When you open a book, what is the first thing that you see? Words. Typically lots of them. What is easy to forget is that a lot of thought has gone into how these words are presented: their size, their look, the size of the margins, right down to the distance between lines and letters. All of these things contribute to a book’s legibility and need to be calculated with precision when creating the layout template of your book. These calculations are based on both conventions and aesthetic choices. The form must match the content, and just like a photographer takes care of his composition, the layout designer seeks to create an inviting space for the reader.

Book layout relies on two important factors:

  • First, presentation rules (also called typographic norms) that are the product of centuries of fine-tuning. Presentation rules have a single aim: to make text as legible and as pleasant to read as possible.
  • Second, a layout that will depend on the particular graphic preferences of the designer. Every book is different, and a good layout not only makes it easy to read a book but also helps convey its unique identity.

In this article, we will discuss how to prepare a template for the layout of your book’s inside pages.

What is a book layout template?

The book layout is a template that draws the boundaries within which the text will be placed for all the inside pages of the book, except the table of contents, bibliography, credits and index pages which are designed differently for convenience.

A short history of book layout

To build a book layout grid, we recommend using a method based on the golden ratio that dates back to the Renaissance. During this period, mathematicians discovered that there was an ideal relationship between the dimensions of an object, its height and its width.

Luca Pacioli, a renowned mathematician who was considered by many to be the father of accounting, spoke of a “divine proportion”. Formats used by modern printing presses (width to height of a page) are still based on this ratio. For instance, the modern standard 5.25″ x 8.5″ is close to the in-octavo format, an early book format that adheres to the golden ratio.

The method we cover in this article is used by a large number of publishers. We’ve analyzed a wide variety of books and found that most graphic designers use it fairly faithfully.

What is the golden ratio?

The golden ratio, also referred to as the golden number or “divine proportion”, occurs when the ratio of two quantities ([a/b]) is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities ([a+b]/[a]).
This ratio is equal to 1.61803398875.

The golden ratio is used in architecture, paintings, sculpture, photography, illustration and even music to achieve harmonious proportions. Logos of major institutions like Apple and National Geographic are based on the golden ratio. These same proportions are even found in some vegetables such as pine cones and romanesco broccoli!

Have you ever had the chance to go to Rome to admire St. Peter’s basilica? For those who have visited the basilica, they will recall how harmonious its proportions are. While the basilica itself is enormous, the dimensions are so well balanced that it’s almost impossible to tell from a simple picture (unless, of course, there are tourists in the picture). Vitruvius, who was studied extensively by Leonardo Da Vinci, once said: “For a building to be beautiful, it must have the perfect symmetry and proportions like those found in nature”.

The art of creating page layouts has always been about presenting the text in the clearest way possible. When preparing a book layout template, the designer considers everything from the amount of white space on the page, to illustrations, fonts, titles, right down to the spacing between characters. The techniques based on the golden ratio were a major turning point for book designers, giving them new ways of using the spaces between the lines of text on a sheet of paper. In terms of readability and comfort, it was a breakthrough for both readers and publishers.

The importance of margins: it’s all about white space

There’s white space everywhere in a book because it allows the text to breathe. Paul Valéry wrote a poem about white space called La Feuille Blanche (french for The Blank Sheet). It could be summarized by saying “The most important element in a book is the white space”. You’ll find spaces between the letters, the words, the lines and in the margins. The margins are what help create an aesthetic balance between the white space and the “black” text.

The rules of book formatting that were established centuries ago have not changed much. Even if modern techniques now let graphic designers use more flexible tools than lead and lithographic limestone, reading comfort remains a priority.

Printing was once considered one of the Graphic Arts. Along with other related trades such as binding, these arts were focused on the production of elegant design. For this, codified rules were established and are still largely respected to this day.

The Blank Sheet

In truth, a blank sheet Declares by the void That there is nothing as beautiful As that which does not exist.

On the magic mirror of its white space, The soul sees before her the place of the miracles That we would bring to life with signs and lines. This presence of absence over-excites And at the same time paralyses the definitive act of the pen. There is in all beauty a forbiddance to touch, From which emanates I don’t know what of sacred That stops the movement and puts the man On the point of acting in fear of himself.

Paul Valéry

Before getting into the details, it should be noted that book layout rules have slightly changed over time for two reasons:

  • Changes in binding processes: Books used to be sewn together so that they opened perfectly flat. The shift to the more economical perfect binding (softcover) was accompanied by an apparent loss of inner margin space due to the curvature of the paper in the fold. This means that the proportions of inner and outer margins had to be adjusted.
  • New modern software: It’s now easier than ever to build a book layout. Thanks to modern software like Adobe InDesign, layout work is now done with great freedom and flexibility. That said, professional designers still refer to the classical rules in their work.

Inner and outer margins

The inner margin is, as the name suggests, the page’s inside margin. It’s the margin closest to the book’s fold, where the page is glued or sewn to the spine. The inner margin is on the left side of a book’s odd-numbered pages, and on the right side of even-numbered pages. The inner margin is typically smaller than the outer margin in order to direct the sight of the reader towards the interior of the book.

If you want to scrupulously follow the rules of page layout, the justification¹ of your text should occupy two-thirds of the width of the page. For example, if the page width is 5.25 inches, the text line will be 3.5 inches long. For books with soft binding, it’s better to follow this rule for the reasons explained above.

¹ Justification: Width of the text column. We say a text is justified when it fills the whole width of the column, compared to when the line width varies from one line to another.

Alternatively to the two-thirds rule, the layout can be set up so that the text occupies three-fourths of the page width. This rule, although less elegant, allows you to save space and reduce the page count of your book. In this article, we will only discuss the “two-thirds” layout.

There exist all kinds of methods to balance the inner and outer margins. For example, some methods use the Fibonacci series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on) to calculate the proportions of the margins. Using this method, the inner margin is 2, the upper margin is 3, the outer margin is 5 and the lower margin is 8. Other methods use series like 2, 3, 4, 5 or 2, 3, 4, 6 to calculate margins.

At Rapido Books, we use a ratio of 4, 5, 6 and 7. The 4 and 6 ratios are reserved for the inner and outer margins, and 5 and 7 for the lower and upper margins. This method is inspired by the work of Pierre Duplan and Roger Jauneau, Maquette et mise en page (Éditions du Moniteur, Paris, 1986).

Here is the calculation of margins that we recommend:
  • Text column width = width of the book x (2/3)
  • The remaining margins (inner and outer margins) = width of the book x (1/3)
  • Lower margin = remaining margins x (4/10)
  • Upper margin = remaining margins x (6/10)
For our example, with a 5,25 x 8,5″², book the specs would then be:
  • Justification of the text = 3,5″
  • Remaining white space = 1,75″
  • Inner margin = 1,75″ x (4/10) = 0,7″
  • Outer margin = 1,75″ x (6/10) = 1,05″
² Note that the 5.25” x 8.5″ format respects the golden ratio rule since 5.25 x 1.618 = 8.4945 (the 0.0055” difference being only 1.4 tenths of a mm). The 5 x 8” format is also pretty close to the golden ratio (5*1.618 = 8.09”). We use the 5.25” x 8.5” format to compensate for the loss in the fold resulting from the perfect binding.

If you decide to justify your text at 4” (we recommend going no wider than this):

  • Justification of the text = 4″
  • Remaining white space = 1,25″
  • Inner margins = 1,25″ x (4/10) = 0,5″
  • Outer margins = 1,25″ x (6/10) = 0,75″

We suggest you try both widths and see the difference for yourself. The first solution should be the most elegant.

A more flexible method: using lines to plan your layout

It’s also possible to plan a book layout using diagonal lines as shown below. This method will give you more flexibility in setting your margins, while achieving a similar level of visual harmony as is achieved by the other methods we previously discussed.

It’s important to note that the further your starting point is from the top of the page, the narrower your text column will be. We can see this clearly above, where we have provided two examples of left-hand pages with different layouts. Once you have chosen your page’s layout, it’s important that the same layout be used for each page, with left- and right-handed pages mirroring one another, so as to create visual consistency.

The first page of a chapter

Here is an interesting method for arranging the layout of the first page of a chapter. Position your first line of text at the point indicated by a blue circle in the illustration below. The red circle indicates the starting point for the text on the following pages.

Calculating lower and upper margins

We calculate the lower and upper margins from the width of the page, and not the height. This may not seem intuitive, but it’s because a book’s height depends on its width if we want to respect harmonious proportions. We use the deluxe version in the following calculations.

Here is the rule we recommend for lower and upper margins:

  • Justification of the text = width of the book x (2/3)
  • Remaining white space = width of the book x (1/3)
  • Upper margin = remaining white space x (5/10)
  • Lower margin = remaining white space x (7/10)

To continue with our example using a 5.25” x 8.5” book, the results would be:

  • Justification of the text = 3,5″
  • Remaining white space = 1,75″
  • Upper margin = 1,75 x (5/10) = 0,875″
  • Lower margin = 1,75 x (7/10) = 1,225″

The visual center

The visual center is not the same as the geometric center. While the geometric center indicates the meeting point between two lines drawn midway along the height and width of the page, the visual center is slightly above the geometric center. This is the spot on the page to which the eye is naturally drawn when reading. Designers who are sensitive to the visual center will raise the text slightly from center by making the lower margin larger than the upper margin.

Providing a larger lower margin is also beneficial from a practical perspective. Since we typically hold books from the bottom, providing a generous lower margin makes it easier to hold the book without covering text with one’s fingers.

Creating a book layout template in Adobe InDesign

Adobe InDesign is the industry standard for book design. You can use InDesign to create your layout template for your book. You can set the margins when creating a new document, or once in an existing document by:

  • Choosing the master pages for your document (located at the top of the “pages” panel)
  • Entering the margins dimensions in the Layout menu, under margins and columns

Book layout is constantly evolving

Creating page layouts should not have any more secrets for you! We hope that this article provided you with useful information and tips on how to create balanced layouts. If you have questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments sections as we’re quite passionate about this topic.

Graphic arts have a long history, and the methods we use today are the result of centuries of work and experimentation. While the technologies used to produce books are in constant evolution, the traditional techniques based on the golden ratio remain as relevant today as they were four hundred years ago. Follow the rules we have set forth above, and you are guaranteed to produce a book layout that looks professional and is inviting to read.