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Authors: What Is Typesetting? And Why Should You Care?

Note: This is a guest post by Ricardo Fayet, he is a co-founder of Reedsy, an online marketplace connecting authors with editorial, design, marketing and translation talent. Ricardo and the Reedsy team recently launched the Reedsy Book Editor.

The self-publishing world is almost always engaged in a conversation around writing, editing and book marketing. Quite surprisingly, however, little attention goes to one of the most vital parts of the publishing process: the design of the book.


When design does get some attention, talk is usually focused around the cover―and little else. It’s understandable in an age that puts so much of a book’s interior design–typeface, font size, spacing, margins, etc.–in readers’ hands. But underestimating the importance of professional interior book design is a mistake, even during a heyday of digital formats and e-reading.

When authors venture into print, they often simply focus on creating a PDF file “compliant” with their POD distributor (in most cases, Createspace or Ingram Spark). The same goes for publishers, many of whom view typesetting as a laborious, repetitive activity that should be outsourced to India.

So I thought I’d ask several of our typesetters on Reedsy a simple question: Is the importance of “typesetting” being underestimated, and why?

The underestimated importance of typesetting

A well-designed text is not only a marker of professionalism, it influences the way that your readers enjoy the book. Just like a typo or grammatical error is distracting, a design error pulls the reader out of the story. A designer/typesetter has a trained eye for these small mistakes (like widows, orphans, bad hyphenation, or loose lines) and will adjust to create a seamless reading experience.

Annie Ericsson, Book Designer and Illustrator

This is what typesetting is all about: creating a seamless reading experience. Of course, it’s hard for an author, publisher, or even a reader to perceive a typesetter’s work, but that’s actually the point: type is not meant to be noticed, it is meant to subliminally enhance the reader’s experience, and even create a subconscious atmosphere for the story.

In both fiction and non-fiction, good design enhances the tone of the book, putting the reader in the right frame of mind for the material at hand. Good typesetting leads the reader’s eye through the book invisibly and comfortably, making sure nothing gets between the author’s intention and the reader’s mind.

– Rachel Reiss, Book Interior Designer and Typesetter

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty: What does a typesetter actually focus on?

They find and choose the right type (or font) for your story. They can style chapter headings and drop caps. They decide margins and spacing. They look for and remove widows (the first line of a paragraph left behind at the bottom of a page) and orphans (the last line of a paragraph sitting forlornly at the top of a page).

Van de Graaf Canon for determining margins

Van de Graaf Canon for determining margins

These are all conscious decisions that need to be made by a professional who both understands the rules of typesetting and has enough experience to know how books in your genre are typically designed.

Democratizing typesetting through software

Of course, the other reason why authors (and publishers) tend to disregard typesetting is that hiring an actual, professional book interior designer is not cheap. Often designers will charge you more for the inside of the book than for designing the cover, back and spine, simply because it takes them more time.

This is where the DIY route becomes quite attractive. The problem is, the learning curve for software such as InDesign is quite steep.

Typesetting is also time consuming and a professional will have the tools and knowledge to complete the job in a more efficient manner.

– Jakob Vala, In-house Designer at Tin House

I know this because at Reedsy, we decided to format and typeset a book we published last year, and our designer had to learn how to typeset in InDesign. That experience is a big part of why we set out to build a tool with little to no learning curve, while respecting all the rules of professional typesetting.

But before you take advantage of new typesetting tools and free formatting software, remember that machines cannot produce art (yet). For example, our tool lets you produce and export professionally designed, print-ready PDFs, but only within the possibilities of the templates we have available. In other words: you don’t have endless customization possibilities.

Why would you want those?

Well, if you believe your story is unique (and I’m sure you do), you should want to “package” it in a unique way.

I was chatting with bestselling indie author CJ Lyons the other day, and she works with a typesetter who created a custom print template for her Fatal Insomnia series. In her words: “As a reader I get tired of the same fonts all the time, so I try to customize my print books a bit.”

Having a custom book design is a beautiful and often overlooked way of setting yourself apart from the competition, and the only way to get that is to work with a professional book layout designer.

Working with a layout designer

Let’s say you want to create a beautiful print book and offer your readers the perfect reading experience. How do you go about choosing the right designer for your project?

When hiring for a complex book interior (like a cookbook or children’s book), look for a designer who understands your audience and any genre-specific challenges. And to better identify and communicate the look you want, it can help to find specific examples – I recommend perusing a bookstore to research different approaches to type and layout.

Annie Ericsson, Book Designer and Illustrator

Once you have a better idea of what you’re after in terms of style, simply peruse the designers’ portfolios and pick the ones that resonate most with your ideas and expectations. Then, reach out to them and explain exactly what you’re looking for.

Educate yourself and ask questions. Designers, and especially book designers, are some of the nerdiest people I’ve ever met. Having an interest in their trade can make a huge difference in the author-designer relationship. Ask questions about the designer’s process, and about the decisions they make while designing a book. If you find a designer who doesn’t have thorough answers to your questions about book design, you’ve probably hired the wrong designer.

– Kevin Kane, The Frontispiece

The great thing about being an independent author is that you get to learn about a bunch of different things while you go through the process of publishing a book. While you shouldn’t try to learn how to design a book (there’s professionals for that), you should educate yourself on the design process.

As with anything else, the more passion and curiosity you show, the more fruitful the collaboration is going to be.

*If you need help with your book’s layout and typesetting, Ricardo and his team can help you: here. (No affiliation.)

Have you worked with a book designer? Share your experience with us in the comments and feel free to share any tips you learned.

About Bryan Hutchinson

I'm a positive writer and when that doesn't work, I eat chocolate. I help fellow writers overcome doubt and thrive! In my free time, I love visiting castles with my wife, Joan. Join me on Twitter and Facebook.

  • Great article! I worked with a graphic designer for my self-published book ‘Downsize with Style’. Although a practical style guide, I wanted it to be a beautiful design and coffee table book with a nice touch and feel. The water colour illustrations, the typesetting, and the paper quality were very important to me. To check it out visit: http://www.downsizewithstyle.com – Would love to hear your feedback!

    • The illustration on the cover is very nice indeed, as is the choice of font for the title and trim. There’s a bit too much text on the cover for my taste, but I’d pick up the book nonetheless. Did the same graphic artist take care of the layout design and typesetting for the interior as well?

      • Yes, it was the same person. A swedish designer I found on Elance.