| January 5, 2011 6:54 pm

Occasionally, I will find myself sharing somewhat generic thoughts in extended form.  Sometimes I will be intrigued by a thread in an online discussion forum or on a mailing list.  In other instances, it will be prompted by private exchange.  Regardless, though, If I think that the exchange can be of benefit to others, I will post it here.  This has resulted in posting about horses, fonts, and communication platforms.  (I also put things here because the website has increasingly become a  way to organize thoughts, ideas, sources, images, and other material I find interesting.  Like my notebook or journal, except available everywhere.)

One such exchange happened this morning with a user of Scribus.  He is preparing to typeset a 60,000 word novel and was trying to find advice on fonts and other design related issues.  Below, you can find a slightly edited copy of my response.  Note: I have mostly added clarification and links to help with context.

Dear Scribus User,

Before I go further, I want to congratulate you on finishing the book.  It is a major accomplishment and I doff my cap to you, sir.

With all that said, take a big breath.  Designing a book is also a major undertaking.  Perhaps not as large as writing one, but it is a task where each decision should be considered carefully.

One of the first steps is to choose a production technology.  At this point, I wouldn’t become too attached to any one option.  Use the tool which will save you most time and produce the best output.  That may be Scribus, LaTeX, or even OpenOffice itself.

I presume that since formatting has been preserved to some extent, I will not have a great deal of editing to do, apart for attending to widows and orphans.

When I refer to LaTeX, I am not necessarily referring to the editing of text. But rather the process of adding and manipulating text boxes on the page. This is more than attending to widows and orphans, though that is a big part of it. In Scribus, this work must be done manually, and, while the end result can be spectacular, it is a tremendous amount of work. (Even under the best of conditions.)

In LaTeX, page breaks, line breaking, etc. is all handled in an automated manner. For novels and short stories that are “rivers of words” without significant “islands” (photos, captions, etc), I consider it to be the superior solution. And while the learning curve might seem intimidating, it will likely result in significant time savings. I would argue that your time is much more valuable than any money you might have already invested.

The second step is to design the book as you wish it to appear. (This might also be the first step, but the choice of tool and the appearance of the book often evolve hand in hand.) In this case, you’ve described the basic steps.

[I need to]

  • Transfer it into Scribus using OpenOffice to preserve the formatting.
  • Choose a font which will avoid kerning issues as much as possible, since I read that Times New Roman has kerning problems.
  • Produce a cover with a coloured photograph.
  • Produce a PDF file of single pages for printing.

Yes, that’s the process. But there are other considerations as well. Most important, what is the book actually going to look like? What size paper will it use? What will the page layout look like? Will you use a header/footer? Will the design incorporate decorative elements? What sort of feel do you want the final volume to elicit? (These questions are in no particular order, and I’ve left out dozens.)

These decisions represent a major investment, and it is essential that they be done well. Moreover, they are independent of any conversation of software. (You could use either Scribus, or LaTeX for most novels, for example.) For this reason, I would recommend that you requisition the aid of a professional designer. She may not actually design the volume, but it’s worth $30 or $40 for a creative consultation (which will usually last about an hour).

The designer might recommend a style, provide examples, help you locate a photo, or comment on fonts that match the timbre of the prose. Most importantly, though, she can get you started on the right foot and help you plan both the practical and creative phases of the project. Again, it will save you hours and it’s well worth the money.

As to font choices … that is a bit of a can of worms. First off, there is nothing wrong with Times New Roman. Most of the kerning problems you describe are actually inherent to Word, not the font. They can be solved by using a different program. Scribus certainly qualifies.

With that said, there are much better fonts available. When choosing a font, I would refer you to the advice offered in Robert Bringhurst’s “The Elements of Typographic Style” (see Chapter 6).


  1. Choose a typeface that suits the task as well as the subject. Do not, for example, use Futura in a book about Renaissance Italy. It will look silly and out of place. Consider a typeface like Adobe Jenson instead. Futura would thrive in a book about the Bauhaus design movement, however.
  2. Choose a typeface that will furnish the effects you need. If you need small caps, use a typeface that provides them.
  3. Use what there is to best advantage.
  4. Choose a face whose historical echoes and associations are in harmony with the text.
  5. Use a typeface that you like. Other people may hem and haw, but there will be just as many who coo and awe.
  6. If you find the perfect typeface, then purchase it. Yes, typefaces are expensive, but it is worth the investment. It will greatly improve the appearance of your work, which will afford it a competitive advantage.

So I appreciate that this advice is probably not helpful as you face a field of bewildering options, but … I suppose that is why I offer it.

There isn’t going to be one typeface that meets your needs. There are dozens and you’re going to have to prowl the specimen books. In your search, consider starting with Bringhurst’s book. There are two major sections on typefaces which offer a insight into when one might be used over another.

I’d also recommend that you head to your local bookstore and scan the shelves. Find examples of books you like and note which typeface they use (it usually says either on the copyright page or in the back). Note how they use it and which variants are used for headings, running heads, etc. Don’t worry if you can’t articulate why you like something, that comes later. Just pay attention to which works feel “right.”

Finally, once you’ve found examples of work you like, read the opinions of other designers and see how they mesh with yours. See why a creative prefer a particular typeface, or if they eschew others. Browse a couple of typography blogs. If I might humbly suggest, you could take a look at my thoughts on the subject. If you choose to meet with a designer, bring examples to that meeting. She can help you sort out what you like and why.

And as I said earlier, there’s more to it than the typeface. The width of the text block; the spacing, alignment, and breaking of the paragraphs; the arrangement of the headings, and the placement of the footer all play major parts. To get a page that really pops, you need everything in its proper space. Finding what that is will take some time and effort on your part.

Regardless, though, it’s worth it. Please keep us posted on your progress, and I, for one, would love to see an example of what you come up with.




One Response to “Thoughts On Designing a Book (January 2011 Edition)”

Rob Oakes wrote a comment on January 5, 2011

Other responses can be found in the Oak-Tree forums at http://www.oak-tree.us/mingle-forum/?mingleforumaction=viewtopic&t=8.0#postid-11. If you have other advice that you might provide, questions, or complaints, please let me know in the comments.

Care to comment?