Typography & Formatting

November 15, 2019

Picking the Perfect Typeface

What font should I use? is the most asked question from self-publishers when they are sitting down to format their first book.  I asked it when I formatted my first print book and you probably did too. There’s lots of advice out there, but most of it isn’t very good and some of it is just downright bad.

This post is less about what typeface you should use and more about how to decide what typeface you want to use. Using the same typeface across all your books can be part of your branding. I recommend finding one typeface for all your books then play with secondary typefaces for chapter displays. This is similar to using the same typeface for your author name or titles across a series, but is more subtle. Most readers won’t recognize a typeface by name, but they will recognize the character shapes on an unconscious level.

But how do you go about finding a perfect typeface that works with your books and can become part of your brand? Hopefully, this post will help you find that typeface.

A few things I want to get out of the way before we start. In this post, fonts and typefaces are different things. A typeface is how the letters look on the page (think aesthetics) and a font is the actual file that delivers all the data and information to your computer when it’s installed. There is a good reason for this and it’s not because I’ve turned into a typographical snob. There are some typefaces that are absolutely gorgeous, but the font under performs when you try to use it (this is usually, but not always, true for free fonts and those designed by hobbyists or letterers who don’t understand the importance of kerning pairs). Then there are the utterly unexciting, and dare I say ugly, typefaces that actually deliver a brilliant font file. As much as everyone rails against Comic Sans and Papyrus (with good reason, I might add) ultimately the font files are good. I mean, Comic Sans is used as much as it is because no matter how it’s used, those letters have great kerning. For someone who doesn’t know what kerning is, but understands odd letter spacing, it’s a great font choice. If I use typeface, I mean how the letters look on a page and in the general way usually use font. When I use font, I specifically mean the file that is installed on your computer and all the data it holds. If I say something is lacking in the font department, it could mean there aren’t many styles or weights to chose from or that the letter spacing is whacked.

Second disclaimer. You will not find any mention of Georgia in this post. Georgia does not belong in print books. Microsoft commissioned the typeface and font to work on screens and only screens. The designers didn’t give any consideration to what happens when those letters are created by ink instead of pixels. I see people, supposed experts, recommending it and I want to know who told them to use Georgia, because every characteristic you are looking for in a typeface for a print books, Georgia doesn’t have. It’s positively brilliant for screens, but it sucks for print. Please, swear you’ll never use Georgia (or any default font that came with your computer) and you’ll walk away from any one who or site that recommends using Georgia as an acceptable typeface for designing a print book.

Third disclaimer. And this goes back to not using defaults. You won’t find Times New Roman on this list. Not because it’s bad, it’s not. It’s a great typeface with a great font, but it is situational. It performs best with narrow columns, something that most trade sized books don’t have. If you are designing a mass-market sized book and the trim is at that four inch mark, have at it, because you will be working with narrow columns. But a 5″ x 8″ trim size (or larger) should have enough of a text area width to make Times New Roman appear slightly awkward. And worse, no one will know they aren’t enjoying reading the book in their hands because there are too many characters on the line and the letters are too tightly spaced to be comfortable for more than two-hundred pages of printed words.

Fourth disclaimer. Never use a default font that came with your system. If someone says, use Garamond, they don’t mean the Garamond that came with your system (if you don’t have access to Adobe Fonts or can’t afford a license for a commercial version (Stempel is an amazing Garamond by the way), do not fret. EB Garamond is a free version that is brilliant. I haven’t used it a lot, so I can’t say how it performs, but from the times I have used it, I haven’t had any problems.

All right. Let’s move on  the meat of this post, the entire reason you are reading and haven’t closed the window and moved on. What typeface should you choose?

If the answer was easy, every book would use the same typeface. But there’s a lot to consider. Instead of listing the many options available, I’m going to try to help narrow down the option based on your needs.

Go on to Part 2: Cost

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