You can write what many people would consider to be a good book yet have it fall short of being considered a great book simply because it wasn’t as consumable as it could be. Information products about your content, including books, are all about consumption and if your book isn’t optimized for maximum readability then you won’t have the level of success you could otherwise.
Bryan and I both love to go into bookstores and browse the shelves, especially the books in the marketing and business sections. I’ll scan the covers and spines that are visible and, if a title sounds interesting enough, pick the book up and thumb through to the first chapter.
If I look at that first chapter and see that it is twenty or more pages in length in all likelihood I’ll put the book back on the shelf and won’t buy it. Why? Because it looks like it’s just too much work to read. You want people to feel a sense of progress as they read your book and if your chapters are so long that they discourage reading on you’re making a big mistake.
Similarly, many people like to do a little reading before they go to bed. And most people like to consume a book a chapter at a time. If I pick up a book and glance at the next chapter and see it’s very long then chances are I’ll decide not to read any further that night. So I’m not consuming your book as quickly as you would want me to.
A book like this suffers from what I call “consumption obstruction.” You’re far better off having three chapters that are each around seven pages long than a single chapter that is twenty or more pages. As funny as it may sound, people are far more likely to read three or four seven page chapters than a single twenty plus page chapter.
Remember, if you can’t even get them to consume your book the chances of them coming back to you to buy your next book or some other product or service that you have to offer drops dramatically. It really is all about consumption.
So what are some of the other things you need to consider to make your book more readable, and therefore, more consumable?
One thing you certainly need to take into account is the demographics of the audience you want to reach. Let’s say you’re writing a book aimed at, for example, the baby boomer market. Then you’re marketing to a crowd that is largely dealing with bifocals or trifocals and gradually deteriorating eyesight. So if your book interior layout person selects a font size of anything less than 11 point you’re creating readability issues for some of your potential audience.
According to Wikipedia, here are the “Keep Out of Trouble Rules” regarding font usage in a book:
- Use 11-point Palatino for text.
- Use 14-point Helvetica for chapter titles and 12-point Helvetica for section headings.
- Use unusual fonts only for short items, e.g., the title and author’s name on the cover, or for chapter titles.
- Don’t use too many fonts. Three should be enough for almost any book.
- Check books you like the look of, and see which fonts they use. Half an hour in a bookstore looking at fonts can be very useful and enlightening.
During the layout of your book you’ll need to determine how you want to break your paragraphs apart for better readability. Let’s demonstrate.
“Here’s a paragraph where sentence after sentence has been packed together and the paragraph seems to run on forever. Run on paragraphs such as this can make it extremely difficult for your readers to consume the content you want to share with them. And when you’re trying to build your platform as an author, speaker or information marketer if you do anything that makes it more of a challenge to consume your information the more challenges you are putting in front of yourself to achieve success. Don’t make it any hard than it needs to be—there are plenty of other things you’re going to have to deal with that are challenging enough. Run on paragraphs are easily dealt with simply by breaking your paragraphs into two or more paragraphs. Our opinion is a paragraph should be no longer than three or four sentences before you start a new paragraph.”
Now compare that to this:
“Here’s that same basic paragraph broken into two separate paragraphs. The sentences don’t run on and the paragraph doesn’t seem to run on forever. Don’t make it difficult for your readers to consume the information you want to share with them. When you’re trying to share your content if you do anything that makes it more of a challenge to consume your content you’re hurting yourself.
Don’t make it any hard than it needs to be—there are plenty of other things you’re going to have to deal with that are challenging enough. Run on paragraphs are easily dealt with simply by breaking your paragraphs into two or more paragraphs.
Our opinion is a paragraph should be no longer than three or four sentences before you start a new paragraph.”
Which seems more readable? This split paragraphs obviously. So it’s simply a matter of laying out your book slightly differently in order to make it more consumable for your reader.
Another thing you can do to increase readability of your book is to include call-outs or bulleted lists to give the eye a break from the same thing page after page after page.
“This is an example of a call out”
Call outs can be a quote or a salient point about the chapter you most want people to remember.
The “Keep Out of Trouble Rules” above is an example of a bulleted list. Both call outs and bulleted lists should be used in moderation. But both are great tools to improve the consumability of your book.
Avoiding “Consumption Obstruction” is something to which very few authors give thought. Yet, turning your book from a good book into a great book by improving its ability to be consumed may be nothing more than improving your layout to make your book more readable.
Here are a few other interior design elements that can negatively impact the readability of your book. You can do 9 out of 10 things perfectly, but the one thing you overlook can quickly undo those 9 things you did right.
- Ragged Right Text – almost any professional looking book utilizes justified text, where the right edge of the text is all aligned. It gives your book a much more professional look.
- Widows and orphans – in book layout, widows and orphans are words or short lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph, which are left dangling at the top of bottom of a column, separated from the rest of the paragraph. You want to avoid widows or orphans.
- No Subheads – you need to remember that a lot of people read by skimming over the text in a book. If the major topic in a particular chapter has key secondary points that, when combined, make up your major point you should highlight the start of your major secondary points through the use of subheads.
- Poor leading – in book layout, leading (pronounced ledding), refers to the distance between the bottom edge of successive lines of type. The term originated in the days of hands typesetting, when thin strips of lead were inserted into the forms to increase the vertical distance between lines of type. In consumer-oriented word processing software, this concept is usually referred to as “line spacing” or “interline spacing.” You should use 1.15 or 1.5 spacing in your book layout.
- There may be some disagreement on this one, but in our opinion, a new chapter should always start on the right side page in a book. Makes for a more professional looking book.
- No hyphenation of text, causing gaps and spaces on the page. When you’re doing justified text (right and left margins both straight) you can have some longer words that kick down to the next line due to their length. This can cause wider gaps than desired in the previous line as it spaces the words out to fit across your page. This can be avoided by making sure you have hyphenation turned on during the layout process.
- Margins too small, making your book hard to hold. I recently borrowed a paperback from the library, a copy of one of the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child. The layout person had apparently not taken into account at all how readable the book would be, as the left margin of every right side page and the right margin of every left side page in the book was jammed up so tightly to the spine of the book you almost couldn’t open the book wide enough to see all the text.
- Poor kerning – in book layout kerning is the process of adjusting the spacing between characters in a proportional font, usually to achieve a more visually pleasing result. Kerning adjusts the space between individual letters. In a well-kerned font, the two-dimensional blank spaces between each pair of characters all have a visually similar area.
Remember, it’s your job as the author to make sure your book is as consumable as possible for your reader. Even if you are not doing your own book layout you need to be aware of these factors so that your content will be consumed and you’ll make a bigger impact with your message.