Self-Published Books: Designing for Readability

Good design makes reading more relaxing.

Self-publishing has made it easier than ever for authors to get their words into print. However, many authors of self-published books have little or no training in page layout. The design principles of desktop publishing can help you improve readability and customer satisfaction. Help build a loyal following with these six techniques:

1. Use white space.

When you’re paying to publish a book, every square millimeter is precious real estate.  But white space isn’t wasted space. White space gives the readers’ eyes a place to rest. More importantly, it gives their mind a place to rest, so they can reflect on what they’ve read. This enhances the learning process so that readers will retain more.

To provide white space, use adequate margins.  Favor short paragraphs over long ones. Consider page breaks at the end of sections. The small increase in cost will dramatically improve readability.

2. Make navigation aids scannable.

The purpose of navigation aids is to help readers find information quickly. Design any navigation aids to be scannable and comprehensive:

  • Table of contents
    Keep chapter and section titles short but descriptive. Don’t begin multiple headings with the same string of text (such as “How to…”). Ensure that the hierarchy is visually clear by decreasing the font size for lower levels of headings.
  • Index
    In nonfiction works, include an index that lists all the major concepts covered in the book. Brainstorm for alternative terms that the reader might use to look up the concept. Include the specific words that the book uses, as well as synonyms that someone who hasn’t read the book might use. If you save the indexing process until the end, don’t rush it.  If the index isn’t thorough and accurate, it can be as bad as no index at all.
  • Headings
    Headings must be eye-catching to be effective. Set them apart by using a larger, heavier font and adding space above the heading.  Use more space above a higher level of heading than a lower one.  However, avoid shading the headings, which can de-emphasize the text.

3. Include visuals.

Visual interest engages the reader on multiple levels. It helps the right and left hemispheres of the brain communicate more effectively. Tables, charts, graphs, line art, sidebars, pull quotes, cartoons—any of these can improve comprehension if they’re used professionally to support the written material. The idea isn’t to include a pretty picture. Make sure it’s relevant and properly placed, or you’ll confuse the reader.

In novel-length fiction or memoir, visuals are unnecessary (instead, the prose should create vivid images in the reader’s mind). However, literary magazines often use artwork and photography to accompany short stories, poetry, and essays; you might consider doing the same. In nonfiction books, visuals are a powerful aid to memory and cognition. Make the extra effort to include them.

4. Use bulleted lists.

To make life easier on yourself and the reader, don’t bury a list of facts in narrative. Instead, use a bulleted list. (Numbered lists should be avoided unless the order of the entries is important.)

Use a consistent bullet style throughout. A standard bullet, such as a filled circle or diamond, is functional without drawing attention to itself. If you want to use something more inventive, such as a leaf design in a book about eco-friendly building technology, keep the image subtle and relevant to the topic. Don’t distract the reader from the message with a pointing finger or a bold sunburst. Keep it simple.

5. Be consistent.

More than once in my career, I’ve encountered situations where someone thought it would be clever to alternate page number placement between the top and bottom of the page.  However, this confuses the reader. The human mind naturally looks for patterns.  Even where no pattern exists, we’ll unconsciously try to create one, so strong is our drive to create order out of chaos. Patterns help us to approach a task in a more organized way and to use our time more effectively.

Use page layout elements consistently. These elements include headers, footers, shading, separators, columns, graphics, headings, and subheadings. For instance, you might decide to use shading to highlight sidebars and pull quotes. If so, use shading for these elements every time, and don’t use shading for any other purpose.

6. Use typeface with discipline.

Your content should make a statement, but your font shouldn’t. Choose one that’s unassuming and easy to read. The size for body text should be 11 or 12 points (10 points at a minimum). If you’re writing for an audience of seniors, increase the size to 13 or 14 points. And remember, how you use the font conveys meaning to the audience, whether you intend it to or not. Keep the following in mind:

  • Use no more than two font families—for instance, a serif font like Garamond for the body text, and a sans serif font like Tahoma for headings.
  • Boldface all headings, using font size as a visual cue to heading level. Include no more than three levels.
  • Don’t use all caps. They form a difficult-to-read rectangle of text, and they make it seem like you’re yelling.
  • Use italics sparingly for emphasis. Don’t use them for any other reason—they’re difficult to read.
  • Underline web links. Don’t bold them or italicize them. You don’t want links to stand out; you just want to make it clear that they’re links.

By following these guidelines, you’ll produce a more readable and professional-looking book, which in turn can help create a larger and more loyal following. Publish your book in a package worthy of its content.

Related posts:
Gated Community: A Lesson in Usability
Too Much Information: The Enemy of Usability
Manuscript Formatting: Just Do It

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