What font should you use for your book?
One of the most common questions asked by would-be self-publishers who intend to design and type their own book is, “What font should I use?”
I’m always relieved when someone asks the question. At the very least, this means they won’t just blindly use the ubiquitous default fonts found in most word processing programs.
However, there is almost no way to answer the question. It’s like asking, “What’s the best car model for a daily commute?”
You’ll get a different answer from almost anyone you ask. And maybe they’re all right.
However, I am willing to offer one hard rule: don’t use Times New Roman or Times Roman. This will at first glance mark your book as the work of an amateur. There are other, very practical reasons not to use it. Times Roman and Times New Roman were designed for the narrow columns of newspapers, originally for the Times of London in the 1930s. Today, almost no newspapers still use it. How or why it became a word processing standard I have no idea. The font tends to be set very tight, making the text block on the page dense and dark.
Here are two caveats before you jump into a few recommendations:
- The font you choose may depend on how your book will be printed. If you look closely at most serif fonts (like Times), you’ll notice that there are thick and thin parts of each letter. If your book will be printed digitally, you should avoid fonts with very thin segments. They tend to become too pale and affect readability.
- Don’t get carried away by the thousands of fonts available. Most are specialty fonts suitable for headlines, headlines, ads, emotional impact, etc. And never use more than a very few fonts in a book – we usually choose one serif font for the main body text, sans serif for chapter headings and headings within chapters. Depending on the book, we may choose a third font for captions on photos, graphs, tables, etc. (or maybe just a different size, weight or style to one of the other two). We may choose a special font to use on the front cover for the title and subtitle.
For 90% of books, one of the following fonts is an excellent choice:
- Palatine linotype
- Book Antiqua (tends to tighten so you may need to loosen it a bit)
- Good old style
- Adobe Garamond Pro (usually has a short x-height, so it may look too small at typical sizes)
- Bookman (the name kind of gives it away, doesn’t it?)
- Century Schoolbook (usually a little wide, creating extra pages)
You should look at a few paragraphs of each font to see what, if any, adjustments you might find necessary in things like character spacing and kerning. You want to avoid small confusions such as:
- “vv” (double v) which looks like the letter “w”
- “cl” (cl) which looks like the letter “d”
Such things can make the reading experience tedious.
If you ask other designers, you’ll probably get other suggestions, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least some of the above included in their recommendations.
You may come across some books with more unusual font choices, but there are often good reasons for this. Maybe the book is humorous, for which the designer chose a light font, for example. Such decisions must be made carefully and the effects on readability carefully considered.
Never make a decision about your font or font size based solely on how it looks on your monitor. Most trade paperbacks are printed at 10 or 11 point, but some fonts require larger — or even smaller — sizes. If 12 points seems too big and 11 too small, you can try 11.5 – no need to stick to whole numbers. You might be surprised how much of a difference a half point (or even a quarter point) can make to the overall “feel” of a page.
You also need to decide on an appropriate lead (pronounced metal), which is the distance from the baseline of one line of text to the baseline for the next line, measured in points. The result is usually expressed as a ratio of the font size in points to the selected leader in points. So, you might say you set the body text to Georgia 11/14 or Bookman 10/12.5 (size 11 pt by 14 pt leading and 10 pt by 12.5 pt leading, respectively).
Word processing programs tend to work in decimal inches, forcing you to convert leaders from points to inches. A standard dot is equal to 0.0138 inch. Professional typesetting/layout programs (such as Adobe InDesign) allow you to use points and peaks to define all type sizes and settings. although you can also specify these settings in various other units (including inches).
Typically, book designers will develop more than one design for the interior of each book, using different fonts, sizes, and lines. They should type a few pages from the actual manuscript and print them with the same page settings they plan to use in the final book (eg, 6″ x 9″ pages). This allows the customer to compare them side by side and rate them for readability and overall appearance.
And don’t forget your target audience. Very young readers and very old readers do better with larger type. Books that are very text-heavy with long paragraphs often need more interventions and a wider font.
At the end of the day, you should choose based on what your intuitive reaction to set samples is. It never hurts to ask other people to read it and tell you if one option is easier to read than another.
If you want to appreciate typography and how to make good design decisions, I recommend the following excellent books:
The Complete Guide to Typography by James Felici
The elements of typographic style by Robert Bringhurst
Design and production of books by Pete Masterson
For those who insist on using Microsoft Word for a set of books, you really need to buy and study Perfect pages by Aaron Shepard. He is the reigning guru on how to do it.
You’re far better off buying professional layout software and then learning all you can about typography and how to apply those principles to book design… or hiring a professional to do it for you. The final course will leave you more time to develop a dynamic marketing plan for your latest book and start writing the next one!