The Importance of Layout
By Aaron T. Huss
When you open your favorite role-playing book, not PDF, what do you notice? The book has a definite layout, format, and structure to it that presents the reader with visual appeal, ease of reading, ease of referencing, and well-placed illustrations. This is the result of layout, a very important part of publishing that many new publishers neglect. Why is layout so important? Nothing crushes a well-written book than a bad layout. If the content is difficult to read or reference, how well is that book going to be used at the tabletop? If the formatting and structure look awkward, how much more difficult does it become to read? Layout is another one of those important factors of publishing tabletop role-playing books that many new publishers overlook, just like marketing.
Layout is not a matter of copying your favorite book published by someone with a lot more money and resources, it’s about creating a book that looks good, is fully functional, and fits its presentation. Many aspects of layout are personal preference or a simulation of the content being presented. For instance, if someone were creating an RPG that is meant to be read like a newspaper, they may use more columns per page to simulate what a newspaper looks like. If they wanted to create a book that is easily read in digest format, they may use a single column, smaller sized book for portability. Regardless of what the actual layout is, it needs to be kept as high quality, or at least as high of a quality standard that can be created using the tools at hand.
The first part of layout is to consider the tools at your disposal. There are several software packages for doing desktop publishing (that’s the technical term for layout and publishing) and choosing the right one is your first step. Many industry leaders use In Design from Adobe, but the cost may be prohibitive to your budget. You can use free online tools or the much less expensive Serif PagePlus which has at least 95% of the capabilities of In Design. Another option is to do layout within Word, the same program you may be using to do your writing. One thing to note is that layout in Microsoft Word is much more difficult and requires a lot more practice. The reason for this is because Word is not meant for layout and doing some of the more important tasks, such as illustration placement and box text, requires a bit of practice to get everything to line up the way you want it without Word reacting poorly. The key is that whatever program you choose for layout, you need to know how to properly use it and understand its capabilities and limitations. As time goes on, you’ll probably learn how to perform advanced techniques and your layout will get better and better with each subsequent release.
Format is the look and feel of your content in terms of Font style, size, spacing, and headers. You want to make sure your Font is set for maximum readability with whatever medium you are attempting to publish for. For instance, publishing for use on a Nook is a lot different than publishing for use in print. Reading on a Nook is not the same as reading a printed book and thus your formatting may change. You may wish to increase your per page word count by decreasing the Font size and spacing or using a style that is more compact. However, do not sacrifice readability for space as you do not want the content to become unreadable when looked at on other mediums. Headers are another aspect of formatting that can make the content “pop.” You may want the Font of your Headers to match the theme of the game or setting to provide a visual appeal. Header spacing can also affect your per page word count as the more space and the larger the heading, the less that will fit on a given page. Again, as with the content, make sure your Headers are readable in the medium you are publishing for along with other mediums being used.
Another aspect of format, although one many debate, is how your content is justified. Do you prefer left justification or full justification? Do you want words to be hyphenated or not? Much of this is a combination of personal preference and what looks right depending on the structure you choose for the book.
Your publication should always be structured in a way that makes sense for the medium being used or your and your fans’ personal preference. Do you want a single, double, or triple-column publication? This can also change depending on the size of the publication. Is it 8 1/2″ x 11″ or is it a digest-sized 6″ x 9″ or 5 1/2″ x 8 1/2″? This should be determined upfront before choosing how many columns are going to be used. Choosing a size can also be determined by the medium you are choosing to publish for. To stick with the Nook example, 8 1/2″ x 11″ books are more difficult to read and require a lot of scrolling. Digest-sized books may not require zooming or scrolling (depending on the number of columns) and can be easier to read on a handheld device. If you want to print large hardcover books, you may choose to stick with the 8 1/2″ x 11″ or go with an over-sized digest format. The key is to think about what mediums you think are best suited for your content and how you wish to present them. However, remember that when choosing a publication size and correlating that to the number of columns, think about which combination is visually appealing and easy to read.
Placement is a matter of properly locating your illustrations, text boxes, charts, and any other non-content pieces so that they do not inhibit the reading of the content. Additionally, you don’t want them to be randomly placed so that the final publication loses its visual appeal or generally looks sloppy. (This can occur when attempting to fill a page with randomly placed illustrations that look out-of-place or are poorly organized.) Placement is often one of the last things to occur but can influence your decisions for format and structure. If you use a lot of small illustrations, think about how they look in a single- versus double-column publication. The last key note on placement is to make sure you place those non-content items where they make sense and where they add value. If you have an illustration representing some aspect of the content, make sure it is placed as close to that content as possible. If you have a table being reference in the content, make sure it is placed as close to that reference as possible.
Order is something you can really play with in a publication changing it from easy to read to feeling disconnected. By order, I’m referring to the order in which the content appears whether it be the order of each section or the order of the content within each section. The book should have a sensible flow from beginning to end, but this can vary drastically from one publication to another. The only thing you would want to avoid is having two connected sections being broken by a non-connecting section. This will break the flow of reading the publication and damage its overall sense of proper layout. Where you put each section will truly depend on how the game or setting builds from the beginning of the book to the end (such as Character Creation through Adventuring), but should flow in a meaningful order.
Try to remember that there are many aspects to doing final layout and each of them is important and integral to building a beautiful publication that is visually appealing, easy to read, and easy to use. Don’t overlook the small stuff as they can be very detrimental in the end. If you’re ever in need of inspiration or a guide, just grab a book from your shelf and see how other publishers have done their layout. While you don’t need to copy that layout, you can see the different decisions they made regarding the aspect above and how those aspects piece together to form a cohesive publication. If even one aspect is broken or awkward, the final publication can suffer. While layout is an added cost and a considerable added step, it is just as important as writing, editing, and marketing and can bring fans back time and again along with bringing in new fans.