How to Judge a Book Designer: Book Block Composition and Microtypography

Authors are often so excited to bypass the gatekeepers of publishing and have their work in print on their own terms that they often throw the baby out with the bathwater. Eventually, when their excitement dies down, they start to realize “Hmmm, why doesn’t my book look like a traditionally printed book?” And the answer to this is because typesetting is a skill that takes years to develop and not every software allows for this skill to be executed at a level of mastery.

How to Judge a Book Designer

While self-publishing has made publishing possible for anyone, publishing standards have been sacrificed along the way. Not intentionally, though. It’s often traced back to the first stage of competence (of which there are four):  Unconsciously Incompetent (I don’t know that I don’t know.) Authors are often so excited to bypass the gatekeepers of publishing and have their work in print on their own terms that they often throw the baby out with the bathwater. Eventually, when their excitement dies down, they start to realize “Hmmm, why doesn’t my book look like a traditionally printed book?” And the answer to this is because typesetting is a skill that takes years to develop and not every software allows for this skill to be executed at a level of mastery.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and that includes me. I was a trainer for the Microsoft Office suite and an expert in Microsoft Word. So when the opportunity came up for me to format someone’s book, I was like “Yeah, I can do that.” And I did. And there is a reason I don’t do it that way anymore, lol. While Word will get the job done, it’s only just barely. I’ve logged well over 20,000 intentional learning hours in Adobe InDesign over the last ten years (propelling me to Stage 4 of Competence: Unconsciously Competent or Mastery) and, while it is a beast of a software to truly master, it’s totally worth it. And while others may lead you to believe that publishing a book is easy, I can assure you that publishing a well-designed book is not.

In addition to knowing Adobe InDesign well enough to craft the book’s layout, knowing the software is just one part of the magic. The other part is knowing WHAT makes a quality book layout. What does it even MEAN? It means you have to transition from a formatter into a typesetter.

There are many factors that go into typesetting, but today we are going to focus on just two.

Two core factors in quality book design are book block composition and microtypography—two terms that, based on my own experience, most formatters who work on self-published books are not familiar with.

  1. Book block composition (BBC) is when the two facing pages have full text frames but may still have small gaps at the bottom due to paragraph style options (no widows/no orphans, etc.). It is used to manage the reading at a page level.
  2. Microtypography (MT) is used to manage the reading at the line level.

While some of formatters for hire may utilize the vertical justification text frame setting and pass that off as book block composition, professional typesetters agree that vertical justification is just one piece of the typesetting puzzle. This is often overlooked because you have to have software that has the capabilities of InDesign. Word, Vellum, and Scrivener are not sufficient for these tasks.

The page layout on the left has not had the BBC set nor has it gone through a complete round of microtypography adjustments.

These two combined can reduce the page count a bit, thereby reducing the cost to print. This may not be as much of a concern for print-on-demand, but for authors who are investing in bulk printing, those pennies add up quickly when multiplied by thousands.

If you study the two layouts, you’ll see that I was able to include 4 extra lines between the two pages.

typesetting book block composition

Granted, most people don’t find this as fascinating as I do. But that’s why I’m a book designer. I’m an all-in kind of girl. I want the content to be well written and edited. I want the cover design to be the right cover for its market and one that the author will be proud to promote. And if a traditional publishing company were to run across a book that I’ve designed, I want them to raise an eyebrow and walk away with the knowledge that self-published authors can be a rival when they have the right team behind them.

We stand on the shoulders of giants, and although my journey started with my reaching level 2 of the competence model (I know that I don’t know), I couldn’t have gotten any further without having access to others who were willing to share their knowledge. Thank you to Nigel French for publishing “InDesign Type: Professional Typography with Adobe InDesign” and Peter Kahrel for “GREP in InDesign: An InDesignSecrets Guide.”

If you want to continue reading up on these topics, hit up “Good Typography is Invisible” by Aneta Stašiková.

Share this post:

Keep reading:

Hiring & Working with Self-Publishing Pros

How I Work with Children’s Picture Book Authors

Just like I am not an illustrator, neither is an illustrator a production artist. Instead, the illustrator, the editor, and the production artist (that’s me!) all work in tandem to arrive at the best end product.

Read More »
How to Judge a Book Designer
Hiring & Working with Self-Publishing Pros

How to Judge a Book Designer: Book Block Composition and Microtypography

Authors are often so excited to bypass the gatekeepers of publishing and have their work in print on their own terms that they often throw the baby out with the bathwater. Eventually, when their excitement dies down, they start to realize “Hmmm, why doesn’t my book look like a traditionally printed book?” And the answer to this is because typesetting is a skill that takes years to develop and not every software allows for this skill to be executed at a level of mastery.

Read More »

Find out how I work with
savvy authors like you.

Free: All the things lousy book editors, designers, and agencies don't want you to know.

I'll tell you how to avoid the 5 most costly mistakes new self-publishers make.