Why typography matters

This is a story about the significance of layout and paying at least nominal attention. Maybe it won’t matter to other people. I wonder…


When I go to the library, I usually pick up three books: One genre (alternating mystery & sf/f), one “mainstream” fiction, one nonfiction.

This week, the “mainstream” fiction was a book that looked intriguing in a subgenre that can be fun, the political thriller: “Capital Offense” by Kathleen Antrim. I’d never heard of her, but the flap copy made it look at least mildly interesting. So I checked it out.

Primary: The Problems

Started reading it. The prose isn’t polished, but I’m not sure I’d do any better writing fiction, so I’m not judging that just yet.

But something was bothering me–getting in the way of fully enjoying the story. I knew there had been something odd about the title sheet (no obvious publisher name on the verso, the silly “No part of this book” copyright claim that’s both unenforceable and legally false…and the fact that a badly-formatted CiP record was on its own recto page). But, hey…

Then I looked at the pages I was reading and realized the problem–or, rather, problems.

The typeface is a typical, conservative serif, which I haven’t attempted to identify. The text is fully justified. Margins are a little narrow (body width is 28 picas; I think 24-26 picas looks nicer, especially for a 6×9 hardback), but not so much so as to be terrible.


  • There’s no kerning. At all. “Warner”–which appears all the time, as that’s the name of one of the two primary characters–looks a little odd. “You” or “Yours” looks really strange, with the “Y” stranded well to the left of the rest of the word…
  • There’s no hyphenation–that is, words are never broken across lines. The result is sometimes   very     wide  spacing  erratically   between words–maybe not as bad as this line, but pretty bad. (Actually, it is that bad sometimes: I see spots where two or even three characters on one line appear over a between-word space on the next line down. And there are rivulets of white where overly-wide spacing happens on three or more successive lines.)
  • There are loads of bad breaks–single words on their own lines at the bottom of paragraphs, which create a somewhat jumbled page, especially when paragraphs tend to be short.
  • Dashes appear as either two or three hyphens, not as em or en dashes.
  • Relatively minor, but the running page header and footer appear on otherwise-blank verso pages (the book starts each section and chapter on the recto), which is just odd. You get a blank page with “Kathleen Antrim” at the top left corner and a page number centered at the bottom.

In some ways, I’m almost surprised that quote marks aren’t inch signs. On the other hand, widows and orphans–single lines of multiline paragraphs either at the top of one page or at the bottom–are avoided.

Would the average reader notice this? I’m not sure. I do suspect that many readers would find that this novel reads more slowly and is more distancing than it might otherwise be. For me, it’s not quite a showstopper, but certainly gets in the way.

And here’s the thing: Most of this–kerning, hyphenation, using em dashes instead of double-hyphens–is handled automatically by truly sophisticated high-dollar software such as, oh, Microsoft Word. Automatically. Yes, even Word2000. I know that for a fact. You can go back and look at Cites & Insights 1:1 if you want proof.

Yes, bad breaks require a little manual work (although I’m guessing some DTP software handles them automatically), although not really a lot.

So how did this ghastly layout–or, rather, non-layout–happen?


The “publisher” is 1stBooks Library, at least for the first edition in 2001. (If you look in WorldCat, you’ll mostly see iBooks, which picked it up a little later.)

1stBooks is either a self-publisher or a vanity press, depending on your definition, and one that offers to lay out your books. Apparently, at least in 2001, this is their definition of laying out your book–for a minimum of $999. (1stBooks is now a division of AuthorHouse, which does very much the same thing, albeit sometimes at a slightly lower price.)

Oddly enough, the flap copy on the jacket is kerned and does use em dashes (as does the CiP record, although it’s distinctly unkerned). Since that copy is set flush left, the lack of hyphenation isn’t particularly important.

Maybe It Doesn’t Matter?

Antrim did decently with this book, supposedly selling 10,000 copies before iBooks picked it up. It looks as though 138 libraries in WorldCat own it, primarily the iBooks edition(s), which is far from best-seller level but not bad. It’s probably in my library (Livermore Public) because Antrim’s local (Pleasanton, I think): the copy is autographed, although oddly enough “To Terry”

I think it does matter. If I go forward with one project (still waiting for word from the publisher), part of the result will be an easy guide to making book pages look better, copyfitting if you will. I’d guess that it would take me one or two days, at worst, to go through this 290-page book fixing bad breaks. Most of the problems–lack of kerning, lack of hyphenation, lack of em dashes–would require no work other than checking a few settings in Word. Well, and a global edit for the strange triple dashes…

If you look at this book and don’t find the problems I’m finding, check the imprint: Most likely, you’re looking at an iBooks copy, and they may have done some plausibly professional layout, or at least allowed software to do the minimal work.

As for the book itself? I’m past the Pearl limit, and it’s definitely a page-turner if I ignore the sometimes clumsy writing (here, again, I’m not sure I’d do as well) and the always clumsy layout. So far, no overall opinion. Or maybe I’m being kind. (When I looked up some sources, I get Antrim’s apparent surprise at finding that the spouses of U.S. presidents aren’t legally accountable to anybody in the government. This is a surprise? That there’s no Spouse Act in the Constitution?)

3 Responses to “Why typography matters”

  1. A lot of times I notice stuff like that but I really can’t point to exactly what’s wrong. It’s interesting when you point it out.

  2. walt says:

    Christina: Thanks. I suspect a lot of readers are thrown off by crappy layout and typography, but don’t consciously realize why they’re bothered by it–or even that that’s what bothers them. The last subheading, “Maybe It Doesn’t Matter?,” has a question mark because I don’t really believe it…

  3. laura says:

    A friend of mine published with 1stbooks years ago — I seem to remember that it looked okay, though not (frankly) as nice as the stuff I’ve seen from Lulu. But he knew enough about typography to take at least some care with it. I’ll have to take a look.