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Michigan State University

Publishing and Book Design Basics: Elements of page design

This guide is designed to help self-publishers with common questions about the logistics of book publishing and basic book design.

Self-Publishing Resources

Recto and verso

When you open a book anywhere, you’ll see two pages: a left-hand page and a right-hand page, which face each other. These two pages together are called a spread.

Each section of your book should start on a right-hand page. The title page is always a right-hand page, the table of contents begins on a right-hand page, chapter 1 begins on a right-hand page, and so on.

Book designers call these two pages by the Latin terms “recto” for the right-hand page and “verso” for the reverse or left-hand page. This usage may help you remember that each new section always starts on the recto or right-hand page, not on the ‘reverse’.

The guidelines just described are for books in languages that, like English, read from left to right. Book design for languages that read right to left, such as Hebrew and Arabic, is beyond the scope of this guide.

Page numbering

Because new sections of a book always start on a right-hand page, that’s where the page numbering starts too.

  • Page 1 and all odd-numbered pages are always right-hand pages.
  • Page 2 and all even-numbered pages are always left-hand pages.

Page 1 is normally the first page of the first chapter. The preceding pages (the frontmatter) should use Roman numerals (i, ii, iii, etc.) although they can be left unpaged if the frontmatter is very brief. 

The odd-even rule applies within the frontmatter too. Page vii is an odd number (7) so it should be a right-hand page. Page xxiv is an even number (24) so it should be a left-hand page.

Running heads

Running heads are the short titles at the top of most pages of your book. Occasionally, a designer will set them at the bottom of the page, in which case they are running feet.

Running heads are not used on display pages:

  • any one-page element, such as the title page, reverse title page, dedication page
  • the first page of any multiple-page element, such as a chapter or introduction

Running heads are used on the second and following page of any section of your book that runs two or more pages.

The running head can incorporate the page number. Or, the page number can be set at the bottom of the page by itself.

The content of the running heads depends on the structure of your book. See examples below.


Example 1: A book divided into parts, with parts divided into chapters


 Verso (title of part 1)  Recto (title of part 1, chapter 1)
 Lincoln's Early Life  Born on the Frontier



Example 2: A book divided into chapters only


 Running head on verso (chapter title)  Running head on recto (chapter title)
 Lincoln in Congress  Lincoln in Congress



Example 3: A book with chapters written by different authors:


 Running head on verso (chapter author)  Running head on recto (chapter title)
 William H. Beckwith  Lincoln in Congress



Example 4: Running heads in frontmatter and backmatter. If your introductory material or appendixes are long enough to need running heads, use the same head on both sides of the spread:


   Running head on verso  Running head on recto 
 Frontmatter   Introduction  Introduction
 Backmatter   Appendix: Lincoln Family Tree  Appendix: Lincoln Family Tree