Fiction Book Design: Focus on Print

by Judith Harlan.

We have lots of discussions here at Lucky Bat Books over the difference between the ebook and paperbook reading experience. We’re all pretty sure we know what paperbook reading should feel like; we’ve been reading paper books all our lives. (Maybe the last generation to do so? But that’s another blog.)

As readers, when we hold that print novel in hand, we have expectations of just one thing, really: the book’s disappearance.

Yes. Disappearance. All that hard design work down the rabbit hole. Gone.

As we read deeply into a story, the words on the page fold into images and sounds created in our minds. Characters speak, scenery appears, events unfold. We’re not looking at the page. We’re watching, and very often coming close to experiencing, the book’s events. We’re in space. We’re flying. We’re in love. In the swamps. In the mountains. The book is not there; the story is.

Respect the Story

As a lifelong fiction reader, I can tell you any number of stories that have happened in books. But the words on the page? The fonts, the margins, the headers, footers and leading? The design? I only notice those when they’re not working, when the font is hard to read or the headers intrude on my story.

And that is, to my way of thinking, the greatest rule of print design for fiction: Do not interrupt the reader’s story.

We can add to a story in many subtle ways through choice of header fonts that reflect the mood and tone the author is creating, with varying fonts to represent different voices, and with glyphs that enhance the story.

But then it’s our job as print designers to respect the story and get out of the way.


Meanwhile, over in ebooks, we’re adding links to music which can play as you read, to videos and to all sorts of outside experiences. We’re saying to the reader: tailor this ebook reading to your liking — click or don’t click. Make the ereader disappear or not and play alongside the story.


And back in print:

We’re adhering to age-old standards, choosing typefaces that have been around for, in some cases, centuries: think Baskerville, for example, a 1757 typeface by John Baskerville. We still like it because it’s easy to read, possibly not as scannable as some others, but still, a better read than most san serifs. And Garamond, a font used in CreateSpace templates, is a 1989 Adobe design based on a 16th Century typeface.

And we’re justifying text lines in fiction (though not necessarily in non-fiction). Justified text gives the reader the ultimate consistent experience; ie, helps the page disappear. Though a preference for ragged right text is growing amongst fiction book designers, and it is quantifiably faster to set up a ragged book, I prefer justified text as both reader and designer. When done well, the pages flow uniformly and invisibly.

There’s a great deal more involved in every print book we design here at Lucky Bat Books, taking into account the age of the reader (think type size and line leading), the genre (an inspiration to get creative with fonts), author style and intention, and the length of the work.

Yet, when it comes to fiction print design, we go back to the essential concept: the story rules. Respect the story. Get out of its way.