Lessons From Publishing, Part 2: Typesetting

Series Introduction

Three and a half years ago, I set out on the adventure of becoming a publisher. Although I have shut down the economic entity representing my publishing endeavors, known as Fuzzy Hedgehog Press, the parts of publishing most interesting and valuable for me remain. As I discovered, those valuable bits have nothing to do with the operation of a business unit.

If, like me, you are a writer and publisher more interested in crafting literary art than in turning a monetary profit or becoming popular, then this series is for you.


Of all the skills I picked up on my publishing journey, my favorite, far and away, is the art of typesetting. It consists of the ability to lay out a page that is both readable and elegant, a skill that, for all its surface simplicity, contains remarkable depth.

When I started out three and a half years ago, I merely surveyed all the fiction I owned and mimicked the elements of the layouts I liked best. Once I had a half dozen designs under my belt, I came to realize that what I thought was a simple affair—text block here, page numbers there—was actually a highly complex medium, and not to mention, one highly sensitive to minute changes.

In this article, I will summarize what I have learned about typesetting a book for print. I have four major sources: The Form of the Book by Jan Tschichold, The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst, On Book Design by Richard Hendel, and Book Typography: A Designer's Manual by Michael Mitchell.


At the time of this writing, there are two professional software applications used to lay out book interiors, Adobe InDesign and QuarkXpress. I personally use Adobe InDesign.

These applications are admittedly pricey. Unfortunately, no good free and open source option exists. The closest is Scribus, but this application's main failing, when I last investigated it six months prior to the time of this writing, was that it refused to read in any fonts that did not conform to its bizarrely dogmatic standard of "correctness." Unfortunately, this excluded many legitimate and beautiful fonts. I can recommend Scribus as a sandbox in which to practice typesetting without incurring the fees of the professional products, but that is all.

All of the above software is designed to output layouts as PDF files. The PDF format is the standard amongst all book printers I have ever worked with. Even custom dies for book binderies are cast from PDFs these days.


I'll need to start by establishing some basic terminology, as Mitchell was kind enough to do in Book Typography.

When you open up a book, typically you are looking at two pages. These two pages together are called a spread. The left page is called a verso and the right page a recto. Printers expect to get book layout files in an even number of pages, beginning with a single recto page, ending with a single verso page, and containing some number of spreads in between.

Most pages will have page numbers, which amongst typesetters are called folios. Odd numbered folios must appear on rectos, and even numbered folios on versos.

The part of the page where the text appears is called the text block, and the empty parts of the page around its edges are called the margins. There are four margins: the inner margin, the outer margin, the top margin, and the bottom margin. The top margin and the bottom margin are in the places their names suggest them to be: the top and bottom of the page respectively. The inner margin sits against the spine, so the inner margin lies on the right of a verso, and on the left of a recto. The outer margin lies against the outside page edge, which is on the left of a verso, and on the right of a recto.

The text may or may not have running heads, a running head is a line of text, which can consist of the author's name, the title of the book, or the title of the current section or chapter, which sits atop the text block. Some publishing houses insist that they be included, but some professional typographers find them to be unsightly in a work without chapter or section titles.

Most print works of fiction will have the following parts, though some are optional: the half-title, the title page, the copyright page, the dedication, the table of contents, the introduction, and the text. The order of this list is, generally speaking, the order in which these sections should appear.

A print work of fiction will have three major sections, the front matter, the text, and the back matter. The pages of the front matter are numbered with lowercase Roman numeral folios, and the pages of the text and the back matter are numbered with Arabic numeral folios. The first page of the front matter should be page i and the first page of the text should be page 1. Since odd numbers need to be on rectos, it is common to add a blank page to the front matter if it has an odd number of pages. Otherwise, page 1 of the text would be on the wrong side of the spine.

The Text Block and the Van de Graaf Canon

One of the most important decisions the typesetter will make is that of the size and positioning of the text block upon the page. It determines the shape of absolutely every page in the book, even those without blocks of continuous text.

When I was preparing to typeset the first edition of Voyage: Embarkation (my first novel), I surveyed the typesetting of my favorite books. A couple of things jumped out at me, especially as I considered the effects of the text block on how I read:

  1. I liked it better when the text box was far enough away from the spine so that I didn't have to tilt the book into the roll of the spine to see the words properly.

  2. I liked it better when there was enough room in the outer and bottom margins for my thumbs when I was holding the book open. If either of those margins was too narrow, my thumbs would cover up the lines, and I had to shift my hand positioning constantly as I read.

As a result, I ended up with this design for the text interior:

Example spread from "Voyage: Embarkation" first edition hardcover Text excerpts Copyright © Matthew Buscemi 2013

Example spread from "Voyage: Embarkation" first edition hardcover
Text excerpts Copyright © Matthew Buscemi 2013

I made the inner margin huge, to keep the text away from the spine, and the outer and bottom spine was large enough to accommodate fingers. I set the top margin to something that looked right, given the proportions of everything else (I should note that in the above example, my earliest work, I put the running heads inside the text block space, which I now feel was a mistake). I put folios and the standard running head at the top and called it a day.

To my eyes now, I consider this a good first effort, but it is crude. Once I started reading up on typesetting, I discovered other considerations.

One of the goals of a good text block design should be to make the text legible within a spread, not a page. When the text block is pulled out from the spine, as I did with my first edition of Voyage: Embarkation (and five more books afterward), I broke that unity.

I was right in my thinking that the text should not roll inward toward the spine, but by leaving the outer margin smaller than the inner margin, I made the text appear to be two blocks on two disconnected pages, when, in fact, these pages should feel connected.

In The Art of the Book, Jan Tschichold discusses a property he discovered of medieval books. He noticed that a great many of them had the same text block proportions, even though page sizes varied wildly (there were not yet standards among paper makers).

The trick, he discovered, was a mathematically derived arrangement for the text block, one which medieval printers could create with just a pencil and a straight edge, and results in text blocks with elegant properties. The most notable properties are that the height of the text block is the same as the width of the page, and that the text block height and width ratio always come out at the same as the page height and width ratio. Tschichold named this style of deriving the text block after the typographer who figured out how to draw the straight-edge lines that would yield such a text block regardless of paper size, Johannes A. van de Graaf (The Form of the Book, pg. 45; further reading)

On a page size of 6" by 9", the canon will yield the following: a ⅔" inner margin, a 1" top margin, a 1 ⅓" outer margin, and a 2" bottom margin.

Example of margins delineating the Golden Section on a 6" x 9" page spread

Example of margins delineating the Golden Section on a 6" x 9" page spread

This spread is elegant, but not economical. It leaves an enormous amount of whitespace on the page, and it does not leave enough margin near the spine for a book with a glue binding (which is all paperbacks, and some hardcovers, certainly every book created with print-on-demand services; only hardcovers with a sewn binding will find this inner margin acceptable). I have used the canon to print a one-of-a-kind edition, but it is simply not practical for most contexts.

As a result, my standard text block/margin rules for myself are now:

  1. The inner margin must be as close to the spine as possible without rolling into it.

  2. The margins must increase in size in this order: inner margin, top margin, outer margin, bottom margin.

  3. The outer margin and bottom margin must be large enough that I can look at a spread and feel that the text blocks of each page are unified.

Here's an interior text spread from the upcoming second edition of Voyage: Embarkation, which utilizes these principles:

Example spread from "Voyage: Embarkation" second edition hardcover Text excerpts Copyright © Matthew Buscemi 2017

Example spread from "Voyage: Embarkation" second edition hardcover
Text excerpts Copyright © Matthew Buscemi 2017

The Half-Title

When the reader opens up the front cover of the book, they will be presented first with the endpaper. This is sturdy piece of paper glued to the back of each cover. Its practical purpose is to cover up whatever material the cover is made of. It is highly irregular for any text to be printed on the endpaper, but a design is common. In some fantasy books, such as my hardcovers of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series, a map of the novel's world is printed on the endpaper.

When the reader flips over the endpaper, they should be presented with the half-title. This will be page i, but it would be highly unusual for the half-title (or any other front matter page) to present a folio.

The half-title should be a very simplified form of the title page. Where the title page will list the author, information about the publisher, and even, if applicable, the sub-title, the half-title should contain the title in its most basic form. Voyage: Embarkation is a good exemplar of this difference.

Voyage Embarkation first edition half title page
Voyage Embarkation first edition half-title and title pages

Voyage Embarkation first edition half-title and title pages

Notice that the half-title contains only the most basic form of the title, "Voyage Embarkation," while the title page displays the entire extended title, "Voyage Along the Catastrophe of Notions / Volume I / Embarkation." Since I was a publisher at that time, I included the press logo and name as well. Some publishers put which cities they are based in, but I decided not to do that here.

This is a flawed design. I don't like the small caps everywhere, the five different font sizes, and the fact that some elements are centered and others are right aligned. I also hadn't yet learned about vertical unity among front matter pages when I made this design. The half-title should not be vertically centered on the page!

Below are the half title and title for the upcoming second edition of Voyage: Embarkation.

voyage embarkation second edition half-title
Voyage Embarkation second edition half-title and title pages

Voyage Embarkation second edition half-title and title pages

So, things have gotten a lot simpler, and in my humble opinion, typesetting is a craft where simpler is almost always better. There are exactly two font sizes at work now, and no small caps. Notice also the horizontal guide I've placed on these pages. This guide is set at the same position on all three pages. Front matter looks more unified (and more pleasing) when all elements are aligned to a guide (its placement can vary between books, but not within the same book).

This is one of the squishier rules. Start by aligning all front matter elements vertically, but if you find a really good reason not to, try it out and see how it goes. Starting out by having vertical alignment unity among your front matter pages is certainly preferable to placing elements willy nilly.

Finally, notice that in all the examples given, the elements of the half-title and the title are contained within the text block shape that we chose for the text, and they are also aligned (centering, right alignment, left alignment, everything) against the text block, not the page. This is extremely important. Whereas the vertical alignment rule is kind of squishy, the text block rule is decidedly firm. It would be highly unusual for a page of the front matter that breaks text block unity to look good. Some artistic elements, such as styles and graphics, may certainly bleed out, but it would be highly unusual for text elements to do so.

The Title Page

The title page should be on page iii, as shown in the above examples.

It is typical for page ii to be blank. Some publishers and authors like to put a list of the author's other publications or promotional material on this page. I did this for many of my earlier books, but nowadays I prefer to leave page ii blank. I find that ads or even the list of publications distracts from the title page, and then the title page has to be more embellished, and the more typesetting I do, the more I try to find the simplest solution that could possibly work.

The Copyright Page

The United States Copyright Office will recognize a copyright notice placed in any of the following locations within a book: on the title page, immediately after the title page, just inside either the front or back cover, or the first or last page of the main body of the text (source).

It is typical to place the copyright information, along with other publication information, on page iv. However, many typesetters have written that, although they find page iv placement of the copyright information unseemly, the publishing houses remain adamantly opposed to any other position. The typesetter's goal is to serve the reader, and thus the copyright information, which the reader does not typically care about, should, some argue, be placed at the end.

In all of my published books so far, I have placed the copyright page on page iv. Going forward, I will be placing copyright information on the very last page of the book, the very last section of the back matter, which is also compliant with the United States Copyright Office guidelines.

If you survey enough books, you will realize that there is no "standard" way to lay out a copyright page, except that the text is typically very small. Use your best judgment, keeping the text inside the text block and obeying the vertical alignment guide you set for the front matter (if your copyright page is in the front matter).

Schrödinger's City first edition copyright and dedication spread

Schrödinger's City first edition copyright and dedication spread

Though it predates my knowledge of van de Graaf and vertical alignment, this copyright page from my first edition paperback of Schrödinger's City is a good example of the contents of a page iv copyright notification.

voyage embarkation second edition copyright page

Above is the final page copyright notification from the second edition of Voyage: Embarkation. In this edition, page iv has been left blank. Notes about typography have been moved to their own special back matter section, and printing and press information, as well as legal notifications, have been omitted.

The Dedication

This page is usually simple enough. If there is a dedication, it should be on page v. Dedications are usually short. The font should be consistent with the font for the body of the text, and the same size, too. It is common to use italics. A lot of what looks good in a dedication depends on how long the dedication is. You will have to experiment and discover such nuances for yourself.

Be sure to follow your vertical alignment guide for front matter and keep everything inside of and aligned against the text block!

This is our first optional element. If there is no dedication, that's fine. Page v should then contain the next applicable element.

The Table of Contents

A table of contents should appear if a book has chapter titles, or if it is sectioned in some way other than plainly numbered chapters. The goal is to help readers quickly return to parts of the text they are trying to find. In a book with chapters that are merely numbered, a table of contents serves no purpose (no one is likely to remember that their favorite scene was in chapter sixteen, just that it was the part where the antagonist was finally defeated).

There are many different ways to style a table of contents. Again, I recommend doing a survey of books you own and seeing what others have done.

My personal preference is for chapter titles flush left with folios flush right against the text block. 

Voyage Embarkation second edition table of contents

Voyage Embarkation second edition table of contents

However, things get more complicated if there are multiple levels of sections and chapters.

Schrödinger's City unpublished limited edition hardcover table of contents

Schrödinger's City unpublished limited edition hardcover table of contents

Notice that lines need a lot of space between them in order for the reader to easily trace a line from the chapter title to the folio (space between lines of text is called leading). The less leading there is, the harder this tracing becomes.

If there is no dedication, the table of contents should appear on page v, otherwise it should appear on page vii. Some typesetters like to start a multi-page table of contents on a verso, so that the reader can see the entire table of contents on a single spread. I have mixed feelings about this. I like the idea of looking at the entire table of contents on one spread, but it is typical for every other major piece of front matter to start on a recto. If the table of contents starts on a verso, it can feel as though it has started "wrong." All I can suggest is that you do what you think is best.

The Introduction

With the introduction, it is important to ask yourself whether the introduction belongs with the front matter or with the text. This has broad implications.

If the introduction merely provides additional context about the novel, then it should be part of the front matter. Its pages should use the lowercase roman numeral folios, and it should start on the first available recto.

If the introduction is a part of the novel, that is, if its contents is more like a prologue, then it should start on page 1. Again, make absolutely sure that page 1 is a recto. Odd numbered folios must appear on rectos.

The Text

You may be thinking that there's not much left to talk about with the text, since we decided the shape of the text block way back at the beginning, but the layout of the main text leaves a lot for us to discuss.

Chapter Headers

The page that begins a chapter can either be a verso or a recto. Some typesetters like to start all chapters on rectos, but this will incur the cost of a blank page when the previous chapter ends on recto. This can significantly increase page count, and I have yet to discover a printer whose pricing structure does not increase per page.

Usually there is significant whitespace around the chapter title, and the text begins some ways down the page. Folios and running heads almost never appear on chapter header pages.

I have studied a lot of chapter titles in the books on my shelves, and that is about where the similarities end. This is another area where typesetters tend to get more creative (as should be obvious by now, my tendency is toward simpler designs).

Example chapter header from "Voyage: Embarkation" second edition hardcover Text excerpts Copyright © Matthew Buscemi 2017

Example chapter header from "Voyage: Embarkation" second edition hardcover
Text excerpts Copyright © Matthew Buscemi 2017

Folios and Running Heads

The main pages of a text should include folios. I have seen these placed above the text block flush with the outer edge, below the text block centered, or below the text box flush with its outer edge. My personal preference is for the lattermost, but I have used other styles on occasion. In a book with very large margins (such as a design that utilizes the canon) it is possible to get even more creative.

Many typesetters I've read have complained about running heads. These typically appear above the text block, either centered or flush against the outside. They are extremely useful when the book has named chapters or sections, but useless for a continuous text. However, the house rules of some publishers dictate that all books must include running heads of the author's name and book title. I followed this convention for all my early publications, because I was mimicking what I saw in other novels. I now leave off the running heads in works where they are unnecessary. A running head of the chapter title (see above) can be very helpful to the reader who is searching out a particular section of the text.

Running heads and folios are unusual on chapter header pages, but I have seen some books that place them there anyway. I recommend leaving running heads and folios off of chapter title pages. Whatever you do, do not place the folio in a different place on the chapter header pages than on the main text pages. The reader should be able to find the folios easy as they flip through pages of the book. If their location differs on some pages, they lose their utility. For this same reason, folios should never be placed near the spine.

Text Layout

The text itself deserves the most attention. This is where the reader will spend the bulk of their time with your book.

All paragraphs should use left justified alignment. This is not the same as the default Microsoft Word setting of "left alignment." The full name of that setting is "left ragged alignment." It is called "ragged" because the lines don't necessarily fill all the available space in the line. In "justified" alignment, each line does, unless it is the last line of the paragraph.

Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress will automatically hyphenate words when it would be unseemly to stretch or shrink the spaces between words too far. However, when the programs fail to make a good call, the justification can be modified by using shift+enter to insert a line break character manually.

Paragraphs that begin a new section of text should have no indentation. All other paragraphs should be indented. A good size for an indent will depend on the length of the line in your text block. For a 5.5" x 8.5" page with a typical text block, start with a 1 pica (one-sixth inch) paragraph indent and make adjustments until it feels right. The indent should be just big enough to be parsed quickly as a new paragraph but should not so large as to cause the reader to pause and gawk at it.


I covered a lot of ground here, and there's still so much more I could talk about. I laid out the basics of what I've learned from typesetting, given four books as my sources, and walked through the basics of designing each kind of page for all the major sections of a novel.

I have turned comments on for this post, and as long as things stay civil, I'm happy to field questions or continue discussion there.