Book design – adjusting to digital design

It used to be that book design was a discipline where we had defined page sizes. For print, that is still the case, but how long will print be with us? When I design for print, I decide ahead of time what the size of the end product will be. It’s either 8.5 x 5 inches or it is 9 x 6 inches for a trade paperback. There are cases where I might want a different size (mini books for example) but 9 x 6 or 8.5 x 5 covers most of the cases. The margins get set predictably, with a large inside margin to account for the spine of the book. The Chapter headings start in a predictable place, and I can count on a page with 300 or 350 words per page. All those assumptions change when designing for electronic formats.

The largest change, for me, is the one in our mental model about how a book looks and feels. Instead of the design being in the hands of the producer, the choices about the ‘page’ move into the hands of the reader, literally. The person reading the book determines the font they want to see, the size of the font, the color of the page and even the brightness or contrast. It is the ultimate in user centered design experience.

There are things we can do to get in the way of the reader making their choices, but we should not do that. We need to get with the program, get onboard, and drink from the fountain of experience. There’s no putting this particular djinn back in the bottle. When we prepare our manuscripts for digital reflow, we need to be aware of the things that help our readers have a good experience.

  1. Put a section break in the word document before the chapter titles. This means each new chapter starts at the top of a new ‘page’, just like it does in a paper book. This is familiar and expected, and is therefore comforting to a person reading the book. Starting a new chapter just a couple lines after the end of an old chapter fails to give the reader pause to notice that the subject has changed. If the subject didn’t change, I have to wonder why there is a new chapter at all?
  2. Use chapter titles that are not too long. If they are long, they get ugly text-wrapping.
  3. Use a maximum of 18px size for your chapter titles to avoid line-wrapping
  4. Check that lists do not become tiny 2″ wide strips. Don’t indent them.
  5. Remove the font tags before publishing to kindle OR use a kindle-supported font like Georgia
  6. Consider putting some of the front-matter in the back of the book so a reader gets to the content as soon as they open at the title page
  7. Put your back cover blurb right up front after your cover image so a reader can see it again before reading the book. Makes a real difference to how many people engage with your book after buying it

There are likely other things you can do to help make your book more reader-friendly in digital format, however, these are a good place to start.

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I awaken from dreams that inhabit the worlds that exist inside books, especially my own books. More surprising, my partner also dreams in those worlds. He tells me that this is what makes a book real – when that book becomes ‘my world’ and the characters become ‘my friends’ it is a shared place. My created characters are not just mine any longer, as if they ever were. In the beginning, that may have been true. When I first created a character sketch, it was as if the character was a flat construct. Then they got some color and form and not long after that, there they are – standing up and walking around as if they were as real as a living person. As they grow and change, it seems the characters take on a life of their own. They start telling me what is going to happen next in their world and in their story.

It can be a bit unexpected the first time it happens; now that I am accustomed to characters talking in my dreams, it doesn’t startle me so much. It feels a bit like we authors collaborate and play with the shape and meaning of the places we create and the characters who inhabit them.

Our task is to tell stories that capture the moments and transitions that occur. However, it isn’t always clear what is going to happen in a given scene. You set up the circumstances, drop the characters in and watch or feel what happens. Soon enough, either the situation changes to suit the characters, or the fictional beings turn around and let you know what they would really say or do. Often what you thought was the point of the scene morphs and changes to bring out a different nuance. Sometimes it is even a major plot point, or a new person arrives in the scene as if they had been waiting in the wings, ready to walk on stage. I love that part of storytelling.

As an avid reader, I love books that draw me in. The stories that allow me to put myself into the world and feel like part of me lives there, that the characters are my friends, those are the stories I return to again and again. I hope to be able to build some of that into the stories I write. My characters are demanding their voices, and more stories and that’s a good place to begin.