A beginner’s guide to fonts
So you’re writing a book and have questions about fonts? You’ve come to the right place. In this article we’ll cover the following:
Your Font Choice: How Much Does it Matter?
Choosing a font for your book can be a difficult task. It’s one of those things that most writers don’t really think about until they’re about to start writing. Then the questions start pouring in. What font should I use? Should specific genres be written using specific fonts? Can you influence the subconscious of your readers with specific fonts and thereby increase the likelihood of them liking your book? All these questions usually result in some quick Google searches, which then deliver a number of alarmist articles desperately imploring you never to use Times New Roman for anything ever, along with a million other font faux pas.
As compelling as these articles are, the reality is rarely so dramatic. Times New Roman will not make or break your book. Most people can’t even tell the difference between Times New Roman and Baskerville on printed paper. Nevertheless, fonts are important. There are certain rules of thumb that you ought to keep in mind. These are what we’re going to be discussing in this article.
The goal is to make your self-published book look like a professionally published one, and there are certain tricks you can use to achieve that result. By the time you’re done reading, you ought to have a general idea of what you should avoid doing at all costs, and where you’re free to indulge your creative sensibilities.
Notice how the heavily stylized Torino font on the left is much more cumbersome to read than the straightforward sans-serif font Calibri (designed to be a body text) on the right.
‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’
Whatever the reason they were used, serifs have always been implicitly linked to antiquity and the ‘classic’ aesthetic we associate with it. This ‘classic vibe’ was further reinforced that for centuries after the invention of the printing press, serif typefaces were the go-to. We have the West’s collective obsession with the Romans to thank for that.
That’s probably why we tend to view serif fonts as elegant and refined at their best, and stodgy and dry at their worst. Take a look at any newspaper, book, or most magazines, and you’ll see they use serif fonts. Chances are, if you were to open a book with a sans-serif font, you’d think it looked quite odd.
Use serif fonts for print body text
So unless you’re purposefully trying to subvert people’s expectations and be different, we’d recommend using a serif font for your body text. Regardless of whether or not the popular theories of serif fonts being inherently more legible are true or not, we’re so used to them in books that it might as well be. We’re comfortable with them, and that’s important for an enjoyable reading experience.
The cover of your book allows for a lot more creative freedom where fonts are concerned, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Also, it’s worth remembering that most e-readers allow users to change the font of the book they’re reading. In other words, if you’re worried about the legibility of serif fonts on e-reader screens, don’t be – e-book readers will easily be able to customize the layout of the text to their liking.
Sans-serif fonts are–you guessed it–typefaces without serifs. If the name of a font includes ‘sans’, ‘gothic’, or ‘grotesque’, you’ll know it’s serif-free. As we touched upon earlier, these typefaces are rarely used for anything other than display purposes–i.e. titles, headings, etc. They are, however, the standard choice for body text on screens.
The origins of sans-serif fonts
Like their serif counterparts, sans-serif fonts have been used since antiquity. While often associated with more ‘casual’ writing (i.e. whenever people weren’t doing calligraphy or carving things into monuments), sans-serif letters were utilized for all kinds of purposes. However, the aforementioned penchant for serif fonts during the early days of printing has conditioned us to think of sans-serif fonts as a ‘modern’ alternative.
Sans-serif fonts started gaining popularity in the early 19th century when they were used extensively for advertisements and signage. Fittingly, effective marketing of sans-serif fonts in the 20th century led to even more widespread adoption, though book printing companies never really jumped on this trend.
Use sans-serif fonts for titles and headings (if you want to)
As mentioned in the serif section of this article, the vast majority of print books use serif fonts for their body text. Book publishers and printers have set this standard and done such a good job of maintaining it that seeing a print book with sans-serif body text looks weird to most of us. As such, we recommend sticking to serif fonts for your body text.
However, when it comes to titles and headings, things are different. And by ‘different’ we mean that the arbitrary rule about sans-serifs not belonging in print doesn’t apply.
Like with most font-related decisions, choosing and using a sans-serif font for your title and/or chapter headings is all about evoking a particular mood or feeling. Writing a book about (or set in) anything before the 20th century? Serifs are probably still a better choice. However, anything from 1900 onwards (distant future included!) could benefit from a sans-serif font. This is by no means a rule though. Fonts are a bit like fashion in the sense that most rules can be broken if done stylishly. However, in the absence of context, this is an easy, low-risk method to determine appropriate fonts for your book
Novelty fonts, also referred to as ornamental or decorative fonts, are a bit like the really intense theatre kid who doesn’t quite know when to dial down the drama. We’re talking about fonts that are spooky, dripping, trying to emulate handwriting, etc. Anything that could pass for WordArt, if you’re old enough to know what that was.
We really don’t recommend using them, as even when used sparingly they tend to look amateurish, and are really hard to read:
There are a few cases where a novelty font might be suitable for a title, but this generally only applies to the more subtle ones and is very much tied to specific genres. If you’re unsure, it’s better to err on the side of caution.
Some concrete examples of fonts you can use for your book
If you were the person who clicked on this article hoping to find specific fonts to use in your book rather than a typographic history lesson, this section is for you! What follows is not an exhaustive list, but a selection meant to inspire you and get you on the right track. Notice how big the differences are between the various examples shown below, despite them all being the same size (25 points).
Here is a selection of supremely legible yet stylish fonts that you can use for your body text:
- Times New Roman
- Libra Serif
Sans-serif body fonts
If you still insist on using a sans-serif typeface for your body text after reading this article, then you should at least use an appropriate one, such as:
- Arial Nova
- Nunito Sans
If your font selection is limited by your Word-processing software
Depending on what program you’re using to write your book, you may not have access to all the fonts mentioned above. Here are some good alternatives, most of which are available in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and Pages:
- Palatino Linotype: if you want something similar to Times New Roman that isn’t quite as mainstream
- Georgia: If you want something similar to Caslon
- Baskerville Old Face: If you want something similar to Garamond.
- Gill Sans: If you want something similar to Calibri
- Microsoft Sans: If you want something similar to Arial
- Tahoma: If you want something similar to Verdana
These are a lot more context-dependent than body fonts, and will depend on what kind of book you’ve written and what kind of feeling you want to evoke. Choosing a font for your title is a core component of good cover design. As such, it’s pretty much pointless for us to give you general suggestions on what typeface to use for your title, because you don’t want your book cover to be general–you want it to be unique and attention-grabbing.
So how do I choose a good title font?
Choosing a good title font isn’t always a straightforward process, but there are a few things you should keep in mind when evaluating your options:
- The font should be legible in a thumbnail cover image: you need to be able to catch people’s attention when they’re scrolling through webshops
- The font should convey the mood of your book: look at any professionally designed cover and you’ll notice that you get a pretty good idea if it’s fiction or nonfiction, funny or serious, sci-fi or fantasy–just by looking at the font and how it’s been styled.
- Typeface isn’t everything: you can alter the feeling conveyed by a font by editing the spacing, colour, and size.
- The font should be integrated into the cover design: simply typing the title onto your cover will rarely look good. Play around with the size, positioning, colours, and layering of your title to make it look inseparable from your cover.
Here’s an example of a title font that takes the above principles into account:
Notice how the placement of the font on the white section of the cover image, combined with the deep red colour, creates a stark contrast that almost forcefully launches the title off the cover and into a browsing reader’s face.
The imposing size and generous spacing make the title bold and imposing. It’s supremely legible, even from a distance, or if you were to create a thumbnail for use in a webshop.
We’re willing to bet that you immediately assumed (correctly) that this example cover was made for a thriller/mystery novel. The title Winter Wounds sounds dark and sinister, a feeling which is reinforced by the dark red colour and texture effect on the font, which could be reminiscent of snow or wear and tear as the result of a harsh environment.
Title fonts are a key component of cover design
Hopefully this gives you an idea of what we mean when we say that your title font should evoke the themes and feelings of your book. If choosing a title font feels daunting, we recommend taking a look at our article on cover design for beginners. In it, we outline an approach to cover design that focuses on distilling the theme and atmosphere of your book. Choosing an appropriate title font is a key component of good cover design, so you shouldn’t approach them separately.
This is a bit of a tricky topic, but an important one nevertheless. Simply put, fonts and typefaces are protected by copyright in the UK and several other countries in Europe.
Now you might be wondering–what’s the difference between a font and a typeface? We’ve been using them more or less interchangeably throughout this article, but technically we’re naughty for having done so. Officially, a font is a variation of a typeface. So Helvetica is a typeface–a complete set of characters that share a common design–whereas 12-point bold Helvetica would be a font. These days, only typography nerds care about this distinction however.
While this all sounds rather dystopian, the chances of you getting in trouble for using a copyrighted font in your book are pretty slim. In other words, you’ll probably be fine. However, we’re not legal professionals by any means, so don’t rely on anything we say here when making copyright decisions.
By now you might be thinking that these fancy fonts aren’t worth the trouble. We get it. You might also be thinking of using an open-source font in an attempt to circumvent copyright issues, however unlikely they may be. That makes a lot of sense.
Fonts on Bookmundo
If you’ve tried Bookmundo, you’ll know about our handy cover designer. Aside from being easy to use and automatically adapting the size of your cover to your manuscript, all fonts available in the cover designer are free to use, meaning you don’t have to worry about any copyright issues.
List of 7 websites where you can download open-source fonts:
Got all that? Fontastic!
And that’s a pretty solid introduction to the fantastic world of fonts! If you were genuinely curious, we hope you’ve learned something. If you were just researching fonts to procrastinate, then we sympathise, but strongly suggest you get back to writing that book.