Book typography: (almost) everything you need to know

Find out more about typography and how your manuscript is made into an elegant, readable book.Laying out your book can be a daunting prospect. After all, you’ve poured your heart and soul into your manuscript and you want a layout that does it justice. Professional typographers train for years to gain a deep understanding of how text functions so that they can create appropriate, readable texts. An eye for detail, as well as a thorough knowledge of how the human eye reads text, are also vital.

There is no set of clearly defined rules for elegant, readable typography but there are tips and conventions that can help your typographer turn your story into a beautiful book.

Layout

Choosing how the text fits on the page is the first step in designing your book pages. Key considerations here are the page dimensions of your book and the margins. Margins should be set for comfortable reading so that words don’t fall too close to the spine of the book and becoming unreadable. Bear in mind that the optical centre of a page (where the eye falls first) is not the same as the mathematical centre, so set your bottom margin larger than the top one, or you risk the optical illusion of your text looking as if it’s sliding down the page.

Margins are not the only factor here. Will paragraphs be distinguished from each other with double-spaces, such as in a school textbook or corporate brochure, or with indents, as seen in novels? Are there illustrations in your text and, if so, will they be fitted around the text or placed on separate pages? Be creative and find a layout that captures the tone of your book. Don't know where to start? Do some research - look at books that are of a similar genre to yours and try to pick out general conventions or aspects of the layout that you think suit your book.

Spacing

Spacing has a huge impact on a text’s readability. Typesetting programmes allow you to adjust the amount of space between lines, words and individual characters, meaning that you can tailor your text to suit whichever typeface you’ve decided to use. When you adjust the size of your font, you will also have to adjust the leading (space between lines) and tracking (space between characters) to avoid words becoming distractingly spaced out or illegibly close together.

When a text is justified (as the vast majority of professionally published books are) the amount of space between words varies from line to line. This can be distracting as is interrupts the rhythm of reading. There is no set way to deal with this problem as what works on one paragraph may look messy on another. Sometimes moving a word onto the next line of text with a soft return will fix the problem; other times you might need to loosen or tighten the tracking in an entire paragraph. Hyphenating long words so that they fall over two lines can also create a neater, more even paragraph. There are is no blanket rule so it’s important to take your time and find the best solution for each individual issue.

Typefaces

With the seemingly endless number of typefaces available, the problem is almost an abundance of choice. Which typeface is right for you will depend on the nature of your book, and on publishing conventions. Most mainstream publishers will have a palette of typefaces they know work well and enhance readability. 

There are two typeface families that you will come across the most while typesetting. Serif typefaces have small strokes added to the basic letterform, such as the classic Times New Roman or Garamond

Typefaces without these - the much-used Arial and the notorious Comic Sans, for instance - are known as sans serif. More elaborate families do exist but these are mostly display typefaces that are unsuitable for long texts.

Two key considerations when it comes to typeface choice are legibility and readability. While many people use these words interchangeably, they actually mean different things. The legibility of a font refers to how easily characters can be deciphered while the readability is the ease at which the text as a whole can be read and understood. A typeface’s legibility and readability do not necessarily correspond with each other. Sans serif typefaces are generally more legible than those with serifs but, interestingly, when it comes to large blocks of text serif fonts are more readable. This is because the serifs create a baseline that guides the eye along the text.

Once you’ve decided on your font family, it’s time to narrow it down further. Think about your target audience and which style best suits your text. An elaborate, poetically-drawn typeface will be more suitable for a historical romance novel than a fast-paced thriller. Similarly, a book of poetry in a heavy sans serif typeface would look very odd. You can also rule out fonts that don't include all the faces your text requires, such italics or small caps. It is an opportunity to be creative, although avoid novelty for novelty’s sake. If in doubt, play it safe; fonts become popular because they do their job well. Many publishers adopt a house style for their books - at SilverWood Books we’re big fans of the modern but elegant Sabon, which is a 20th century re-working of the classic 15th-century Garamond.

Who is it all for?

Ultimately, the key to wonderful typography is to remember that you are designing for other people. The priority should be that your readers can easily read your manuscript. Typography expert Beatrice Warde famously compared typography to a crystal goblet, saying that a simple, elegant crystal glass is the best vessel for wine because it "reveals rather than hides the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain". The same applies to your book. A well-designed typographic treatment may well go unnoticed, but this is a good thing. It allows readers to focus on what is, after all, the most important part of the book: your writing.

Want to know more...?
If you'd like to chat with one of the SilverWood team about making the pages of your next book elegant, readable and professional, please drop us line or give us a call! Please find our contact details here.



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