Book design — the paper variety — is actually a pretty big deal. Drop caps or not. What kind of dividing images for scene breaks. Formatting on the page. Margins. Serif or sans font – and what face of each, and what size? What kind of space between lines and paragraphs?
When done well, book design has an impact on the reader, but should not be noticeable in and of itself. You shouldn’t consciously notice those design choices or how they work together. Ideally, you will only notice when design is done poorly.
There’s big exceptions to this – premium “fancy” editions come to mind. The ones that are bound in leather, or have fancy drop caps, and so on. Illuminated manuscripts are a wonderful example of books where the design is supposed to draw attention to itself.
But that’s not most book design – and it’s definitely not most eBook design, particularly in fiction.2 For those of us working in fiction, the idea is to draw the reader into the story. Anything that gets in the way of that goal is bad book (and bad eBook) design.
Therefore, the principles of eBook design must focus around making the design of the text as invisible to the reader as possible. That’s why this is my credo: Maximize compliance to standards by keeping it simple.3
The reason’s simple – the more fancy you get, the more things can break. I talked about this a bit when I was reading The Wise Man’s Fear by Pat Rothfuss. But I’m bringing this up again because people are hearing about the new eBook standards – ePub3, KF8 (for the Fire), and iBooks (which just increased minimum cover sizes).
Whether you convert your book yourself by hand (I’ve written a guide on how to do that), hire someone to do it for you (again, something I do), or use a program or service (such as Smashword’s Meatgrinder), keep this principle in mind.
Or in other words, you want people to be talking about your story, not your font choice.
1 Check out 99% Invisible for multiple fascinating examples of this. Or learn about font kerning, and you’ll suddenly see details everywhere. Whether you want to or not.
2 Reference and textbooks are another big (possible) exception here – sidebars, very specific placement of illustrations, and footnotes can have a huge impact. Books for children are another exception.
3 I recommend indented paragraphs with a small space between them, a sans font (like Arial) for the title/chapter title and byline, a serif font (like Times) for the body of the text, and inline images centered between paragraphs. Avoid underlines whenever possible.