Print Positive: Selecting Page Size

The page size of your book has an impact on every aspect of its publication: aesthetics, legibility, durability, cost, and perceived value. Choosing the right page size will keep printing costs down and minimize binding problems.

Overview
Text-Heavy Books
Image-Heavy Books
Books That Contain Text and Images
Poetry
General Tips on Trim Sizes
Recommended Trim Sizes for Different Kinds of Books
The Relationship of Page Size to Printing Cost
Exotic Trim Sizes: A Cautionary Tale
Exotic Trim Sizes: When to Throw Caution to the Wind

Overview on Page Size

Page size (also known as “trim size”) should be chosen based on:

  • Whether the the book’s content consists mostly of text, mostly of images, or a mix of both.
  • If there are images, whether they are the main point of the book or are there just to illustrate points in the text.
  • Budget–common trim sizes are usually the least expensive to print and bind.
  • If the book is a collection of poetry, the typical length of the lines.

The basic principal is that there is no reason to use a page that is bigger than necessary to achieve your aesthetic, legibility, and budget goals.

Text-Heavy Books

Books that consist solely or primarily of text include most fiction and nonfiction: novels, scholarly monographs, self-help, etc. Here, legibility and cost are intertwined. Generally, cost is a concern, so type is sized to allow the maximum number of characters per book page consistent with maintaining legibility and the desired aesthetic qualities of the type page. The more characters per page, the fewer pages. The fewer pages, the lower the printing cost.

Mass-market books–those sold in supermarket racks–cram as much text per page as possible to minimize printing cost in the context of a cover price under $10.

Trade paperback and hardcover formats give more weight to aesthetics and legibility over printing cost. They are printed on better paper, have higher design standards (presumably, anyway), and better legibility. A higher list price covers the increase in printing cost associated with these factors.

Legibility depends upon choice of typeface and type size, and the interaction of the chosen font with the width of the column of text and the spacing between lines. Typographically, these concerns resolve themselves into a page with a single column of text that is 22-29 picas wide, and 30-44 lines per page, printed at a trim size maximizing the number of pages that can be printed on a standard sheet size. What this translates to in terms of actual trim sizes is a portrait format page that is bigger than the mass-market page but not overly large, as there is no point in expanding the page once you’ve established a good margin of white space either side of an optimum line length of 22-28 picas. In the U.S., this means printing at 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″ or 6″ x 9″, or a close variant, such as 5-1/2″ x 8-1/4″ (used for short- to medium-length literature), or 6-1/8″ x 9-1/4″ (used for blockbuster hardcovers). These sizes can be printed economically on both digital and offset presses, whether sheetfed or rollfed.

Counter Cases for Text-Heavy Books

Cases where you might use something other than standard sizes for a text-focused book:

  • Very short books, which can benefit from a higher page count in terms of perceived value, and therefore are printed at small page sizes such as 5″ x 7″ or even smaller.
  • Very long books, where page count must be reined in by any means possible, sometimes by using a larger page size such as 7″ x 10″.
  • Books where cost is no object and luxurious page margins are desired, perhaps with color side folios. Think page sizes even larger even than 7″ x 10″.

Image-Heavy Books

Books whose purpose is to showcase images–whether they be photographs, maps, or art reproductions–should have larger pages. Even if the images are reproduced at relatively small sizes, wide page margins will enhance the viewing experience. The aspect ratio of the images should influence the aspect ratio of the pages. For vertically oriented images, a portrait format for the book is likely the best choice. If the images are mostly horizontal, a landscape format is preferred. If they are a mix of both vertical and horizontal, a square page can be optimal.

For portrait-format books, selecting the ubiquitous and boring 8-1/2″ x 11″ page size is an aesthetic trap. Change it up! Pick a size that fits press sheets economically but doesn’t look like the same old letter size: 9″ x 12″ or 8-3/4″ x 10″.

Landscape-format books have their own issues. Landscape-format books are harder to bind, causing more waste and therefore incurring a higher printing cost. The extreme width of the page relative to the height of the spine creates leverage that stresses the spine, making landscape-format bindings more prone to damage than portrait-format books.

Some critical points:

  • Be sure and check with your printer before you design an illustrated book. A change of 1/8″ in trim size could easily mean a difference in printing cost of 25 percent or more. This actually applies to using any nonstandard trim size.
  • Never sacrifice correct grain dimension to achieve a particular page size. You will be squandering any potential benefit of a custom page size by having a final book that is horrible to leaf through.

Counter Cases for Image-Heavy Books

Cases where you might use something other than a large page for an illustrated book:

  • I have seen very nice compendia of artists’ work in editions with small page sizes. What you are really getting here is sort of an impression of the work, of course: all printed reproduction is several generations from the original, shifting color, tonal range, and detail. Reducing the size of the reproduction increases the sensory distance from the original.
  • Sometimes the art is tiny to begin with, or is in a medium that is suited to the classic medium-sized portrait-format page. Examples here could include reproductions of small woodcuts or Mogul miniatures, for which much enlargement beyond the original size is inappropriate and could look awkward.

Books That Contain Text and Images

Here, the question is the purpose of the images. If the images are illustrative of the text rather than being the focus of the book (think of a scholarly monograph on popular culture with screenshots of TV screens), a standard portrait format like 6″ x 9″ will work well. If, however, the images are the focus of the book or the images would suffer greatly by being reduced in size, a larger page size is merited.

When laying out text in a large-format book containing a lot of images and a lot of text, there are a couple of choices in page composition. If, as is typical, one of the goals is to keep the page count down in order to save on printing cost, set the text in two 18-22 pica columns to maximize characters per page. If there is not much text, or the budget is unrestrained, set it in one 30 pica column with nice page margins, for their own sake or to accommodate sidebars, smaller illustrations, quotations, etc. (These recommendations are only that! God is in the details, which are the book designer’s purview.)

Try not to skimp on page real estate if the illustrations are really important. Why even create an illustrated book if it’s not going to be beautiful?

Poetry

Poetry varies wildly in line length: some books may consist only of poems of a few short lines each, others are epics with many long lines. It all depends on how the poet writes. An anthology of many poets’ work will therefore have both long and short lines. Line breaks are critical to a poet’s aesthetic. In some cases, the line breaks and indents form part of the meaning of the poem (see for example “Easter Wings,” by the 17th century English poet George Herbert). Lines of poetry should therefore not be broken short of the poet’s chosen ending, though sometimes it may be unavoidable with extremely long lines.

A book of poetry with short lines should fit easily in a standard portrait format page (6″ x 9″ or even smaller). If lines are long, push to a wider page. In some cases, a landscape format page may be appropriate. Typically poetry books do not have huge page counts and have a high ratio of cover price to manufacturing cost, so special trim sizes can usually be accommodated without breaking the bank.

General Tips on Trim Sizes

Publishers tend to specialize in certain kinds of books, and therefore tend to reuse the same or similar trim sizes. Differentiation between titles is achieved by the different content, of course, and also graphically via fresh cover designs. It generally does not pay to go to extreme trim sizes (books that are super skinny, super wide, or huge). They are less efficiently produced, more costly to produce, less durable, and can cause logistical issues with packing, handling and displaying on bookstore shelves.

Counter Cases: When to Ignore This Advice

  • Guidebooks, which often are skinny to fit in pockets and bags.
  • Huge landscape-bound books in limited editions, perhaps with slipcases, salable at very high price points to cover the additional production, shipping, and storage costs.

Recommended Trim Sizes for Different Kinds of Books

Book characteristics Recommended
Standard Sizes
Efficient Variants
of Standard Sizes
Wider Format
and Landscape Sizes
Text-heavy • 5-3/8″ x 8-3/8″
• 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″
• 6 x 9
• 5-1/2″ x 8-1/4″
• 6″ x 8-3/4″
Not recommended
Image-heavy • 8-1/2″ x 11″ (Boring!)
• 9″ x 12″
• 8-1/2″ x 10-3/4″ • 8-1/2″ x 8-1/2″
• 9″ x 9″
• 10-3/4″ x 8-1/2″
Text- and image-heavy • 8-1/2″ x 11″ (Boring!)
• 9″ x 12″
• 8-1/2″ x 10-3/4″ • 8-1/2″ x 8-1/2″
• 9″ x 9″
• 10-3/4″ x 8-1/2″
• 12″ x 9″
Poetry, short and
medium-length lines
• 5-3/8″ x 8-3/8″
• 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″
• 6″x 9″
• 5-1/2″ x 8-1/4″
• 6″ x 8-3/4″
Not recommended
Poetry, long lines • 7″ x 9″ Not applicable • 8-1/2″ x 8-1/2″
• 9″ x 9″
• 10-3/4″ x 8-1/2″

The Relationship of Page Size to Printing Cost

Printing presses–both offset and digital–are engineered around standard paper sheet sizes, or, in the case of roll-fed presses, roll widths.

Here’s an example from a black-and-white digital press, the Océ VarioPrint 6320 Ultra. This press takes a maximum sheet size of 12.6″ x 19.2″. It can print 164 impressions per minute, which is 82 sheets per minute, given that each sheet requires two impressions. Four 6″ x 9″ pages can fit on one side of the sheet, with allowances for binding and trimming. This translates into 656 6″ x 9″ pages per minute.

Let’s say that you wanted to use a slightly larger page size: 6-3/8″ x 9″. Since 6-1/2″ x 2 is 12-3/4″, greater than the 12.6-inch width of the largest sheet runnable on the press, only two pages could be printed per side. This means that only 328 pages could be printed per minute instead of 656. Since the cost of operating the press is the same whether you are running two pages per side or four, the cost of printing each page has doubled, even though the the page width has only increased by 3/8″.

This consideration applies to all presses, as they all have maximum sheet sizes or roll widths.

Other considerations enter in as well. The larger pages would have to be rotated 90 degrees to fit on the sheet. Because the grain direction of the paper should always parallel the spine of the book, this means that a different stock of paper would have to be used for the printing. Also, printing only two pages per side means that either 1) paper is wasted by the poor fit of the pages to the sheet, or 2) a custom stock of paper must be trimmed down or ordered to run the job to minimize paper waste. In either case, costs go up: that 3/8″ ends up adding significant cost to the printing.

Exotic Trim Sizes: A Cautionary Tale

We once produced a hardcover book whose publisher wanted a unique trim size: very tall and narrow. The book looked great, but it turned out that the mechanics of wrapping a dust jacket on a tall narrow book are different than on a standard format book. The dust jacket never really fit right and the publisher was unhappy. Also, the book was a pain to actually read: the narrow pages were stiff, fighting your fingers with every turn. The moral of the story is that there is risk in choosing a page size with an extreme aspect ratio. In my experience, more often than not it actually detracts from the value of the book rather than adds to it.

Exotic Trim Sizes: When to Throw Caution to the Wind

While in general choosing a standard trim size is best, in the case of illustrated books or artist’s books, choosing something out of the norm can be part of the designer’s aesthetic statement. Just be aware that not only God, but the Devil, is in the details: confer with your printer to avoid specifications that add significant cost with little benefit. A change of 1/8″ can make a big difference to the budget, but have little or no impact on the aesthetics. Also, have the printer make a dummy book, which is an unprinted but bound book on the same stock and with the same binding as the final book. This dummy will cost money, but it could save thousands of dollars in helping avoid a design or production gaffe.