June 20, 2016

Typesetting Basics for Authors: Making Your Print Book Look Like a Novel

How do you take the text of your story and make it look like a "real" book? When it comes to print, the answer lies with typesetting, in other words formatting what text goes where on which page, how it's spaced, and more. (Want to know more about what you need to include besides the story itself? Check out this post on formatting your front matter.)

Many authors choose to hire a typesetter, because the work is very particular and time-consuming, especially without the experience or special software. However, it is absolutely possible to learn to typeset your own work correctly, and moreover, you should know at least the basics of typesetting so that you can verify that someone you hire does the job properly. 

So, for you authors or curious readers, here are the basics of typesetting (or formatting) the print version of a book:

  • The rectangle of text across two facing pages must be even. In other words, the width needs to be the same (so your margins need to be equal, and the text justified), and the height needs to be the same. This is basically the most important thing in making your story appear like a normal book. However, due to other rules, this is harder than it seems. 
    • Of course, if the end of a chapter faces the beginning of a new chapter, this rule doesn't apply. Wherever the previous chapter ends on the page, that's where it ends.
  • The height of the text block is the difficult part. If you let the text flow naturally, the tops and sides of your text block will usually match, but the bottoms won't. So when typesetting, the spacing between lines and paragraphs is manipulated to ensure that the bottom edges of the text also line up. If done correctly, this isn't noticeable to readers.
    • Tip: The text needs to align on the facing pages, but it doesn't have to hit at the exact same point on every two-page spread. Pay attention to some of the books on your shelf, and you might notice that some pages are "shorter" than others—but in a professionally typeset book, pages facing each other will always line up like a perfect rectangle.
  • Pages also need to look like they're the same "color"—by which typesetters mean the density of the text. "Lighter" pages have more white space, "darker" pages have denser text, and the goal is to have the pages just about match, as much as that's possible. Text shouldn't feel too dense or too sparse on any of your pages.
  • Avoid orphans and widows whenever possible. Orphans and widows are single lines (or goodness forbid, words), separated from the bulk of their paragraph by the end of a page. I say "whenever possible" because the text block ultimately rules. Sometimes, with three-line paragraphs, it's impossible to have all three lines on one page while leaving the block intact and of the right density.
    • Personally, I stick to the 1–2 rule when in this situation with three-line paragraphs, meaning that the first line stays on its own, and the second two stick together. Why? Because the third line isn't full-length, so it will look especially awkward on its own. The first line, however, always stretches the entire length of your page. Still, I do everything in my power to ensure that paragraphs split 1–2 are on facing pages—so you don't have to turn the page to see the rest of the paragraph after a single line.
  • Avoid multiple hyphens being "stacked"—in other words, multiple lines in a row ending with a hyphen. The argument I've seen from typesetters is basically that it doesn't look pretty, so it draws attention to itself, so it distracts from the reading experience.
  • Also, avoid hyphens as the last symbol on the right-hand page, i.e. someone needing to turn the page before they can finish the word. 
    • I try not to have hyphenated words go from one page to the next even on facing pages.
  • You need mirror margins, which basically means that because the margin on the inside edge of the page needs to be a little larger, this bigger margin goes on the right side of a left-hand page, and on the left side of a right-hand page (the side closest to the "seam" of your book). The good news is: this requires just the click of a check box if you're using MS Word, which has a "mirror margin" feature.
    • This is done because the "seam" of the book—where the pages come together—eats a bit of the page, and you want to make sure that it doesn't also eat eat part of your text or just interfere with people's ability to see the inside edge of text clearly.
  • In print, scene breaks are signified by a blank space (about a line and a half worth, but this is part of the spacing that changes to ensure the text block lines up). They do not have symbols like in digital books, where page flow changes based on reading device.
    • Scene breaks that come at the bottom of a page or the top of a page are marked by symbols—occasionally three stars, but often another character that matches the tone of the book or is simply liked by the typesetter (or author). This is done to make it clear that a) there was a scene break, so readers are prepared for the shift, and b) the blank space isn't a typographical error.
  • The first line of a chapter or a new scene traditionally is not indented. All the other paragraphs are.
    • Some typesetters also add an extra flourish to the start of the chapter, whether it's a drop cap, or a word/line in small caps, or an italicized first line (which I don't recommend, because readers may be confused about it being direct thought). If you do choose to add this type of flourish, it usually only happens at the start of a chapter, not for every new scene.
  • Chapters start about a third of the way down a new page, often.
    • However, sometimes chapters flow directly into one another (with an extra-large break)—usually in mass market paperbacks, to cut down on the number of pages—and sometimes people make sure that every chapter starts on a right-hand page. Sometimes people stylistically choose to do something more complicated as well. But the basic choice for fiction is a new page, partway down.

So there you go, a not-so-brief overview of how to typeset a novel. As I mentioned at the start, this is a very time-consuming process, especially if you're learning as you go, but it is entirely doable. If you have questions, let me know in the comments and I'll try to answer based on what I've learned!

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