We spend a lot of time talking about covers in this business. It’s a given that without a professional looking cover, your chances of a reader picking up your book go way (way, way, way) down. But just like that cutie you took to the Senior Prom, it’s what’s inside that matters most. Inner beauty counts, particularly in book formatting.
Before we move along, though, here’s a spoiler: Layout really isn’t something you need to worry about.
Oh, you’ll want it to be right, obviously. But getting it right doesn’t have to fall on your shoulders. In fact, it’s probably best to stay as hands off as possible.
Let’s take a look at some of the best practices of layout, and see why it might be best to let someone (or something) else handle it.
Stick with Default Fonts
The world is filled with fonts. We’re kind of font obsessed, really. There are even documentaries about fonts—and they are riveting. But choosing the wrong font can be the quickest way to mark a work as “unprofessional.” They’re tricky—treat them with care.
For the most part, you should consider just keeping your hands off of fonts. Here’s why …
Embedding a font, which is essentially forcing a font on the reader, can lead to issues if the reader needs to resize text. Some fonts may even be difficult for a reader to see clearly—one of the advantages of e-readers has been their ability to adapt for accessibility. Readers who suffer with visual impairment can choose fonts that work best for them.
For print books, the default tends to be a serif font, such as Garamond, which is easier on the eyes and attractive on the page. Readers are accustomed to this—to the point of getting a “weird feeling” when reading a book that uses a sans-serif font (such as Helvetica or Arial).
Most automated eBook conversion or print layout tools, including the free ones at Draft2Digital, fall back on defaults. D2D doesn’t embed fonts in eBook files, for example, and defaults to Garamond for print. This makes things much easier for everyone, but especially for the reader. Which, if we’re going to consider anyone’s opinion, let it be theirs.
In general, your rule of thumb for fonts in layout should be “leave it be.” Get too fancy, and you can instantly mark your book as unprofessional, and turn off potential readers at a glance. In the case of fonts (and layout in general) “invisible and unnoticed” means success.
Consider Ditching the Drop Caps
I know, I know! Drop caps are the holy grail of eBook layout. They’re probably the most requested feature from authors, at least on the layout front. And if I’m being honest, they do have their uses and their appeal.
Drop caps can be used to signal scene or POV changes, but they often only work well in specific genres—romance, historic fiction, and certain types of non-fiction, primarily. They can look kind of cool, it’s true, but they tend to read as very “formal.”
Sometimes, depending on your choice of font (see above), they may even look whimsical and unserious. So the question is, does that fit the tone of your book?
Drop caps can cause spacing issues, which isn’t necessarily a big deal if they only appear at the head of a chapter or scene break. In fact, in those instances, they may offer an advantage, helping to make new scenes obvious, even in the middle of a text-heavy page.
The problem is, they don’t always work across all e-readers and apps. And sometimes, even if they do work, small changes to an app can break them later.
I’ll admit, there’s something kind of quaint about having a drop cap at the head of a chapter, so I won’t fault you for wanting to keep it. I would urge you, though, to consider why you’re using it, and to make sure that ‘why’ lines up with the intention you have for your story and for your audience.
Just like the rules for craft and narrative—if it doesn’t move the story forward, don’t include it. There’s absolutely no data to support the idea that a drop cap actually helped to sell a book, so you probably won’t miss a thing.
DON’T SWEAT PAGE HEADERS OR FOOTERS
Look at any print book and you’ll see a header on every page—usually the author’s name on the left and the book title on the right, for fiction, and the book title on the left and chapter title on the right, for nonfiction.
But look at any eBook and you’ll notice there are no page headers at all.
The same is true for page numbers, which typically appear either in the top opposing corners of a physical book page, or in the footer, but never appear in the eBook.
Because of this, there’s really no point in including footers and headers in your manuscript.
In Draft2Digital’s automated conversion process, headers and footers are stripped out anyway. You get an eBook that’s free and clear. And for the automated print layout, the tool inserts headers, footers, and page numbers based on the metadata of the book. It’s all taken care of for you.
The same is true for software such as Vellum, which does this automagically as well. Other tools, such as Scrivener or Microsoft Word, may require you to do a bit of formatting that can often be maddening to figure out.
It’s perfectly alright to have a header or footer in your document, of course, but if you’re having trouble working out how to make it alternate per page, to not appear on the first page of a chapter, to line up properly or to stay within the margins, just relax. That can be done for you, automatically and with a lot less hair pulling.
SPEAKING OF MARGINS—FORGET MARGINS
I shouldn’t have even brought them up. Margins. They sit there on every page, taunting you. “Look at me,” they say. “I can’t be properly adjusted no matter how hard you try!”
Again … forget about them.
For starters, there’s more to margins than simply providing a proper amount of space between the edge of the text and the edge of the page. Considerations such as bleed, gutter, gutter position, left, right, top, bottom … who has time for all this?
Get a margin wrong, and you can end up with text sprawling off the edge of the page, or cramped together in a tiny, unreadable lump. Again, not worth it. Just relax, focus on writing your book, and hand the formatting off to someone (or something) else.
SHOULD YOU HIRE A PRO?
I used to advise people that if they did nothing else before publishing, they should spend their money on three things: A professional cover design, a good editor, and a professional layout.
These days, you can design a pretty good cover yourself through sites like Canva.com, you can build a “street team” of beta readers to help you edit, and you can use inexpensive or even free and automated software to do your layout.
WE LIVE IN LEGENDARY TIMES.
That’s great news for incoming authors, who may have no budget to work with. It’s pretty sweet for we established authors, too. It means we can get professional-looking books with little to no overhead.
So is there a time when we should hire a professional?
Professional layout designers can bring a bit more to the table. They’re savvy humans, after all, trained in a specialized field, and able to creatively problem solve. They can do things with your work to help it stand out from the crowd. There are awards for layout, out in the world. Winning one for your book could give it a boost.
So there’s that.
The reality is that no automated service is going to match a really good professional. You can get awfully close, though. And in terms of overhead, you can pay a lot less.
Plus, when was the last time you picked up a good Jack Reacher novel and marveled at its layout? How many John C. Maxwell books have astounded you with their layout profundity?
Readers don’t really judge books by layout. They judge them by content.
In the end, though it’s necessary to have an attractive and professional layout, it isn’t exactly necessary for it to go above and beyond. This is certainly a case where good enough is good enough.
So the choice to go pro is really a personal one. It’s up to you to decide if that’s something you care about and, more importantly, something your readers will care about.
The truth is, with the growth and availability of automated software, the playing field is well leveled. You are, in the majority of cases, better off concentrating solely on honing your craft and producing the finest content you can, and leaving everything else to Draft2Digital, Vellum, or whichever conversion and layout tool you prefer.
The important thing to remember is that no one pays any attention to your layout, unless you get it wrong.