SLF Guide to Layout for Small Press/POD/Self-Publishing (print)

compiled by Mary Anne Mohanraj

This guide was evolved to assist people who are learning to make books for the first time (perhaps starting a small press, perhaps self-publishing their own book): people who are unfamiliar with layout, and who would like their books to look as professional as possible. Layout and copyediting is a complex arena, and many published books do not handle these issues well. We hope that with the aid of this guide, new editors/publishers will be able to make cleaner, more readable books.

Do keep in mind as you’re going through these guidelines, that most of these layout rules evolved to minimize visual distraction for the reader, so the major rule of thumb is that anything the eye snags on should probably be fixed. You want your readers to notice the story, not the layout.

And of course, what is most likely to mark your book as unprofessional is poor spelling or grammar — computer checkers are unreliable, though they can serve as a good first step. If you aren’t a spelling whiz or a grammar geek yourself, we strongly recommend finding kind friends who are and bribing them with chocolate, or, barring that, paying a professional to check your spelling and grammar.

In general, that’s a good rule for any aspect of book production (aside, perhaps, from the actual writing of the text) — if you can’t do it yourself or don’t have the time or inclination to learn, either look for friends who do have the expertise, or pay a professional a reasonable rate to do the job.

Thanks to Jed Hartman, Fruma Klass, Janet Lafler, Kelly Link, Rebecca Maines, Jim Munroe, Karen Schaffer, Paula Schumacher, Wendy Shaffer, Heather Whipple, and Shmuel for all their kind assistance.

Please note that this is a work in progress; if you have suggestions for additions or edits, please direct them to Mary Anne.

Last updated: 4/14/04

Table of Contents

General Resources

Robin Williams published a pair of books years ago that address many of these basic issues, like spaces, true quotation marks, em & en dashes, leading, etc. They’re called The Mac is Not a Typewriter and The PC is Not a Typewriter. (The Mac/PC versions of the Typewriter book are nearly identical, just adjusted for the key combinations necessary to achieve the appropriate effects [command, option, control, apple, alt]. So you don’t need both unless you want to give specific instructions in both “languages”.) We highly recommend these! She also has a follow up book called Beyond the Mac is Not a Typewriter and an excellent basic design book called The Non-Designer’s Design Book.

You might also want to read the first section (“The Parts of the Published Work”, covering Books and Journals) of the Chicago Manual of Style. And then check out Appendix A, “Design and Production — Basic Procedures and Key Terms.” Appendix B is a flow chart diagram of the publishing process. (In CMS14, this would be Part 3, “Production and Printing”.)

If you’re feeling bold (or compulsive), we recommend James Felici’s The Complete Manual of Typography, but it can be a little intimidating to a beginner.

Jed Hartman also offers a brief introduction to typography and its terms, which may prove of interest.


For the main text of your book (the body text), avoid fonts that are too big, too small, too fancy for regular text, and fonts which display well on screen but don’t print well. Fonts which read easily in big blocks of text are generally serif fonts (though not always; interestingly, readability studies indicate that people actually find easiest to read what they’re most familiar with).

Some body text standards include: the Times family (there are a lot of variants), Centaur, Palatino, New Century Schoolbook, Stone, Garamond, Bodoni, Minion (slightly more modern), and Hoefler. You can buy any of these for roughly $100 on the Adobe website, and we highly recommend buying at least one good font set, since the ones on your computer don’t actually have everything that you need — they’re partial sets.

  1. For body text, don’t make lines of text too long; if you’ve got more than 14 or 15 words on an average line, even in a large trade paperback, your font may be too small.
  2. Headings (such as chapter or story titles) may use a large or bold version of the body font, or may use a “display font” (often sans-serif).

Page Headers

  1. Note: recto means right, verso means left; these words are generally used in layout instructions because they have no other meanings.
  2. In a short story collection, the title of the current story almost always goes on the right-hand pages, with the left-hand pages giving the name of the author (if a multi-author anthology) or sometimes the name of the book (in some single-author collections). For a novel or other book-length single work, the author’s name usually appears on one facing page, and the book’s title on the other; I don’t think there’s a standard convention for which is left and which is right. If the chapters have titles, they sometimes appear where a short-story title would appear.Some book-length works don’t put authors or titles at the tops of pages; if the entire book consists of one work by one author, you can assume the readers know what they’re reading. The key point to bear in mind is that page headers are a navigational device, to help readers tell where they are in the book. The main thing to avoid is to put the book title at the top of every page of a collection of shorter works — that doesn’t help anyone.

    Note as well that first pages of chapters shouldn’t have a running head. (Using running footers rather than running heads for the book title, page number, etc., is an easy way to avoid dealing with learning how to suppress the header on those pages. It’s not the most frequently used style, but it’s certainly not uncommon or unprofessional.)

    If in doubt, or not sure how to make your word processor deal with changing running heads from section/chapter to section/chapter, stick to the same running head through the text — fewer opportunities for error. (If you do want to try it, and you’re using MS Word for layout, you want to learn how to use section breaks; that’ll allow for different headers for each section).

  3. Be careful not to place the running head too close to the text; allow some white space below it.
  4. The headers/footers are generally in a smaller type size.
  5. Pages without text (blank pages between stories, or pages at the end of books, or at the beginning) should never have headers or page numbers. They should be entirely blank.

Page Numbers

  1. Page numbers should almost always go at an outer corner of each page, whether outer upper or outer lower. Again, they’re a navigational device; page numbers on inner corners of pages are much harder to see. Sometimes they appear centered at the bottom of every page.

Page Layout

  1. Chapters and stories generally begin on a new page, rather than on the same page as the end of the previous chapter or story. Not a universal rule, but very widespread.If they do run in, i.e., chapters don’t start on a new page (common in paperback books with lots of short chapters), allow four blank lines between the end of one chapter and the title/number of the next. However, if one of those space breaks falls at the top/bottom of a page, the reader needs a cue that there’s a break (and flush left text isn’t enough; they doesn’t always notice that). It is customary to add some sort of dingbat. Three spaced-out asterisks can be used, but there are plenty of dingbats available (and one is enough).
  2. By convention, at least in the US, short stories generally begin on right-hand pages rather than left-hand pages; if a story ends on a right-hand page, there’s usually a blank left-hand page before the next story begins. This is a far from universal convention, though.
  3. However, page 1 should always be a right-hand page. (Note: Be wary that if you don’t number your blank pages [include them in the section numbering, even if a number doesn’t actually appear on the page], you can get into trouble because the number is forced to the next page with text. Moral: Check it twice. And then again. 🙂
  4. Do check your margins — many small press books these days appear to have much narrower margins than books from big houses. It’s a minor point, but one which can contribute to an unprofessional look; it looks like you’re being chintzy with space for no good reason. Allow a minimum of one inch margins around the text. If you have different gutter/margin settings, make sure you use the mirror setting in Word.

Paragraph Justification

  1. After a space break, the first new paragraph is not indented.
  2. If you have short lines and use long words, you can get into “rivers of white” in justified text. People correct for this by allowing hypenation. If they manually put in hypenation, beware. If later anything changes, those hypens may still be in the word which is now in the middle of the line (instead of breaking at the end).
  3. Discussion of ragged right vs. justified text here?

Body Text Typesetting

  1. Avoid widows and orphans.
    • Widow lines are single lines which appear at the top of a page.
    • Widow words are single words which are on a line by themselves at the end of a paragraph.
    • Widows are also short lines at the end of a pargraph that appear at the top of a page; most publishers’ standard is that the text must fill half a line, unless it’s a short paragraph, say, of dialog, e.g., “Hello!” she called.
    • Orphans are similar lines or words which appear at the bottom of a page.

    A few of either are okay, but too many, and the book starts looking unprofessional. The standard for lines alone on a page (at the end of a chapter, mostly) is generally a minimum of four lines.

  2. Check for bad breaks (words broken at the line end somewhere other than between syllables).
  3. Use one space after periods. Mary Anne notes, “The reasoning for this was only explained to me recently, and I was very resistant up until that point, since I’d been trained in the good old days, and I was an adamant two spaces after a period gal (apparently a remnant from typesetting for the typewriter in a monospace font like Courier). But apparently if you do that, it tends to create the effect of rivers of whitespace running through your text — distracting!”
  4. Use an em dash instead of two dashes (and note that in typeset material, there are usually no spaces on either side of the em dash).
  5. Underlined text in a manuscript should be converted to italics in print. Note that if an entire sentence is italic, the punctuation accompanying it is italic also. If only one word or phrase is italic, the punctuation following is generally roman unless it’s part of the italic expression, e.g., And then the gun went bang!
  6. Beware of bold and all-caps: these are very sparingly used in body text in published books. Use italics instead for emphasis. And don’t ever use multiple exclamation marks for emphasis. More than one (!!!!!) emphasizes only one thing: The author/editor is unprofessional.
  7. Convert any special symbols like c-in-a-circle for copyright to the appropriate actual symbol.
  8. Make sure that any . . . or … are changed to actual ellipses (a special character, just like em dashes). Also make sure that there are four dots, not three, when the ellipsed material would have completed a sentence if it hadn’t been ellipsed.
  9. Use curved or slanted quotation marks and apostrophes, rather than straight (hash-mark) quotes. Also beware of curly quotes facing the wrong way, or a mix of hash-mark quotes and curly quotes (likewise apostrophes). Don’t trust your word processor’s search-and-replace on this — sometimes it guesses wrong! You can use it for the first pass, but you’ll want to carefully check all of these while copyediting.
  10. A major publisher will also check for:
    • ladders (three or more lines in a row ending in a hyphen, e.g., for word breaks)
    • stacks (same word “stacked” at the beginning or end of three or more lines
    • recto breaks (words broken across the turn of the page)
    • verso breaks (words broken between the bottom of the left page and the top of the right)
    • loose lines (too much white space in a full line)

Front Cover

  1. When designing books, go to a bookstore and look over as many as possible. Identify what works, and just as important, identify what isn’t working. You can learn as much from badly designed books as from beautifully designed books.
  2. Don’t center all the text on your cover or title page unless you’re really sure you want the visual effect that gives. Left aligning and right aligning produce much stronger visual lines. Centering also tends to appear old-fashioned.
  3. Don’t use more than three different fonts on your cover — this includes counting bold, italic, underline etc. variations as different fonts. It just starts looking messy and hard-to-read.
  4. Color-matching is almost impossible. Be aware that the colors on your screen are not going to be the colors that you get with the finished book. You can pay professionals (or take classes), but color-matching is still more of an art than a science.
  5. Professional cover art can do wonders for a book’s appeal; frequently artists will give a discount to smaller presses. Expect to pay between $300 and $3000 for professional cover art.

General Comments

Readability is one of the most important things to aim for. Look at professionally published books you own and see how they do things; look at which design choices work, and which don’t. Don’t be afraid to use whitespace; pages jammed with too much close-packed text can be offputting.

Use comfortable margins for the top and bottom and inside and outside of each page. Use sufficient leading (vertical space between lines). Use sufficient indentation at the beginning of each paragraph. Use sufficient vertical space for section breaks, and to offset indented quotations.


If you actually go through the entire list above, I promise you your books will look a hundred times better than most self-published and small press books out there, and that will translate to readers being more attracted to them, happier reading them, and possibly lead to even higher sales. And you’ll save us wincing at bad layout and design. 🙂 Good luck!

– Mary Anne

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