Navigating the modern business of book publishing

Self Publishing Part 7: The Consonant Gardener – The Three C’s of Internal Book Formatting

A well formatted book is like a beautifully landscaped garden

Imagine your book with no headings, no paragraph breaks and no formatting – just one long line of text, sentence after sentence with no place for a reader to pause and gather their thoughts. The narrative has become a forbidding and impenetrable jungle of text. There are no reference points for a reader to navigate by and they will quickly tune out to your message.

In comparison, a cleanly formatted book is like a landscaped garden­ – the words are the same but the reader is given a clearly laid out path to follow, with signposts to guide them and point out the important features. Just as good landscaping accentuates the natural beauty of a garden, great formatting has the ability to showcase your writing in the best possible light.

Of course, formatting is more than simply breaking the text into paragraphs and highlighting headings in bold. Book designers see more than the words on the page, they see the white space between the words and the shapes and colour of paragraphs. They consider how fonts affect the reading experience and make subtle, undetectable adjustments between letters to keep lines neat and page breaks clean. They measure indents and line spacing and fuss over drop caps and chapter headings with the care of a gardener planting a flower bed.

Like gardening, book design is an art form that has been around for hundreds of years and, despite the digital revolution, many of the founding principles of typography and page layout are still very important to follow. In particular, when formatting the internal pages of any book you should always be guided by the three C’s: Colour, Contrast, and Consistency.


The ‘colour’ of a block of text can help set the feel of the book

In landscaping, colour is an essential element of any garden, taking advantage of the subliminal effect it has on human emotions to set mood and tone. It may not be so obvious in formatting black-on-white text but the density of ink on a page and its interaction with white space gives blocks of text and the overall page a distinct shade or colour. This colour has its own subtle effects on the reader – darker text can appear more serious but might feel intense or imposing, while lighter text will appear more approachable but may project a feeling of airiness and simplicity. Book designers also aim to keep the colour of the page as even as possible, avoiding ‘rivers’ of white space that can appear in poorly spaced text, for example.

The choice of typeface will have a large impact on the colour of the text as the thicker the strokes in the individual character glyphs, the darker the page will be. The depth of the page margin will determine the amount of white space around the text while the line length and paragraph justification will affect the white space within a block of text. Designers also have a number of typographical tricks to fine tune text colour within paragraphs, including:

  • Leading – adjusting the space between lines of text
  • Kerning – adjusting the space between individual characters
  • Tracking – adjusting the spaces between all characters in a line of text evenly (when overused this is the major cause of ‘rivers’ of white space in a text)
  • Hyphenation – breaking long words that fall at the end of a line to avoid exaggerated Tracking
  • Glyph Scaling – adjusting the width of the character glyphs themselves

I’ll discuss these techniques in detail in a post dedicated to Typography


Creating contrast on a page creates visual interest and draws focus

While colour can establish mood, contrast creates highlights and focuses the attention. This is true for both gardening (where brightly coloured flowers may stand out against dark foliage) and for book formatting (where bold headings can differentiate sections of text). Contrast provides more visually stimulating pages that can hold a reader’s interest longer and help guide them through your book.

Headings and bullet lists not only help avoid reader fatigue by breaking long text into manageable chunks, they provide aesthetic variety on a page and help the reader navigate the book. Illustrations, photos, charts and other images add an extra dimension to the writing but also give the reader something new to look at and allow them to take a break from the text. Text boxes and sidebars highlight important information and change the dynamic of a page. Even simple typographical features such as typeface, bold, italics, point size and font colour (all used sparingly!) can provide enough contrast in a text to hold a reader’s attention.

Page layout can also be used to create interesting contrasts throughout the book. The simple act of setting up a page margin effectively frames the text with white space, creating a strong zone of contrast that can be used to greater or lesser effect. You can also create contrast between pages, by devising different page configurations that present images and text boxes in varying relation to the main text.


Consistency is the Number 1 Rule of book formatting

Now that I’ve encouraged you to mix it up by creating contrast in your book, I’m going to pull you back in line and drum into you the Number 1 Rule of book formatting:


Being consistent does not mean avoiding formatting variations and contrast in your book – it simply requires that these formatting decisions are applied in a consistent fashion throughout your entire book. If your book contains too many different fonts and page layouts or if they are applied haphazardly they will only confuse, frustrate and distract the reader.

The positive effects of the colour and contrast reply upon consistent repetition throughout the book. When you consider the colour of the text on your pages you are trying to achieve evenness and consistency throughout your book. When contrast is used to highlight and provide focus it always works best when the reader is given a small hierarchy of formatting styles that act like a key and are repeated consistently throughout the book.

Visual contrasts, such as page margins or font selection should also be applied consistently or they will appear messy and unprofessional. If you choose to vary these for some reason then the variations need to be consistent with the content of the book and applied consistently throughout the book. For example, you may choose to write a chapter of a story in red ink because the main character is reading a letter written in blood. This is consistent with the content of the story and adds to the reading experience. Additionally, if there is letter written in, let’s say mud, later in the book, you should present this in brown ink for the sake of consistency.

The best way to establish consistency throughout your book is to set up a style guide listing all the formatting decisions that you make so that you have a quick reference to look back on. This should include fonts, heading styles, page margins, paragraph indents, footnotes, borders, tables, bullet points, punctuation, graphics, and so on. Fortunately much of this can be handled directly by publishing software such as MS Word, Adobe InDesign and QuarkXpress, which all contain Style Sheets.

The MS Word Styles tool bar – Style Sheets are crucial formatting tools

These ensure consistency and save time by applying preset styles to headings, paragraphs, quotes and other text formatting variants. They are absolutely essential and allow global changes to be made quickly and accurately. InDesign and Quark both allow you to import MS Word style sheets, so you can transfer your document with no loss of formatting (see InDesign Style Sheets and QuarkXpress Style Sheets for more info).

Applying the Three C’s

Throughout my discussion of colour, contrast and consistency above, I frequently mention two major elements in formatting the internal text of a book: Typography and Page Layout. Typography is concerned with the design and internal spacing of the text itself and the Layout determines the structure and relative locations of blocks of text (and other elements such as images) on the page. My next posts in the Self Publishing Series will go into depth about these two subjects and explore the tools and techniques that designers use to format books.

Go To:

Self Publishing Part 1
Self Publishing Part 2
Self Publishing Part 3
Self Publishing Part 4
Self Publishing Part 5
Self Publishing Part 6

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Categorised in: All Posts, How to Self Publish Series, Self Publishing

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About Richard

Richard Bilkey has been selling, marketing and distributing books for over ten years, managing independent bookshops, a major online retailer and, most recently, one of Australia's largest Independent Book Distributors, Brumby Books.

Contact Richard directly at
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