One of the most common questions asked by aspiring desktop publishers who intend to design and compose their book themselves is, “What typeface should I use?”
I am always relieved when someone asks the question. At the very least, it means they’re not going to blindly use the ubiquitous default fonts found in most word processing programs.
However, there is hardly any way to answer the question. It’s like asking, “What is the best car model to drive to work every day?”
You will get a different answer from almost everyone you ask. And they could all be right.
However, I am willing to offer a strict rule: do not use Times New Roman or Times Roman. That will mark your book as a hobbyist’s work at first glance. And there are other very practical reasons not to use it. Times Roman and Times New Roman were designed for narrow newspaper columns, originally for the London Times in the 1930s. Today, hardly any newspaper still uses it. How, or why, it became a word processing standard, I have no idea. The font tends to fit very tight, making the text block on the page dense and dark.
Here are two caveats before continuing with some recommendations:
- The typeface you choose may depend on how your book will be printed. If you look closely at most serif fonts (like Times), you will 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 get too weak and affect readability.
- Don’t get carried away by the thousands of options available. Most are special fonts suitable for headlines, headlines, advertising, emotional impact, etc. And never use more than a few fonts in a single book; We generally choose a serif font for the body of the main text, a sans serif font for chapter titles, and headings within chapters. Depending on the book, we can select a third source for captions on photos, graphics, tables, etc. (or maybe just a different size, weight, or style from one of the other two). We can select a special font to use on the title and subtitle cover.
For 90% of books, any of the following sources are excellent choices:
- Palatine Linotype
- Book Antiqua (tends to harden, so you may need to loosen it a bit)
- Goudy old style
- Adobe Garamond Pro (tends to be short x height so may appear too small at typical sizes)
- Bookman (the name gives it away, doesn’t it?)
- Century Schoolbook (tends to be a bit wide, creating extra pages)
You have to look at several paragraphs of each font to see what adjustments, if any, may be needed in things like character spacing and kerning. You want to avoid small confusion, such as:
- “vv” (double v) that looks like the letter “w”
- “cl” (cl) that looks like the letter “d”
Such things can make the reading experience uncomfortable.
If you ask other designers, you will 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. Perhaps the book is a humor book for which the designer chose a cheerful font, for example. Such decisions must be made with care and careful consideration of the effects on readability.
Never decide your font or font size based solely on how it looks on your monitor. Most paperback books are printed in 10 or 11 point sizes, but some fonts require larger or even smaller sizes. If 12 points seem too big and 11 too small, you can try 11.5; no need to stick to whole sizes. You might be surprised how much difference a half point (or even a quarter point) can make to the overall “feel” of the page.
You must also decide on the appropriate line spacing (pronounced like metal), which is the distance from the baseline of one line of text to the baseline of the next line, measured in points. The result is generally expressed as a ratio of the font size in points to the selected starting points. So you could say that you have set the body text to Georgia 11/14 or Bookman 10 / 12.5 (11 point size with 14 points at the beginning and 10 point size with 12.5 points at the beginning, respectively).
Word processing programs tend to operate in decimal inches, forcing you to convert dot spacing to inches. One standard point equals 0.0138 inches. Professional layout / composition programs (such as Adobe InDesign) allow you to use points and spades to define all types of measurements and settings. although you can also specify that setting in various other units (including inches).
Generally, book designers will develop more than one design for the interior of each book, using different fonts, sizes, and headings. They should compose some pages of the actual manuscript and print them with the same page setup that they plan to use in the final book (for example, 6 “x 9” pages). This allows the customer to compare them side by side and evaluate them for readability and overall appearance.
And don’t forget your target audience. Very young readers and very old readers do better with larger print. Books that are very dense in text with long paragraphs often need more line spacing and a wider font.
Ultimately, you must choose based on your knee-jerk reaction to composite samples. 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 gain an appreciation for typography and how to make proper design decisions, I recommend the following excellent books:
The complete typography manual by James Felici
The elements of the typographic style by Robert Bringhurst
Book design and production by Pete Masterson
For those who insist on using Microsoft Word to compose books, they really should buy and study Perfect pages by Aaron Shepard. He is the reigning guru of how to do it.
Much better to buy professional design software and then learn all you can about typography and how to apply those principles to book design … or hire a professional to do it for you. This final course will give you more time to develop a dynamic marketing plan for your latest book and start writing the next one!