by Ali McCart, Executive Editor

I recently bought a self-published book that I was really excited about. I met the author at a publishing networking event. She was well-spoken and had won quite a few writing awards, and I had faith that her book would be well-written. Plus, it was about her personal journey of exploring an ancestor’s legacy and what it might or might not mean for her—something I’ve explored a bit in my own writing.

I handed over the cash and then raced home, changed into my yoga pants, and parked myself on the couch, telling my guy, Tim, “I’ll be in bookland for a few hours.”

The story got started just as I’d hoped, with beautiful imagery and a powerful emotional connection between the author and reader. She clearly earned her writing awards, I thought.

But by page twelve, my eyes hurt—a deep, strained pain like a rubber band was stretched from the center of my brain, threatening to pull my corneas in. I tilted my head back and closed my eyes.

Tim woke me up shortly after. “What happened? I thought you were going to read the whole book in one sitting.”

“Book Sleep Death,” I said sadly.

See, the author/publisher had done an excellent job of creating good content, having it edited, and commissioning a good cover design. But then she left the interior design to the bots at the printer. She’d been told she could simply upload her Word doc and their bots would make sure the words got on the pages—no human touch needed. And proofreading? That was just for text.

What this author/publisher, the bot supporters, and a lot of other people don’t realize is that good book design is both an art and a science. Good (human, professional) book designers pay attention to a whole myriad of details, and good proofreaders include a post-design proofread to double-check design readability. Here are just a handful of the details these book pros home in on:

  • Leading and tracking: The space between lines and between letters plays a huge role in readability. Not enough space forces the reader’s eyes to slow down and work hard to focus—the main culprit in eye fatigue. Too much space can make the page look, and feel, like a word search. Who wants to search for the words just to read them?
  • Margins: We all have to put our thumbs somewhere, right? And what are those words at the ends of the lines? I don’t know because they’re folded into the crease (called the gutter).
  • Alignment: When the lines of text across the gutter jump or sink, the reader’s eyes jump a little too, putting the storyline on hold as he wonders, Something looks wrong. Am I imagining it?
  • Font: Serifed fonts (like Times New Roman) are generally easier to read on paper, but sans serifed fonts (like Helvetica) cater better to online and dyslexic readers.
  • Letters per line: There is an actual proven range of the number of letters per line that a reader’s eye can take in without becoming fatigued.
  • Widows: This has nothing to do with whether or not a character’s spouse has died. When a page starts with the last line of a paragraph, the eye often accidentally skips that line, leaving the reader to wonder, What? That didn’t make sense, and backtrack.

I know, these all seem like minor details. When I first learned about them, I thought that if the content was good enough, the design wouldn’t matter because the reader would be so wrapped up in the story that she wasn’t even seeing the words.

But then I started to notice how often I fell asleep when I read poorly designed books. If your readers fall asleep every time they pick up your book, will they recommend it to their friends? Not likely. In fact, they probably won’t even finish it—a condition I call Book Sleep Death.

Ali McCartIf you’re publishing your own book, save it from Book Sleep Death. Work with a designer who cares—about you, about your content, about your readers’ eyes, and perhaps most importantly, about the life of your book.

Ali McCart has worked with many fabulous book designers (as well as calendar, ad, and website designers), and she vouches that they are a lot better at listening to authors’ needs than bots are. Plus, they do cool things like toast you at your launch party and sometimes win design awards. When Ali is not doing post-design proofreading, she’s usually editing, writing, reading, or exploring national parks with Tim and their two dogs.