Print Book Formatting: Myth or Truth?

BookshelfI’m a lurker, not in real life, of course, but on the internet. When researching how to self-publish I spent hours creeping through discussion fora and searching for answers. Some of the answers brought up more questions, like this exchange on a popular writing site:

Person 1: “Always start chapters on an odd page.”

Person 2: “Why?”

Person 1: “Are you a moron? Haven’t you ever read a book? Chapters always start on an odd page. You call yourself a writer and you don’t even know that?”

I swear I’m not making that up. While I wasn’t the moron asking the question (I was the moron lurking in the shadows wanting an answer), I was a little taken aback by the pile-on. The thread continued for at least three pages with authors insisting “real” books through “traditional” publishers always start chapters on an odd page.

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard that information. In fact, my books are all formatted to start chapters on odd pages because I’d heard it repeated so often I assumed it must be true. I’d read thousands of books by that point and could honestly say I’d never paid attention to page numbers, but if “real” authors started books on odd pages, then by golly, that’s what I’d do, too.

Let me tell you, inserting section breaks to ensure each chapter started on an odd-numbered page was a headache.

For some reason after that particular discussion, maybe because it was so heated, I decided to conduct a very unscientific survey. I pulled the ten books closest to me off the shelf beside my chair and started looking.

The books were all traditionally published through Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House or Macmillan (or their imprints). They were all written by best-selling authors and published over a span of fifteen years (Yes, I hold on to books for a long time.)

Out of ten books, all had the first chapter start on an odd-numbered page, but none had every subsequent chapter begin on an odd-numbered page. Instead, subsequent chapters started immediately after the previous chapter ended, regardless of the page number. [An update: In the year since my search I’ve run across a handful of books starting chapters only on odd pages, but they’re in the minority].

That information, although repeated on blogs and fora everywhere, seems to be mostly false.

A more recent discussion from a different forum:

Person 1: “Could you guys take a look at my blurb and see if it’s okay?”

Peson 2: “I don’t know about your blurb, but you need to reformat your manuscript. The first paragraph in a chapter is never indented. You need to remove the indents and insert drop caps. Pull any book off a shelf and you’ll see.”

That was a new one for me. I posted in a couple of writing groups asking if others had heard that information and as it turns out, many had. Traditionally, it seems, first paragraphs have no indent and often begin with a drop cap, an oversized first letter than hangs down a line or two.

But again, because I’m curious, I pulled some traditionally published books off my shelf.

Out of ten, seven had no indent for the first paragraph of a chapter. Of the seven, four used drop caps and three used an over-sized first letter without the “drop.”

As it turns out, that information is mostly true. That was confirmation enough to spur me to reformat my manuscripts.

So what’s my point? I suppose it’s that as new authors we need to be diligent with our research. Reading an opinion on a discussion board, even when it’s a very strong opinion, doesn’t make that opinion correct. To paraphrase Joseph Goebbels, when something is repeated often enough it becomes known as truth, even when it isn’t.

While I wouldn’t advise stepping into internet discussions to set the record straight (disagreements on internet fora rarely end well), I would advise taking each bit of information imparted and doing some legwork to determine its validity before pulling all your manuscripts down in a panic. My next manuscript will probably have drop caps, but it’ll be nice to bypass all those section breaks and the resultant header problems.

Author: Melinda Clayton

Melinda Clayton is the author of the Cedar Hollow series, as well as a self-publishing guide. Clayton has published numerous articles and short stories in various print and online magazines. She has an Ed.D. in Special Education Administration and is a licensed psychotherapist in the states of Florida and Colorado. Lear more about Melinda at her Amazon author page

42 thoughts on “Print Book Formatting: Myth or Truth?”

  1. Great advice, Melinda. One of the more interesting books I’ve read in the last year is Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In one chapter, she mentions studies about group problem solving. In group settings, people who are quieter and offer correct solutions are often rejected in favor of louder,people who speak their wrong answers with confidence. So, when you mentioned the online groups, I couldn’t help but think of that, because I think it’s true in online forums, too. Just because a person is adamant, loud and persistent, it doesn’t mean they’re right.

    It’s important to do your own due diligence, and look for evidence that backs up the opinions.

    I use drop caps, but I’d not heard that you weren’t supposed to indent them. So, I’ll have to look into whether indenting is more or less prevalent. Though, based on the fact that I don’t know and you hadn’t even noticed, I’d imagine most readers don’t notice and even fewer care. So, having drop caps or not or having chapters start on odd or even numbered pages probably won’t matter tons to readers. They’re more interested in good editing and a good plot.

    1. Love that book! And yep, loud tends to be followed even when quiet is correct. Another fun group psychology fact: If you present anything to a group asking for feedback, it will be roundly criticized. Group members don’t feel as if they’re doing their jobs if they don’t find something wrong with it – even if there is nothing wrong with it. Something to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to get group feedback.

      1. That is true. I grind granules of prose between my molars searching for the sour speck when someone wants my advice.

        If the prose is perfect, I punch them.

  2. You have given me something to think about. I grabbed five books from all the biggies and they were diverse. Some had drop caps on every chapter, and there was another that started each chapter with the first 5-6 words in caps. Each author avoided the indentation on the first paragraph. I personally like drop caps although I haven’t used them as of yet. It is still a learning process, at least for me. Thank you for a very helpful post.

    1. Thanks, Aronjoice. I think it will continue to always be a learning process for all of us. 🙂 I like drop caps, too. I chose not to use them in my ebooks because the spacing went a little wonky with drop caps, but I did add them to my print books.

  3. Melinda, excellent post, and just points up how mutable the “rules” are. When I started self-publishing, I too pulled multiple books off my shelves and examined the formatting, and quickly realized that, although there were patterns, it was all pretty much personal preference. I’ve always started all my chapters on the odd page and I’ve never started a chapter with a justified paragraph. I used to use drop caps but abandoned them as being too much of a pain once I formatted for e-books. But that’s the thing–you can pick and choose, do one book one way, another in another way. Rather than going by rules, have fun with it! (Pst! I won’t tell!)

    1. LOL, thanks, Melissa! I think new authors are often so eager to get it right (I know I was), we’ll follow just about any advice that starts out with, “REAL books do THIS….” It’s nice to feel comfortable enough now to step back and have a little fun with it. 🙂

  4. Whether it’s publishing or any other endeavor, there are always those who repeat what they call common knowledge which is in fact ignorant repetition of some tidbit that has never been tested or verified. Great post, thanks.

  5. Great post, Melinda.

    There is an old joke about four generations of women preparing a large meal. The youngest asks her mother why she cut off the end of the ham before putting it in the oven. She says, “That’s the way my mother taught me. Let’s ask her.”
    The grandmother says it is the way her mother taught her. When they ask the great-grandmother, she says, “I did it because i never had a pan big enough for a whole ham.”

    A lot of things that are done because they have always been done that way were once done that way for a reason that no longer applies. I think of this whenever the best answer someone can give me is, “We’ve always done it that way.”

    1. Thanks, EM. Yeah, the “We’ve always done it that way” answer is guaranteed to spur me to look further into the “why” of it. I can’t decide if I’m curious, or lazy. No need to expend energy doing something if there’s no real reason to do it, right? 🙂

  6. Here’s something that might help:
    The author of this tome (no cost to you in pdf format) is a professional font designer and editor. His level of nit-pickiness is just what we need to make our self-published books look like “the real deal.” I am exhausted just thinking about all the work ahead of me, but when I finally have my book ready to go, there will be an even chance that not even the editors at Simon-Schuster will sneer at it.

  7. Having asked my readers, I came to the conclusion that people prefer uniformity, so nothing detracts from the reading experience. Therefore, when I format books, I don’t use drop caps and indent the first paragraph. I also think extra blank pages are a waste of good paper and in big books can increase the production costs, so unless my clients insist on it, I don’t do this either.

    1. You’re absolutely right about blank pages increasing production costs – another important point to consider. The bigger the book, the more it costs to print and ship. I’m also not a fan of wasted paper. 🙂

  8. Temped to ask if you are a moron. But just jokingly.
    Actually, when a market is new and competitive, the tendency will be to fierceness. Too bad.
    The truth is, anything you want to do to establish your style or to make your book slightly easier to follow is a great idea. Drop the caps, go all bold or all caps for a few works, whatever. Be consisitent and develop your best front.
    And don’t let the hecklers sway you. 🙂

    1. Some days I certainly feel like one, Katharine! 🙂 And you’re absolutely right – be consistent, develop your best front, and don’t let the hecklers sway you.

  9. Thanks Melinda, from a fellow lurker. (And that rumour about a restraining order is absolutely false!).

    In the end, as many of you stated above, it’s about creating a relaxing and enjoyable reading experience. I’m a bit surprised no one has mentioned font to this point. I think that’s probably the most crucial element. As my wife will tell you, I have absolutely no sense of visual taste. (And what wrong with socks and sandals anyway?) So I hired a pro to do layout and design for interior as well as the cover. She came from a traditional typesetting back ground and did a great job looking after all these things, which to be honest, I never even considered. The results: chapters start on the next page, first paragraphs are not indented, and there are no drop caps, but the first two or three words are all caps and bold. The no indent and caps also apply to the start of a new section within a chapter. The result is the book looks great.

    Oh and the font we used was something called Minion 11.5/16 to a 26.5 pica measure. I’m not sure what the numbers mean, but again it looks good to me and is easy to read.

    1. Interesting you bring up font, John. I’m reading and hearing more and more often that the usual built-in fonts (Georgia, Calibri, etc.) shouldn’t be used, and that to get a really nice product, a specialty font should be bought. This is one of those things I’m going to lurk around for a while to see how it all falls out. 🙂

  10. Before I formatted my book I examined books I liked and set up my page in the same manner they were formatted. Remember rules are really more like guidelines

  11. Great post, Melinda. There’s an adage among us old-time graphic designers that the design shouldn’t get in the way of the experience. I think it applies to book design as well. There’s a reason why so many book designers use serif fonts: it’s often used in the first books we read on our own as children and what we are accustomed to reading. Therefore, it makes reading easier. There’s a reason why newspaper columns look the way they look and why when going from print to web it’s suggested we cut the amount of copy in half. Basically I’m going the long way to say that we want to create a reader experience that does not get in the way of the reading. I like the tidiness of new chapters starting on a right-hand page; I like section breaks. I don’t mind doing the work to get there. But that’s just me. I would never tell authors that they SHOULD do something a certain way in their book production. Just looking at the reasoning behind it.

    1. “…the design shouldn’t get in the way of the experience.” Love that! In the end it’s all about creating a good experience for the reader.

  12. Great advice, Melinda. Really, I think the best any of us can is on-the-spot research, looking at the books we already own and seeing how those editors and publishers did it.

    1. Thanks, Chris. And I agree; the best way to learn what other writers and publishers do isn’t to take someone’s word for it on the internet, it’s to look at the books and see.

  13. I suspect that drop caps, first paragraph flush left, and so on all started with a graphics designer at a publishing house who was going for a particular look for a particular book. Because it looked great, everybody copied it. Now, just like the generations of hams the EM talked about, it’s become a sort-of rule. But they’re all still just style choices.

    I start my first chapter on an odd-numbered page, but I don’t do any of the rest of it. Nobody’s complained to me so far. 🙂

    1. I bet anything you’re right, Lynne. Someone started it, others copied it, and now it’s internet-discussion-board law. But I wonder how many people actually notice any of it. I definitely hadn’t. 🙂

  14. As an aspiring indie author, I avidly read your formatting advice, Melinda, and I’m going to remember your comment to RJ Crayton that “loud tends to be followed even when quiet is correct.”

    I agree with Stephen Hise, laurieboris, and Lynne Cantwell. Just because it’s “always been done” doesn’t mean it’s right.

    When I notice formatting, it is because it distracted me in an annoying way. DropCaps that clutter the copy in an unreadable way are the worst, so I probably have a negative prejudice that will make me reject them as the go-to choice for a chapter-starting format.

    I think, too, starting chapters on right-hand pages often seem more like a copy-stretcher than a necessity, though when flipping through pages it does make them easier to spot. I’m reassured that the complex format coding is strictly optional.

    But my top takeway advice this time is your aside to RJ Crayton: “Another fun group psychology fact: If you present anything to a group asking for feedback, it will be roundly criticized. Group members don’t feel as if they’re doing their jobs if they don’t find something wrong with it – even if there is nothing wrong with it. ”

    THAT is bound to be helpful to remember.

    1. So glad you dropped by, Kae! That was a little tidbit we covered in my group dynamics class back in ’90 or ’91. We were even challenged to try it out and see for ourselves by taking a project to either a group of coworkers or classmates and asking for feedback. It was true – no one EVER said, “Hey, that looks great to me!” Everyone found something wrong, often at odds with one another and often having nothing to do with the specific questions we’d asked. I’ve felt that pressure myself in group settings. If you say, “Looks great!” you feel as if you aren’t invested enough in doing the job. It’s a good thing to keep in mind when asking for group feedback. 🙂

  15. Wow! Thank you! I don’t like to ask questions on online forums anymore because of their cattiness. In fact, I’m tempted to do a post on the different writer forum people.

    I yanked four books off my shelf. Out of Crichton, Hornby, Burke, and Blanding, only Hornby indented the first sentence of each chapter. A friend I admire who has several online books used the “drop-down.” Thank goodness I won’t have to inform him what a moron he is!

    Three exclamation points in two paragraphs. I’ll have to go login somewhere to see if that’s okay. Yes, I know the first paragraph only had two sentences.

    Seriously. Thank you for that post. (!)

  16. Like you, I almost always do the ten books from the shelf test. I don’t pay too much attention to anyone who says it’s always done this way. I do my own research and decide what will work for me. Great post.

  17. As an indie writer, why just be a clone?Just because the tradition was to format in one particular style, why do you have to follow suit? You’ll probably find that each major publisher does something slightly different, but at least they are consistent in their own style.

    But why should you follow their rules? You’re an independent. Be a maverick! Format your books the way YOU want to present them to the world. Do something different that will attract attention to your work, like having the text all right aligned, with a capital letter at the end of each paragraph. Edward de Bono produced one of his books entirely on bright yellow paper, complete with a shiny yellow dust jacket . Quite apart from the fact that he was a well known thinker, the book sold millions of copies because it was different.

    So be yourself.

      1. I’m not sure it’s necessarily great advice; I’m just a little bit rebellious and like stirring the pot! It’s a lot of fun, and, if you get it right, can get a lot of attention. That’s something all writers need for their work.

        So stand out from the herd.

  18. I tend to break those rules, and so far no one has called me out on it. My chapters begin on the next page after the other one ends because this reduces page count and thus, the price. And I indent my first paragraphs simply because I think it looks tidy. I also don’t like having to be bothered with all indent, non-indent, super and subscript. I just keeping it rolling since I publish 2-3 books a year and I prefer my quality to be in the words, not so much in the nitty-gritty details of formatting. And print book sales are a drop in the bucket, so I focus on ebook formatting. Do my print copies still look good? Yes. I’ve had dozens of folks say how nice and professional they looked. So I must be doing something right.

    1. I think you’re doing it the right way. I honestly find it hard to believe the majority of readers pay any attention whatsoever to page numbers or drop caps. I think what most readers want is a good story that’s well-edited and nicely formatted.

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