A quick spin through Mama Google tells authors and indie publishers pretty much everything they want to know about choosing the appropriate book size, usually called trim size. Sources mention that most self-published books range from 5″ x 8″ to 6″ x 9″, and often books that depend on images, like children’s picture books, cookbooks, and “coffee table” style books are larger, as are reference manuals and workbooks.
In choosing a book size, authors and publishers usually factor in cost, distribution limitations, and other technical matters. Authors are quick to offer their opinions, and our own Melissa Bowersock has written a helpful primer on formatting your print book. But what do readers want? What do they think is handiest, most comfortable for reading, easiest to carry around? So I asked a bunch. This report is by no means scientific, but I think I got to a decent cross-section of readers. Here’s what they told me.
Mass-market paperbacks (4.25″ x 7″) — These are the usual suspects lining shelves at the grocery store and airport shops, and they got the most mixed reviews. Readers liked that mass-market paperbacks are relatively inexpensive and handy for traveling. They fit nicely in a pocket or purse, but many disliked the too-small font sizes and the difficulty of holding them open. This was a particular problem for readers with arthritis.
Hardcovers were the general preference for beloved works that readers want to keep on their bookshelves, but several people (myself included) reported some unfortunate falling-asleep-book-in-face mishaps. Those Harry Potter books are blinkin’ heavy and can really leave a mark.
Trade paperbacks grabbed the most votes, as long as the fonts aren’t ridiculously small. These are larger-sized paperbacks, and that size can vary widely, but most range from 5.5″ x 8.5″ to 6″ x 9″. Most self-published POD (print on demand) books come in this flavor. What you choose as an author usually depends on personal preference and printing costs, and for some reason I couldn’t readily fathom, some sources claim that smaller sizes are better for novels and larger ones are more appropriate for nonfiction.
Among the trade paperback sizes, reader preference was divided. Some liked the portability and the “classier” look of the smaller dimensions. Some found 6″ x 9″ a little unwieldy. Since my first novel was published at 6″ x 9″, I kept using the same size so my books would sit tidily on a shelf together and look uniform when I display them at public events. In general, though, the trim size that offers the most pleasant reading experience sometimes depends on the length of the book. A very long book in a smaller trim size could make for an awkward, chunky product. That’s why a long novel is often “better” in a 6″ x 9″ format.
Conversely, a shorter text could benefit from a smaller size and could even make the difference between having a spine or not. For instance, if you publish with CreateSpace and your book has less than 130 pages, their website suggest a blank spine, which might not be desirable if you aspire to a bookstore shelf. There are only so many people you can talk into stalking the bookstores and turning your title cover-side out.
Anyway…let’s look at how page count factors into the best trim size for your needs.
Thanks to Fiona Raven, book designer, here’s a little formula to estimate page count at the two most common trade-paperback sizes. This is an approximation, and it will vary depending on the font size you choose and your margins. These figures are based on using Garamond at 11 point (I prefer 12 point for my books), with standard margins and standard line spacing.
5.5″ x 8.5″: Your word count divided by 390 = page count
For example: 80,000 divided by 390 = 205.13 pages (round that up to 206)
6″ x 9″: Your word count divided by 475 = page count
For example: 80,000 divided by 475 = 168.42 pages (round that up to 170)
Don’t forget to add a few pages for your front and back matter. I’m using eight pages for our purposes. That gives us a page count of 214 versus 178.
Given that CreateSpace’s formula for spine width is (page count) x (0.002252 for white paper), our 6″ x 9″ book would have a spine of about 0.4 inches, and our 5.5″ x 8.5″ book would have a spine around 0.48 inches wide. This might not sound like much of a difference on paper (sorry about that), but in execution, the look is very subtle.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison. I sweet-talked my art department into creating this little mock-up showing what one of my 6″ x 9″ books might look like at 5.5″ x 8.5″. I think “reader me” prefers the smaller size. And that’s what it’s all about, right? If you’re having doubts, why not ask a few readers?
The only conclusive conclusion I could draw about reader preference from my completely unscientific poll is that there are about as many reasons for liking (or disliking) a book size as there are readers. But a pleasant reading experience, like good design, is one that doesn’t call attention to itself in any negative or jarring way.
So, what do you think? As a reader, what’s your preference and why?