multi-column text layout for 8.5×11 books

I’ve switched a number of books over to 8.5″ x 11″ format. Although this is not a traditional size for computer books (most computer books are around 7″x 9″), moving to 8.5″ x 11″ reduces page count for printing conserving resources and reducing cost. I’ve found it much cheaper to print books on 50-weight 8.5×11 vs. 60-weight 7×9. While, I’m comfortable with DocBook XSL, I dread FO, and the idea of configuring the XSL to create two-column FO is very possible, but wasn’t something I wanted to jump into without first evaluating InDesign’s support for columns.

The first sign that something was wrong was when I received reader feedback about the new, multi-column layout. It was confusing, difficult to follow. The multi-column design distracted from the content. While a multi-column approach makes sense for the printed product, a large majority of readers only interact with this document as a PDF.

Viewing multi-column content on a screen doesn’t make sense when the length of a particular column exceeds the height of a particular window, and even when there is no scrolling involved, I think the column jump makes for a tiring reading experience. If you need to scroll up to get to the next column, it creates a confusing experience. The user doesn’t know whether to scroll up or scroll down to progress through a document. While CSS3 supports multi-column text layout, I’d be surprised if it catches on. Multi-column text for anything other than a huge broadsheet newspaper or marketing material like a datasheet just doesn’t make sense.

Layout Complexity

The other issue with multi-column layout: it isn’t very forgiving when it comes to figure size and page flow especially when you have a document with large figures. If you take a close look at the books I produce, you’ll notice that there are some pages with a generous amount of figure-induced whitespace. If you have a page with a generous amount of text followed by two or three large screenshots, FOP might turn that into a page half-filled with text followed by two pages with only a figure.

When you increase the page size relative to figure size, you minimize the amount of wasted space. Think about placing stones into a jar vs. sand. In the case of page layout, the text is like sand and the figures are large stones. It is much easier for the layout engine to work-around text than figures, and as your figure sizes increase the wasted space in a particular page ( a jar ) increases. The first thing I noticed when moving to a multi-column layout was that the amount of wasted whitespace tended to double.

If my books were all text, this wouldn’t be an issue, but with figures, it was a challenge to design pages that didn’t have much whitespace. I ended up having to think about layout on every page. So, what would make this page look better, an extra paragraph, or a figure with these specific dimensions. When you are forced to think about layout, it takes time away from content generation.

Still searching for a solution…

Unfortunately this still leaves me in a bind, do I switch back to more traditional book sizes? Or, do I increase side margins and find creative ways to embed figures?

For now, I’m retreating to a single-column approach and staying with 8.5×11. I’m also putting InDesign back on the shelf. After working on a book in InDesign for a few weeks, it is refreshing to return back to DocBook XML. When I’m working on a DocBook document, all I care about is the text and the structure of the document. DocBook is certainly “obtuse”, but it lends itself to a more focused approach to writing.