I'm interested in books - both the knowledge and stories in them, and their existence as physical artifacts. Yesterday on one of the writing fora I visit someone asked "Should the first page of the first chapter always be on a right hand page?"

"Easy!" I thought at first. "For print - if you have the spread open, a new chapter always begins on the right, which will be an odd-numbered page."

I felt certain that this was common sense. It means that sometimes there's a blank page on the verso (left-side page when the book is open), but you just learn to love the space and tidiness. It means that in my latest novel, 2000 Tunes, where a dark full-page image starts each chapter, you can even see where each chapter begins when the book is closed because of a black line, making it easy to flick back and forth - very helpful in a long book.

(Aside: for e-books this is irrelevant, because the device or app will re-size the pages based on the font and size chosen by the reader. Likewise there are usually no blank pages in an e-book. I just insert a page-break at the end of each chapter, so a new chapter begins on a new page, whether reached through the table of contents, or just through normal reading.)

Of course, our most cherished "knowledge" is often an oversimplification. Other contributors pointed out that the first page of the first chapter does always begin on an odd-numbered page (i.e. on the right when a book is open), but the rule doesn't have to apply to the pages following. There are actually three possibilities.

  1. Books where each chapter begins on the right, with a blank to its left if necessary. Possibly more common in non-fiction and hardbacks. A clean and tidy look.
  2. Books where a new chapter (after the first) just starts on the next blank page, whether that is on the left or right. Possibly more common in general paperback fiction these days.
  3. Books which start new chapters on the same page as the previous one, with just a couple of blank lines. Popular for long paperback books.
With any questions about how to lay out books I like to collect a pile of them from my bookcase and look at how those in the sample are laid out. Conventions should stand out clearly then (such as not indenting the first paragraph of a chapter; or using a blank line or two as a scene-break when there's a change of person/time/location). So I went on a hunt round my house to see whether there were examples of each. There were, and they were easy to find.

1. Each chapter begins on the right, with a blank to its left if necessary. 

2. New chapters just start on the next blank page, whether that is on the left or right.
Mass-market fiction: "One" by Conrad Williams

3. New chapters start on the same page as the previous one.
A 580 page sci-fi novel: "A Fire Upon the Deep
by Vernor Vinge

So, although it used to be the case that all new chapters began on the right-side, odd numbered pages, the rule doesn't apply universally any more, and it's more a matter of preference and possibly financial/marketing reasons than stylistic. For example, if a very long book with lots of chapters always began a new chapter in the right, this could add a lot of pages to the book (and increase the cost) - hence long paperback books often adopting the third system, and just starting a new chapter at the earliest convenience. Whereas in a shorter book that isn't an issue and you can have more space between chapters (or, if you are cynical, you might claim that publishers then choose to insert blank pages to make the book look longer...)

One of the "joys" of formatting a book comes from working on it in Word in a two-page-per-screen view. Why the scare quotes? Because when viewing a book that way, the page that would be an odd-numbered page in a print book (and therefore on the right of the spread) appears on the left-hand side of your screen in Word! As shown in the clumsily edited image below, a screenshot from the master copy of 2000 Tunes. Note that I zoomed out to show 8 pages per screen, since it illustrates my point better.

I have boxed out pairs of pages you'd see when the book is open - as you can see, the one on the left of each pair in Word is actually the odd-numbered page that will be on the right when looking down at an open spread in the printed book. Something to get your head round.

So, three systems. I currently use the first, where each chapter begins on the right of a spread; but maybe I'll switch to the second system, with the new chapter (after the first) just starting on the next blank page. But it isn't an easy decision to make. Style is subjective, after all.

Which of the three "new chapter" styles do you prefer? Have a look at some of the books around you right now. Which of the three styles do they use?

If you're interested in things to do with how books are made and laid out then I recommend the lovely free PDF guide I was pointed towards yesterday, Anatomy of the Book - it is only a few pages, is very educational, and everything is clearly explained. Nice whether you are an author, or a booklover! (Or both, of course).