Understanding book sizes and how to choose them
There are other articles online which describe standard book sizes and make suggestions, especially to self-publishers, of the appropriate options for their category of book. The starting point is often the online book production options which are available and the formats they offer. I wanted to have a more in-depth look into the rationale underpinning book sizes, whether they are common ‘industry-standard’ or bespoke options.
A visit to a bricks and mortar book shop or a glance at your own shelves shows any bookworm that their beloved objects can be grouped into a range of sizes. Compared to our music or movie collections our book sizes look positively random. There would appear to be more sizing options than for other platforms but at the same time a set of time-honoured sizes clearly exists.
Book size terminology
The industry jargon for book sizing is the Trimmed Page Size (TPS) and this is how book size should be expressed when communicating with a printer. As the name suggests this is the size only of the bound pages rather than the size of the hardback cover, if it has one. The TPS is often dubbed the ‘Format’.
I will broaden this out and advise that when considering the size of your book you also think in terms of the number of pages (the ‘Extent’ or ‘Page Count’). A third element of book size is the Orientation, most commonly Portrait (the longest side being the vertical) or Landscape (most often seen in Photography or Children’s Books).
Various of the online self-publishing options (the short run or print on demand variety) offer a limited choice of sizes which are quite similar across the range of providers. The options are often opaquely labelled ‘industry-standard’, This reveals nothing of the rationale which any publisher needs to apply to their choice of size, nor does it give any insight into how the most common sizes came to exist.
The standardisation comes from the overlapping considerations of the commercial matters of marketing and profit margin, the practicalities and cost of book production and the creative drivers of content and design.
Marketing and the meaning of book sizes
Some very common book sizes (for black and white, text-led books at least) are known, within the publishing industry, simply as ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ format. ‘A’ is the cheapest to make, physically the smallest and usually on sale at the lowest price.
Common standard book sizes
These sizes aren’t absolutely uniform but they tend to be used consistently by each publisher and, give or take a few millimetres, they are the same as everybody else’s.
Typical sizes for these formats would be (all quoted height first):
A – 178 x 111 mm
B – 198 x 129 mm
C – 234 x 156 mm
A fourth size, Demy (Dem-eye) is also in common use in the UK. At 216 x 135mm it sits between B and C in terms of size.
Book sizes have a meaning in the market place in that the choice of format typically reflects the publisher’s perception of that book and the likely audience and retail outlets for it. The size is a category marker, if nothing else.
A ‘C’ format (often in the UK known as ‘Royal’) would tend to be used for the first published edition of a title. This is often, but not always, a hardback. It’s a general-purpose size used for fiction and non-fiction.
Six to twelve months later a publisher will then tend to release the book in an A or B format paperback, at a cheaper price. An A format will generally be fiction aimed at a broad or genre market, with B being seen as somewhat more up-market, used for more serious non-fiction or more ‘literary’ fiction titles.
There are frequent exceptions to these rules. The first edition may be published in a smaller format than royal simply because the book isn’t very long, for example.
It’s an over-statement to say formats have a definitive meaning, in marketing terms, but I would suggest any indie publisher does their research into the format and other characteristics (page count, binding and also the selling price) of existing titles aimed at the same audience as the book they have in mind.
This is not to suggest you blindly follow suit, but it is certainly important to see what the competition has done before you. You need some framework for making these kind of decisions for your own project.
Am I saying sizes are just about market placement? I’m not. Formats exist which have a received significance in marketing terms, but the design and manufacturing of books is the underlying basis for the formats which exist.
Printing presses, whether they are Digital or Litho will be able to use paper (in sheets or reels) in a limited range of sizes. Manufacturing hardware, both for printing and binding, is very expensive. Different vendors will have certain book sizes available based on the hardware they have chosen to buy and the sizes of paper they can use. I look at this some more in the section on Specification in my post about what to consider at the very beginning of a book project
The most cost-effective book sizes are based on using that paper and equipment efficiently, to print as many pages as possible in an arrangement suitable for folding into a Signature. This arrangement is known as an Imposition. A number of signatures is printed then folded and bound together to make each copy of your book.
If the printer can produce a given TPS in signatures of 4, 8, 16 or 32 (typical numbers of pages suitable for folding) then the total page count of your book will be the sum total of the pages in each of the signatures. This is why you sometimes see books with blank pages in the back, or advertisements for other books. The text didn’t quite fill all the pages in the last signature.
Non-standard book sizes
If you want something bespoke and have a particular size in mind (even approximately) then shopping around is essential to finding a printer who is a good fit for your preferred dimensions. You could use someone with book production experience to short-cut that process. This will also connect you with printers that person will probably have worked with before, has a relationship with and can therefore recommend on grounds of quality, service and price. I am such a person so obviously I would vouch for the benefits of using an expert.
Content and Design
Standard sizes like those listed earlier usually work perfectly well in monochrome text-led titles, so the common offerings are mostly uncontroversial assuming the material doesn’t lend itself to an iconoclastic text design.
In colour illustrated publishing, which is where I specialise, you see more variety in book sizes. Pure production logic would suggest we all stick with a small number of optimum sizes, but in reality formats are frequently design-led. This is necessary to accommodate the designers’ work laying out the text and artwork in a way that is attractive and provides an enjoyable experience for the reader. A standard format can sometimes be a limiting factor.
Before digital photography became the norm 35mm slide film was a common option for professional photographers. Those slides had a 3:2 vertical to horizontal ratio. Digital photography has revolutionised that craft but you still see huge numbers of books (especially in food and cookery publishing) which reflect that previous 3:2 norm.
Photography in medium, square or landscape formats, or other artwork in any shape or size, can tend towards more bespoke sizes of book. Your source material, and what a designer might do with it, therefore adds another layer to the book size decision-making process.
The production challenge is to find a size which provides the designer with the scope they need but without needlessly adding to the cost of the manufacturing. Quite small changes to a page size can have a disproportionate impact on cost, so healthy dialogue at the outset of a project is crucial, involving the content, design and production specialists and the print supplier, alongside the necessary figure-work.
Pondering the size of your book segues into further discussion of the selling price, the quantity and generally the level of production you want, considered in the context of your overall budget, whether it’s your own money or a crowdfunding target you need to set.
These are all key strategic considerations and they need to be in harmony, and not considered in isolation, to produce a book which is attractive and good value to the buyer while forecasting a good per-copy return to the publisher.
Changing the size once you are well underway with design and layout isn’t something your designer or typesetter will thank you for, and will almost certainly add to your costs, so time spent researching your market sector and the manufacturing options at the beginning of your project is essential.
There are details of your specification you can leave until later but the size of your book is something you need to consider fully, and commit to, from an early stage.