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Creating layouts for automated book publishing

Three out of ten new themes cater to reports and textbooks.
Three out of ten new themes cater to reports and textbooks.

This month, Omnibook (powered by Booktype) is launching a series of new designs that will cater to a variety of publications. In this blog post, I want to explain a little bit about the challenges of creating designs for a platform that delivers digital and print publications at the same time.

One book is many designs

Writing a report, a novel or a book using Omnibook has always been a comfortable experience. Being a “Single Source Publishing” platform, authors and editors can complete their work in the browser. All changes are made in one place, you don’t need to jump back and forth between Microsoft Word, InDesign and whatever ebook editor you are working with. When choosing to “publish” the finished work, you can then select from a number of formats to export to - and the platform will deliver beautiful books for all output channels you require. This is what this article is about: managing output formats.

A theme is all layouts wrapped in one

When talking about book layouts internally, we talk about themes. A theme is a compilation of all design elements required for the different output formats plus the appearance in the editor itself. There are differences in font sizes, line spacing, indents. The online editor also plays a big role in theme creation, trying to give you the best possible appearance resembling the final layout of your work. The final layout of your book depends on many factors, which is why the browser will never display exactly what your book will look like in print or as an e-book.

The editor in the browser also needs to reflect the theme design.

The editor in the browser also needs to reflect the theme design.

When rendering to print, for example, there are many different page size options which each  have an impact on the way the book feels. E-book readers are a wild bunch, all behaving differently. The themes need to translate into e-book designs that render well on different reading devices, be it an iPad, a tablet, an Amazon Kindle device or a Tolino e-reader. All of these parameters need to be taken into account when creating the online editor look and feel for a theme.

How to develop themes for Omnibook

The new themes in the theme switcher allow you to concentrate on your writing and not get into the nitty gritty of preparing your book for self-publishing platforms. Chances are, you might have tinkered with designing for print and e-books yourself, which is why I am sharing my experience of making themes for Omnibook.

The theme switcher in action on www.omnibook.pro 

The most fun part of creating a theme starts with looking for a set of fonts. I love this part of the work because a font is a very powerful, emotional aspect of the reading experience. What might look good for a fantasy novel will not really work for a scientific paper - and the other way around. What you also need to do when it comes to automated publishing:

  • The fonts should cover a wide range of characters. Only English ASCII characters won’t cut it.

  • The fonts should not be designed for “print only”. Because you need your book to read well in the browser, on e-ink readers, on tablets, phones AND in print, check how the font reads on all these devices.

The font sets the emotional space. To make it read well, you need to tweak two parameters: font size and line height, meaning the distance between the baseline of the fonts line by line. Baseline being the “bottom” of the characters. If you design for print alone, you will tweak many more parameters. For automated printing there are limitations that require you to concentrate to get most out of the two mentioned before:

  • Font size is a relative size. While on print you can “fix” the size, catering for digital devices and screen sizes, the font will never be exactly what you set it to be. Try and compare and tweak and start again, testing all devices.

  • Readability in print depends on font sizes as well as the paper size it’s printed on. What reads well on a small page might look like marching tiny ants on a A4 sized sheet. Automated design means that you don’t know what size the theme will be printed in. This problem can not be solved completely, which is why I settled for different themes suggesting different use cases, as you can see below.

  • Digital devices are very iffy when it comes to setting font sizes. It is a feature of e-readers that you can change the font size, font face, margins, line height and more to have the book as you like it. I do that, too. Most devices also allow you to switch to the view the publisher wants you to see involving custom fonts. To allow both to work well, you should not force a font size to the layout of the e-book. After testing many devices, settle for the font-size 1em.

  • The browser is the place where people enjoy writing, not where you see exactly what you will get in print. Keep the font size in the browser “sane”, don’t force it to be too small or big. The browser is not an exact copy of the book that comes from the printer, it is meant to set the atmosphere of the theme.

The academic theme on kindle and tolino e-readers, created with the same click as the print PDF.

The academic theme on kindle and tolino e-readers, created with the same click as the print PDF.

Print design works with a baseline grid. Other than the browser or most e-readers, the print layout has opposing pages - just open a book, there is a left side and a right. When designing for print only, you will work with a software that allows you to tweak every character, every word, every space between words and every line to have a perfect flow with a baseline grid that matches all the lines from the left and right pages.

Working with automated design, you don’t focus only on one output channel. Single Source Publishing means that anything can come in and should look good in any output channel.

  • The baseline grid requires you to be strict and accurate about line heights for your print output. Relative sizes like 120% or 2.3em are not as reliable.

  • For our designs in Omnibook, I calculate the precise pt values for a range of line heights. These can then be assigned to the body layout, headlines and so forth.

  • The key to a baseline grid for automated print layout is that all spacings need to add up to a multiple of the body font line height. A headline, for example can have twice the line height of the body text, a padding of 0.66 on top and 0.33 at the bottom. Find a matching font size and you are set. No matter how many lines the headline will spread across, the text beneath will start in the baseline grid again.

Having gone through all the hoops and tests for the designs, read on to learn more about the themes we came up with.

New designs for fiction writing

A self-publishing platform needs a few good themes for fiction writers. Creating themes for novels is both the easiest and the most difficult task for a designer. The complexity of the finished layout is not that high. Novels don’t use headers and the footer is, well, the page number. Including tables and images is rare, you are usually just utilizing text and a lot of it. Lastly, a novel is usually printed on smaller page sizes.

The report themes are different from the novel themes shown on the right.

The report themes are different from the novel themes shown on the right.

What seems easy, also makes it difficult because the design needs to become almost invisible. It is like the wallpaper in a museum, defining the atmosphere but not to be remembered. The detail for line spacing and font size must be perfect to transform the reading experience into a single flow.

We have created four new novel themes aimed at historical fiction, classic paperback crime and romance writing and a more contemporary no frills but thrills novel. My favourite is ‘fairy tale’ which seems to be just another serif font theme, but to me it is the one that tells the best stories.

Reports and textbooks made beautiful

Another field of Omnibook are collaborative writing projects, often creating reports, readers, textbooks or manuals. The output format is often the paper size that comes out of the printer, like DIN A4. 

For reports and textbooks, the font selection can be a bit more bold. Chapter titles should stand out more than they would in a novel. Different sizes of subheaders inside a chapter help the reader to structure the content inside their head while they are reading. Therefore these need to be designed to stick out more.

Reports are part of the corporate publishing world. They “sell” the content, the impact, the achievements of an organisation. We have come up with three designs that cover this field well. Academic is a theme with a scientific edge, Modern Report is a bit more bold and Bauhaus transforms your report into something closer to an artist’s catalogue. 

Ready, set, go crazy themes

The last two new themes, I find difficult to place. Showing it to our Prague based developer Oleg, he said “Typewriter is like a military manual, I kind of like it”. Go, figure. I haven’t gotten feedback yet on the other theme, Artsy Bold, other than Julian Sorge’s “Ah, exciting”. So I will leave it up to you to find use for these themes, which try to be a bit more daring but still comfortable to read.

All themes come in two flavours. The comfortable themes have a spacing between paragraphs that is more common in European typesetting. The compact themes use line indents and have no spacing between paragraphs. This is more common in the States and the UK.

Which one works for you?

We would like to hear from you, which of the designs work for you and in what way. You can contact us via contact@omnibook.pro or on our twitter channel @omnibooktalk. Try out the new themes at omnibook.pro, our social platform for writing books. Following the “Single Source Publishing” approach, Omnibook creates beautiful books for digital distributions and print. You can find all the themes in action there.

If you are interested in learning more about Omnibook and the underlying publishing software Booktype, get in touch with us at contact@booktype.pro.

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