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Everyone’s a publisher these days, or can easily become one. The digital age has put a lot of tools at our fingertips, and even folks with rudimentary computer skills can click their way through preparing a document and uploading it for publication. The question is, do you – or your publisher – know exactly what your finished product should look like on the inside? It’s difficult to achieve a professional result if you do not have a clear picture of what that is. But it’s no secret. You can go to your personal library or any library and study the layouts of books of different genres produced by the big publishing houses and their imprints. When you do this, you will notice (I’m dealing specifically with prose here):

  • There is not extra space between paragraphs except to designate an intentional break in action or change of location or voice.
  • Indents are modest, 2-4 characters-worth, not half an inch.
  • Page numbers are legible, not tiny or ghostly gray.
  • Multiple blank pages do not appear between chapters; at most there may be a blank page following a chapter that ends on the odd-numbered page (i.e. the reverse side of the right-hand page is blank), so that all new chapters will start on the right-hand page.
  • Blank pages are completely blank; they are included in the page count, but are not printed with headers or footers.
  • The indent is usually omitted from the first paragraph of a chapter, and sometimes from the first paragraph of each new section as well.
  • Text is fully justified, meaning it lines up both left and right. This results in variable spacing between words. Therefore we do not put double spaces at the end of sentences, as this can lead to awkward gaps. The words should be evenly distributed across the line. (When words are too close or too far apart, we use hyphenation to push parts of words up or down a line.)

While some of the visual features of a book are stylistic, some conventions are rooted in practicality. In the old days, printed books were the only option and they were printed in large runs of hundreds, thousands, millions. Until they were sold, they had to be stored; and when they were sold, they had to be shipped. So, the fewer pages the better with respect to keeping costs down. Today, books are printed on demand or in short runs of a few or a few dozen at a time. But we are still cost conscious, and hopefully conscientious about resources used in book production and transport. So it still makes sense to keep the layout tight.

It is absolutely essential that your indie or small press book looks professional. You do not want prospective reviewers to flip through and toss the book aside before even dipping into it because they notice the tell-tale signs of an inexperienced author or press.

Once the book looks good enough to read, it still has to read well enough to read. I’ll address editing and proofreading in another post, and hopefully convince you to enlist experienced helpers to go through the manuscript at various stages of preparation. But when all is said and done, and the galley or publisher’s proof is in your hands or ready to scroll through on the computer, anyone with a set of eyeballs and a clear concept of the finished product will be able to detect problems with line spacing, headers and footers, chapter starts, paragraph returns, font styles, art placement, and anything else that contributes to the appearance of the printed page. You can start training your eyeballs now, every time you read a book.