Adventures in typesetting: poetry book layouts and printer’s ornaments

I’ve been laying out some poetry paperbacks this week for Watermark Publishing and Greyhart Press. I think poetry is my favourite of all genres to format (at least in print) because it gives licence to design the page, in a way that would be too distracting for fiction (or, at least, most fiction… Jeff Noon’s asked me for some interesting shapes.) It also gives licence to over-design too, so it is a good idea to have someone to beta test your layout before committing to publication.

I thought I’d share a couple of ideas I’ve used, and some problems I’ve faced. One day, this will make it into the second edition of my book on laying out print books.

Fleurons and blank pages

Fleurons’ are decorative markings used in typesetting to denote borders, acts as spacers and scene dividers, or simply to add design fair. They are traditionally flowers, as the name suggests, or at least horticultural. In practice, they don’t have to involve vegetation, and there’s a spectrum running from the kind of large fleuron that might decorate the title page of a Regency romance, down to the smaller and more modest typographic mark that’s often called a ‘dingbat’, or… (and Frankie Howerd would have loved this) a printer’s ornament.

With a bit of imagination, you can make subtle enhancements to not-so-flowery books. For example, I produced the eBook version of Hauntings, a ghostly anthology where the print layout (a wonderful job by Storm Constantine) used a small skull as a dingbat. That was effective, but not without problems with the image file. Make sure you are using images rather than symbol fonts, and use high quality gif format files and not jpgs or anything copied and pasted between Word files. The eBook version of Hauntings looked awful until the publisher supplied me with a decent gif file for the skull.

Fleurons and dingbats are examples of what’s often called line art, which — despite its origins — in practical terms today means that the image is black and white (not shades of grey), or has a strictly limited number of colours.

Without going too technical, jpeg compression often leads to fuzzy grey edges around images that should be black and white; the gif format keeps them crisp. Amazon’s guidance for coding Kindle books tells us to always use gifs for line art, and that’s good advice for print books as well as eBooks.

The best way to get hold of a fleuron is to buy some royalty-free stock art, for example from Fotolia I have seen fleuron fonts (there’s an example in the image above) but in my experience, they never work when distilling the PDF and uploading to Createspace — I don’t think they are properly formed fonts.

Anyway, let’s get back to the poetry…

Poetry books are often slim volumes. If you’re using a printer such as Createspace, the way the minimum cost works out means that you will probably won’t pay any more printing costs if you add a few more pages. Therefore, unless your poems are mostly single page, I would suggest starting each new poem on a facing page because it looks neater and makes it easier to flick through and find the poem you want. [You do this by inserting an ‘odd page’ section break. There’s more about this in my book, but you don’t need to buy it, because I’ve posted the info on my blog here]

I did this recently for one of the Watermark books, but it did mean a lot of blank pages were inserted automatically in order to obey the instruction to start new poems on a facing page. Our solution was to insert a fleuron centred at the bottom of the blank pages, leaving headers and footers blank. I think it looks excellent. Why not experiment yourself?

It does need a little section-breaking trickery, and this is how to do it in Microsoft Word:

  • Reveal formatting (hit the ‘show/hide’ button that looks like a reversed paragraph mark) to see what’s going on.
  • You should already have a ‘section break (odd)’ at the end of the preceding poem section.
  • Before this section break, insert a new section break of type ‘next page’
  • Hit the enter key so you have a paragraph on the new page, and set to normal style to make sure there are no hidden nasties from the paragraph definition.
  • Insert picture, selecting your gif file. If you decide you want it bigger or smaller, do not resize in Word, instead resize in a drawing package (that can resample properly), save at the right size, and try again.
  • Click on the image to bring up the Picture Tools ribbon menu. Select the ‘Position’ command ,and set to centred and bottom.
  • Change the footers/ headers for your new section to turn them off. The  way I work, I just need to click on the footer and select ‘different first page’ and it all goes away. If you need to do more and go changing header/ footer definitions, make sure the header/footer is not linked to the previous section and (easy to miss, this) that the following section is not linked back to the one you’ve just inserted.
  • That should be all you need to do, but as with anything involving sections, double check you haven’t broken your header/ footer layouts. To check, you had best create a PDF and view in the twin-page mode, because that’s where you get to see any blank pages.

If sections and footers make your brain hurt, then you aren’t alone. Try running through the instructions I referred to earlier to get the hang of the basics first.

Well, I had planned to write more — including potential Kindle formatting disasters — but I have several books I’m supposed to be editing right now, and I’d better get on with that. I’ll post soon.


About Tim C. Taylor

Science fiction publisher and author of the bestselling Human Legion series. I live with my wife and young family in an English village. I am currently writing full time, when I'm not roped into building Lego.
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