than one that is full of squeezed or spaced-out text.

Grid

The grid refers to how the lines are aligned from page to page. Simply put, each text line should match the height location of the same line on previous and future pages. Ordering a hard copy (press) proof of your book is a great way to make sure that the grid is aligned throughout the book prior to its printing.

The Details

Not only are components that make up the big picture of your book’s layout critical to its readability, but the smaller details also play a part, too. Clarity, smoothness, and ease of reading all are details that create an enjoyable and highly readable book layout.

  • Art and Images. Books that are all text benefit from chapter art, but images and illustrations do not have to follow the strict margin rules other than keeping an appropriate gutter margin since the binding always impacts a page.
  • Breaks. Separations between scenes can be ornamental and include dots, dashes, or other visual elements to create a break.
  • Line Spacing. Align the text evenly, but watch out for leaving widows and orphans. A widow is a word or phrase that sits by itself on the bottom line of a page, and orphans are a small number of words on the first line of a page that is left over from the previous page.
  • Running Heads and Feet. Formatting your page with a chapter title that is centered or justified with the rag at the header (top) of the page and a page number that is centered on the footer of each page, presented in a smaller font than the text, increases the readability of the book because readers always can instantly refer to their location and content area at a glance.
  • Typography. Consistent typography (the font choice and the font changes like the use of bold or italics) throughout the book is as key to readability as is choosing a font that is genre-specific or common to the genre of your book. Pick up a few popular books in your book’s genre to get a feel for what readers will expect when they pick up your book to assure your book’s typographical readability is high.
  • White Space. Blank spaces are vital to readability. Having too much (like too-big margins) or too little (no “sink” at the start of each chapter that moves the first line of a chapter a third of the way down the page) reduces readability.

Getting It Right

Crafting a draft of your book that has good readability may take effort and time to get just right. Working with a trusted printer that can provide a printed proof of your book before it goes to print as Publishing Xpress does can help you with your book’s readability. Some authors love to use a free book template to assist with the big picture and smaller formatting details that make their books look great so readers will love to pick them up. But no matter how you craft your book, paying attention to these design elements and details that enhance readability will help make your book enjoyable to pick up and hard to put down. And as an author, what more could you ask for?

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