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How to choose the best format for your book

Book formats

You’ve written a book and now you want to self-publish it, but what does that mean? It can be daunting to produce a quality title. That’s where we can help.

To demystify the process, I’m writing a short series where I cover the following book production topics:

  • Formats
  • Type areas
  • Type faces and fonts
  • Typography
  • Paper
  • Binding styles
  • Binding materials

In the first of this series, I reflect on book formats: what does that mean and what did I learn from Jürgen Fomm, my mentor and publishing inspiration? And I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my poking light fun at his Fommese.

Publishing origins

‘Zo,’ announced Jürgen, ‘ven ve start a book, ve need to decide first on ze format.’

It was late 1979. I was sitting at a wooden desk alongside Jürgen, the feared and respected Production Manager at Tafelberg Publishers, a mainstream publishing house in Cape Town, South Africa.

Group of Tafelberg staff

The 1979 Tafelberg Production team from left to right: Gill Vieler, Gerda Pretorius, Jürgen Fomm, Bobby Graham, Linda Vicquery.

Jürgen, or Mr Fomm, as we all addressed him, had been appointed some years previously by National Press (Nasionale Pers) to uplift the quality of book production in the general trade, specifically the 40 or so fiction, non-fiction and children’s titles published each year by Tafelberg.

Jürgen responded by appointing a team of talented typographers and designers, and engaging external cover designers, calligraphers and illustrators, to produce book after excellent book. He was a demanding taskmaster, but we all loved working for him: his sense of humour, coupled with his superb book making skills, endeared him to all staff.

In mid-1979, Tafelberg had decided to publish a facsimile version of  D. J. Opperman’s epic poem, Die Galeie van Jorik. On the basis of my IBM Electronic Composer typesetting experience at College of Careers, Jürgen appointed me to produce the complex pages featuring Opperman’s manuscript corrections.

Book pages

D. J. Opperman’s original handwritten manuscript on the left with the facsimile on the right.

We were challenged by all aspects of this book: the reproduction of the original manuscripts (in pencil and typewritten texts); the matching of D. J. Opperman’s corrections with the revised texts (my job); the demands on the printers for the complex cover, dustjacket and text printing, and the tight schedule that culminated in a looming gala event. We gnashed our teeth, worked late nights, sought complex and innovative reproduction and printing techniques, and as anticipated, Jürgen launched the book on time and to much acclaim.

Menu and book

The published Galeie van Jorik. Featured on the left is the gala evening’s menu with D. J. Opperman’s poem of thanks to the author.



With this mammoth project out of the way, Jürgen took me under his wing – for the next 15 years – and taught me how to produce books. We started at the very beginning.

‘Ze question is: what kind of book? Vill it be fiction? Or perhaps a cookery book? Or a children’s book? Zat is ze first step: each type of book requires a different shape and size. Next step: vat can ve afford? Your eye might vant a large-format book, but your budget is vot counts. How much haf you got in ze kitty?’

Jürgen brandished a book in front of me, ‘Ziss is vot I mean. Take zis book for example. It is a novel, no? Let’s see vot size it is.’

With that, Jürgen pulled out his large typographic ruler and measured the book width: ‘As I thought: 137 mm. Now for ze depth: 213 mm exactly!’ Jürgen announced, looking up at me triumphantly.

I learnt over time that Jürgen always loved an audience and expected me to sit alongside him as he demonstrated – in his slow and methodical way – the correct book production techniques. This paid off over time; I learnt everything I know about book production from Jürgen.

Book standards

‘Ziss is vat’s called “Demy Octavo”. Ve also haf “Demy Quarto”, vich is a bigger format, like zis children’s book. If I measure zis one, ve vill see it is 216 mm vide by 276 mm deep. But you haf to measure the book block, not ze hardcover, as zat alvays hangs over by at least 4 mm.’ Jürgen demonstrated this by opening the book and measuring the inner width from the spine to the trimmed edge, not across the front cover.

Two books

The Demy 8vo (left) and Demy 4to (right) formats

‘Of course, zere are many book formats. If you tink of mass market paperbacks, airport romances, manuals – all dependent upon ze market requirements.’

‘But Mr Fomm,’ I queried, ‘how are these formats decided?’

‘Vell,’ responded Jürgen, ‘ze formats I hav shown you – and zer are others like Royal and Crown. All are all based on ze paper sheet size, vich in turn is determined by ze print press size. You haf to choose a format vich gives you ze maximum return for ze number of pages printed. Of course you can choose any size page to print on a sheet of paper, but vat you vant to avoid is large offcut: zat is wasteful and expensive. Zo, ve try to fill ze paper sheet with as many pages ve can. But ve rely on ze printer to advise us – and of course use our experience.’

The bookseller experience

He tapped the book cover, ‘Ze other decision is how ze book vil look in ze bookshop. You don’t vant an awkward shape book. Booksellers don’t like it if ze book sticks out of ze bookshelf.’ He demonstrated this by turning the large format book on its side, with the spine facing upwards. ‘Zo,’ he said. ‘Like zis. If it is landscape format – you know vat I mean?’ I nodded vigorously. ‘Zen it von’t fit nicely vit ze other books. And zat ve don’t vant because zen ze book doesn’t get displayed. Vich means it doesn’t get sold. But, having said zat, publishers do sometimes decide to use non-standard formats as a gimmick.’ He sniffed as he stated this.

I learnt in time that ‘gimmick’ was something Jürgen hated, the worst insult he could hurl at a book or design process. Jürgen was a classist. He believed a book designed 50 years previously or today should stand the test of time and continue to ‘work’ as a beautiful object. It wasn’t that he wasn’t progressive: he just believed and demonstrated standard design rules and principles to deliver prizewinning Tafelberg books time and again.

Jürgen tipped a Gauloise cigarette out of its blue packet. ‘Zo. Ve haf a coffee now before ve talk about type areas.’

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read more about the making of Galeie van Jorik.

Or read the obituary I wrote for Jürgen.

I’m Bobby Graham, digital publisher, content entrepreneur and lover of good books.

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